ROME— Charged debate around the implications of footnote 351 of Pope Francis’s Amoris Laetitia, the document with which he closed a three-year process involving two Synods of Bishops on the family, has been going on for almost 10 months, and there no signs it’ll wind up any time soon.
The footnote addresses access to the sacraments by divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, and while it appeared to leave the door open for a cautious “yes,” Francis also stressed he didn’t intend to change Church teaching or law, and left the implementation of the document up to local bishops.
It’s that ambiguity which has cleared the path for bishops to interpret the implications of the pope’s ruling differently, with some taking a restrictive approach and others a more permissive line.
Several bishops or groups of bishops have commented on this and many released their own set of guidelines for the “pastoral application” of chapter eight, at times providing strikingly different answers.
Here’s a round-up of what bishops and cardinals (though technically, a cardinal is a bishop) have said so far.
The “yes, it opens the door” camp
The Maltese bishops’ “Criteria for the Application of Chapter VIII of ‘Amoris Laetitia’” was signed on January 8 by Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta and Bishop Mario Grech of Gozo. They released it through their website on January 13, after sending it to the country’s priests with a copy of Amoris’s chapter 8 at the end.
“If, as a result of the process of discernment,” the bishops write, “a separated or divorced person who is living in a new relationship manages, with an informed and enlightened conscience, to acknowledge and believe that he or she are at peace with God, he or she cannot be precluded from participating in the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist.”
It’s worth noting that L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s semi-official newspaper, published the guidelines in full.
Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego
In a pastoral message titled “Embracing the joy of love” and addressed to the people of his diocese ahead of a diocesan synod on the family to discuss Amoris Laetitia, McElroy also speaks of the discernment of conscience and of priests accompanying the faithful during the process, clearly stating that access to Communion can be at the end of the path.
“Some Catholics engaging in this process of discernment will conclude that God is calling them to return to full participation in the life of the Church and the Eucharist,” he writes. “Others will conclude that they should wait, or that their return would hurt others.”
The diocesan synod took place in October, and though the website of the church of San Diego says the bishop’s reflections should have come out in November, they haven’t been published as of yet.
However, the synod’s general assembly proposals are available and all of them have been theoretically approved and will be implemented.
Last September the bishops of Pope Francis’s former diocese, Buenos Aires, drafted a set of guidelines meant to help local priests implement Amoris.
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.”
The document was a draft, meant to be discussed at a meeting with several priests from the Buenos Aires region. L’Osservatore Romano published some of its passages, yet it hasn’t been published on any official website nor in a bulletin of the Buenos Aires bishops.
In addition, the guidelines dated September 5 somehow reached the pope, who in a letter leaked to the press wrote: “The document is very good and completely explains the meaning of chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia. There are no other interpretations.”
Cardinals who spoke without releasing guidelines
German Cardinal Walter Kasper, author of the “Kasper proposal” that guided most of the Vatican’s synod of bishops when it came to a case-by-case solution to the question of divorced and remarried, is currently the president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, and as such, doesn’t have a diocese for which to produce a set of guidelines.
However, in November he said that Amoris marks a “paradigm shift” that allows for a “changed pastoral practice.”
In an article for Stimmen der Zeit, a monthly journal on Christian culture, he noted that the exhortation does not draw “any clear practical consequences,” but it does adopt premises by which “a changed pastoral practice is allowed in justified individual cases.”
“It leaves open the concrete question of admittance to absolution and Communion,” Kasper wrote.
Cardinal Kevin Farrell, formerly of Dallas but presently head of the Vatican’s office for all things laity, family and life, said that “there are all kinds of different circumstances and situations that we have to look at – each case as it is presented to us.”
“I think that what our Holy Father is speaking about, is when we talk about accompanying, it is not a decision that is made irrespective of the couple,” he said. “Obviously, there is an objective moral law,” he said, but you will never find two couples who have the same reason for being divorced and remarried.
However, in a late November Crux interview, Farrell insisted that divorced and remarried couples are not the heart of the papal document, adding that if the Church does things right, there won’t even be a need for footnote 351 in the future.
Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago on the other hand, does have a diocese, but hasn’t released a set of pastoral guidelines yet. However, when asked about where he stands on the interpretation of an opening to the sacraments, he said his position was that of Pope Francis. Clarifying what he meant, he quoted Francis’s letter to the bishops of Buenos Aires and the interpretation given by Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schönborn.
“So if people want to know what I think, they should refer to those sources,” he said.
Schönborn, hand-picked by Francis to lead the Rome presentation of Amoris Laetitia, gave a long interview to Jesuit-run journal La Civilta Cattolica, in which he insisted that this was not a central question, but rather the reason why the pope put it in a footnote.
However, the theologian who was the main editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church also said in that interview that “it is possible, in certain cases, that one who is in an objective situation of sin can receive the help of the sacraments.”
Another prelate in the “yes camp” is Rome’s Vicar, Cardinal Agostino Vallini, who released his guidelines on September 19.
The “no, it doesn’t open the door” camp
“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 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.
Conceding that it may come off as a “hard teaching,” last July Chaput released a similar set of guidelines, writing that living “as brother and sister” is necessary for the divorced and civilly remarried to receive Communion.
He also wrote that they cannot hold positions of responsibility in a parish or perform liturgical functions in an attempt to avoid “the unintended appearance of an endorsement of divorce and civil remarriage.”
Like the Maltese guidelines, the ones issued by Chaput generated a wide range of comments, including from Farrell, who when asked by a journalist about his thoughts on these guidelines said he believed it “would have been wiser to wait,” and that the United States Bishops’ Conference should have released a single guideline.
Chaput responded, arguing that he was following Francis’s request.
Their eight-page document was signed by the six bishops leading the territory, and it too calls upon priests and Catholic communities to be prepared to welcome “these brothers and sisters of ours.”
However, they write, “It may happen that, through media, friends, or family, couples have been led to understand that there has been a change in practice by the Church, such that now the reception of Holy Communion at Mass by persons who are divorced and civilly remarried is possible if they simply have a conversation with a priest. This view is erroneous.”
Their suggestion is for couples who are in this situation to be guided towards the Interdiocesan Marriage Tribunal, that will in turn evaluate the validity of the first marriage, since as it has been stated repeatedly by some prelates, many marriages are null.
Other bishops in the ‘no’ camp who’ve published guidelines are Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth in England and Archbishop Alexander K. Sample of Portland, Oregon, who has released a pastoral letter complaining of “erroneous” interpretations of Pope Francis’s document Amoris Laetitia, including the idea that there can be exceptions.
Although he doesn’t address the issue as a “yes or no” question, the fact that he speaks about “absolute divine prohibitions” and complains that “some have used Amoris Laetitia in ways that do not correspond with the Church’s teaching tradition,” it can be inferred that he’s on the no side.
Prelates who spoke without releasing guidelines
In a Sept. 18 article published in the diocesan newspaper, Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix wrote that “As a good shepherd, Pope Francis focuses special attention on those who walk on the edge of despair because of personal failures and problems they have suffered in their families, and because of the complex and contradictory situations in which they find themselves now.
“This does not, however, include receiving Holy Communion for those who are divorced and remarried,” he wrote.
In a Dec. 5 letter to the priest in his diocese, Bishop James Conley, of Lincoln, Nebraska said that God calls the civilly remarried and those who are cohabitating “to continence.”
“Like every person conscious of grave sin, divorced and civilly remarried Catholics who engage in ongoing sexual relationships may not approach Holy Communion,” he wrote.
Conley also addressed the ongoing public disagreement in the Church, saying that even though it can be a “source of discouragement,” the history of the Church has included “great theological disputes, which have been the source of division but, ultimately, have led to clarity, and to renewal.”
He reflected that “the Church is the Bride of Christ, and is protected and guided by the Holy Spirit,” and that the lessons of history are that “we need not be dismayed or anxious by the challenges of our own time.”
Italian Cardinal Ennio Antonelli, former president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, in a text published in October by Italian journalist Sandro Magister, wrote that Francis is in fact “opening an outlet even for admission to sacramental reconciliation and eucharistic Communion.”
Yet for him, this is not a positive thing but a risky approach, because it might lead to the “mistaken view that the church is accepting divorce and remarriage.” Considering this, he asked Pope Francis for more explicit, “more authoritative guidelines.”
Then there’s the request made by American Cardinal Raymond Burke and three other cardinals for the pope to resolve what they described as “confusion” and “disorientation” as a result of his document. Since they released what had originally been intended as a private letter, the four have spoken publicly, with the American being the most insistent.
However exhaustive this list has attempted to be, it still remains short compared with the statements made by bishops and cardinals, and the fact that the guidelines by the Maltese bishops and those by Lopes were published on the last seven days confirm one truth: the argument is not yet settled.
In the words of Italian Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, the retired archbishop of Bologna who was personally invited by Pope Francis to participate in both synods but who’s also one of the four who signed the dubia, “only a blind man could deny there’s great confusion, uncertainty and insecurity in the Church.”
“In recent months, on some very fundamental questions regarding the sacraments, such as marriage, confession and the Eucharist, and the Christian life in general, some bishops have said A, and others the contrary of A,” Caffarra said.