SÃO PAULO, Brazil — The Brazilian Bishops’ National Conference did not close the door that leads to the sacraments for divorced and remarried couples.
In a pastoral guide to Amoris Laetitia, the bishops said that, even though Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation reaffirms the indissolubility of marriage, it also notes that “conditioning factors and extenuating circumstances” may “attenuate or even annul the moral responsibility and imputability of unlawful acts.”
The 28-page document entitled Welcoming the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia by the Church in Brazil was released late last week. It was elaborated by the conference’s staff after discussions of Francis’s document on the family during the bishops’ 55th Ordinary General Assembly, which took place April 26 to May 5, 2017.
Brazil’s bishops affirm that Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia avoids a “normative pronouncement” on cases like those of divorced and remarried people. “The apostolic exhortation does not present a guide for the discernment of the so-called irregular cases,” says paragraph 37. Instead, Amoris “reinforces the need of a pastoral attention that is really particularized.”
The document argues that Amoris is not a rupture with previous Church teaching, but a development. “Nothing more contrary to the content of Chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia than the idea of a moral relativism or even situational morality. On the contrary, it reaffirms the doctrine about the indissolubility of marriage and the intrinsic malice of adultery,” says paragraph 39.
As it follows, the text calls on pastors to “enter” in concrete cases, “finding the proper way to help the formation of the faithful’s conscience.”
Therefore, pastors should lead people through a discernment process based on six items: Conversion through a personal encounter with Christ; accompaniment in moral and spiritual growth; comprehension and maturing of their particular situation; the possibility of opening a canonical process of matrimonial nullity; the analysis of eventual conditioning and attenuating circumstances; and sexual continence.
Brazil’s bishops do not explicitly assert that remarried people could receive communion in some cases. Instead, they clearly say that a discernment process “is not simply a return to the sacramental life, which is not always possible.”
However, their document ponders, on paragraph 45: “There are limited cases where the existence of excuses for non-interruption of conjugal coexistence, for example, the existence of children and certain moral circumstances, may attenuate or even annul the moral responsibility and imputability of unlawful acts.”
The reference to those “mitigating factors” are in paragraphs 301 to 303 of Pope Francis’s exhortation, which states: “The Church possesses a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations. Hence it can no longer simply be said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace.”
The only paragraph in which the Brazilian bishops explicitly speak of divorced and remarried people is number 46 of their document, which is about sexual abstinence. “The practice of sexual continence for couples in a second union is not excluded. In this case, the confessor may be merciful with eventual falls,” it reads.
There is a full page of the text dedicated to a “judicial ministry,” instructing pastors to look into specific cases as a possible canonical matter, passive of a matrimonial nullity (what is informally called a “marriage annulment”).
The Brazilian bishops’ pastoral guide is a short summary of main ideas present in the apostolic exhortation on family life. Its introduction reads, “The objective is to offer the Church in Brazil a serene and objective reflection, as Pope Francis advises, to serve as an instrument for the reception of Amoris Laetitia.”
“Starting from the understanding of the family as a gift, this guide places the care of families on the horizon of a pastoral conversion, it presents key ideas of Amoris Laetitia, some advice, and offers clues to discernment, in the perspective of mercy,” affirms the Bishops’ Conference.
According to Monsignor Leonardo Ulrich Steiner, auxiliary bishop of Brasília and secretary-general of the episcopal conference, their document will help to promote a pastoral renewal in the country. As he writes in the preface: “The present guide wants to awaken us to a true meditation on Pope Francis’s text and at the same time wishes to express the pastoral concern of the bishops.”