The news that the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano has published the Archbishop of Malta’s controversial instructions on divorced and re-married people participating in the Eucharist has made many Catholics wonder whether Pope Francis intends to bring about change in the marriage discipline of the church by stealth.

Last September, a letter from Pope Francis was leaked to the media in which he endorsed the Argentinian bishops’ interpretation of his encyclical Amoris Laetitia. The bishops had said that in certain circumstances it might be possible for divorced and remarried individuals to “have access to the Eucharist.”

They made it clear that this meant receiving communion.

Pope Francis affirmed their reading, saying that the bishops had captured the full meaning of his encyclical and “there was no other interpretation.”

Defenders of the pope said it was a personal letter, and it should not be taken as definitive teaching. Now the official newspaper of the Vatican has published the pastoral letter of Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta which also opens the way for divorced and remarried Catholics to “participate in the sacraments of reconciliation and Eucharist.”

At the same time, the Holy Father has still declined to answer a request for clarity on this matter from four cardinals. Are ordinary priests and people wrong to be confused and wonder why such ambiguities continue to persist?

While L’Osservatore Romano has published the guidelines of the Bishops of Malta, one wonders why this particular bishops’ pastoral letter was chosen for publication and not one of many others that have been written.

I do not have the information at hand, but one may ask, were the Archbishop of Philadelphia’s pastoral guidelines on Amoris Laetitia published by the Vatican newspaper? Archbishop Charles Chaput’s guidelines can be read here.

Did the Vatican newspaper publish the letter by Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth in England? Both Philadelphia and the Diocese of Portsmouth are many times larger than Malta.

Was the Maltese bishops’ letter chosen for its particular theological acumen? Was it chosen because there was something in the letter which promoted it to universal attention in the church despite the small size of the flock in Malta? Is there something about Maltese bishops or Maltese Catholics which makes that diocese’s pastoral guidelines more important than others?

Is it wrong to pose these questions?

L’Osservatore Romano is the official paper of the Vatican. It is difficult not to draw the conclusion that Scicluna’s letter was published because it conforms with the desired direction of those who wish to promote a more progressive reading of the pope’s encyclical. If so, then it is also difficult to avoid the conclusion that someone, somewhere in the Vatican is promoting change by stealth.

If this is so, it should stop.

Catholics have a right to expect clarity in teaching from their pastors. They also have a right to expect charity in pastoral care. To uphold the timeless teachings of Christ and his church on the matter of marital and Eucharistic discipline does not necessarily lead to a harsh, judgmental and rigid attitude.

Good pastors know how to uphold the sanctity of marriage while still dealing gently and kindly with those who have not succeeded. The guidelines of Chaput and Egan are models of how this can be accomplished.

Yes, it is difficult to be a Catholic, and a good pastor will do everything he can to help the members of his flock.

However, it is also part of the gospel that one must take up the cross and follow Christ. It is also part of the gospel that the way to salvation is narrow and few there be who find it. It is also part of the gospel that the way to destruction is a broad, downward slope. Mercy is necessary, but so is discipline.

Jesus said to the woman taken in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you.” Then he said, “Go and sin no more.”

The main problem with the “change by stealth” approach has already become apparent. Because Amoris Laetitia remains ambiguous, different bishops will issue contradictory guidelines. Their attempts to clarify the pope’s teaching will therefore only cause more confusion and contradiction.

Worst of all, the priests and people will find themselves picking and choosing which pastoral guidelines they prefer. “Shall I listen to Chaput or Scicluna?”

In Catholicism, everything is connected. Therefore the continued ambiguity over Amoris Laetitia will eventually undermine the principles of authority in the Catholic Church. Before long the question will not be about the pastoral care of divorced and remarried people, but about the teaching authority of the pope, and that question will unfortunately be not only papal, but personal.

The ultimate question will be, “Does the pope, the successor of Peter, believe he has the authority to define and defend church teaching or not?”

Then Pope Francis’s critics will start saying, “If he does, he should do so. If he does not he should resign.” Such criticism would undermine the good work Pope Francis has done and distract everyone from getting on with the work we are all called to do.

We obviously don’t want to go there.

We’ve had three popes once before, and it was not a success.