In a new pastoral letter on the implementation of Amoris Laetitia, another Catholic bishop has concluded that the pontiff’s document on the family does not change the Church’s existing rules for the divorced and civilly remarried, and that Catholics in that situation may receive Communion only if they commit themselves to “complete chastity.”
“A civilly remarried couple, if committed to complete continence, could have the Eucharist available to them, after proper discernment with their pastor and making recourse to the sacrament of reconciliation,” wrote Bishop Steven Lopes, head of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, a structure created to welcome former Anglican communities into the Catholic Church.
“Unless and until the civilly remarried honestly intend to refrain from sexual relations entirely, sacramental discipline does not allow for the reception of the Eucharist,” Lopes wrote.
Lopes joins other American bishops, including Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia and Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix, Arizona, who have issued similar directives.
Named to his current post in November 2015, Lopes is a former priest-secretary to Cardinal William Levada, who headed the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, and later served as a doctrinal official in the congregation.
Created in 2012 and based in Houston, Texas, the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter is open to former Anglican communities in the United States and Canada. As of the date of Lopes’ appointment, it included 42 parishes, 64 priests, four deacons, and roughly 20,000 faithful.
In his pastoral letter, titled “A Pledged Troth,” Lopes draws heavily on both the Anglican liturgical traditions inherited by the ordinariate as well as the Cathechism of the Catholic Church to stress that marriage is an “indissoluble bond.”
While some have suggested that Amoris Laetitia represents a development in doctrine opening a cautious door for reception of Communion by divorced and civilly remarried Catholics even in the absence of a commitment to chastity, Lopes rejects that interpretation.
“While dogma can be better understood and developed in its expression, it cannot change or alter in substance, nor can pastoral practice or care be incongruent with unchanging teaching,” he wrote.
Lopes also cautions that Amoris should not be read in the context of interpretations given to the document in mainstream press commentary.
“The secular media has little understanding of dogma or of the richness of Catholic teaching, so we must avoid reading this exhortation though the lenses the media all too readily offers,” he wrote, suggesting there’s a responsibility of “safeguarding this beautiful reflection from those who would misuse it to promote practices at odds with the Church’s teaching.”
Certainly, Lopes writes, the Church is called to reach out to people whose marriages have broken down.
“Knowing well the reality of sin and weakness, the Church tenderly accompanies those who struggle and fail in their attempts to live God’s holy law,” he wrote. Yet that accompaniment, he insists, cannot come at the expense of setting aside the moral law.
Lopes points to the experience of the Anglican Communion, which has liberalized divorce along with other aspects of traditional sexual morality, saying, “that Communion has fractured as the plain teaching of scripture, tradition, and reason was rejected.”
For members of the ordinariate who are divorced and civilly remarried, Lopes urges them to use the Church’s annulment process to see if their situation can be regularized.
“The Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter does not yet have its own marriage tribunal, but all Ordinariate communities and faithful have recourse to the tribunal of the local Catholic diocese, and our Priests and Deacons can assist in navigating the process,” he wrote.
“Many seemingly complex situations can indeed be regularized, which would allow the couple to participate fully in the sacramental life of the Church.”
In particular, Lopes insists that conscience can never be a reason for ignoring Church teaching.
“Conscience is not a law unto itself, nor can conscience rightly overrule the holy law of God,” he writes. “Pastoral discernment admits of no exceptions to the moral law, nor does it replace moral law with the private judgments of conscience.”
That brought Lopes to the question of Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried. His key passage is the following, with the quotation coming from St. Pope John Paul II’s 1981 document Familiaris Consortio:
“Under the guidance of their pastor, avoiding occasions of confusion or scandal, divorced and civilly remarried persons may receive the Eucharist, on the condition that when ‘for serious reasons, such as for example the children’s upbringing, a man and woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.’
“A civilly remarried couple, if committed to complete continence, could have the Eucharist available to them, after proper discernment with their pastor and making recourse to the sacrament of reconciliation. Such a couple may experience continence as difficult, and they may sometimes fail, in which case they are, like any Christian, to repent, confess their sins, and begin anew.”
Lopes then distinguishes between a divorced and civilly remarried Catholic who accepts this teaching but fails, as opposed to one who doesn’t accept the principle.
“A civilly remarried couple firmly resolving complete chastity thus resolves not to sin again, which differs in kind from a civilly remarried couple who do not firmly intend to live chastely, however much they may feel sorrow for the failure of their first marriage,” he wrote.
Lopes closes insisting that God’s mercy will help Christians live this teaching.
“As we navigate the joy and pain of family life, including obstacles and challenges that seem, at times, insurmountable, we know that we have a Savior who has gone ahead of us, has suffered as we have, and promises that nothing can separate us from his love and mercy,” he wrote.
Since Amoris was released in April 2016, different bishops around the world have interpreted its provisions on the divorced and civilly remarried in a variety of fashions. Several, like Lopes, have held that it does not represent a break with previous practice, while others, including the bishops of Pope Francis’s own Buenos Aires region in Argentina, have said that it does.
In that case, the pontiff wrote the Buenos Aires bishops to compliment their draft guidelines.