Getting (too far) ahead in ecumenism

“We must journey and continue: not with the enthusiasm of running ahead to reach coveted goals, but walking patiently together, under the gaze of God. Some themes – I think of the Church, the Eucharist and the ecclesial ministry – merit precise and well shared reflections.”

cq5dam.thumbnail.cropped.750.422Words from Pope Francis, in an audience with delegates from the German Lutheran Church yesterday. He was, not unexpectedly, speaking about ecumenism, urging continuing theological dialogue between various Christian churches and communities. The goals of ecumenism are often enticing, and this may cause some to get ahead of themselves. The themes Pope Francis mentioned – the Church, the Eucharist and the ecclesial ministry – reflect the goals of a shared understanding of what the Church is, a shared belief in the Eucharist and a shared understanding of the priesthood and other ministries in the Church, and which are often assumed to have been achieved already.

ladaria-ferrer.jpg_872573866This quote is especially interesting as a document was leaked yesterday which stated that the German bishops’ proposed pastoral outreach to interdenominational couples – which included the proposal to allow non-Catholic spouses to receive Communion under certain circumstances – is not fit to be published. The document is dated on the 25th of May, and was sent by the prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Luis Ladaria, to the German bishops who participated in the meeting with the CDF and other dicasteries on 3 May. The letter makes it clear that it was sent with the express agreement of the Pope, who discussed the matter with Archbishop Ladaria in two separate audiences.

The prefect identifies three reasons why the proposal is problematic:

  1. “The question of allowing Evangelical Christians in interdenominational marriages  [to receive Communion] is a topic that affects the faith of the Church and is significant for the universal Church.”
  2. “This question also affects the ecumenical relationships with other churches and church communities, which cannot be underestimated.”
  3. “The topic concerns the law of the Church, above all the interpretation of canon 844. Because there are unanswered questions about this point in some parts of the Church, the competent dicasteries of the Holy See have already been tasked with bringing about a speedy clarification of these issues at the level of the unversal Church. It seems particularly appropriate to leave the judgement of the existence of an “urgent grace necessity” to the diocesan bishop.”

In short, the judgement of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is much like what Cardinal Rainer Woelki said several days ago: “We in Germany do not live on an island of Blesseds. We are not a national church. We are a part of the great universal Church.”

Recently, Cardinal Woelki again explained his reasons for opposing to proposed outreach. He indicated the unwritten rule that a non-Catholic spouse presenting him- or herself for Communion is never sent away, but, the Cardinal said, these “pastorally motivated exceptions” can’t be “codified onto a new norm.” They belong in the “area of personal pastoral care, of spiritual guidance, of confession and the individual conscientious decision of the faithful” and can’t be formally tied into the status of interdenominational spouses.

Kardinal-Marx-beklagt-in-Weihnachtsbotschaft-sinkende-GeburtenratenCardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German Bishops’ Conference and one of the supporters of the pastoral outreach, has admitted his surprise as the CDF letter. Perhaps rightly, he contrasts it with the initial request from the pope, that the bishops try and find a solution that is as unanimous as possible. Cardinal Marx said that that hasn’t been tried, let alone achieved, yet. He sees the need to discuss the topic in the meetings of the standing council of the conference and the autumn plenary meeting, but also with the dicasteries in Rome and with the Holy Father himself.

 

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Case study – Bishop Hendriks casts a canonist’s eye on the German bishops’ proposal and the Roman response

At the risk of becoming a one-topic bore, one more post about the Communion question, after another Dutch bishop comes out in, well, understanding of the German proposal.

jan_hendriksBishop Jan Hendriks, auxiliary bishop of Haarlem-Amsterdam, studies the matter in his blog and comes to the conclusion that, yes, a bishops’ conference has the authority to draft a pastoral outreach that allows non-Catholics to receive Communion. But, he explains, there are certain specific conditions that must be applied.

The bishop, a canon lawyer who also serves as a member of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the highest court of law of the Catholic Church, first describes that a bishops’ conference has the authority to develop further norms in this matter according to the Code of Canon Law and the Ecumenical Directory, but there is a framework of four conditions that must be followed:

“1. The non-Catholic person requests the sacraments out of his own desire;

2. This person has no access to a minister of his own community;

3. This person professes the Catholic faith regarding these sacraments;

4. This person has the correct disposition.”

Bishop Hendriks contends that in a wedding ceremony between a Catholic and non-Catholic person, the non-Catholic may be allowed to receive Communion, according to N. 159 of the Ecumenical Directory, which says that a bishop may allow a wedding Mass for just cause, and the decision whether or not the non-Catholic partner can be allowed to receive Communion may be made according to the above four points.

“From this the conclusion could be drawn that the condition for the availibility of a minister of one’s own community is relative, and a non-Catholic spouse who asks, has the correct disposition and shares the Catholic faith in Holy Communion, can be allowed to receive Communion in the wedding service, when the bishop gives permission for the celebration of a Mass.”

Of course, the German bishops’ proposal is not limited to wedding Masses. They claim that a non-Catholic partner may receive Communion at other occasions as well. Bishop Hendriks continues:

“In their pastoral outreach the German bishops suggest that this permission for non-Catholic partners in interdenominational marriages may also be given after the wedding ceremony, after a period of discernment and a pastoral conversation with the parish priest, when they in conscience have come to accept the Catholic faith regarding the Eucharist. In the published parts which I have read, I was unable to find anything about the receiving the sacrament of penance and reconciliation and the spiritual disposition. At the same time the description of the document as a “pastoral outreach” suggest that the German bishops present no new norms, but that they operate withing the existing regulations. For new norms – a general decree – the bishops’ conference first needs a mandate from the Holy See, in other words: from the Pope (c. 455 §1). It is well understandable that not all bishops were able to go along with the thought that this is only a pastoral outreach within the existing norms and that seven of them put the case before the responsible parties in Rome.”

What then, considering all this, does the answer, or lack thereof, from the Pope mean?

“In his answer Pope Francis emphasised the unity of the bishops, who must, if possible, arrive at a text unanimously. I am not aware if it has been announced that there are conditions to this possible text, or whether it has to be presented to Rome or if a process has been agreed upon. It is, however, clear that developing such a  document – if the pastoral goal is maintained within the general conditions – is part of the authority and task of a bishops’ conference, which makes the decision of Pope in itself understandable.”

Bishop Hendriks says nothing about his agreement or disagreement with the German bishops’ proposal or the Pope’s response. He simply looks at what it possible within the norms as they exist, and from this he concludes that the German bishops have the authority to draft such a pastoral outreach, but also that they are bound to the conditions described in the Code of Canon Law and the Ecumenical Directory.

[EDIT 19-5]

In a commentary published on their website yesterday, the Archdiocese of Utrecht underlines the importance of canon 844, §4 of the Code of Canon Law. The comments seem to be a direct response to Bishop Hendriks and the reception of his words in the media. The archdiocesan commentary agrees with the bishop that a bishops’ conference has the authority to establish norms for the reception of Holy Communion by non-Catholics, and repeats the four points made by Msgr. Hendriks above. However, the piece states, an important element seems to be overlooked, by the readers if not by the bishop, namely the explicitly named circumstance that there must a be a situation of need (“grave necessity”). In such a situation the four conditions must be fulfilled in order for the non-Catholic person to receive Communion.

The article quotes the instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which states in n. 85: “In addition, the conditions comprising can. 844 § 4, from which no dispensation can be given, cannot be separated; thus, it is necessary that all of these conditions be present together.” In other words, all four conditions must be fulfilled, not just some of them. A bishops’ conference is free to decide what it considers to be situations of grave necessity. The archdiocesan commentary contends that such a situation is not automatically present in the case of a non-Catholic married to a Catholic.

In short, the archdiocesan commentary agrees with Bishop Hendriks that the German bishops are free to establish new norms, but within the framework of establish regulations only. The archdiocese emphasises that the four conditions mentions throughout the blog post above are applicable in situations of grave necessity only, something which seems to be supported by the Ecumenical Directory, as mentioned by Bishop Hendriks, which states that a bishop can allow an interdenominational wedding Mass for “a just cause”. This is not just word play, but indicates that there has to be a very good reason indeed for such a Mass to be celebrated. This reason, it would appear, must be one of the situations of grave necessity as established by the bishops’ conference.

Not against the Pope, but against confusion – Cardinal Eijk wants clarity

In an interview published today, on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of his installation as archbishop of Utrecht, Cardinal Wim Eijk once again repeated his opinion that Pope Francis should remove all doubt about the question remarried Catholics and heir receiving Communion (or not). He says:

Kardinaal dr. W.J. Eijk“Following both Synods on the family a document was written by the pope, Amoris laetitia. This has caused confusion. Can divorced and remarried Catholics receive Communion or can’t they? What you see now is that one bishops’ conference deals with it in one way, and the other in another way. But, what is true in location A, can’t suddenly be not true in location B. At some point you’d want clarity. […] People are confused and that is not right. […] I would say: just be clear. On this point. Remove that confusion. For example in the form of a document.”

It is also clear to Cardinal Eijk what such a clarification should say.

“We have the words of Christ himself, that marriage is one and can’t be broken. That is what we maintain in the archdiocese. When an ecclesiastical court has declared a marriage null, it is officially confirmed that there has never been a marriage. Only then, one is free to marriage and receive the sacraments of Confession and Communion.”

The interview covers far more ground than this single point – from church closings and the abuse crisis to Pope Francis and the perceived differences between cardinal and pope and divine providence… – but this is making the headlines. And is being misinterpreted. Cardinal Eijk’s position is no surprise. He participated in both Synod of Bishops assemblies on the family, was one of the alleged signatories of a letter sent to the pope asking him to defend traditional Church teaching on marriage, and he has since maintained that the different interpretations of Amoris laetitia on this topic is problematic. Some may choose to see this as his attacking the pope, but in reality he, not unlike the “dubia cardinals”, is simply noting that different opinions and interpretations exist and that that is something that should be remedied. That he is no enemy of the Holy Father, is something that Cardinal Eijk also repeats in this interview, by saying, “Nowhere has Francis ever said anything that is contrary to the teachings of the Church.”

Photo credit: Ramon Mangold

Breaking the seal of confession?

E03a-photo-e1480059351589A Belgian priest of the Diocese of Bruges is being sued for not acting on information shared with him in a confession. The case has the potential of becoming a precedent on how society and law deals with the seal of confession, as well as the professional secrecy as it exists in medical professions, and also highlights once more what confession actually is.

The case: a man confided in a confession over the telephone (which, under certain circumstances, such as immediate duress, can count as a confession) that he had suicidal thoughts. He later acted on those thoughts and ended his own life. The wife of the man now sues the priest for never having informed anyone of what he learned in the confession. The problem is that the priest couldn’t. The seal of confession is absolute. He could have urged the penitent to seek professional help, even offered forms of help himself, be it the help he could offer himself or relaying the help of others. But that is just about the end of it.

The paradox in this case is that suicide in itself, sad and disturbing as it is, is not a crime under Belgian law, so not acting on the suicidal thoughts of a person can not be considered cooperation in a crime, and the priest can’t be accused of negligence in that regard.

There is some uncertainty, however, if the confession in which the priest learned about the suicidal thoughts of the penitent actually was a confession. A confession, by definition, involves a sin which can be be forgiven. Suicidal thoughts are not in themselves a sin, especially since they are most often caused by factors, mental or otherwise, outside of a person’s control. All the same, the man could have been convinced that his thoughts were sinful, and this would be enough for a valid confession. But if that was not the case, the priest would have been free to offer his help or inform others, with the man’s consent, of the situation and the help needed.

Also, if the suicidal thoughts were shared in a confession of other sins, the seal of confession would obviously also apply: it affects the entirety of the confession, not just the sins, but also whatever pastoral advice or personal thoughts are being relayed. The priest in that case simply lacks the freedom to divulge what he learns. This protects the integrity and freedom of the sacrament and the penitent.

Confession is not just a pastoral conversation or personal meeting with a priest. According the Catholic teaching it is the intensely personal presentation of one’s wins to God, and asking His forgiveness. The priest who hears the conversations is not really a party in this: he is a tool to hear the confession and relay advice or penitence according to his own formation, inspiration and understanding, but these ultimately derive from God. Everyone must be free to stand before God and open themselves up to Him, which is why they must first be aware of the freedom to ask for and receive the sacrament of confession. In many cases this involves the certainty that what they share is shared in complete confidence, just like when one would share medical problems with their doctor. It is so intensely personal, and, quite frankly, completely a matter between man and God.

If the case outlined above included a true confession, the priest could do nothing else but keep the information to himself and do his best to convince the man to seek and accept help. He had no freedom to ask others for that help on the man’s behalf, as this would involve breaking the seal of confession. But, as publicist Mark Van de Voorde writes here, “in cases of great evil which fall under criminal law, such as sexual abuse and murder, the penitence also includes that the perpetrator must report himself to the police. Every confessor is obliged to point this out to the penitent, stating that forgiveness of sins is not possible otherwise.” A priest is not completely powerless before a penitent unwilling to seek help.

It will be interesting to see what the judge rules in this case. If the priest is convicted it will set a precedent for any future case involving the sacrament of confession as well as doctor-patient confidentiality and information shared confidentially shared with one’s lawyer. All are protected under Belgian law (as they are in many other European countries).

Four Cardinals continue their quest for clarity

The four ‘dubia’ cardinals – Walter Brandmüller, Raymond Burke, Carlo Caffarra and Joachim Meisner – after not receiving any official response from either Pope Francis or Cardinal Gerhard Müller on the questions they submitted to the Holy Father regarding the interpretation of specific doctrinal points in Amoris laetitia, have requested an audience with the Pope. They did so in April but, just like their original dubia, have received no response to their request. Mirroring previous actions, they have now made their audience request public. Sandro Magister has the full text, which I share below.

4cardinals

The letter was written by Cardinal Caffarra on behalf of himself and the other three cardinals.

Most Holy Father,

It is with a certain trepidation that I address myself to Your Holiness, during these days of the Easter season. I do so on behalf of the Most Eminent Cardinals: Walter Brandmüller, Raymond L. Burke, Joachim Meisner, and myself.

We wish to begin by renewing our absolute dedication and our unconditional love for the Chair of Peter and for Your august person, in whom we recognize the Successor of Peter and the Vicar of Jesus: the “sweet Christ on earth,” as Saint Catherine of Siena was fond of saying. We do not share in the slightest the position of those who consider the See of Peter vacant, nor of those who want to attribute to others the indivisible responsibility of the Petrine “munus.” We are moved solely by the awareness of the grave responsibility arising from the “munus” of cardinals: to be advisers of the Successor of Peter in his sovereign ministry. And from the Sacrament of the Episcopate, which “has placed us as bishops to pasture the Church, which He has acquired with his blood” (Acts 20:28).

On September 19, 2016 we delivered to Your Holiness and to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith five “dubia,” asking You to resolve uncertainties and to bring clarity on some points of the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation, “Amoris Laetitia.”

Not having received any response from Your Holiness, we have reached the decision to ask You, respectfully and humbly, for an Audience, together if Your Holiness would like. We attach, as is the practice, an Audience Sheet in which we present the two points we wish to discuss with you.

Most Holy Father,

A year has now gone by since the publication of “Amoris Laetitia.” During this time, interpretations of some objectively ambiguous passages of the post-synodal Exhortation have publicly been given that are not divergent from but contrary to the permanent Magisterium of the Church. Despite the fact that the Prefect of the Doctrine of the Faith has repeatedly declared that the doctrine of the Church has not changed, numerous statements have appeared from individual Bishops, Cardinals, and even Episcopal Conferences, approving what the Magisterium of the Church has never approved. Not only access to the Holy Eucharist for those who objectively and publicly live in a situation of grave sin, and intend to remain in it, but also a conception of moral conscience contrary to the Tradition of the Church. And so it is happening – how painful it is to see this! – that what is sin in Poland is good in Germany, that what is prohibited in the archdiocese of Philadelphia is permitted in Malta. And so on. One is reminded of the bitter observation of B. Pascal: “Justice on this side of the Pyrenees, injustice on the other; justice on the left bank of the river, injustice on the right bank.”

Numerous competent lay faithful, who are deeply in love with the Church and staunchly loyal to the Apostolic See, have turned to their Pastors and to Your Holiness in order to be confirmed in the Holy Doctrine concerning the three sacraments of Marriage, Confession, and the Eucharist. And in these very days, in Rome, six lay faithful, from every Continent, have presented a very well-attended study seminar with the meaningful title: “Bringing clarity.”

Faced with this grave situation, in which many Christian communities are being divided, we feel the weight of our responsibility, and our conscience impels us to ask humbly and respectfully for an Audience.

May Your Holiness remember us in Your prayers, as we pledge to remember You in ours. And we ask for the gift of Your Apostolic Blessing.

Carlo Card. Caffarra

Rome, April 25, 2017
Feast of Saint Mark the Evangelist

*

AUDIENCE SHEET

1. Request for clarification of the five points indicated by the “dubia;” reasons for this request.

2. Situation of confusion and disorientation, especially among pastors of souls, in primis parish priests.

The cardinals, like before, go out of their way to express their respect for and unity with the Pope, even noting that they are in no way sedevacantist or intent on assuming some part of the Petrine ministry. Of course, too often we see anyone daring to disagree with Pope Francis being accused of undermining what the Pope wants to do, and even of being his enemies. This sort of blind and simplistic behaviour prevents honest discussion and sharing of thoughts, which, it must be repeated, was exactly what Pope Francis asked for in the runup to the two Synod of Bishops assemblies which produced Amoris laetitia.

Cardinal Caffarra and his three brother cardinals are no enemies of the Pope, nor are they rebels. They do, however, take seriously their duty as cardinals: “to be advisers of the Successor of Peter in his sovereign ministry.” And for advisers to do their work, they must first be heard…

There are many who claim that Amoris laetitia has not led to confusion, and was not intended to do so. The latter part may well be true, as has been emphasised several times by the Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Müller: the Exhortation must be read within the broader tradition of the Catholic Church. It is clear however, that confusion exists in or is being caused by the interpretations of Amoris laetitia. Another cardinal who acknowledged this, in December of 2016, was Cardinal Willem Eijk.

The letter also states that conflicting interpretations exist. The bishops of Poland and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia promote interpretations that are closer to the traditional teachings than the bishops of Germany and Malta do, just to stick with the examples mentioned. They can’t all be correct, simply because they diverge too much, and sometimes even contradict established doctrine.

A papal declaration of clarity, which, in response to the dubia, would be either a confirmation of existing doctrine or a denial or refutation thereof (and would do nothing to undermine Pope Francis’ focus on mercy, charity and pastoral care in difficult situations), would at least indicate whether individual interpretations from bishops and bishops’ conferences are in line with the intent of Amoris laetitia. Would all confusion be removed immediately? Probably not. People, Catholics included, can be a stubborn lot and individual agendas hard to let go of.

And, as an added bonus, perhaps the entirety of Amoris laetitia would then deserve its due attention, and not just those parts of it which discuss the headline topics of divorce and Communion, which have led to different interpretations.

Prayer, charity and the sacraments – Bishop Hoogmarten’s letter for Lent

In his letter for Lent, published on 27 February, Bishop Patrick Hoogmartens of Hasselt outlines the main ingredients for a fruitful Lent: prayer, charity and the sacraments (especially the sacrament of Confession (which is certainly not limited to general celebrations)).

11-Mgr-Hoogmartens“Dear brothers and sisters,

On 1 March it will be Ash Wednesday. That day’s liturgy reminds us that we – with our qualities and flaws – are all mortal people. We will be invited to reflect on our finiteness: “Remember, man, you are dust and to dust you will return”. The liturgy also provides another formula for the imposition of the ashes: “Repent and believe in the Gospel”. Lent is indeed a time of repentance and internalisation, and a special time of sharing and solidarity. Lent must become a time of strength. With this letter I want to invite and urge you to this.

In the first place, Lent asks us to focus on prayer. For many people today, that is not easy. And yet, many are looking for the inner peace that can only be received through prayer, and so from God. Of course the liturgical assembly is also an important form of prayer: there, we pray with others out of the rich tradition of the Church. But for a Christian, personal prayer is also very important. That can be done by praying a simple prayer, or by reflecting on a few psalms, like Jesus did. Praying can also be done without words, in front of a candle or an icon, or by simply repeating, “Lord, have mercy”. A prayerful heart makes us – with the words of our theme for the year – not wanderers, but pilgrims.

Lent also requires us to have more attention for our love of our neighbour. It can’t be that a Christian would only say, “Lord, Lord” and not concern himself with his neighbour, the sick or people with problems around him. Lent asks us to live more soberly and have an eye for people in need or poverty. The Lenten campaign Broederlijk Delen helps us to realise that concern on a worldwide scale.  But at the same time that wider world is also very close. As Christians we – even more than others – should dare to contact the stranger in our neighbourhood. Wasn’t the great Moses of the burning bush a stranger himself once, looking for a new country out of Egypt? Originally, the entire people of God were a people on the run.

Lent also invites us to greater loyalty to the sacraments in which we are reborn. For lent, I especially invite you to join in faith in the celebration of the Eucharist, that is with a heart for all the gestures, words and prayers which bring us together there. A faithful participation in a penitantial service is also part of the experience of Lent. At the World Youth Days – like last summer in Krakow – I noticed that this service especially touches young people. It is certainly useful to take part in a penitential service at the end of Lent, in a general confession somewhere in your federation or deanery. It opens for us the path to God’s mery. Without that – as Pope Francis taught us in the Year of Mercy – we can not live as Christians and as Church.

Dear brothers and sisters, I gladly wish you a good Lent. He teaches us to first seek the Kingdom and His righteousness (Matt. 6:33). Everything else will be given to us.

Wishing you a blessed Lent.

+ Patrick Hoogmartens, bishop of Hasselt”

German bishops say yes to Communion for divorced and remarried, but not as a rule

The standing council of the German Bishops’ Conference* yesterday published their thoughts about the pastoral care regarding marriage and family in light of Amoris laetitia, Pope Francis’ the Apostolic Exhortation which was released early last year. In it, as several media have already noted, the bishops express their support for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments in certain individual cases. Below, I share my translation of the relevant passage of the text:

dbk logo“Despite all the good intentions of the spouses and in spite of all marriage preparation, it does happen that relationships fail. People find themselves faced with the debris of their relationship-based lives. They suffer because of their failure to fulfill their ideal of a livelong love and relationship. To their own doubts more than enough economic concerns are often added. Especially affected are the children of a failed relationship. In this plight, it is the Church’s duty to accompany people and support them. In many cases this service is provided by the Church’s counselling centres and single-parent ministries. But in daily pastoral care it is necessary to have an even more open ear and heart, thus “encouraging openness to grace” (AL, n. 37).

So we may also answer the question of how the Church should relate to those people who, after a divorce, are civilly remarried and wish to receive the sacrament of penance and the Eucharist. The indissolubility of marrage is part of the indispensable deposit of the faith of the Church. Amoris laetitia leaves as little doubt about this as about the need for a differentiated view on the respective life situations of people. “[T]here is a need “to avoid judgements which do not take into account the complexity of various situations” and “to be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience distress because of their condition”” (AL, n. 296). Amoris laetita highlights the three aspects of accompanying, discerning and integrating as central guiding principles, starting from the basic assessment: “No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel!” (AL, n. 297). In life situations which are experienced more often than not as exhausting and stressful, those involved should find that their Church does not forget them. In how we treat the divorced and remarried it must become clear that they belong to the Church, that God does not deprive them of His love and that they are called to love God and their neighbour and be true witnesses of Jesus Christ. The Holy Father clearly emphasises the aspect of accompaniment when he says, “Such persons need to feel not as excommunicated members of the Church, but instead as living members, able to live and grow in the Church and experience her as a mother who welcomes them always, who takes care of them with affection and encourages them along the path of life and the Gospel” (Al, n. 299).

What the Pope means in this regard with accompaniment becomes clear when he maintain in Amoris laetitia: “The Church possesses a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations. Hence it is can no longer simply be said that all those in any “irregular” situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace” (Al. n. 301). Amoris laetitia does not offer a general rule for this subject and does not allow for an automatic and general access to the sacraments for all divorced and civilly remarried faithful. Amoris laetitia ignores neither the grave guilt that many people in such situations of the breaking and failure of conjugal relationships carry, nor the fact that a second civil marriage denies the visible sign of the sacrament of marriage, even when the person involved was left by is or her spouse through no fault of their own. But Amoris laetitia does not stop at a categorical and irreversible exclusion from the sacraments. Footnote 336 (to AL n. 300) makes clear that the distinction which “can recognise that in a particular situation no grave fault exists” must lead to differentiated consequences, also regarding the sacraments. Footnote 351 (to AL n. 305) also points out that in a situation which is objectively irregular, someone who is subjectively, but not, or at least not completely culpable, “can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity” (AL, n. 305), when one receives the help of the Church and, in certain cases, also the help of the sacraments. This also speaks in favour of the possibility of receiving the sacraments in these situations.

Not all the faithful whose marriage has failed and who have civilly divorced and remarried can receive the sacraments without discernment. More differentiated solutions are needed, which do justice to the individual cases and come into play when a marriage can not be annuled. In this context we encourage all who have reasonable doubt that their marriage is invalid, to make use of the Church’s marriage courts, so that a new marriage may be possible if necessary. […]

Amoris laetitia presumes a process of decision-making accompanied by a pastor. Given this process, in which the conscience of all involved is required in the highest degree, Amoris laetitia allows for the possibility to receive the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist. In Amoris laetitia Pope Francis stresses the importance of conscious deicions, when he says, “We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them” (AL, n. 37). As it is always about integration, such a spiritual process does not lead in every case to the receiving of the sacraments of penance and Eucharist. The individual decision to not, or not yet, receive the sacraments under the given circumstances, deserves respect and attention. But a decision in favour of receiving the sacraments must also be respected. An attitude of laxity without intense attention for accompaniment, discernment and integration, as does a rigorous attitude which remains in a quick judgment of people in socalled irregular situations. Instead of such extreme attitudes, the decision (Lat. discretio) must be made in personal conversation. We see it as our mission to further develop the path of conscience formation of the faithful. For that it is necessary to enable our pastors and provide them with criteria. Such criteria for the formation of conscience are provided extensively and in an outstandign way by the Holy Father in Amoris laetitia (cv. AL, n 298-300).

Much of this text is not new and echoes what Pope Francis and other bishops have emphasised time and again: the Church must find new ways and means to stand with people whose marriage has failed for whatever reason, and the suggestion must be avoided that these people are somehow no longer part of the Church. New, if not for many bishops (and not just those from Germany) is the conclusion that Amoris laetitia allows for the reception of the sacraments in what are called irregular situations, if in certain indivudal cases. The bishops stress, and this is something that, I fear, will be too often ignored, that the decision to receive the sacraments is not the standard decision to be made in all situations. Neither must it be made by a person alone, and it can certainly not be exercised as a right (but then again, that is true for every single Catholic receiving a sacrament).

What the German bishops are saying is that in some specific cases, often revolving about the guilt, or lack thereof, of a person in an irregular situation (compare a husband who leaves his wife and children with the wife being abandoned – both are in an irregular situation, but they are not equally guilty), receving the sacraments is allowed. But, they add, a well-formed conscience and the accompaniment of a pastor are required for this, and the pastors must be equipped with the tools and criteria to be able to properly accompany the people they are pastorally responsible for.

14_09_kardinalmuellerAnother German bishop had a different focus in a recent interview. Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, spoke about the interpretation of Amoris laetitia in an interview, of which Sandro Magister has a partial translation. Cardinal Müller is very critical about the personal interpretations which are not in line with Catholic doctrine, saying:

Amoris Laetitia must clearly be interpreted in the light of the whole doctrine of the Church. […] I don’t like it, it is not right that so many bishops are interpreting Amoris Laetitia according to their way of understanding the pope’s teaching. This does not keep to the line of Catholic doctrine. The magisterium of the pope is interpreted only by him or through the congregation for the doctrine of the faith. The pope interprets the bishops, it is not the bishops who interpret the pope, this would constitute an inversion of the structure of the Catholic Church. To all these who are talking too much, I urge them to study first the doctrine [of the councils] on the papacy and the episcopate. The bishop, as teacher of the Word, must himself be the first to be well-formed so as not to fall into the risk of the blind leading the blind.”

A condition for interpreting what the Pope says does seem to be clarity on the latter’s part, it must be said. The lack thereof has led to the dubia presented by Cardinals Brandmüller, Burke, Caffarra and Meisner and is evident in the various interpretations that exist. Cardinal Müller is correct in stressing that Amoris laetitia must be “interpreted in the light of the whole doctrine of the Church”, but this is evidently not happening everywhere. The German bishops’ interpretation also relies solely on Amoris laetitia, not on earlier magisterial documents, although they do mention the indissolubility of marriage as central tenet of Catholic doctrine.

Cardinal Müller also explains how to avoid confusion about Amoris laetitia and the teachings it does or does not contain or change:

 “I urge everyone to reflect, studying the doctrine of the Church first, starting from the Word of God in Sacred Scripture, which is very clear on marriage. I would also advise not entering into any casuistry that can easily generate misunderstandings, above all that according to which if love dies, then the marriage bond is dead. These are sophistries: the Word of God is very clear and the Church does not accept the secularization of marriage. The task of priests and bishops is not that of creating confusion, but of bringing clarity. One cannot refer only to little passages present in Amoris laetitia, but it has to be read as a whole, with the purpose of making the Gospel of marriage and the family more attractive for persons. It is not Amoris laetitia that has provoked a confused interpretation, but some confused interpreters of it. All of us must understand and accept the doctrine of Christ and of his Church, and at the same time be ready to help others to understand it and put it into practice even in difficult situations.”

Whether the German bishops are incorrectly interpreting Amoris laetitia revolves around the tension between the question of the indissolubility of marriage and the pastoral care for the innocent. What seems to be clear, however, is that magisterial documents such as Familiaris Consortio (1981) and Veritatis Splendor (1993) can not and should not be disregarded when reading Amoris laetitia. These earlier teachings must offer a basis and framework for understanding and realising what Amoris laetitia presents.

*The standing council of the German Bishops’ Conference is made up of one representative from each diocese and consist of the following prelates:

  • Bishop Stephan Ackermann, Trier
  • Bishop Heinz Josef Algermissen, Fulda
  • Bishop Georg Bätzing, Limburg
  • Archbishop Hans-Josef Becker, Paderborn
  • Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, Osnabrück
  • Bishop Karl Borsch, Aachen
  • Archbishop Stephan Burger, Freiburg im Breisgau
  • Bishop Gerhard Feige, Magdeburg
  • Bishop Gebhard Fürst, Rottenburg-Stuttgart
  • Bishop Felix Genn, Münster
  • Msgr. Dietmar Giebelmann, Mainz
  • Bishop Gregor Maria Hanke, Eichstätt
  • Archbishop Stefan Heße, Hamburg
  • Bishop Friedhelm Hofmann, Würzburg
  • Bishop Wolfgang Ipolt, Görlitz
  • Archbishop Heiner Koch, Berlin
  • Reinhard Cardinal Marx, München und Freising
  • Bishop Ulrich Neymeyr, Erfurt
  • Bishop Stefan Oster, Passau
  • Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck, Essen
  • Archbishop Ludwig Schick, Bamberg
  • Bishop Heinrich Timmerevers, Dresden-Meißen
  • Bishop Norbert Trelle, Hildesheim
  • Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer, Regensburg
  • Bishop Karl-Heinz Wiesemann, Speyer
  • Rainer Maria Cardinal Woelki, Cologne
  • Bishop Konrad Zdarsa, Augsburg