1965 words, 10 min read
On the flight back from visiting refugees on the island of Lesbos (and bringing three Muslim families back with him to the Vatican!), Pope Francis was asked point blank: “[W]ith respect to the discipline that regulates access to the sacraments for the divorced and remarried, [...] are there new, concrete possibilities that didn’t exist before the publication of the exhortation or not?” In other words, has anything actually changed, or is it “just” a rehashing of the previous status quo, albeit in nicer words.
To this, Francis responded with a clear: “I can say yes, many,” and then recommended a reading of Cardinal Christoph Schönborn’s presentation of Amoris Lætitia during the press conference on 8th April, when the exhortation was published. Pope Francis then added that Schönborn “is a great theologian. He was the secretary for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, and he knows the doctrine of the faith well. In that presentation, your question will find an answer.”
Before we take a look at what the cardinal said, let’s look at Pope Francis’ next answer from the same in-flight press conference, just to put the question about the divorced and re-married into context:
“One of the recent popes, speaking of the Council, said that there were two councils: the Second Vatican Council in the Basilica of St. Peter, and the other, the council of the media. When I convoked the first synod, the great concern of the majority of the media was communion for the divorced and remarried, and, since I am not a saint, this annoyed me a bit, and then made me sad. Because, thinking of those media who said, this, this and that, don’t they realize that that is not the important problem? Don’t they realize that instead the family throughout the world is in crisis? And the family is the basis of society. Do you not realize that young people don’t want to marry? Don’t you realize that the lack of jobs and employment opportunities mean that dad and mum take on two jobs, and children grow up alone and don’t learn to grow in dialogue with dad and mum? These are the big problems!”Let’s turn to Cardinal Schönborn’s presentation of Amoris Lætitia (AL) now, to get a sense of what its impact on the divorced and re-married is.
First, Schönborn sets out the foundation of AL, which is universal inclusion:
“No-one must feel condemned, no-one is scorned. In this climate of welcome, the discourse on the Christian vision of marriage and the family becomes an invitation, an encouragement, to the joy of love in which we can believe and which excludes no-one, truly and sincerely no-one.”Second, he highlights two modes of engagement that AL revolves around and emphasizes that they are directed towards all:
“In Evangelii Gaudium Pope Francis said that we must take of our shoes before the sacred ground of others (EG 36). This fundamental attitude runs throughout the Exhortation. And it is also provides the most profound reason for the other two key words, to discern and to accompany. These words apply not only to the so-called “irregular situation” (Pope Francis underlines this “so-called”) but rather for all people, for every marriage and for every family. Indeed, we are all journeying and we are all in need of “discernment” and “accompaniment”.”Schönborn then acknowledges a potential misunderstanding of inclusion as “relativism,” “permissiveness,” “laxity” or “anything goes,” and juxtaposes it against an opposite, contrary danger of an “obsession with controlling and dominating everything.” As a means of navigating between these opposed dangers,
“Pope Francis often returns to the issue of trust in the conscience of the faithful: “We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them” (AL 37). The great question, obviously, is this: how do we form consciences? How do we arrive at what is the key concept of all this great document, the key to correctly understanding Pope Francis’ intentions: “personal discernment”, especially in difficult and complex situations? “Discernment” is a central concept in Ignatian exercises. Indeed, these must help to discern the will of God in the concrete situations of life. It is discernment that grants a person a mature character, and the Christian path should be of help in reaching this personal maturity: not forming automatons, externally conditioned and remote-controlled, but people who have matured in their friendship with Christ. Only when this personal “discernment” is mature is it also possible to arrive at “pastoral discernment”; which is important especially in “those situations that fall short of what the Lord demands of us” (AL 6).”We now arrive at the point in AL (Chapter 8), where “the question of how the Church treats these wounds, of how she treats the failure of love” is addressed. The basis here is again a declaration of the desire to integrate, reinstate:
“With regard to those who are divorced and civilly remarried, [Pope Francis] states: “I am in agreement with the many Synod Fathers who observed that … the logic of integration is the key to their pastoral care. … 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…” (AL 299).”Schönborn then acknowledges the elephant in the room: “But what does this mean in practice? Many rightly ask this question,” and responds by saying that “The definitive answers are found in Amoris Lætitia, paragraph 300.” So, let’s take a look at it next in full:
“If we consider the immense variety of concrete situations such as those I have mentioned, it is understandable that neither the Synod nor this Exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases. What is possible is simply a renewed encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases, one which would recognize that, since “the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases”, the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same. Priests have the duty to “accompany [the divorced and remarried] in helping them to understand their situation according to the teaching of the Church and the guidelines of the bishop. Useful in this process is an examination of conscience through moments of reflection and repentance. The divorced and remarried should ask themselves: how did they act towards their children when the conjugal union entered into crisis; whether or not they made attempts at reconciliation; what has become of the abandoned party; what consequences the new relationship has on the rest of the family and the community of the faithful; and what example is being set for young people who are preparing for marriage. A sincere reflection can strengthen trust in the mercy of God which is not denied anyone”. What we are speaking of is a process of accompaniment and discernment which “guides the faithful to an awareness of their situation before God. Conversation with the priest, in the internal forum, contributes to the formation of a correct judgment on what hinders the possibility of a fuller participation in the life of the Church and on what steps can foster it and make it grow. Given that gradualness is not in the law itself (cf. Familiaris Consortio, 34), this discernment can never prescind from the Gospel demands of truth and charity, as proposed by the Church. For this discernment to happen, the following conditions must necessarily be present: humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching, in a sincere search for God’s will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it”. These attitudes are essential for avoiding the grave danger of misunderstandings, such as the notion that any priest can quickly grant “exceptions”, or that some people can obtain sacramental privileges in exchange for favours. When a responsible and tactful person, who does not presume to put his or her own desires ahead of the common good of the Church, meets with a pastor capable of acknowledging the seriousness of the matter before him, there can be no risk that a specific discernment may lead people to think that the Church maintains a double standard.” (AL, §300)Here, Schönborn singles out that those who expected a “new set of general rules” will be “disappointed” and that it is pastoral discernment instead that AL puts forward. This is covered in paragraphs 300-312 and contains the process and examination of conscience proposed in last year’s Synod by the German-language working group (§85 of the 2015 Relatio Finalis which is quoted above in AL §300).
The next big question then is about what Pope Francis says “in relation to access to the sacraments for people who live in “irregular” situations.” And the answer here is in the context presented in §300, where the formulaic is shunned in favor of personal and pastoral discernment:
““Discernment must help to find possible ways of responding to God and growing in the midst of limits. By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth, and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God” (AL 205). [Pope Francis] also reminds us of an important phrase from Evangelii Gaudium, 44: “A small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties” (AL 304). In the sense of this “via caritatis” (AL 306), the Pope affirms, in a humble and simple manner, in a note (351) that the help of the sacraments may also be given “in certain cases”. But for this purpose he does not offer us case studies or recipes, but instead simply reminds us of two of his famous phrases: “I want to remind priests that the confessional should not be a torture chamber but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy” (EG 44), and the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (EG 47).”Finally, Schönborn acknowledges the challenges of the above and sums up AL as follows:
“Pope Francis acknowledges this concern [of the “discernment of situations” not being regulated more precisely]: “I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion” (AL 308). However, he challenges this, remarking that “We put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance. That is the worst way of watering down the Gospel” (AL 311). Pope Francis trusts in the “joy of love”. Love is able to find the way. It is the compass that shows us the road. It is both the goal and the path itself, because God is love and love is from God. Nothing is more demanding than love. It cannot be obtained cheaply. Therefore, no-one should be afraid that Pope Francis invites us, with Amoris Lætitia, to take too easy a path. The road is not an easy one, but it is full of joy!”Cardinal Christoph Schönborn’s presentation of Amoris Lætitia is very clear and the answer both to the question of whether anything has changed for the divorced and civilly remarried and to the question of whether anything has changed about their access to the Eucharist is a clear “Yes!”. However, it is a yes that is not in the form of a new decision tree, à la those used in call centers to deal with customer queries, but an invitation to a relationship of accompanying and discernment in which God’s will is sought and where God’s love and mercy flow.