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

 

No opposition in Amoris laetita, Cardinal Müller says

14_09_kardinalmuellerIn recent comments published by Vatican Insider, Cardinal Gerhard Müller has been quite clear about his thoughts about the Four Cardinals’ Dubia. Like many on both sides of the debate (those who think the dubia are necessary and those who do not (or even those who think they are equal to heresy)), the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith does not think an answer from Pope Francis will be forthcoming. He even thinks that the four authors of the dubia have gone too far in their action, especially their making their questions public. While I do not necessarily agree with him there, I think that his comments about the doctrinal content of Amoris laetitia are on point.

Cardinal Müller says,

Amoris Laetitia is very clear in its doctrine and we can interpret the whole doctrine of Jesus on marriage, the whole doctrine of the Church in 2000 years of history.” Pope Francis, the cardinal concluded, “asks us to discern the situation of these people who live in an irregular union, one not according to the Church’s teaching on marriage, and asks us to help these people find a way towards reintegration into the Church according to the conditions of the sacraments, the Christian message of marriage. But I do not see any opposition: on the one hand we have the clear teaching on marriage, on the other hand the obligation of the Church to care for these people in need.”

What the cardinal has consistently done in this debate regarding Pope Francis’ exhortation and the changes it does or does not introduce, is to present it within the context of the entire Tradition of the Church. He says that Amoris laetitia does not do away with any doctrine; the Church still upholds the entirety of the sacrament of matrimony and the duties, obligations and graces it presents the spouses with. New, however, is the emphasis on those people who have failed in these obligations. Amoris laetitia includes no fingerpointing, but takes seriously the factual existence of these faithful. The Church, who is also a mother, has a duty of care for all the faithful, regardless of their success or lack thereof. Caring for couples who live in irregular unions does not mean doing away with the doctrine about marriage. But, the Pope asks, a way must be found to stand with these couples, to eintegrate them into the life of the Church. They are not cast out because of the situation.

What many commenters should recall, in my opinion, is that being a part of the Church is much more than receiving Communion. There can be many reasons for a person to be unable to receive, be it for a short time or for years on end. This does not preclude them from being an important part of the parish community.

Hopes and realities – Bishop Bode’s Communion utopia

bode_purpur_240Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabrück has been making some minor headlines with his comments about opening up the reception of the sacrament of Holy Communion to non-Catholic spouses of Catholic faithful. In an article by the Evangelischer Pressedienst, his words are reflected thus:

“The Catholic bishop of Osnabrück, Franz Josef Bode, is hoping for an approach towards a joint Last Supper by Catholic and Lutheran spouses. It is a personal concern for him “to find on our part a resolution for marriages of different confessions”, Bode tells epd. Many Protestants have in fact received Communion with their Catholic spouses. “We must give a foundation to what we often already have in practice.”

He considers it “no utopia”, that joint Communion could be achieved in this specific case in 2017, the bishop claims. The Eucharist or Holy Communion is a sacrament in the Catholic Church, of which only members can partake. In the Lutheran church all the faithful are invited to the Last Supper.”

Nice as the bishop’s hopes are, reality is more problematic. There are reasons that the Catholic Church teaches that only Catholics, and ones in a state of grace at that, can receive Communion. It is not just a matter of feelings, emotions, or belonging. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has plenty to say about the Eucharist and Communion (in paragraphs 1322 to 1419), but a quote from St. Justin, mentioned in paragraph 1355, indicates the problem in this particular case:

“No one may take part in [the Eucharist] unless he believes that what we teach is true, has received baptism for the forgiveness of sins and new birth, and lives in keeping with what Christ taught”.

The Eucharist is a reality outside ourselves, and Christ gives Himself in it to draw us into that – His – reality. He asks, needs, our willingness to do that, for we are created with the freedom and dignity to make our own choices. If we come forward to receive Him, we must be willing to confess our faith in the reality of the Eucharist, which the Church safeguards and teaches, and to be a part of the community of followers of Christ that He established and invited to follow Him: the Church.

If we belong to a community which does not (or not completely) confess that faith, or which has removed itself from the Church, these are obstacles that prevent us from receiving Communion. It would be a lie to ourselves and those around us, and – significantly – to God. The fact that our husband or wife is Catholic changes nothing about that. Instead of receiving Communion as non-Catholics, we should first move towards a common understanding of what Communion is and a shared membership in that community into which Christ invites us.

Practice does not dictate teaching. It can influence it, shed new light on it, lead to a better understanding of it, but something is not automatically allowed or good because everyone is doing it. If that were the case, Christ would have no reason to become man among us. Bishop Bode’s hope could be realised by affirming the foundation of our practice (or lack thereof), not by affirming the practice by giving it a foundation.

“Divergent interpretations of possibly unclear passages” – Cardinal Eijk on the confusion about The Footnote

eijk synod

^Cardinal Eijk, fifth from the left in the second row, participates in a session of the Synod of Bishops.

Upon the publication of the official Dutch translation of Amoris laetitia, last Thursday (yes, a whopping nine months after the apostolic exhortation was released in Rome), Cardinal Wim Eijk, who participated in both sessions of the Synod of Bishops which resulted in the papal document, provided a brief quote about the topic that continues to keep pens writing and keyboard clicking: The Footnote which may or may not open the door to the sacraments for divorced and civilly remarried faithful. About the debate about Amoris laetitia the cardinal says,

“A downside is that various interpretations of the exhortation are circulating. Doctrine or longstanding practice in the Church is not changed by divergent interpretations of possibly unclear passages in a Church document.”

These various interpretations are, I believe, also the reason for the dubia presented by the Four Cardinals (Brandmüller, Burke, Caffarra and Meisner) . They ask for clarification, stating that confusion exists. The fact that there are rather contrasting interpretations is enough to show that they are right.

Cardinal Eijk treads carefully, speaking about “possibly unclear passages”, but makes clear that the intepretations of a passage do not change anything in doctrine or Tradition. The compentent authority, in this case the Pope, is the only who can do that. As it looks now, he has no inclination to do so directly, which means that, for the foreseeable future, the confusion will continue.

Who knows, perhaps things will settle down in time, at which point clarifications will find more open minds. At this moment, as Cardinal Eijk indicates, and more than a few others with him, Amoris laetitia has not changed anything about the Church’s doctrine. How we approach that doctrine and put it into practice, however, is open to change, adaptation and, most importantly, improvement. And that, I believe, is what Pope Francis is aiming for.

Four cardinals to the Pope – An honest contribution to the debate

Four cardinals – in some ways, four usual suspects – have written to the Pope about Amoris laetitia, asking for clarification about certain issues which have given many writers a lot to write about already. And while some – although fewer than I initially expected – have chosen to see this as a challenge against Pope Francis, it is an attempt to insert some clarity into a sensitive and difficult issue.

4cardinalsCardinals Walter Brandmüller (President emeritus of the Pontifical Committee of Historical Sciences), Raymond Burke (Patron of the Order of Malta), Carlo Caffarra (Archbishop emeritus of Bologna) and Joachim Meisner (Archbishop emeritus of Cologne) published their September letter to Pope Francis today, after having received no papal reply. In the foreword to the letter, which can be read in full here, they express an awareness of the risk they run of being disregarded “as adversaries of the Holy Father and people devoid of mercy”. This is a real risk, as too often any sense of apparent disagreement with Pope Francis, or even, as here, a request for more clarity, is seen as an adversarial attack on the Holy Father. What many forget is that Pope Francis has frequently asked for such debate, not least during the Synod of Bishops, but certainly also in its aftermath across the world.

The fact that this letter has received no response seems perhaps a bit at odds with this request for open and honest debate, but perhaps it is wisest to see this, as the four cardinals do, “as an invitation to continue the reflection, and the discussion, calmly and with respect.”

The format of the letter is interesting, as it does not invite for a long explanatory answer, but a simple yes or no. This reflects the fact that underneath our pastoral action, there is a solid basis of doctrine, which does not change with the situation. This basis does not exist for itself, but for us, as it shows the way towards the objective truth that is Christ and His teaching.

There is more at stake than being nice in the discussion about marriage and divorce, and sin and mercy. The letter reflects that, as it raises important questions that need asking. It is not a matter of using the writings of one Pope against that of another, but taking the writings of both seriously.

The letter of the four cardinals deserves to be taken seriously, even though it is not something that can be directly applied in pastoral practice. Rather, it concerns itself with what comes before, what dictates the forms our pastoral practice can take. Hopefully, it will one day receive an answer from either Pope Francis or Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to whose attention the letter was also addressed.

Another year, another Synod

synod of bishopsThe Holy See today announced a Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for October 2018. Still two years away, it will discuss the topic of “youth, faith and vocational discernment”. Earlier, a rumoured topic for a future gathering of the Synod was priestly celibacy and married priesthood, but while that question does not pop up in the announced topic, it will undoubtedly play a part in the deliberations.

Bishops’ conferences around the world elect their representatives to attend Ordinary General Assemblies of the Synod. Most conferences, such as the Dutch, Belgian and Nordic ones, will elect one bishop, while others, such as the German, have the right to choose more, depending on the size of their membership. The heads of the curial departments willa utomatically attend, as will the twelve members of the Ordinary Council of the Synod of Bishops, who had the task of drawing up the theme of the next assembly. The Pope also chooses a number of delegates to attend.

Ordinary Assemblies generally take place every three to four years. The longest period was between the ninth in 1994 and tenth in 2001, although there were no less than six Special Assemblies on the Church in different parts of the world in that period.

The Synod of Bishops on Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment can be an opportunity to not only explore and communicate anew the ways in which God calls us to follow Him, but also to show that the question of vocations does not revolve solely around a choice for religious life or the priesthood. Marriage and single life are also vocations, and God calls people to follow Him in all those states of living. They can be profound wellsprings of faith and life, ever deepening our life with God, drawing closer to Him. Especially in the west, young people, Catholic or not, need to hear and see this.

A new Curia – and two brothers united in Rome – as Pope Francis starts the mergers

In an unusual move for this time of year – albeit not unexpected – Pope Francis yesterday appointed the man to lead the first of his new ‘mega-dicasteries’, created from the suppressed Pontifical Councils for the Laity and for the Family. We already knew that it was forthcoming, as the current mandates for the pontifical councils were to end on 1 September. But we did not yet know who he would pick to get what could be the signature curial office of this stage in Pope Francis’ papacy off the ground.

Clerics-white-224x224-2The new Dicastery for the Laity, the Family and Life is unusual in several ways. Although it succeeds two pontifical councils, it is itself not one. Neither is it that other type of curial office, a congregation. It is officially branded a dicastery, which is pretty general: both a pontifical council and a congregation are dicasteries, which is simply a term to describe a department of the curia. It is, however, to be lead by a prefect instead of a president. Prefects normally lead congregations, while presidents head pontifical councils. And prefects and presidents are usually made archbishops, but the new head of the dicastery simply remains Bishop Kevin Joseph Farrell.

vincenzo-paglia-200x300In picking the now-emeritus Bishop of Dallas, Pope Francis made a choice from outside the Roman curia. There were several options in Rome, in the first place, the heads of the suppressed pontifical councils: Cardinal Stanislaw Rylko of Laity and Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia of Family. But the former remains without a new appointment for now, while the latter moves to the third body that was expected to be merged into the new dicastery: Archbishop Paglia (at left) becomes the new president of the Pontifical Academy for Life as well as Grand Chancellor of the Pontifical Institute “John Paul II” for the study of marriage and family. Both are duties not entirely unrelated to his previous work as president of the Pontifical Academy for the Family, although they are more academical.

Cardinal Rylko, at 71 still several years removed from retirement, remains in the waiting room for a new appointment. A return to his native Poland is an option: the archbishops of Bialystok, Kraków and Warmia are near or over retirement age. But would a career prelate who has spent the last 29 years in Rome be the right choice to lead a diocese back home? Pope Francis might think otherwise.

Irish-born Bishop Kevin Farrell, who reflects on his new appointment in his blog, joins his older brother in Rome. Bishop Brian Farrell’s has been the secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity since 2002. Bishop Kevin, despite being appointed to lead a dicastery, has not been made an archbishop. This may have one of two reasons: either Pope Francis thinks that a bishop can do the work just as well as an archbishop can, or he has put Bishop Farrell on the list for a red hat, to be handed out in a consistory towards the end of this year. Prefects are usually made cardinals after all.

Bishop Farrell has led the Diocese of Dallas since 2007, and before that he served as an auxiliary bishop of Washington for five years. In his final year there, he worked with now-Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, who is one of the American cardinals with additional duties in Rome. In Washington he also succeeded then-Bishop Seán O’Malley as director of the archdiocese’s Hispanic center. Now-Cardinal O’Malley is, of course, another strong American voice in Rome, being one of the members of Pope Francis’ advisory Council of Cardinals. Whether either one had a hand in Bishop Farrell’s appointment remains a question.

In creating the new Dicastery for the Laity, the Family and Life, Pope Francis underlines how these three areas of pastoral care and teaching are intertwined and valued. It seems clear that, according to the Holy Father, life must be nurtured within the family, and that this is a prime calling for the lay faithful.