“No other interpretation is possible.” — Pope Francis, Letter to Mons. Sergío Alfredo Fenoy, Delegate of the Buenos Aires Pastoral Region (Sept. 5, 2016)
“This view is erroneous.” — Bishops of Alberta, “Guidelines for the Pastoral Accompaniment of Christ’s Faithful who are Divorced and Remarried without a Decree of Nullity” (Sept. 14, 2016)
Last week the leaked letter written by Pope Francis to the Argentine bishops concerning Amoris Laetita (AL) brought new storms of controversy over the Catholic teaching on marriage. The bishops had drafted a document outlining implementation policies for the eighth chapter of AL, where it suggests that under some circumstances, divorced and civilly remarried Catholics might still receive Communion. The pope’s letter praised the Argentine bishops and noted, “There is no other interpretation.”
Once the directive was verified, members of the secular media hopped on a modernizing pontiff bandwagon. Catholic media divided into the usual orthodox and dissident lanes.
Confusion in the press prompted the the bishops of Alberta and the North West Territories to issue this statement:
It may happen that, through media, friends, or family, couples have been led to understand that there has been a change in practice by the Church, such that now the reception of Holy Communion at Mass by persons who are divorced and civilly remarried is possible if they simply have a conversation with a priest … this view is erroneous.
In his excellent analysis, respected Canon lawyer, Edward Peters, observed,
Basically, the Argentine draft (assuming it is still a ‘draft’) directs ministers of holy Communion (chiefly parish priests) to work through concrete cases impacting access to at least three sacraments (Matrimony, Penance, and the Eucharist), guided not by the Church’s accumulated pastoral wisdom as summed up in norms like Canon 915 (which appears to not even be mentioned!), but instead by a line of endlessly malleable considerations phrased in verbiage redolent of the 1970s. If some pastors after the publication Amoris were already being told by irate parishioners that ‘Pope Francis says you have to give me Communion’, what might they expect in the wake of his sweeping approval of this Argentine interpretation of Amoris?
And if that wasn’t confusion enough to suffice for an era, Ross Douthat of the New York Times penned a column last Saturday titled “Dilution of Doctrine”. Douthat noted that when Democratic vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine, a self-described “devout Roman Catholic”, told “same-sex marriage” supporters that he could foresee the acceptance of same-sex pairs in the Catholic Church, Kaine’s bishop, Francis DiLorenzo of Richmond, Virginia, issued an unequivocal statement that the Church’s position on marriage “remains unchanged and resolute.” Douthat, a Catholic himself, pointed to the leaked letter from Pope Francis to underscore that one cannot simply assume that Bp. DiLorenzo is correct because “this is not a normal moment in the Catholic Church.” The logic is that if the doctrinal teaching on marriage and divorce is wobbling, why not for homosexuals as well?
The column notes, “The traditional rule is inscribed in the church’s magisterium, and no mere papal note can abrogate it.” True, however, what is becoming apparent is that without a definitive change in doctrine, Pope Francis might achieve his vision of compassion by changing pastoral practice.
By the close of the week there was utter confusion over the question: May divorced and remarried Catholics in “special circumstances” receive Communion?
My own email box was jammed with inquiries regarding the unraveling of settled teaching. Catholic World Report readers may recall that I was in Rome to cover both the 2014 preparatory synod and the 2015 ordinary synod on the family. I wrote at the time of the open struggle among bishops to produce a document sympathetic to persons in difficult circumstances, yet preserve the truth of marriage in doctrine and practice. (A synod report is given to the pontiff who typically issues an apostolic exhortation on the synod shortly afterward.) Pope Francis had urged the bishops to be open and forthright in their discussions.
It was widely reported that the Pope was sympathetic to the “Kasper Proposal.” Pope Francis indicated his goal was compassion; to lift burdens from the people. Some worried that the invitation to “openness” was meant to urge moderate bishops to join the Kasper factions. Instead, the majority of the world’s bishops razored out most of the spongy language and tightened scriptural citations in their synod document. By the close of the two year synod process a plurality of bishops believed that the final synod report delivered a document to the pope affirming Christ’s clear command on marriage.
On the day of the final session of synod 2015, a cardinal explained to me that “you will find that we bishops have given the Holy Father a strong document. Now, we shall see what he wants makes of it.”
When the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia was released the week after Easter, it surprised many bishops. As the dust settled, some attempted to find equilibrium by noting that nowhere in the exhortation proper did it specifically state that divorced and remarried Catholics could return to reception of the Eucharist. Rather the “crack” was “merely” in footnote 351.
Theologians and canon lawyers pointed out that the footnote plainly permitted what has never hitherto been allowed in the Catholic Church. As a few pundits observed, “If 351 means what canonists think it means, Thomas More lost his head in vain.” And, “If Amoris Laetitia permits the divorced and civilly remarried to receive Communion, the Church owes an apology to Henry VIII and the English Martyrs.”
In the Vatican Press office during the synods, as I listened to the buzz, it occurred to me that most journalists fully expect the Church to flatline. They perceive, if the bishops do not, that the Church has lost its momentum—at least in the West. And they see in Pope Francis, who thinks that “most” Catholics are not validly married, a pastor who recognizes that Catholics are culturally conditioned, deaf now to the sacredness of the sacraments. The doctrine will be retained, but practice must relax.
The message most journalists heard at the synods was that Catholicism is losing its distinctive claim to moral truth. If sacraments can be fudged, what about grace? If cohabiting couples are “truly married” in some cases, as Pope Francis told the Italian bishops in June, why marry at all? And does the Catechism of the Catholic Church become a paperweight when CCC 2391 conflicts with pastoral practice? If the Church does not uphold the teachings of Christ and the sacredness of the sacraments, what then is the purpose of the Church? It’s no wonder that some journalists speculate they are witnesses to the demise of Catholicism.
What about the laity? What ought we to do when ambiguity and confusion seem to reign? Perspective is important. History records other doctrine/discipline hiccups. Also, an exhortation does not claim the weight of an encyclical.
Pray for holy bishops—it is our bishops who have this new authority to decide the “difficult” cases. If few implement footnote 351, the teaching of Christ will be upheld in practice. (And, with care and gentle spirit, we must teach our families, children, fellow parishioners that the indissolubility of a sacramental marriage is a direct command from Jesus. The Church has taught this truth for 2000 years and it isn’t suddenly not true.) Ultimately, the question of the magisterial significance of a footnote will be studied in the months and years ahead by the pope, bishops, and theologians who read all papal documents through the lens of Scripture and Tradition.
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