When highly placed Italian prelates declare that “only a blind man cannot see” that confusion is the ecclesiastical order of the day, and that such confusion has as its fundamental source Pope Francis’ Amoris laetitia, matters have reached crisis level. Catholics who have not followed the intense three-year debate over (among other things) admitting to holy Communion divorced-and-remarried Catholics who are living as married persons should stop reading this post and go get caught up on current events. But for those sufficiently aware of the doctrinal and disciplinary issues at stake I offer some observations in the wake of this weekend’s developments.
The bishops of Malta, by declaring that divorced-and-remarried Catholics who are living as if they were married “cannot be precluded from participating in … the Eucharist” have done grave violence to the unbroken and unanimous ecclesiastical tradition barring such Catholics from reception of holy Communion without—and let me stress this, without—doing violence to the actual text of Francis’ Amoris laetitia. That, folks, is the central problem.
Amoris does not—again, let me repeat, does not—declare ministers of holy Communion bound to give the sacrament to divorced-and-remarried Catholics living as if married. Francis’ phrasing in several key passages of Amoris is (I have argued) malleable enough to allow bishops such as Chaput and Sample to reiterate the traditional Eucharistic discipline or, as the Buenos Aires bishops did, simply to pass ambiguous criteria down to local pastors to sort as best they can. But precisely because key passages of Amoris are also flexible enough to allow bishops to do as the Maltese have done and require Church ministers to distribute the Eucharist to Catholics who engage in “public and permanent adultery” (CCC 2384)—not to mention conferring absolution on penitents who express no purpose of amendment in regard to such conduct—all this, without doing violence to the actual text of Amoris, one cannot but agree with Cdl. Caffarra and others that this hitherto unimaginable sacramental disunity is rooted directly in Amoris laetitia.
This ability of Amoris simultaneously to sustain orthodox, non-committal, and heterodox interpretations in matters of the gravest ecclesiastical import is exactly why the Four Cardinal’s dubia so urgently need answering—if not by Francis himself (and no one can force Francis’ hand) then at least by Francis’ right-hand man in matters of faith and morals, Cdl Muller of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to whom the dubia was also (few seem to have noticed) addressed.
Of course, the stakes involved in the dubia jumped dramatically over the weekend, not simply by the Maltese bishops making plain what sort of sacramental abuses Amoris could tolerate within its terms, but by the decision, taken at who-knows-what level, to publish the Maltese document in L’Ossevatore Romano, that “instrument for spreading the teachings of the successor of Peter.” Obviously the pope is not the editor of L’OR and it is possible that the decision to publish the Maltese document took Francis unawares. But insofar as L’OR is unquestionably the pope’s newspaper people will be watching to see whether, directly or indirectly, there appears some ‘distancing’ between Francis and the Maltese approach to sacraments for divorced-and-remarried Catholics.
I pray there does appear such papal distancing; I pray that the Maltese bishops repent of their failure to “exercise vigilance so that abuses do not creep into ecclesiastical discipline especially regarding …the celebration of the sacraments” (Canon 392 § 2); and I pray that the teachings of Christ and his Church penetrate our minds and hearts more deeply.