ROME — Over the past ten months, bishops around the world have issued widely varying interpretations of Pope Francis’s document Amoris Laetitia, especially its provisions on Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried. Rarely has the contrast been quite as sharp as Wednesday, however, when the German bishops’ conference and the Vatican’s German doctrinal czar appeared to virtually contradict one another.

On one side, German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and, at least theoretically, the pope’s point man to clarify theological doubts, said in a new interview there simply are no “circumstances according to which an act of adultery does not constitute a mortal sin” — suggesting the answer on Communion, at least for divorced and remarried couples not living in continence, remains “no.”

On the opposite side, according to a new pastoral reflection on Amoris released by the German bishops’ conference, which they describe as “a common word with the pope,” divorced and remarried couples can in fact, under certain circumstances, receive the sacraments of Penance and Communion.

The Church’s position in the words of Müller

Speaking to the Italian monthly Il Timone, Muller said that Francis’s Amoris Laetitia has to be interpreted in the light of the whole doctrine of the Church. He added he “doesn’t like” the fact that so many bishops are interpreting the apostolic exhortation “according to their way of understanding the pope’s teaching.”

This attitude, he said, “does not keep the line of Catholic doctrine.”

“The pope’s magisterium is interpreted only by himself, or through the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,” he said. “The pope interprets the bishops, it’s not the bishops who interpret the pope … this would constitute an inversion of the structure of the Catholic Church.”

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“A bishop, as a teacher of the Word, must first be well formed to not fall in the risk of a blind man leading the blind,” he says.

Müller also says that St. John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation on the family, Familiaris Consortio, just as Francis’s Amoris, was the conclusion of a synod of bishops on the family, and remains valid, including the part in which the Polish pope called for divorced and civilly remarried couples who can’t separate to live in continence.

“It is not overcome, because it is not only a positive law of John Paul II, but he expressed an essential element of Christian moral theology and the theology of the sacraments,” Muller said, adding that the confusion on this point comes from non-acceptance of the encyclical Veritatis Splendor.

Released in 1993, Veritatis begins by asserting that there are absolute truths that are universal across people in varying cultures. The papal document also argued against moral relativism and the misuse of conscience to justify a subjective morality.

The German prelate argues that for the Catholic Church, marriage is an expression “of the unity of Christ the Bridegroom and the Church his bride. This is not, as some have said during the synod, a mere vague analogy. No! This is the substance of the sacrament, and no power in heaven and on earth, nor an angel nor a pope, nor a council or a law of the bishops, has the faculty to modify it.”

Asked about resolving “the chaos that is being generated” on account of the various interpretations given to Amoris’s passage on access to the sacraments for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, Müller urged everyone to study the doctrine of the Church, starting with scripture, “which is very clear on marriage.”

Muller then said he’d suggest for people not to enter “into a casuistry” that can generate misunderstandings, “above all that according to which if love dies, then the marriage bond is dead.”

“The Word of God is very clear and the Church does not accept the secularization of marriage,” Müller said. “The task of priests and bishops is not that of creating confusion, but of bringing clarity. One cannot refer only to little passages present in Amoris Laetitia, but it has to be read as a whole, with the purpose of making the Gospel of marriage and the family more attractive for people.

Muller was appointed to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith by emeritus Pope Benedict XVI in July 2012, and has held that post for five years.

The reflections of the German bishops

In their own 7-page long letter on Amoris Laetitia, the German bishops thank Francis for the apostolic exhortation and the way it summarized the work done by the bishops throughout the synod. They recommend the faithful read the whole document, in particular chapter 4, Love in Marriage.

“We would also like to address the question of the Church’s dealings with persons who have remarried civilly after a divorce, and their reception of the sacrament of the Eucharist,” the bishops write.

They don’t question the indissolubility of marriage, saying that it “belongs to the indispensable religious patrimony of the Church,” and Amoris, they continue, “leaves no doubt on that.”

However, the papal document equally doesn’t leave any doubt “on the need for a differentiated view of people’s individual life situations,” the bishops say.

According to the bishops, Amoris Laetitia gives no “general regulation” for addressing this issue, “and no automatic mechanism towards the general admission of all divorced and civilly remarried persons to the sacraments. However, Amoris Laetitia also does not remain categorical and unmovable on the sacraments.”

The prelates acknowledge that not all the faithful who have civilly remarried can receive Communion. On the contrary, they write, “differentiated solutions appropriate to individual cases come into play, when the marriage cannot be annulled.”

In their main bottom line on the issue, the German bishops conclude that Francis’s exhortation recognizes that after a decision-making process is carried out with the accompaniment of one’s pastor, “in which the consciences of all parties must be highly engaged,” a divorced and remarried Catholic can receive the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist.

The individual decision to not receive the sacraments in a given set of circumstances must be respected, according to the German bishops, “but so must the decision to receive.” They warn against both being “overly lax,” not paying “intense attention to accompanying, discerning and integrating” divorced and remarried couples, as well as having a “rigoristic attitude stuck in quick judgement.”

“Instead of such extreme attitudes, discernment must take place in personal conversation,” they write.

By issuing their reflections, the German prelates join bishops in other parts of the world, such as the Buenos Aires region of Argentina and Malta, who have offered a cautious “yes” on the question of Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics not living in continence. Elsewhere, including jurisdictions in the United States such as Philadelphia, Phoenix and the Personal Ordinariate of St. Peter for ex-Anglicans, the answer has been basically aligned with Müller’s position.

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Beyond the matter of remarried and divorced Catholics, the letter from the German bishops also emphasizes marriage preparation, accompaniment of married couples and the family as a school of faith.