The Polish bishops’ long awaited guidelines on Amoris Laetitia were finally released this past weekend. You can read the original Polish text here, and the English translation here. They are a successful doctrinal and pastoral balancing act between compassionate care for persons in difficult marital situations and continuity with the Church’s traditional teaching and practice.
Perhaps no national bishops conference’s guidelines on Pope Francis’ post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia have been so eagerly awaited as those of the Polish bishops. First, Poland is the homeland of Pope St. John Paul II, and Poland’s bishops see themselves as the defenders of his teaching. Many critics of Amoris Laetitia say that Pope Francis parts in various ways from his predecessor. Specifically, the ambiguous language of footnote 351 has been interpreted by many, and in the most permissive way by the Maltese bishops, as meaning that under some circumstances divorced Catholics in new relationships can receive Communion.
This reading strongly contradicts John Paul II’s 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio, which reads:
[T]he Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage. (84).
Second, at the Vatican’s Synod on the Family in 2014-2015, certain prelates’ positions on the question of communion for divorced and remarried Catholics varied on a regional level. The bishops from the German speaking countries (with several notable exceptions, such as Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, the former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) pushed most aggressively for a change in the Church’s doctrine, while the two regional blocs that most vocally defended tradition were the Africans and the bishops from the former Communist Bloc. (I write Communist Bloc rather than Eastern Europe or East-Central Europe because one of the most vocal defenders of the Church’s teaching was Bishop Athanasias Schneider, an ethnic German from Kazakhstan in Central Asia.)
The Polish bishops were the natural leaders of the latter bloc at the synod, no doubt due to the authority vested in them as the heirs to John Paul II, the archbishop of Krakow between 1964 an 1968, but also because Poland is home to 33 million baptized Catholics, making it by far the ex-communist country with the largest Catholic population.
Overview and the matter of Communion for divorced-and-remarried
The document from the Polish bishops consists of an introduction, four chapters, and a conclusion. The first chapter states that Amoris Laetitia should be interpreted as the completion and updating of other papal documents, a point I will return to later; one of the key themes throughout the Polish bishops’ document is continuity with previous papal teaching. It also summarizes some of the salient points of Francis’ apostolic exhortation, as well as the main themes of his pontificate, especially tenderness and mercy.
The second chapter describes the previous efforts of the Church in Poland to respond to pastoral challenges related to the family over the decades. “They [previous documents of the Polish bishops on the family] generally took up the teaching of successive popes and the Church’s Magisterium,” the second chapter reads, again stressing continuity. Next, the second chapter outlines Pope Francis’ pastoral criteria in serving the needs of families: being welcoming, which means not condemning those in difficult life situations; accompanying others towards personal growth “without detracting from the evangelical ideal” (a quote from Francis); discernment within the context of the law of gradualness outlined by John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio and Pope Francis’ talk of circumstances that reduce moral responsibility; and integration with the Church.
The third chapter begins with a call for the need to better explain the gift of the sacrament of marriage to young people in pastoral formation. The document writes: “[E]ach local church should recognize which form of direct preparation for marriage is best and see to providing information that will not discourage young people from the sacrament.” This undoubtedly reflects the social reality both in Poland and across the West. Currently, about one in four Polish children are born out of wedlock. That is undoubtedly much lower than in Western Europe or in North America, but that proportion still has steadily climbed since the fall of communism (in 1990, for example, only 6.2 percent of Polish births were out of wedlock). This, coupled with a growing divorce rate and growing numbers of young people (especially in big cities) eschewing marriage for “shacking up”, shows that society is losing its respect for marriage. The Polish bishops go against that tendency starting with the formation of young people.
Next, the third chapter emphasizes that marriage is not “a completed and finite reality.” Instead, during difficult times married couples should be accompanied and given advice. Interestingly, the guidelines do not say that priests should be responsible for such accompaniment, but instead “experienced spouses, members of movements and associations as well as prepared advisors.” The Church in Poland is often criticized for being excessively clerical and not giving enough of a role to laypeople. Here, however, lay married couples are given a leading role in marriage ministry.
Some readers of this article may have already searched the document for references to “communion” or “divorced and remarried,” as many had eagerly anticipated what the Polish bishops would say about access to the Eucharist by divorced Catholics in new unions. In previous years, Polish bishops, such as Stanisław Gądecki, archbishop of Poznan and the president of the Polish Episcopal Conference, explicitly and forcefully rejected a change in the Church’s practice on this matter. However, earlier this year Edward Pentin suggested in the National Catholic Register that the Polish bishops could be open to softening their stance.
No such thing has occurred. While Crux reported that the Polish bishops “sidestepped [the] Communion debate” in their guidelines, such a statement is a simplification. Indeed, the Polish bishops did not explicitly write that no Catholics could receive Communion under any circumstances. In fact, the Polish bishops’ press office itself said that the document “does not address the issue of Holy Communion for people living in non-sacramental relationships.”
The last part of the third chapter of the Polish bishops’ Amoris Laetitia guidelines stresses “understanding” for spouses in irregular situations and quotes extensively from Pope Francis’ exhortation. While not explicitly addressing the issue of reception of Communion by persons in an irregular union, the third chapter does link Holy Communion to sexual abstinence: “Understanding should also be shown to the faithful who, after the disintegration of their sacramental marriage, have entered into new unions—only civilly because the previous marital bond remains an obstacle—but try to live in a Christian way, raising their children in faith, and, wanting to fully participate in the sacrament of the Eucharist, have decided to live as brother and sister.”
Furthermore, the third chapter states that accompaniment of persons in irregular unions should take place in a way “not to cause scandal.” In this aspect, it is necessary to know the context of pastoral practice in Poland. While in Germany or Austria divorced and remarried Catholics receive Holy Communion on a regular basis, in Poland such a situation would be unthinkable and, indeed, cause scandal. Anyone who has ever attended Mass in Poland has seen that at most half of those present at Mass get in line to receive Communion. The notion that one must not be in a state of mortal sin in order to receive the Eucharist is still very much alive in Poland, where lines for confession are long, not just during Lent or Advent (according to a poll earlier this year, 67 percent of Poles go to Easter confession).
More detailed discussion on the integration of persons living in irregular unions with the Church is in the fourth chapter. This section quotes both John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio and Francis’ Amoris Laetitia in their call for the need to take account the complexity and uniqueness of the situations of couples living in irregular unions.
The fourth chapter stresses discernment in difficult situations. It is recommended to attempt receiving an annulment through an ecclesiastical court. If an annulment cannot be obtained, the document reads, pastoral care is still necessary. However, there is absolutely no talk of Communion.
Emphasis on context and continuity
As we have seen, the first chapter of the Polish bishops’ guidelines states that Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia should be read in the context of other papal documents, specifically Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae; John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio, Reconciliatio et Poenitentia, and Veritatis Splendor; as well as Benedict XVI’s Deus Caritas Est.
The enumerating of these specific papal documents indirectly shows that the Polish bishops do not break with the Church’s traditional teaching on not permitting divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion. Of these documents, Familiaris Consortio, Reconciliatio et Poenitentia, and Veritatis Splendor specifically address this topic. As noted at the start of this article, Familiaris Consortio explicitly states that Catholics in irregular unions cannot receive Holy Communion. Reconciliatio et Poenitentia affirms Familiaris Consortio:
Basing herself on these two complementary principles, the Church can only invite her children who find themselves in these painful situations to approach the divine mercy by other ways, not however through the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist until such time as they have attained the required dispositions. On this matter, which also deeply torments our pastoral hearts, it seemed my precise duty to say clear words in the apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio, as regards the case of the divorced and remarried, (199) and likewise the case of Christians living together in an irregular union. (34)
The encyclical Veritatis Splendor, meanwhile, reminds its readers of Jesus’ teaching on divorce:
In the same chapter of Matthew’s Gospel (19:3-10), Jesus, interpreting the Mosaic Law on marriage, rejects the right to divorce, appealing to a ‘beginning’ more fundamental and more authoritative than the Law of Moses: God’s original plan for mankind, a plan which man after sin has no longer been able to live up to: ‘For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so’ (Mt 19:8). Jesus’ appeal to the ‘beginning’ dismays the disciples, who remark: ‘If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry’ (Mt 19:10). And Jesus, referring specifically to the charism of celibacy ‘for the Kingdom of Heaven’ (Mt 19:12), but stating a general rule, indicates the new and surprising possibility opened up to man by God’s grace. ‘He said to them: ‘Not everyone can accept this saying, but only those to whom it is given’” (Mt 19:11). (22).
It is worth asking what the Polish bishops themselves have to say about the details of these guidelines. On Tuesday, Archbishop Henryk Hoser, the emeritus-archbishop of Warsaw-Praga who still plays an important role in the Polish bishops’ conference (he is the president of the Polish Episcopal Conference’s Team of Experts on Bioethics and is a member of four committees) told a journalist:
The basic criterion for allowing persons living in a non-sacramental union to the sacrament of the Eucharist, which John Paul II wrote in his encyclical [sic] Familiaris Consortio, is sexual abstinence. For baptized persons, sexual activity is permissible only in the context of sacramental marriage. Outside of marriage, sex is an act of adultery.
Archbishop Hoser elaborated that people living in non-sacramental unions can participate in the Church, but not by receiving Holy Communion. He specifically named prayer, listening to the Word of God, and spiritual Communion, a practice for those who cannot receive Holy Communion.
As we have seen, the Polish bishops frequently speak of “non-sacramental unions.” First, this very terminology answers the question of if Polish bishops believe that persons in such relationships can receive Communion. Across Poland, where the divorce rate has steadily increased since the fall of communism, many parishes and religious orders organize special ministries for people living in non-sacramental unions (duszpasterstwa osób żyjących w związkach niesakramentalnych). Their purpose is to accompany these people and integrate them with the Church, but not through access to Holy Communion.
For example, in its mission statement, the ministry to people living in non-sacramental unions at the Shrine of St. Andrew Bobola in Warsaw says:
Our ministry’s purpose is not to accept divorce or create a sort of ‘lobby’ in the Church. Instead, our aim is to bring spiritual assistance to all those whose marital lives have become complicated, but they remain baptized persons. We seek to help them maintain their ties to Christ and the Church; allowing them to lead religious lives; and to create conditions in which they can become reconciled with God and others, a reconciliation that can occur solely on the basis of truth, not by avoiding it or putting it in brackets. Most of the people in our ministry cannot receive the holy sacraments, which is a source of genuine suffering; however, like every form of suffering, it cleanses and leads to internal conversion. The sacraments are not the entirety of the richness of Christian life. When we cannot speak of a ‘normal’ path to God, we should look for other paths, always within the framework of the same Church.”
In other words, the Polish bishops’ guidelines reflect what already is common pastoral practice in Poland, stressing accompaniment and compassion, but uncompromising in their fidelity to the Church’s teaching.
Many traditionally minded Catholics have criticized Pope Francis for Amoris Laetitia. It cannot be denied that Pope Francis has at times been imprudent and that his lack of an explicit answer on whether his apostolic exhortation allows divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion under some circumstances has sown much confusion in the Church. However, we all know divorced Catholics living in irregular unions who have felt alienated from the Church. Pope Francis is right in bringing our attention to their difficult situation. The Polish bishops’ new guidelines on Amoris Laetitia provide a balanced marriage between compassion for people in difficult situations and integrating them in the life of the Church on the one hand and fidelity to the Church’s teaching on the other.