Written By: Gregory Watson
“They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger” (Matthew 23:4).
After the Pope’s publication of Amoris Laetitia, many, including particularly a certain four Cardinals, were dubious (see what I did there? If not, click the link) about the Pope’s suggestion that a way to bring divorced and civilly-remarried Catholics back to the Sacraments could be found. In Chapter VIII, Pope Francis put it into the hands of the various episcopal conferences to develop guidelines for how to care for those who were remarried without having received an annulment.
In the Autumn of 2016, Francis wrote a letter to the bishops of the Buenos Aires region, specifically endorsing their guidelines as “the only possible interpretation” of Chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia, and then on 4 December this year, chose to enter that letter along with the bishops’ guidelines into the Acta Apostolicae Sedis (AAS), thereby elevating those guidelines to having magisterial authority. This naturally led to my dear friend (whom I will not name, but shall rather refer to affectionately as Chicken Little) texting me to bemoan the act. Not being myself a bishop, a priest, a divorced and remarried Catholic, nor even Serviam Ministries’ Current Events Blogger, I hadn’t read anything about it. I in fact tend to avoid reading the news as much as possible; I am much less stressed and depressed for it! Nevertheless, in order to see whether the sky truly was falling, I looked up a translation of the Argentine Bishops’ guidelines, and—horror of horrors!—I read nothing disturbing at all in them. In fact, I greatly appreciated and admired their upholding of the traditional teaching on marriage, the fact that marrying someone else without having one’s first marriage declared null is adultery, and yet, recognising that the objective gravity of the sin needs to be weighed against the subjective reality of the people in the particular situation, in order to determine their culpability, and the possibility of reconciling them once more to Christ and His Church. You can read the full text of the bishops’ guidelines here.
I will summarise the Argentinian Bishops’ recommendations below, and respond to the primary concerns.
- The bishops stress first of all that priests should not understand their role as granting “permission” to receive the Sacraments to couples in illicit unions, but that a process of ongoing discernment must be undertaken by the person desiring the Sacraments and guided by the priest.
- The primary goal of this discernment isn’t simply whether or not such-and-such person should be able to receive the Eucharist, but rather helping them encounter and enter into a true relationship with Jesus Christ—achieved principally through the proclamation of the kerygma, that is, the Gospel message of faith and repentance.
- The assumption of the priest toward those seeking to return to the Sacraments is one of good will and true repentance despite the complications their family situation has put them in, in order to welcome the penitent back into the maternal love of the Church.
- The bishops stress that this penitential journey “does not necessarily end with receiving the Sacraments,” but that a person who cannot be admitted to them, who has nevertheless truly responded to the kerygma, can be integrated into the Church’s life in other ways.
- Remarried couples, ideally, should live in continence (i.e., “as brother and sister”) if they are to return to the reception of the Eucharist, and the Sacrament of Reconciliation is available to them should they fail in this endeavour.
- Here is where things seem to become more controversial, because the bishops suggest that there might be situations involving a certain level of complexity in which living a continent life together is potentially harmful to the family unit that currently exists, and that such situations might mitigate the culpability of their sinful situation, and that in such situations, it may nevertheless be possible to discern with the penitent a possibility of access to Reconciliation and the Eucharist while they continue to grow and mature in their faith and relationship with Jesus, and work to address the specific difficulties of their particular case. In fact, the access to the Sacraments in these situations is seen as the means to dispose the penitent to the grace required to make those very changes.
- Lest we are tempted to interpret the 6th paragraph as carte blanche access to the Sacraments, the bishops are quick to repudiate that very interpretation by asserting that this does not mean that there should be unrestricted access! Each case must be individually discerned, and special care should be taken to see that certain highlighted examples noted by the bishops (see the document itself for those) would qualify as apparent “deal-breakers” in this discernment process.
- Following up on the “deal-breaker” situations which would multiply the scandal if the penitent were to be admitted to the Sacraments without proper discernment—to which end the Examination of Conscience included in Amoris Laetitia is a fundamental part of properly forming the penitent’s conscience.
- Should the priest discern that access to the Sacraments be made available to the penitent in one of these rare and complex situations, the reception of the Sacraments may best be done privately to avoid public scandal.
- If access to the Sacraments is given at one point, that does not mean that the discernment process has ended and everything is all good. Rather, the discernment process is dynamic and ongoing, and if there are no evident signs of growth in holiness or attempts to rectify the sinful situation, then the situation and the access to the Sacraments is re-evaluated. This discernment is done according to the “law of gradualness” which recognises that while we break with sin at conversion, we do not thereby become perfectly holy, but that growth in holiness and virtue is an ongoing process of fits and starts and baby steps.
My friend’s concerns, which are those raised by the majority of those who do object to these guidelines, are that certain priests might take paragraph 6 as a licence to ignore Jesus’ own teaching on the dissolubility of marriage and the adultery being committed by illicitly remarried persons, and receive those in adulterous unions to Communion, as many priests are said to counsel penitents in Confession that the sins they are confessing “aren’t really sins”. But let’s face it, such priests would allow those in adulterous relationships to receive regardless. The guidelines above, in context, allow for no such laxity—if anything, they make the priest’s job potentially more difficult, as he is required to journey and discern with the penitent who is seeking to return to Christ and His Church.
I am by no means advocating for nor endorsing fundamentally changing the unchangeable and infallible deposit of the faith, but neither do I think that the Argentinian Bishops are, either. Instead, they are seeking to follow the Spirit’s leading as they wrestle with how to welcome those who have gone astray back into the Church. The thing we are perhaps ignoring in the discussion of Amoris Laetitia and the Argentinian Bishops’ response, is the presumption that a person presenting themselves to receive the Eucharist are sincerely seeking Jesus. Do we not recognise that no one can do so unless Jesus is Himself calling them? Do we trust Him so little that we don’t believe that He can work His grace in their lives, as gradual a process as that might be? More, do we trust Him so little that we don’t believe that even in this, He is infallibly guiding His Church?
EDITOR’S NOTE: Here is a different perspective on the matter:
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