ROME— Ever since Pope Francis released a sweeping document on the family this March, there’s been ongoing discussion regarding what the conclusion actually is for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics who, according to previous Church teaching, were barred from receiving Communion.
We may now have a new clue, one that stems from the pontiff’s former archdiocese in Argentina.
The bishops of the Buenos Aires region have drafted a set of guidelines meant to help local priests put Francis’s Amoris Laetitia into pastoral practice, particularly chapter eight, which makes reference to “discernment regarding the possible access to the sacraments of some of those who are divorced and in a new union.”
The guidelines say that some civilly remarried couples who can’t adhere to the Church’s teaching of “living like brothers and sisters,” who have complex circumstances, and who can’t obtain a declaration of nullity for their first marriage, might undertake a “journey of discernment,” and arrive at the recognition that in their particular case, there are limitations that “diminish responsibility and culpability.”
For these exceptional cases, the bishops wrote, “Amoris Laetitia opens up the possibility of access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist.”
Yet, they warn, “it’s necessary to avoid understanding this possibility as an unrestricted access to the sacraments, or as though any situation might justify it.”
The guidelines, dated Sept. 5, reached Francis, who answered on the same day, writing: “The document is very good and completely explains the meaning of chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia. There are no other interpretations. And I am certain that it will do much good. May the Lord reward this effort of pastoral charity.”
In his letter addressed to Bishop Sergio Alfredo Fenoy of the diocese of San Miguel, and delegate of the Buenos Aires pastoral region, Francis writes that “pastoral charity” moves the clergy to go out and encounter “those who are at a distance, and once found, to start down the road of welcome, accompaniment, discernment, and integration” into the Church’s community.
This, the pontiff acknowledged, is “tiresome,” as it entails a personal pastoral approach that isn’t satisfied with “programmatic, organizational, or legal interventions, however necessary they may be.”
As he did recently in a private meeting with Polish Jesuits, Francis highlighted the urgency he sees in teaching seminarians and priests on discernment.
However, now it seems the document sent to the pope was a draft, not meant for publication, and much less immediate application.
Amoris Laetitia is a papal document, technically an apostolic exhortation, written by Francis as the result of two Synods of Bishops on the family which took place in Oct. 2014 and 2015.
As the pope told the bishops of Buenos Aires in his letter, “Amoris Laetitia was the fruit of the labor and prayer of the whole Church with the mediation of two synods and of the pope.”
Theologians, bishops, experts in canon law and even the Vatican’s newspaper L’Osservatore Romano waded into the interpretation of chapter eight.
Some have said Amoris Laetitia opens the doors to the sacraments of Reconciliation and Communion, and that it’s in line with the Church’s teaching of a merciful God. Others said that it does open the door, but is against Church teaching since the sacrament of marriage between a man and a woman is indissoluble, meaning “until death do us part.”
Some have even questioned the validity of the document, which is the reason why Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, perceived as one of the forces behind the document, said in an interview with the Jesuit-run journal Civilta Cattolica, that the document is part of the magisterium.
Since the document came out, Francis has mostly kept away from the discussion until last week, when he answered a letter from the bishops from the ecclesiastical province of Buenos Aires in his native Argentina. With the country’s uneven demographic distribution, this region represents close to 40 percent of the total population.
The bishops have been working on what so far is a 10-point guideline, referring exclusively to chapter eight. Many local priests had asked about what was the concrete pastoral response they were supposed to give, and the letter, which was published by a Spanish Catholic news site that later took it down, is a response to those concerns.
The site, InfoCatolica, took the guidelines and the accompanying message of approval from Francis down, explaining that after releasing both they found out the recommendations were incomplete and not ready for publication.
On Sept. 8, several members of the clergy of Buenos Aires were invited to discuss them, including Cardinal Mario Poli, handpicked by the pope to be his successor in his former diocese.
Yet on Sunday night, the Italian blog IlSismografo, often considered a semi-official Vatican news site, published both documents in full, in Spanish. And on Monday L’Osservatore Romano published parts of both in Italian.
In the guidelines, the bishops say that “it’s not convenient to speak of ‘permission’ to receive the sacraments,” but about a personal and pastoral process of discernment. The fact that the personal path has to be done with the accompaniment of a priest means that a divorced and remarried person alone can’t decide his or her situation fits the exception.
The journey of pastoral accompaniment doesn’t necessarily end in the sacraments, “but can be oriented to other ways of being better integrated into the life of the Church: a greater presence in the community, participation in groups of prayer or reflection, commitment to various ecclesial services.”
They also write that, if such exception is possible, it’d be convenient for the person to receive the sacraments in a reserved way, particularly when situations of conflict, i.e., confusing the congregation, are foreseen.
“But at the same time one must not cease to accompany the community, so that it might grow in a spirit of understanding and welcoming, without creating confusion regarding the teaching of the Church on the indissolubility of marriage,” the bishops write.
The bishops’ directive, called Basic Criteria for the Application of Chapter Eight of Amoris Laetitia, is signed solely by “the bishops of the region.” Several sources have told Crux that this two-page document has so far been as divisive as the papal document. For this reason, revisions to the guidelines is expected, although how far-reaching they will be is still unknown.
But the fact remains that Francis himself gave the present version his all-clear.