D.C. pastoral plan tackles pope’s exhortation

A pastoral plan by Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington, D.C., implementing Pope Francis’ document on marriage and family Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”) attempts to set the papal document’s most controversial proposal on a firmly orthodox foundation. Opinions will differ on how well the Washington plan succeeds.

From one point of view, it is a pastorally sensitive presentation of the Church’s response to the problems of married life today. But some readers will have questions about what it says concerning giving Communion to some divorced and remarried Catholics whose first marriages remain valid in the eyes of the Church. Except to quote Pope Francis, the document does not refer to this issue — which has dogged Amoris Laetitia from the start — but clearly it has it in mind in making two points.

Questions of formation

The first point is that in the circumstances of modern society, Catholics in second marriages often have little or no “experiential” knowledge of Catholic doctrine, and this greatly reduces their moral culpability. The second is that priests should respect the right of such people to decide the Communion question for themselves.

In an email message to faithful of the archdiocese, Cardinal Wuerl, a close adviser of Pope Francis, said the Washington plan — which carries the title “Sharing in the Joy of Love in Marriage and Family” — is intended to “assist in the pastoral implementation” of the apostolic exhortation.

As such, it is one in a continuing series of sometimes conflicting interpretations emanating from national conferences of bishops and individual diocesan bishops since Amoris Laetitia appeared two years ago. Like its source, the Washington plan, though meant to cover marriage in general, devotes much of its attention to the situation of people in irregular unions.

Amoris Laetitia itself reflects two assemblies of the Synod of Bishops, held in Rome in 2014 and 2015, at which Pope Francis was perceived by some as tipping the scales in favor of giving Communion to some divorced and remarried Catholics after a discernment process under the guidance of a priest.

The position of the Church up to now has been that such people may not receive Communion unless they and their partners agree to live without marital intimacy. That is the position stated, for example, in Pope St. John Paul II’s document on marriage, Familiaris Consortio, which was published in 1981 after an assembly of the Synod of Bishops the year before.

Published in April 2016, Pope Francis’ document is long — 55,000 words — and organized in nine chapters covering matters like family relationships, the education of children and the spirituality of marriage. The controversy over Amoris Laetitia is focused on Chapter 8, titled “Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness.”

Without encouraging “irregular” situations, Chapter 8 insists that real-life situations, including divorce and remarriage, differ greatly from one another when viewed in a moral perspective and invite correspondingly different pastoral responses. An accompanying footnote — number 351 — is central to the controversy now going on. It reads:

“In certain cases, this [pastoral response] can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, ‘I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy.’ I would also point out that the Eucharist ‘is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.’” The quotations are from another, earlier document by Pope Francis.

Asked if that means sometimes giving Communion to the divorced and remarried, Pope Francis told a group of bishops in his native Argentina that it does, and his private letter to them has been embraced as official by the Vatican.

Meanwhile the international debate has continued, with some bishops taking one view and others another, while many say nothing at all.

Cardinal Wuerl’s approach

In his pastoral plan for Washington, Cardinal Wuerl stresses that living according to Church teaching that marriage is indissoluble is particularly difficult today in the face of contrary messages from the surrounding culture. He deals with the question of Communion for the divorced and remarried in these words:

Sharing in the Joy of Love in Marriage and Family
Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington, D.C., writes:

“Here the [papal] exhortation invites a reflection on the right course of action in ministering to those who struggle to grasp and to live out the teaching. The Church wishes, with humility and compassion, to reach out to the people and families who struggle to live out the teaching on marriage, and to help them to overcome obstacles through discernment, dialogue and prayerful support and understanding. ...

“Some may ask, ‘Is the teaching always binding?’ The answer of course is yes. Yet Amoris Laetitia invites us to adopt a complementary perspective and to look with a parental attitude on those families who find themselves in a position where they struggle to even understand, let alone embrace fully, the teaching because of the concrete circumstances in which they live.”

And then? The document insists that “the Church’s teaching has not changed; objective truth remains unaffected.” But it also says that, in its words, “priests are called to respect the decisions made in conscience by individuals who act in good faith” — including, it appears, a decision by a divorced Catholic in what the pope calls an “irregular” second union to receive Communion.

Congenial as some people will find this, others will see potential problems — none of them, obviously, intended by Cardinal Wuerl. One is that the plan seems to view the priest as a dispenser of Communion rather than a minister of the sacrament with a duty to safeguard its integrity.

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Another is that the formula calling on priests to “respect the decisions made in conscience by individuals who act in good faith” appears to open the door to an individualistic form of moral relativism on other issues — abortion and same-sex marriage are examples — where many people, including many Catholics, hold views drawn from secular culture that clash with the teaching of the Church.

But the regrettable impact of secular culture on the formation of Catholics also is central to Cardinal Wuerl’s pastoral approach here, and it behooves the Church and its leaders to continue taking a clear-eyed assessment of that toll.

Russell Shaw is an OSV Newsweekly contributing editor.