Conceding that it may come off as a “hard teaching,” Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia has decreed that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics in the archdiocese may receive Communion only if they refrain from sex, and that they cannot hold positions of responsibility in a parish or perform liturgical functions.
That latter prohibition, according to a new set of pastoral guidelines issued by Chaput, is designed to avoid “the unintended appearance of an endorsement of divorce and civil remarriage.”
“Undertaking to live as brother and sister is necessary for the divorced and civilly remarried to receive reconciliation in the Sacrament of Penance, which could then open the way to the Eucharist,” the guidelines state, which took effect July 1.
“This is a hard teaching for many, but anything less misleads people about the nature of the Eucharist and the Church,” the document says.
The guidelines, addressed to anyone in the Philadelphia archdiocese who works in the area of family life and human sexuality, are designed to govern implementation of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, issued in April and intended to draw conclusions from the pontiff’s two Synods of Bishops on the family in 2014 and 2015.
Under the Philadelphia guidelines, the same point applies to same-sex couples: They must live chastely in order to receive Communion, and they cannot hold positions in a parish or perform liturgical ministries or roles.
On other fronts, the guidelines say that couples living together outside of marriage should either be encouraged to separate, if they’re incapable or unwilling to be married, or to prepare themselves for marriage while refraining from sex in the meantime.
For those whose marriages break down, the guidelines encourage pursuing the possibility of an annulment, meaning a finding by a Church tribunal that the original marriage bond wasn’t valid on the grounds of one or more defects, acknowledging that “in our age, such grounds are not uncommon.”
At the same time, the guidelines insist that annulments “cannot be granted informally or privately by individual pastors or priests,” and that the formal process set out under Church law must be followed.
Pastoral care of married couples must be a priority, according to the guidelines, including encouraging frequent reception of the sacraments, common prayer and reading of Scripture in the family, and forming a network of support among “committed Catholic friends and families.”
Stating that Amoris Laetitia contains many passages of “exceptional beauty and usefulness on the nature of family life and marital love,” the guidelines say that to be understood properly, the document must be read within “the tradition of the Church’s teaching and life.”
Chaput was among the American prelates who took part in the second Synod of Bishops on the family, held in October 2015.
In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis appeared to open a door for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion after a process of “discernment” with a priest or bishop. The Philadelphia guidelines, however, insist that no process of discernment can set aside the objective facts of someone’s situation.
“Catholic teaching makes clear that the subjective conscience of the individual can never be set against objective moral truth, as if conscience and truth were two competing principles for moral decision-making,” they state.
The guidelines clearly uphold traditional Catholic teaching on marriage.
“Christian marriage, by its nature, is permanent, monogamous and open to life,” the document says, calling for redoubled efforts to support couples striving to live that teaching.
The document also calls for compassion and understanding for those who fall short, saying that “especially in a culture that is already deeply confused about complex matters of marriage and sexuality, a person may not be fully culpable for acting against the truth.”
Yet the document insists that compassion does not mean ignoring the Church’s traditional discipline, but offering help to people asked to make sacrifices, such as people whose spouses abandon them and who refuse to enter into a second relationship because they regard themselves as still married.
“They deserve the warm support of the Christian community, since they show extraordinary fidelity to Jesus Christ,” the guidelines say. “They face no obstacle to receiving Communion and other sacraments.”
“God is faithful to them even when their spouses are not, a truth that fellow Catholics should reinforce,” the document says.
On the divorced and civilly remarried, the guidelines say pastors should approach them with “patience, compassion and a genuine desire for the good of all concerned.”
Yet even when such a couple is willing to live as brother and sister, the document says, “the unhappy fact remains that, objectively speaking, their public state and condition of life in the new relationship are contrary to Christ’s teaching against divorce.”
As a result, the document says, “where pastors give Communion to divorced and remarried persons trying to live chastely, they should do so in a manner that will avoid giving scandal or implying that Christ’s teaching can be set aside.”
Chaput, 71, is a Capuchin Franciscan who’s served as the Archbishop of Philadelphia since 2011, after fourteen years as the Archbishop of Denver. He hosted the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia last September that was the official purpose of Pope Francis’ visit to the United States.