Sunday, 29 May 2016

Fede: flinging open the doors of the Trinity


This morning, another of Chiara Lubich's first followers has completed his earthly journey. Giorgio Marchetti, who received the name “Fede” (faith) from Chiara, was a focolarino, medical doctor, psychologist, moral theologian and priest, and I give thanks to God for the gift that he was for me personally. I first met Fede over twenty years ago, during a meeting in Rome of which I have three lasting memories. First, Fede's deep, radiant and existential smile, which seemed more a smile of his every atom that just of his face. Second, his utter rootedness in the present moment, as a result of which he almost entirely ignored the carefully crafted schedule of the four day meeting to tell us what was at the forefront of his soul at the beginning of any given session during which he spoke. Third, the experience he shared of his call to follow Jesus. Fede, pretty much in the first sentence I heard him say, declared that he never felt called by Jesus. Instead, he met others who had so obviously been his followers that he felt like someone who goes up to Jesus and says to him: “Let me follow you.” All of this has had a powerful impact on me during a time when I was discerning my own vocation, and I would like to thank God for the gift of Fede on this, his dies natalis.

Others have known Fede far better than I and have been far closer to him, and I hope that they will share their rich experiences of who he was for them. As a way of thanking Fede myself, I have selected - and translated into English - a couple of my favorite passages from his writings, which I would like to share with you next.

First, there is a particularly lucid passage about how love and freedom mutually strengthen each other, from a talk entitled “The conquest of freedom”:
“In practice we see that a person grows humanly and spiritually and that they mature and become fulfilled not by looking at themselves in an effort of self-perfection, but by looking at others, and on the back of their giving themselves, they grow and fulfill themselves, almost without realizing it, not by looking at themselves in the mirror, but by looking at others.

This love makes freedom grow in us. Why? Because in every act of love we, giving ourselves, somehow “lose” ourselves, but by doing so we free ourselves from all the things of which we may be prisoners. But, by being love, we grow. And we grow with a full heart: pure and full, free and full. Therefore, as freedom lets us love, so love increases freedom.”
Second, a beautiful reflection on what makes love perfect:
“[Love] cannot be but reciprocal, for it is the love of the Trinity itself that Jesus made come down to Earth and in which he made us take part. Like this he, in fact, prayed to his Father: “May the love with which you loved me be in them and I in them.” (John 17;26) It is therefore the same love that connects us with God and with one another, to the point of making us “perfect in unity”, as John always says, that is, “one”, like Jesus and the Father are one. If we love one another reciprocally, “God remains in us.” (1 John 4:12) The more unity grows among us, the more unity grows with him, and vice versa; we are therefore not called to sanctify ourselves alone but together, and for each one of us to feel responsible for each other, each members of one another. If we love, Jesus is still with us, as he promised us: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20) God in us, God among us: this is enough for us, of course, to understand that love is the essence of Christian life.”
Third, advice on how to think of and deal with inevitable difficulties:
“Each one of us, in their own life, cannot help but experience sufferings, to meet, or rather to collide with difficulties. Even just being aware of this allows us to be prepared to face them. And it is important, in fact, to face them: that is, not to let them effectively take over; I’d say in other words, it should not be they who “live us” but we who “live them”, with full awareness and with all the freedom we are capable of. This applies to all the difficulties we encounter, physical, spiritual, social, environmental.

A difficulty that I would like to reflect on is “temptation”: by that I mean thoughts or circumstances or inner drives that tend to distract us from our life’s project that we are pursuing in an attempt to be consistent. Here in particular it is important and fundamental to be aware of them, that is, pulling them out of the subconscious, “not to sleep on them” but to look them in the face and reject them with utmost determination. This applies to everyone; but for us Christians, in particular, there are those temptations that can distance us from God and from the life that he proposes to us: the one that we most deeply desire.

And here, in addition to our determination, what is worth a lot, and takes first place, is trusting prayer. But we can say the same also with regard to all other types of difficulty. Some we can resolve. Others we will have to accept, but it is possible not to get crushed by them. Beyond interior attitude, it may be useful to share them with other people you trust. For us Christians, it is important to unite our sufferings with those of Jesus crucified and abandoned, and possibly share them with other people united by the “new commandment” of Jesus, who love one another with his love to the point of being able to count on him personally, as he promised: Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20)”
Fourth, on the importance of remaining in love:
“What God expects of us, more than the great acts of virtue or heroic deeds and even more than a scrupulous fidelity to his teachings, it is our love for him, overflowing to men. He is a Father who expects us to start and to continue with him, in a thousand ways, a personal dialogue that will last beyond death. Our love can be turned to God or to men and permeate our relationship with all creatures; but remaining in this divine-human reality of love always has the consequence of “remaining in God.”

And this is not just some nice expression, nor some keeping in touch with him, like with someone of whom you think and whom you love; instead, it is a communion that reaches the totality of our being. There are a thousand circumstances that can make us exit this reality. For example, when we approach someone full of good will and with all the love that we are capable of, it is always a tough injury if we receive hatred, dislike, or even indifference from them in return. Or, it can happen that what we do is misinterpreted; and misunderstandings arise. It is not easy then to remember that regardless of any possible explanation, that which has value, however, is to ”remain in love.” Many of us have known slanders, insults, teasing and cheating of every kind. Many know what wounded pride, humiliation, the desire to pay back in kind, or the blind rage of impotence mean, instead of remaining in the newness of the kingdom of Jesus. But who manages to “remain in love,” learns to forgive, to repay evil with good, to pray for those who persecute us, and to give double of what is asked of us, in short, to live all of the Gospel.”
And, finally, a reflection on the commandment that Jesus gave to his disciples:
“[What] resonates in our minds and hearts are the words said to his disciples: “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” (John 13:34). He calls us therefore to participate in His own love towards men; This is His commandment, a New Commandment, the synthesis of all the moral teaching of Jesus. […]

In fact, Jesus says : “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (John 15:14) (and all his commandments are summed up in his commandment); and then he resumes: “I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.” (John 15:15) A friendship that is even mutual immanence: “Remain in me, as I remain in you.” (John 15:4) Next, he promises his disciples that if they will love Him, then the Father too will go and live in them; he promises the Holy Spirit; he promises that every prayer will be heard. More than a command, then, it is the revelation of Love, the door of the Trinity flung wide open. It is a love that, before being commanded, is given as a gift; and it is the same love that binds the Father to the Son: “As the Father loves me, so I also love you.” (John 15:9) And it is a love that contains all the loves of which Chiara spoke, referring to Jesus Forsaken: fatherly, motherly, brotherly, spousal.”

Friday, 27 May 2016

The least in the kingdom of heaven

Infinitesimal1 1200

1262 words, 6 min read

The Hebrew Bible presents a copious offering of laws, rules and regulations for virtually every aspect of life, as does the Church today. There is the Code of Canon Law, the Catechism and a rich body of magisterial texts that prescribe and proscribe in equal measure. All of this poses the perennial challenge of how a person is to understand and relate to such a body of laws and rules. Is full and permanent compliance with all of them the way to God and happiness? And are those who don’t comply to be reprimanded and shunned? Are laws a necessary and sufficient guarantee of holiness? Will adherence to them ensure a life that imitates that of Jesus, God who became man?

Probably the best way to arrive at an answer, or at least the beginnings of one, is to see what Jesus said and did himself. Here a good starting point may be the words with which he addressed the crowds to whom he had just presented the Beatitudes:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Mark 5:17-19)
So, it sounds like compliance with the law is pretty fundamental and not even the slightest deviation from it is to be tolerated. This seems pretty clear and one would expect that the rest of the Gospel accounts would be a catalogue of Jesus being exemplary at complying with the rules and regulations of Scripture.

However, the polar opposite is actually the case!

Jesus broke the laws calling for abstaining from work on the Sabbath, by healing the withered hand of a man (Matthew 12:9-19), which incensed the Pharisees to the point of plotting his death. He cured a “blind, lame and crippled” man, again on a Sabbath (John 5:1-18). He cured another man’s blindness (John 9:1-16), yet again on a Sabbath, making the Pharisees exclaim that “This man is not from God, because he does not keep the sabbath.” And Jesus also cured a woman “crippled by a spirit; [who] was bent over, completely incapable of standing erect.” (Luke 13:11) - again on a Sabbath and much to the consternation of the authorities, with the leader of the Synagogue exclaiming in exasperation: “There are six days when work should be done. Come on those days to be cured, not on the sabbath day.”

On another occasion, Jesus condoned his disciples’ breaking the Sabbath, when they picked grain from a field to feed themselves (cf. Matthew 12:1-8). In fact, the disciples’ behavior was a source of complaint by the Pharisees on another occasion too, when they asked Jesus: “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They do not wash [their] hands when they eat a meal.” (Matthew 15:2).

Jesus broke the law again when touching a leper who approached him (Matthew 8:1-4), which goes directly against the rules laid out in Leviticus 13. He also touched a dead girl (cf. Matthew 9:25) which is against Numbers 19:11. Jesus allowed a prostitute to touch him (Luke 7:36-50) and he also ate with tax collectors on the same occasion, who broke the laws set out in Leviticus 25:36-38 that prohibit charging interest on loans. And he even invited himself for a meal at a tax collector’s house (cf. Luke 19:1-10)!

Jesus also broke the law when he stopped the stoning of an adulteress, even though the Pharisees told him directly that “in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women.” (cf. John 8:1-11).

Finally, Jesus broke the law again when blasphemously identifying himself with God (cf. John 5:18), a crime he was accused of also during his trial before the Sanhedrin that lead to his - legal - condemnation to death (cf. Matthew 26:65-66).

So, what is going on here?

I believe there are two keys in the passage where Jesus declares that he has not “come to abolish the law.”

First, Jesus states that his purpose is to “fulfill” rather than abolish the law. To my mind, fulfillment is consistent both with change, since something that becomes fulfilled changes (since it was, presumably, not fulfilled before, otherwise it would have had no capacity for fulfillment) and with remaining the same (it is the one thing that grows in fulfillment). What kind of fulfillment does Jesus have in mind though? The obvious place to look to for an answer is the law that Jesus himself imposes on his followers: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” (John 13:34). The purity laws, the laws governing the Sabbath, the laws pertaining to blasphemy get, prima facie, broken for the sake of underlining the one law that they were designed to safeguard, but whose attainment they have become at times obstacles to: love of neighbor. When Jesus transgresses against laws, his motivation is love of neighbor: of the sick, of sinners, of his disciples. He is moved by mercy (misericordia, meaning compassion felt by the heart) and it is indeed this participation of the heart in bringing laws to fulfillment that Jesus saw lacking in the reactions of the Pharisees. This in turn lead him to throwing Isaiah’s prophesy in their faces when they complained about Jesus allowing his disciples to eat with unwashed hands:
“Hypocrites, well did Isaiah prophesy about you when he said:
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines human precepts.’” (Matthew 15:7-9)
Second, there is another, perhaps less immediately recognizable key in Jesus’ words, which calls for a closer reading of the text. Note what it is that Jesus is actually saying in the following sentence: “Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” If you break these commandments, you’ll be in heaven. You’ll be the least in heaven, but you’ll be in heaven! To my mind this is a brilliant piece of humor. It’s like saying: if you break the rules you’ll be the poorest among billionaires, the weakest among superheroes, the unluckiest among Leprechauns, the shortest among giants. And, let’s remember that Jesus isn’t saying that it is a free-for-all. He is quite happy to threaten exclusion and a “wailing and grinding of teeth” (cf. Luke 13:22-30) or to recommend that it would be better to “have a great millstone hung around [their] neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” for those who lead the young astray (cf. Matthew 18:6-9). This is not about laxity, but about priorities: love of neighbor precedes adherence to rules and regulations, whose breaking may actually be the act of love that someone needs to have done to them to turn their life around.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Finding beauty in ugliness

Klee fantasy

1515 words, 8 min read

Last Saturday, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi addressed a meeting entitled “Beauty will save the world, let us save beauty,” organized by Earth Day Italia, that took place in the Vatican’s church of St Stephen of the Abyssinians. In his talk, Cardinal Ravasi spoke about the etymology of the word for beauty in Hebrew, Greek and Italian, pointing to the fact that in all these languages the word either directly refers both to beauty and goodness, or at least has roots that do. After the Q&A that followed, Cardinal Ravasi then added a few words in defense of a certain kind of ugliness, lest beauty be misunderstood as aestheticizing. What follows is my translated transcript of the talk:

I would like to start from a thing that is the most material possible, the most limiting possible, which, however, is always fundamental for humanity: that is, the vocabulary, words. […] In the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, using two completely different languages - Hebrew and Greek, and we are still at the point of vocabulary, words, which, on the other hand are the fundamental instruments of communication, we have a single word that contemporaneously expresses two realities that are different for us. In fact, in Hebrew there is the word ‘tov’ (טוֹב) that at the same time means good and beautiful. And in the New Testament, predominantly when a prominent figure or a significant act is to be described, the Greek word kalos (καλός) is used, which in the New Testament means good.

Vatican good shepherd800px ACMA Moschophoros

Let me give you an example that you all have in mind but about which you maybe do not have the idea of its original Greek basis. How does Jesus define himself in John’s Gospel? I am the good shepherd. I am sure you all have the famous statue of the good shepherd from the Vatican museums in mind, which is a Christian transcription of a Greek statue of the moscophoros. So, in Greek we have - listen! - “egō eimi ho poimēn ho kalos” (ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ποιμὴν ὁ καλός.) “Ho kalos” - I am the beautiful shepherd, because these two realities must interweave among us.

With this background, let’s look at Italian. […] In Italian we have this word “bello”. Now, probably only few among you know […] that it has nothing to do with Latin. What does “bellum” mean in Latin? War. That has nothing to do with it. Think about the fact that the word “bello” is a deformation - or the synthesis, the portmanteau, if you will - of a late mediaeval Latin word which sounded like this: “bonicellus” which means good, pleasant, nice and which gradually became first bonellus and then bellum, but in Italian and not in Latin. So, you can see, that at the basis of the Italian word beautiful (“bello”) there is the word “good.”

Let’s now pass to another word, which is antipodean to the word beauty, which is “brutto” (ugly). In Italian there are two words that bud from it and these two other words have the same basis but are not synonymous with it, even if we may use them in an undifferentiated manner. We have the words “bruttezza” (ugliness) and the word “bruttura” (nastiness). The word “bruttezza” indicates an aesthetic quality while the word “bruttura” an ethical one. Imagine for a moment, without wishing to give offense since this applies to many other cities too, that we are going to a district at the peripheries of Rome. A dilapidated district, a district where there is exploitation and rampant overdevelopment, where blocks of flats are built on top of each other in all their ugliness (bruttezza). Such spaces also tend to become the sites of moral degeneration and of social degeneration. And so we arrive at the dimension of nastiness (bruttura).

This is why I am saying that the aesthetic question is also relevant to the ethical and social question. Imagine a kid, one of our kids, who comes out of one of these quarters, where he always sees a gray and rundown block of flats, a flowerbed - if there is one - that is always scruffy, streets that are littered with garbage … and he comes to the center and sees the splendor of architecture, of monuments, … What does he do? He slashes them. They mean nothing to him. Because, with the ethical dimension he has also lost the aesthetic one.

Piazza miracoli

Instead, let’s imagine a kid in the 14th century, who’d leave his house in Siena, would enter the Square of Miracles and walk around in that quarter. Evidently here aesthetics in some way influenced a lifestyle. Naturally, subject to the limits of the weakness and the wickedness also of the human creature.

I conclude and would just like to remember [… a message from the bishops at the Second Vatican Council to artists that reflected on the despair caused by ugliness and nastiness] but in that same message there was also another consideration […] whose basis was that art and faith - both authentic: authentic art and authentic faith - are sisters. Why? And I’d like to answer that with the words of a great painter, Paul Klee, who wrote a very important definition of art: “Art does not represent the visible, but the invisible that is in the visible.” Transcendence. And what is it that religion does if not the same job? […] And finally I would like to quote a writer who is far from Christianity and who is also immoral in the eyes of Christianity: Henry Miller, who wrote Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn. In a short essay, The Wisdom of the Heart, […] he wrote the following phrase: “Art, like faith, is good for nothing, other than to show the meaning of life.” And that is not little.

[… at the end of the Q&A that followed, Cardinal Ravasi added:]

I would like to conclude by speaking about ugliness. Let’s say straightaway that squalor is squalor and there is ugliness that is ugly. And we need the courage to say it. We have to say that we are being assaulted by ugliness and nastiness. But, having said this, I would now like to present an defense of ugliness, but of a particular ugliness. For many, and that is why I don’t like this expression that “beauty will save the world” so much, it has become a generally aestheticizing phrase.

We can see, and these are often the victims, with women that feminine beauty has become thought of exclusively as the fruit of an artificial operation applied to a person. To the point of having created an entire medical discipline whose criteria are aestheticizing ones, at times in the form of an external lucidity that, however, isn’t a profound transparency. I remember a beautiful poem by John Donne, this great 17th century English poet, which should be read in English. What does he do? He dedicates beautiful verses to the face of his wife, which by then is marked by a web of wrinkles. To this he says - and I agree fully, “I haven’t seen a season as beautiful as autumn.”1 Imagine what Roman autumn is like. It is infinitely more beautiful than summer.

This is why I said that I would like to present a sort of defense of ugliness. […] Beauty is not smoothness. It is not a dictation formed by beautiful words searched for in a dictionary, as Sunday poets often do. It is, instead, the capacity to capture the transcendent, to capture that which is not seen, but that which is the soul of reality. So, when you go and see an exhibition […] of Caravaggio, you can’t come out from it indignant because Caravaggio also touches evil.

Caravaggio Judith Beheading Holofernes

Without reflecting on evil, and evil is ugly, we wouldn’t have 60-70% of literature. It would not exist. We’d have to get rid of virtually all of Dostoyevsky. This is why I say that it is important to remember that the beautiful is also the groundwork, the pilgrimage, the entrance to the substratum, the underground (to use Dostoyevsky), the entering into a nest of vipers (to quote Mauriac) that represent humanity. When Rilke, who is one of the great poets that I love alongside Eliot, writes the Duino Elegies, how does he define beauty? He defines it as “the beginning of terror.” This is an impressive theophany that torments. Not being a writer or a poet I’ll give my voice to Virginia Woolf, when she too defines beauty saying: “Beauty has two faces, one of joy, one of anguish, both cutting, wounding the heart.” That is, beauty offends, disturbs, disconcerts, also. Let’s think of the Divine Comedy. The best part, they say paradoxically, is the Inferno. And this is precisely because the song wants to enter … and it is also right that we be able to see in something ugly, that may represent humanity’s breath of pain, that we try to look even there for what is truly beautiful that, in the end, however, redeems even evil. It is transfiguration. It is liberation.

1 I guess Cardinal Ravasi is referring to Elegy IX: The Autumnal.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Amoris Lætitia: tips & tricks for family life


4509 words, 23 min read

It would be a mistake to overlook a beautiful track that runs through Amoris Lætitia, which is that of Pope Francis offering hands-on advice on how to live well together as a family. In fact, these tips and tricks, I believe, also transpose very well onto any other community, whether it be civil or religious, and offer guidance on how to preserve open, loving and welcoming relationships of mutual care and closeness. What I would therefore like to do is put the theology and pastoral guidance that is in AL to one side and just share with you some of my favorites from among Francis gems of advice next.

The first set of Pope Francis' suggestions comes from a meditation on St. Paul's Hymn to Love, which goes as follows, and which focus on what individual attitudes make me most predisposed to loving others in the way Jesus did:
“Love is patient, love is kind;
love is not jealous or boastful;

it is not arrogant or rude.

Love does not insist on its own way,
it is not irritable or resentful;

it does not rejoice at wrong,

but rejoices in the right.

Love bears all things,

believes all things,

hopes all things,

endures all things” (1 Cor 13:4-7).
Here Francis first dispels and misunderstanding of patience and then goes on to talk about what it is that can undermine it:
"Being patient does not mean letting ourselves be constantly mistreated, tolerating physical aggression or allowing other people to use us. We encounter problems whenever we think that relationships or people ought to be perfect, or when we put ourselves at the centre and expect things to turn out our way. Then everything makes us impatient, everything makes us react aggressively." (§92)
The remedy he then presents consists in compassion and an acceptance of difference:
"Patience takes root when I recognize that other people also have a right to live in this world, just as they are. It does not matter if they hold me back, if they unsettle my plans, or annoy me by the way they act or think, or if they are not everything I want them to be. Love always has an aspect of deep compassion that leads to accepting the other person as part of this world, even when he or she acts differently than I would like." (§92)
To combat feelings of envy, Pope Francis reminds us of the uniqueness of each person and of one's pursuit of happiness not being enemy to that of another:
"Envy is a form of sadness provoked by another’s prosperity; it shows that we are not concerned for the happiness of others but only with our own well-being. Whereas love makes us rise above ourselves, envy closes us in on ourselves. True love values the other person’s achievements. It does not see him or her as a threat. It frees us from the sour taste of envy. It recognizes that everyone has different gifts and a unique path in life. So it strives to discover its own road to happiness, while allowing others to find theirs."(§95)
Such an attitude then leads to a broadening of scope for my attention and extends the circle of those who are candidates for being loved:
"Love inspires a sincere esteem for every human being and the recognition of his or her own right to happiness. I love this person, and I see him or her with the eyes of God, who gives us everything “for our enjoyment” (1 Tim 6:17). As a result, I feel a deep sense of happiness and peace. This same deeply rooted love also leads me to reject the injustice whereby some possess too much and others too little. It moves me to find ways of helping society’s outcasts to find a modicum of joy. That is not envy, but the desire for equality." (§96)
Commenting on St. Paul speaking out against arrogance, Francis contrasts it with a love for the weak:
"[Some people] become “puffed up” before others. [... They] think that, because they are more “spiritual” or “wise”, they are more important than they really are. [...] Some think that they are important because they are more knowledgeable than others; they want to lord it over them. Yet what really makes us important is a love that understands, shows concern, and embraces the weak." (§97)
Next, rudeness is countered with a kind look that builds bonds and prevents egoism:
"[L]ove is not rude or impolite; it is not harsh. Its actions, words and gestures are pleasing and not abrasive or rigid. Love abhors making others suffer. [...] To be open to a genuine encounter with others, “a kind look” is essential. This is incompatible with a negative attitude that readily points out other people’s shortcomings while overlooking one’s own. A kind look helps us to see beyond our own limitations, to be patient and to cooperate with others, despite our differences. Loving kindness builds bonds, cultivates relationships, creates new networks of integration and knits a firm social fabric. In this way, it grows ever stronger, for without a sense of belonging we cannot sustain a commitment to others; we end up seeking our convenience alone and life in common becomes impossible." (§99-100)
Such a move beyond oneself calls for generosity, whose prerequisite is love of oneself so that love of another may become possible:
"The Bible makes it clear that generously serving others is far more noble than loving ourselves. Loving ourselves is only important as a psychological prerequisite for being able to love others: “If a man is mean to himself, to whom will he be generous? No one is meaner than the man who is grudging to himself” (Sir 14:5-6)." (§102)
Irritability and and discord are tackled next and Pope Francis reminds us that a small gesture is often all it takes to put and end to them:
"It is one thing to sense a sudden surge of hostility and another to give into it, letting it take root in our hearts: “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Eph 4:26). My advice is never to let the day end without making peace in the family. “And how am I going to make peace? By getting down on my knees? No! Just by a small gesture, a little something, and harmony within your family will be restored. Just a little caress, no words are necessary. But do not let the day end without making peace in your family”. Our first reaction when we are annoyed should be one of heartfelt blessing, asking God to bless, free and heal that person. “On the contrary bless, for to this you have been called, that you may obtain a blessing” (1 Pet 3:9)." (§104)
Seeing mountains where there are only molehills is an obstacle to forgiveness that Francis warns against in following paragraph:
"As Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). Yet we keep looking for more and more faults, imagining greater evils, presuming all kinds of bad intentions, and so resentment grows and deepens. Thus, every mistake or lapse on the part of a spouse can harm the bond of love and the stability of the family. Something is wrong when we see every problem as equally serious; in this way, we risk being unduly harsh with the failings of others. The just desire to see our rights respected turns into a thirst for vengeance rather than a reasoned defence of our dignity." (§105)
Next, Francis comments on St. Paul speaking about the importance of joy, which needs to be triggered by the successes of others just as much as by my own:
"If we fail to learn how to rejoice in the well-being of others, and focus primarily on our own needs, we condemn ourselves to a joyless existence, for, as Jesus said, “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). The family must always be a place where, when something good happens to one of its members, they know that others will be there to celebrate it with them." (§110)
The final four attributes of love that St. Paul lists refer to how it engages with "all things." First, it abstains from judgement:
"[Love] implies limiting judgment, checking the impulse to issue a firm and ruthless condemnation: “Judge not and you will not be judged” (Lk 6:37). Although it runs contrary to the way we normally use our tongues, God’s word tells us: “Do not speak evil against one another, brothers and sisters” (Jas 4:11). Being willing to speak ill of another person is a way of asserting ourselves, venting resentment and envy without concern for the harm we may do. We often forget that slander can be quite sinful; it is a grave offense against God when it seriously harms another person’s good name and causes damage that is hard to repair." (§112)
Such an attitude also favors silence over expressing judgment and recognizes that love and imperfection can coexist:
"[Married couples] keep silent rather than speak ill of them. This is not merely a way of acting in front of others; it springs from an interior attitude. Far from ingenuously claiming not to see the problems and weaknesses of others, it sees those weaknesses and faults in a wider context. It recognizes that these failings are a part of a bigger picture. We have to realize that all of us are a complex mixture of light and shadows. The other person is much more than the sum of the little things that annoy me. Love does not have to be perfect for us to value it. The other person loves me as best they can, with all their limits, but the fact that love is imperfect does not mean that it is untrue or unreal. It is real, albeit limited and earthly. If I expect too much, the other person will let me know, for he or she can neither play God nor serve all my needs. Love coexists with imperfection. It “bears all things” and can hold its peace before the limitations of the loved one." (§113)
Second, trust is the attitude with which all is approached, leading to freedom, sincerity and transparency:
"[T]rust enables a relationship to be free. It means we do not have to control the other person, to follow their every step lest they escape our grip. Love trusts, it sets free, it does not try to control, possess and dominate everything. This freedom, which fosters independence, an openness to the world around us and to new experiences, can only enrich and expand relationships. The spouses then share with one another the joy of all they have received and learned outside the family circle. At the same time, this freedom makes for sincerity and transparency, for those who know that they are trusted and appreciated can be open and hide nothing. Those who know that their spouse is always suspicious, judgmental and lacking unconditional love, will tend to keep secrets, conceal their failings and weaknesses, and pretend to be someone other than who they are." (§115)
Third, hope allows for being more persistent in recognizing the good in all circumstances and people:
"[St. Paul] speaks of the hope of one who knows that others can change, mature and radiate unexpected beauty and untold potential. This does not mean that everything will change in this life. It does involve realizing that, though things may not always turn out as we wish, God may well make crooked lines straight and draw some good from the evil we endure in this world. [...] This realization helps us, amid the aggravations of this present life, to see each person from a supernatural perspective, in the light of hope, and await the fullness that he or she will receive in the heavenly kingdom, even if it is not yet visible." (§116-117)
Finally, love is all-enduring, whose meaning Pope Francis explains by the following, extensive quote from a sermon given by Martin Luther King:
"The person who hates you most has some good in him; even the nation that hates you most has some good in it; even the race that hates you most has some good in it. And when you come to the point that you look in the face of every man and see deep down within him what religion calls ‘the image of God’, you begin to love him in spite of [everything]. No matter what he does, you see God’s image there. There is an element of goodness that he can never sluff off... Another way that you love your enemy is this: when the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time which you must not do it... When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system... Hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. If I hit you and you hit me and I hit you back and you hit me back and so on, you see, that goes on ad infinitum. It just never ends. Somewhere somebody must have a little sense, and that’s the strong person. The strong person is the person who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil." (§118)
In the next part of AL, Francis builds on the above analysis of what it means to love that followed St. Paul's hymn and applies it to interpersonal relationships in a family. Here he starts with underlining the importance of looking at each other:
"A look of appreciation has enormous importance, and to begrudge it is usually hurtful. How many things do spouses and children sometimes do in order to be noticed! Much hurt and many problems result when we stop looking at one another. [...] Love opens our eyes and enables us to see, beyond all else, the great worth of a human being." (§128)
Beyond looking at each other kindly, expressing mutual love to one another also through words further nourishes and strengthens it:
"The love of friendship unifies all aspects of marital life and helps family members to grow constantly. This love must be freely and generously expressed in words and acts. In the family,“three words need to be used. I want to repeat this! Three words: ‘Please’, ‘Thank you’, ‘Sorry’. Three essential words!”. “In our families when we are not overbearing and ask: ‘May I?’; in our families when we are not selfish and can say: ‘Thank you!’; and in our families when someone realizes that he or she did something wrong and is able to say ‘Sorry!’, our family experiences peace and joy”. Let us not be stingy about using these words, but keep repeating them, day after day. [...] The right words, spoken at the right time, daily protect and nurture love." (§133)
Francis next warns against an idealizing of earthly love, which denies its need for growth:
"It is not helpful to dream of an idyllic and perfect love needing no stimulus to grow. A celestial notion of earthly love forgets that the best is yet to come, that fine wine matures with age. [...] It is much healthier to be realistic about our limits, defects and imperfections, and to respond to the call to grow together, to bring love to maturity and to strengthen the union, come what may." (§135)
In the following paragraphs, Francis presents a masterclass in dialogue, which "can only be the fruit of a long and demanding apprenticeship." Here the starting point are differences:
"Men and women, young people and adults, communicate differently. They speak different languages and they act in different ways. Our way of asking and responding to questions, the tone we use, our timing and any number of other factors condition how well we communicate. We need to develop certain attitudes that express love and encourage authentic dialogue." (§136)
The first of these prerequisite attitudes is taking time:
"This means being ready to listen patiently and attentively to everything the other person wants to say. It requires the self-discipline of not speaking until the time is right. Instead of offering an opinion or advice, we need to be sure that we have heard everything the other person has to say. This means cultivating an interior silence that makes it possible to listen to the other person without mental or emotional distractions. Do not be rushed, put aside all of your own needs and worries, and make space. Often the other spouse does not need a solution to his or her problems, but simply to be heard, to feel that someone has acknowledge their pain, their disappointment, their fear, their anger, their hopes and their dreams." (§137)
The second attitude is giving importance to the other:
"This means appreciating them and recognizing their right to exist, to think as they do and to be happy. Never downplay what they say or think, even if you need to express your own point of view. Everyone has something to contribute, because they have their life experiences, they look at things from a different standpoint and they have their own concerns, abilities and insights. We ought to be able to acknowledge the other person’s truth, the value of his or her deepest concerns, and what it is that they are trying to communicate, however aggressively. We have to put ourselves in their shoes and try to peer into their hearts, to perceive their deepest concerns and to take them as a point of departure for further dialogue." (§138)
Third, dialogue requires an open mind, a willingness to change and an appreciation of diversity:
"Don’t get bogged down in your own limited ideas and opinions, but be prepared to change or expand them. The combination of two different ways of thinking can lead to a synthesis that enriches both. The unity that we seek is not uniformity, but a “unity in diversity”, or “reconciled diversity”. Fraternal communion is enriched by respect and appreciation for differences within an overall perspective that advances the common good. We need to free ourselves from feeling that we all have to be alike." (§139)
Francis then moves from talking about the "what" to the "how," which also calls for "astuteness":
"[I]f hard feelings start to emerge, they should be dealt with sensitively, lest they interrupt the dynamic of dialogue. The ability to say what one is thinking without offending the other person is important. Words should be carefully chosen so as not to offend, especially when discussing difficult issues. Making a point should never involve venting anger and inflicting hurt. A patronizing tone only serves to hurt, ridicule, accuse and offend others. Many disagreements between couples are not about important things. Mostly they are about trivial matters. What alters the mood, however, is the way things are said or the attitude with which they are said." (§139)
The fourth attitude of dialogue then is to show care for the other:
"Love surmounts even the worst barriers. When we love someone, or when we feel loved by them, we can better understand what they are trying to communicate. Fearing the other person as a kind of “rival” is a sign of weakness and needs to be overcome. It is very important to base one’s position on solid choices, beliefs or values, and not on the need to win an argument or to be proved right." (§140)
Finally, the fifth prerequisite for dialogue is that I need to have something to say, to share:
"This can only be the fruit of an interior richness nourished by reading, personal reflection, prayer and openness to the world around us. Otherwise, conversations become boring and trivial. When neither of the spouses works at this, and has little real contact with other people, family life becomes stifling and dialogue impoverished." (§141)
Following the above recipes for successful dialogue, Pope Francis reflects on emotions and the need to direct them towards the good of others:
"Experiencing an emotion is not, in itself, morally good or evil.140 The stirring of desire or repugnance is neither sinful nor blameworthy. What is morally good or evil is what we do on the basis of, or under the influence of, a given passion. But when passions are aroused or sought, and as a result we perform evil acts, the evil lies in the decision to fuel them and in the evil acts that result. Along the same lines, my being attracted to someone is not automatically good. If my attraction to that person makes me try to dominate him or her, then my feeling only serves my selfishness. To believe that we are good simply because “we feel good” is a tremendous illusion. There are those who feel themselves capable of great love only because they have a great need for affection, yet they prove incapable of the effort needed to bring happiness to others. They remain caught up in their own needs and desires. In such cases, emotions distract from the highest values and conceal a self-centredness that makes it impossible to develop a healthy and happy family life." (§145)
Lest the above be misunderstood as opposition to enjoyment and pleasure, Francis goes on to putting them into context:
"This does not mean renouncing moments of intense enjoyment,145 but rather integrating them with other moments of generous commitment, patient hope, inevitable weariness and struggle to achieve an ideal. [...] Some currents of spirituality teach that desire has to be eliminated as a path to liberation from pain. Yet we believe that God loves the enjoyment felt by human beings: he created us and “richly furnishes us with everything to enjoy” (1 Tim 6:17). Let us be glad when with great love he tells us: “My son, treat yourself well... Do not deprive yourself of a happy day” (Sir 14:11-14). Married couples likewise respond to God’s will when they take up the biblical injunction: “Be joyful in the day of prosperity” (Ec 7:14). What is important is to have the freedom to realize that pleasure can find different expressions at different times of life, in accordance with the needs of mutual love. In this sense, we can appreciate the teachings of some Eastern masters who urge us to expand our consciousness, lest we be imprisoned by one limited experience that can blinker us. This expansion of consciousness is not the denial or destruction of desire so much as its broadening and perfection." (§148-149)
Much later on in Amoris Lætitia, Pope Francis offers advice to married couples by encouraging to make time for each other a suggestion that also applies to other communities and where it may only be the forms that change but not the substance of the following:
"Love needs time and space; everything else is secondary. Time is needed to talk things over, to embrace leisurely, to share plans, to listen to one other and gaze in each other’s eyes, to appreciate one another and to build a stronger relationship. Sometimes the frenetic pace of our society and the pressures of the workplace create problems. At other times, the problem is the lack of quality time together, sharing the same room without one even noticing the other. [...] Once a couple no longer knows how to spend time together, one or both of them will end up taking refuge in gadgets, finding other commitments, seeking the embrace of another, or simply looking for ways to flee what has become an uncomfortable closeness." (§ 224-225)
Francis then points to the importance both of routine and its interruption by celebrations and parties:
"Young married couples should be encouraged to develop a routine that gives a healthy sense of closeness and stability through shared daily rituals. These could include a morning kiss, an evening blessing, waiting at the door to welcome each other home, taking trips together and sharing household chores. Yet it also helps to break the routine with a party, and to enjoy family celebrations of anniversaries and special events. We need these moments of cherishing God’s gifts and renewing our zest for life. As long as we can celebrate, we are able to rekindle our love, to free it from monotony and to colour our daily routine with hope." (§226)
The role of crises and their being integral to the life of a family is on Francis' mind next:
"The life of every family is marked by all kinds of crises, yet these are also part of its dramatic beauty. Couples should be helped to realize that surmounting a crisis need not weaken their relationship; instead, it can improve, settle and mature the wine of their union. Life together should not diminish but increase their contentment; every new step along the way can help couples find new ways to happiness. Each crisis becomes an apprenticeship in growing closer together or learning a little more about what it means to be married. There is no need for couples to resign themselves to an inevitable downward spiral or a tolerable mediocrity. On the contrary, when marriage is seen as a challenge that involves overcoming obstacles, each crisis becomes an opportunity to let the wine of their relationship age and improve." (§232)
Finally, at the end of Amoris Lætitia, Pope Francis draws this thread to its conclusion by pointing to the consequences of a life lived along the above lines: freedom and a choice of God as the greatest good:
"There comes a point where a couple’s love attains the height of its freedom and becomes the basis of a healthy autonomy. This happens when each spouse realizes that the other is not his or her own, but has a much more important master, the one Lord. No one but God can presume to take over the deepest and most personal core of the loved one; he alone can be the ultimate centre of their life. At the same time, the principle of spiritual realism requires that one spouse not presume that the other can completely satisfy his or her needs. The spiritual journey of each – as Dietrich Bonhoeffer nicely put it – needs to help them to a certain “disillusionment” with regard to the other, to stop expecting from that person something which is proper to the love of God alone. This demands an interior divestment. The space which each of the spouses makes exclusively for their personal relationship with God not only helps heal the hurts of life in common, but also enables the spouses to find in the love of God the deepest source of meaning in their own lives. Each day we have to invoke the help of the Holy Spirit to make this interior freedom possible. (§320)

Friday, 6 May 2016

Amoris Lætitia: Communion for the divorced and remarried

Giovanni francesco barbieri called guercino the return of the prodigal son ca 1640

2314 words, 13 min read

The most hotly debated aspect of Amoris Lætitia, much to Pope Francis’ chagrin, is whether or not it opens access to the Eucharist for at least some divorced and remarried Catholics. Some say that it clearly does not (e.g., Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, or Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth), others say that is clearly does (e.g., the German Synod Fathers, Card. Marx, Abp. Koch and Bp. Bode, the great German philosopher Robert Spaemann, who by the way doesn’t like that one bit), yet others are reported as saying that it doesn’t, while - if you listen to what they say - they don’t actually do so (e.g., Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, whose introduction to Amoris Lætitia Pope Francis singled out as being authoritative). What is clear from the numerous reactions so far is that Pope Francis’ words are being interpreted in contradictory terms not only by some, whose capacity for interpreting them could be questioned and whose conclusions could easily be dismissed, but by competent and expert readers of this 264 page apostolic exhortation.

Instead of engaging with interpretations of Francis’ text, I would here like to take a look directly at what he says in AL that could lead us to a “yes” or “no” conclusion, and instead of presuming to settle the issue, just offer you my own reading.

The obvious starting point is a passage from §305, which is often quoted and which is in the middle of the section entitled “The discernment of “irregular” situations” that spans paragraphs 296-312. Before looking at it, let’s get a sense of the lay of the land first. Right from the get go, in §296, Francis declares that:
“There are two ways of thinking which recur throughout the Church’s history: casting off and reinstating. The Church’s way, from the time of the Council of Jerusalem, has always always been the way of Jesus, the way of mercy and reinstatement... The way of the Church is not to condemn anyone for ever; it is to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart... For true charity is always unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous.”
In §297, Francis then reiterates that “No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel!” and speaks with great clarity about the need to preserve the Gospel ideal:
“Naturally, if someone flaunts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal, or wants to impose something other than what the Church teaches, he or she can in no way presume to teach or preach to others; this is a case of something which separates from the community (cf. Mt 18:17). Such a person needs to listen once more to the Gospel message and its call to conversion.”
What reinstatement and inclusion do not mean is an “anything goes” or a change to what the Church has taught about Christian ideals. At the same time, in §298, Francis calls for nuance instead of a “one size fits all” approach when it comes to the divorced and remarried:
“The divorced who have entered a new union, for example, can find themselves in a variety of situations, which should not be pigeonholed or fit into overly rigid classifications leaving no room for a suitable personal and pastoral discernment. One thing is a second union consolidated over time, with new children, proven fidelity, generous self giving, Christian commitment, a consciousness of its irregularity and of the great difficulty of going back without feeling in conscience that one would fall into new sins. [...] Another thing is a new un- ion arising from a recent divorce, with all the suffering and confusion which this entails for children and entire families, or the case of someone who has consistently failed in his obligations to the family.”
Francis echoes Benedict XVI in acknowledging that no “easy recipes” exist here and adds that “the discernment of pastors must always take place “by adequately distinguishing”, with an approach which “carefully discerns situations”.” §300 then sets out a specific, five-stage “examination of conscience” that is to be part of a discernment process involving a pastor and the divorced remarried person. Such a process also has specific pre-conditions: “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.”

§301 presents the consideration of “mitigating factors in pastoral discernment” and Francis declares that it “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.” (Bearing in mind that “sanctifying grace” is the state that one needs to be in to be eligible for the reception of the Eucharist.) §302 then backs up the legitimacy of the concept of mitigating factors by pointing to passages in the Catechism, which Francis summarizes by saying:
“For this reason, a negative judgment about an objective situation does not imply a judgment about the imputability or culpability of the person involved.”
§303 then calls for a “better incorporation” of “individual conscience [...] into the Church’s praxis,” saying that
“conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal. In any event, let us recall that this discernment is dynamic; it must remain ever open to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can enable the ideal to be more fully realized.”
Next, we get a section entitled “Rules and discernment,” which opens with the following statement at the beginning of §304:
“It is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being.”
Next, Francis “earnestly ask[s] that we always recall a teaching of Saint Thomas Aquinas and learn to incorporate it in our pastoral discernment”:
“Although there is necessity in the general principles, the more we descend to matters of detail, the more frequently we encounter defects... In matters of action, truth or practical rectitude is not the same for all, as to matters of detail, but only as to the general principles; and where there is the same rectitude in matters of detail, it is not equally known to all... The principle will be found to fail, according as we descend further into detail”.
What does this mean? Even general rules that set out an absolute good, cannot - in their formulation - provide for all particular situations. Therefore, Francis says in the opening line of §305, “a pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in “irregular” situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives,” which brings us to the key passage in §305 where Francis declares that a person “in an objective situation of sin” (such as re-marriage after divorce) can nonetheless be “living in God’s grace” (a pre-requisite for access to the Eucharist1):
“Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.”
To elaborate on what help can be expected from the Church, the above sentence points to the following, much-debated footnote number 351:
“In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, “I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy” (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium [24 November 2013], 44: AAS 105 [2013], 1038). I would also point out that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (ibid., 47: 1039).”
The most obvious interpretation, to my mind, here is that, yes, what Pope Francis is saying is that access to the Eucharist is a possibility in the context of the pastor-lead discernment, where he understands the particular circumstances of a person who approaches him on the back of the pre-conditions spelled out above. It is worth noting here that Cardinal Müller has specifically denied such an interpretation of footnote 351, claiming that “this footnote refers to objective situations of sin in general, not to the specific case of civilly remarried divorcees.” Personally, I find this very hard to see, given that the entire section, in the very middle of which we are here, is all about the divorced and civilly remarried ... Furthermore, it is primarily §301 that is the basis of the Eucharist being offered to some divorced and civilly remarried - as “medicine and nourishment”, since it states that those in “irregular” circumstances may nonetheless be in a state of grace. Footnote 351 is then just a spelling out of §301’s consequences.

Before wrapping up my reading of AL from the perspective of whether or not the divorced and civilly remarried have access to the Eucharist (through the above process of pastor-lead discernment), it is also worth noting two aspects of the exhortation that, I believe, indirectly support my interpretation.

First, that Pope Francis never says that the divorced and civilly remarried are excluded from access to the Eucharist, while at the same time making categorical statements about abortion (“So great is the value of a human life, and so inalienable the right to life of an innocent child growing in the mother’s womb, that no alleged right to one’s own body can justify a decision to terminate that life.” (§83)), same-sex marriage (“there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family” (§251)) and the indissolubility of marriage (“only the exclusive and indissoluble union between a man and a woman has a plenary role to play in society as a stable commitment that bears fruit in new life” (§52)). If Pope Francis would have wanted to maintain pastoral practice as it stands, he could have said that there is no change to it. In fact, even when asked directly after the publication of AL about whether there were “new, concrete possibilities that didn’t exist before” with regard to the “discipline that regulates access to the sacraments for the divorced and remarried”, his response was: “I can say yes, many.”

Second, Pope Francis does explicitly speak about obstacles to receiving the Eucharist in a different context, which consist in “creating scandalous distinctions and divisions among [the Church’s] members” and in “turn[ing] a blind eye to the poor and suffering, or consent[ing] to various forms of division, contempt and inequality”:
“The Eucharist demands that we be members of the one body of the Church. Those who approach the Body and Blood of Christ may not wound that same Body by creating scandalous distinctions and divisions among its members. This is what it means to “discern” the body of the Lord, to acknowledge it with faith and charity both in the sacramental signs and in the community; those who fail to do so eat and drink judgement against themselves. The celebration of the Eucharist thus becomes a constant summons for everyone “to examine himself or herself”, to open the doors of the family to greater fellowship with the underprivileged, and in this way to receive the sacrament of that eucharistic love which makes us one body. We must not forget that “the ‘mysticism’ of the sacrament has a social character”. When those who receive it turn a blind eye to the poor and suffering, or consent to various forms of division, contempt and inequality, the Eucharist is received unworthily. On the other hand, families who are properly disposed and receive the Eucharist regularly, reinforce their desire for fraternity, their social consciousness and their commitment to those in need.” (§186)
Against the background of the above secondary features of Amoris Lætitia, but primarily because of the introduction of greater granularity to how the state of grace is understood of those who are divorced and civilly remarried, as expressed in §301, I have to side with the German Synod Fathers’ and with Robert Spaemann’s reading that Amoris Lætitia does indeed allow for access to the Eucharist for some divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.2, 3

[UPDATE on 13 September 2016] Last Friday, a pair of documents were published that confirm the above reading of Amoris Lætitia directly through the words of Pope Francis, who, responding to a document shared with him by the bishops of the diocese of Buenos Aires, stated that "there is no other interpretation" of Amoris Lætitia's chapter 8 than that the divorced and civilly remarried may in some cases be admitted to receiving the Eucharist. In addition to the continence scenario that the Buenos Aires document mentions (and that comes from St. John Paul II's Familiaris Consortio), it also states that such access may also be an option under other circumstances:
"Under other, more complex circumstances, and when it was not possible to obtain a declaration of nullity, the option mentioned above [i.e., continence] may not in fact be feasible. Nonetheless, a path of discernment is still possible. If this arrives, in a specific case, at the conclusion that there are limitations that attenuate responsibility and culpability (cf. 301-302), in particular when a person deems that they would commit further faults that would harm the children of the new union, Amoris Lætitia opens the possibility of access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist (cf. notes 336 and 351). These in turn will dispose the person to continue maturing and growing with the power of grace."
The document then proceeds to caution against interpreting this as unrestricted access to the sacraments and emphasizes the importance of continuing accompaniment, and examination of conscience.

Having Pope Francis identify this as the only interpretation of Amoris Lætitia now confirms the substantial change that it has introduced to the Church's pastoral care for the divorced and civilly remarried.

1 The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “Anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of [Penance and] Reconciliation before coming to communion.” (§1385) and that “[t]he whole power of the sacrament of Penance consists in restoring us to God’s grace and joining us with him in an intimate friendship.” (§1468), with Pope Benedict XVI even bringing these two points together explicitly in in Sacramentum Caritatis §20, emphasizing “the need to be in a state of grace in order to approach sacramental communion worthily”.
2 Beyond what Familiaris Consortio set out in its §84, where the divorced and civilly remarried who abstained from sex were declared to be in a position to receive the Eucharist. I.e., already with St. John Paul II the prohibition was not absolute.
3 Just in case you feel like exclaiming that the Church’s understanding and teaching never changes, take a look here and here (but mainly at the second “here”).