ROME – Almost two years after the publication of Pope Francis’s document on the family, Amoris Laetitia, and especially its cautious opening to Communion for divorced and civilly remarried believers, it continues to make waves in Catholic circles, with more bishops releasing guidelines on how to interpret it and others demanding the pontiff explain its definitive meaning.
The document, signed by Francis on March 2016, was the product of a three-year process that included two synods of bishops, who gathered in Rome in 2014 and 2015, and two consultations of faithful around the world.
Debate was seemingly put to rest when Francis asked that a private letter he sent to a group of bishops from Buenos Aires, Argentina, regarding the prelates’ guidelines on Amoris Laetitia, be included on the Vatican’s website and in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, the official record of Vatican documents. That letter endorsed a draft set of guidelines permitting Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried after a process of discernment with a pastor.
Both the pope’s letter and the guidelines from the bishops are considered “authentic magisterium” by Francis. Dated Sept. 5, 2016, the papal letter says that the bishops’ document “explains precisely the meaning of Chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitita. There are no other interpretations.”
The Buenos Aires document said the path of discernment proposed by Francis “does not necessarily end in the sacraments,” but should, first of all, help the couple recognize their situation, understand Church teaching on the permanence of marriage and take steps toward living a more Christian life.
“When feasible,” they said, divorced and civilly remarried couples should be encouraged to abstain from sexual relations, allowing them to receive the sacraments. However, while there’s no such thing as “unrestricted access to the sacraments,” in some situations, after a thorough process of discernment and examination of the culpability of the individual in the failure of the sacramental marriage, the pope’s exhortation “opens the possibility” to reception of the sacraments.
Recent voices against Communion for the divorced and remarried
On Dec. 31 three bishops of Kazakhstan — Tomash Peta, Archbishop of Saint Mary in Astana; Jan Pawel Lenga, Archbishop-Bishop of Karaganda; and Athanasius Schneider, Auxiliary Bishop of Saint Mary in Astana — released a statement titled “Profession of the Immutable Truths about Sacramental Marriage.”
Published by several news sites, it was later supported by two Italian prelates, Archbishop Carlo Vigano, former papal representative to the United States, and Archbishop Emeritus Luigi Negri.
“It’s not licit (non licet) to justify, approve, or legitimize either directly or indirectly divorce and a non-conjugal stable sexual relationship through the sacramental discipline of the admission of so-called ‘divorced and remarried’ to Holy Communion, in this case a discipline alien to the entire Tradition of the Catholic and Apostolic faith,” the statement from the Kazakh bishops says.
This month, Cardinal Wim Eijk of Utrecht, in the Netherlands, called on Francis to issue a document stating that marriage is “one and unbreakable,” and that the pontiff should also clarify if divorced and remarried Catholics can receive Communion or not, because “people are confused, and that is not good.”
In an interview with Dutch paper Trouw, Eijk said that even though Francis has never said anything that goes against Church teaching, Amoris Laetitia has “caused doubt to be sown.”
The prelate also regretted the fact that there are many guidelines explaining the document, and that some are in conflict with each other.
“What is true in place A cannot suddenly be false in B,” he said. “At a certain point you would like clarity.”
Two set of guidelines open the doors to the sacraments
Eijk is referring, for instance, to the latest guideline to be released, that of the bishops of the Italian Piedmont region, made public on Jan. 29, that sees the matter as a “case by case situation.”
Titled “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted (Psalm 34). Accompanying, discerning and integrating,” the Piedmont document works on the basis of the Argentine one, and those three concrete elements “accompanying, discerning and integrating” are taken from Amoris Laetitia.
Concentrating, “from its title,” on attention to the faithful who live in situations “of non-full realization of the sacrament of spousal love,” the guidelines “invite a style of closeness and attention to all families,” hence revealing the “face of the Lord who makes himself close to the most diverse situations of life.”
It calls for every diocese to have a “welcoming space” where each situation can be evaluated, and every priest is called to accompany couples who might be in this situation through a path of discernment.
The document distinguishes between those who are only civilly married or cohabitating, in which case they’re called to be accompanied towards the sacrament of marriage.
When it comes to the divorced and civilly re-married, the bishops quote Amoris Laetitia to sustain that there’s a “need to affirm that their situation is not ‘the ideal of the Gospel’” so the integration must be done “adequately distinguishing” among diverse situations, “without cataloging or closing them in ‘affirmations that are too rigid.’”
Though it represents the bishops of the region, the document is signed by Archbishop Cesare Nosiglia of Turin.
In a similar vein, the diocese of Braga in Portugal, released its own, broadly permissive set of guidelines in late 2017, even suggesting a timeline for the discerning path: From the beginning of the pastoral year, in October-November, to Easter, “perhaps Holy Thursday, could be an adequate day for those for whom the discernment dictates so to receive Eucharistic communion.”
However, each process is individual and can take different time for each person, the guidelines clarify.
The Braga document acknowledges that at times, despite a couple’s efforts, remaining together is not possible, so “although she constantly holds up the call to perfection and asks for a fuller response to God, the Church must accompany with attention and care the weakest of her children, who show signs of a wounded and troubled love, by restoring in them hope and confidence.”
The diocese is offering a newly created office providing information and counseling to determine if a first marriage was in fact, valid. The recommendations that follow apply almost exclusively for those who cannot have their first marriage annulled, but who still want to “live the Christian faith, with a good relationship with God and the Church.”
It’s for them that the itinerary of “responsible personal and pastoral discernment” applies, the objective of which is to help them further integrate to the life of the Church.
The document says it’s not up to a spiritual director to make the decision for the couple regarding their access to the sacraments. Instead, the spiritual director should guarantee that the discernment process took place properly, and “recognize the role of the conscience of people, as ‘we are called to form consciences, not to pretend to replace them’,” the document says, quoting Amoris.
The document offers practical suggestions as to how that discernment should be done, including, for instance, making a list of “pros and cons” on access to the sacraments after a “rational process,” that must include reading, praying and spiritual direction. The “quantity” of what’s in each column is not as important as the “weight” each one of those have, the text says.
Only after both lists have been made, is the person to, “with honesty in front of God and with complete freedom,” decide what is closer to God’s will: “Accessing the sacraments, not accessing the sacraments, or not yet, because there are steps that need to be taken or discernment must continue.”