ROME— Catholics who find themselves in what the Church considers “non-legitimate” situations, such as being divorced and civilly remarried, can receive Communion as long as they want to change their situation but cannot act on their desire because doing so would lead to further sin.

That’s the final word, at least according to the Vatican’s key interpreter of the law, Italian Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, who was appointed by Benedict XVI in 2007 as President of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts.

According to the Vatican’s constitution, this office’s work “consists mainly in interpreting the laws of the Church.”

However, per his own words, he wrote his new book The Eighth Chapter of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia not as a canon law expert but to try to “unpack [Amoris’s] rich doctrinal and pastoral message.”

The 51-page long book released last week, printed by the Vatican’s editorial company, is rich in quotes from Francis’s Amoris Laetitia, and Coccopamerio said he wrote it because “this part of the document is not very ample and, perhaps because of the content and the form, this chapter has been judged either with negativity or with a certain reserve.”

“The Church could admit to the Penitence and Eucharist the faithful who find themselves in illegitimate unions [who] want to change that situation, but can’t act on their desire,” Coccopalmerio writes.

He also writes that “I believe that we can sustain, with sure and tranquil conscience, that the doctrine, in this case, is respected.”

The Church’s teaching on marriage is clear: one man, one woman, united in an indissoluble bond, meaning, in sickness and health, poverty and wealth, ‘till death, and open to life.

It’s worth noting that the Vatican’s doctrinal chief, German Cardinal Gerharld Muller, said earlier in the month that Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics is against Church doctrine and no one, including the pope, can change that.

Quoting from Amoris Laetitia, Coccopalmerio says that the exhortation is very clear on all the elements of the Church’s doctrine on marriage, aligned and faithful to traditional teaching.

Then he writes: “In no way, must the Church renounce to proposing the full ideal of marriage, God’s plan in all its greatness […] Any form of relativism, or an excessive respect in the moment of proposing it, would be a lack of fidelity to the Gospel and also a lack of love of the Church.”

Coccopalmerio offers a concrete situation as an example of a case in which a person, “knowing about the irregularity of [his or hers] situation,” has great difficulty changing their situation “without feeling in their conscience that they would fall in a new sin.”

According to Coccopalmerio, Amoris Laetitia implicitly stipulates that to be admitted to the sacraments the men or women who, for serious motives such as the education of their children, can’t fulfill the obligation to separate, must nonetheless have “the intention or at least the desire” to change their status.

John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio, which like Francis’s, came in the aftermath of a synod of bishops on the family, said these couples were called to live “like brothers and sisters.”

According to Coccopalmerio, the couples who can, should, but there’s also the reality that without sexual intimacy between a couple, the temptation to be unfaithful and find intimacy elsewhere grows.

Quoting from Amoris’ passage 301, on the mitigating factors in pastoral discernment, the cardinal writes that if a couple in an irregular situation finds it difficult to live like brother and sister, the cohabitating couple is not obliged to comply because they’re the subjects this passage talks about, representing a “concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin.”

The example given by Coccopalmerio for a person who can’t go back without falling in a new sin is that of a woman who’s cohabitating with a man and his three children, after they were abandoned by his first wife.

This woman, the cardinal writes, “has saved the man from a state of deep despair, probably from the temptation of suicide,” has helped him raise the children with a considerable sacrifice, and they have been together for ten years, adding a child to their family.

“The woman of whom we speak is fully aware of being in an irregular situation. She would honestly like to change her life,” he writes. “But evidently, she can’t. If in fact, if she left the union, the man would turn back to the previous situation, the children would be left without a mother.”

Leaving the union would mean, thus, not fulfilling great duties towards innocent people, meaning the children. “It’s then evident that this couldn’t happen without ‘new sin.’”

As Francis’s Amoris Laetitia clearly states, the determination of this being a case in which Communion can be given has to be taken after a process of discernment, always done with a priest. Coccopalmerio also wrote that a diocesan office capable of giving advice on difficult marriage cases can be useful if not necessary.

According to Coccopalmerio, the one instance in which the Church cannot welcome couples in irregular situations into the sacraments are the faithful who, “knowing they are in grave sin and being able to change, have no sincere intention” of doing so.

The book’s presentation

Coccopalmerio, though he had been scheduled to participate in a press conference held at Vatican Radio, didn’t go, because he had to take part in a meeting of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints.

Many observers, including Vatican-watcher Orazio La Rocca, handpicked by the cardinal to present the book, have recently defined the book as a response to the five yes or no questions submitted to Pope Francis by four cardinals.

These prelates believe Amoris Laetitia has created “grave disorientation and great confusion,” particularly when it comes to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics and their access to the sacraments of Penance and Communion.

The dubia were submitted to Francis by American Cardinal Raymond Burke; Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, archbishop emeritus of Bologna; German Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, president emeritus of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences; and German Cardinal Joachim Meisner, archbishop emeritus of Cologne.

To this point, they haven’t been answered by Francis.

Despite La Rocca’s writings, on Tuesday Salesian Father Giuseppe Costa, director of the Vatican’s editorial company said that no, the book wasn’t a response to the dubia, nor is it the Vatican’s official response to it in any way. It is, he insisted, Coccopalmerio’s personal take on chapter eight of Amoris Laetitia.

Alfonso Cauteruccio, who was at the book’s presentation taking journalists’ requests for an interview with the cardinal, said that the book wasn’t born out of “doubts” but from the cardinal’s pastoral experience.

Father Maurizio Gronchi, a consultant in Muller’s office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was also at the book presentation. According to him, the pope’s document has generated no doubts.

Explaining the book, Gronchi said that to receive Communion people have to be conscious of their sin and have actual intentions of changing their situation, even if it’s not possible. “It doesn’t say that it’s a forgiveness for everyone in any case,” he said.

Amoris Laetitia, he continued, “tries to indicate possible paths for conversion, not to resolve broken marriage situations.”

In the presentation, La Rocca used a passage of Amoris Laetitia in which the pope says that the Eucharist is not an award for those who are perfect but a remedy for the weak.

After reading this passage on Tuesday, La Rocca asked, “Who says that God is not happy with my way of living my life?” In the opinion of the journalist chosen by the cardinal, “it’s petty to deny Communion because the law says so.”

“Someone will have to explain to me who decided what is the correct doctrine,” La Rocca said when presenting the book. His view is that Chapter Eight “will open the hearts” of many who move solely by rule of the law.

He also said that he plans to give the book to two people he knows, who cannot receive Communion because they’re in irregular situations. La Rocca believes that after reading it, his friends will feel welcomed.

Though few bishops have explicitly come out either in favor or against the four cardinals, recent guidelines by various bishops on how to apply the eight chapter Amoris Laetitia show that the papal document, a product of an almost three-year long consultation process with the world’s bishops, leaves room for discernment on this topic.

Some bishops have discerned that the law is clear, stated in this weekend’s Gospel:

Others, such as the Maltese bishops, have stated that remarried Catholics who are ‘at peace’ can receive Communion.