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 , 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”).