June 1, 2017 (LifeSiteNews) — The Belgian bishops have just published a pastoral letter that quite plainly opens the door for certain divorced and “remarried” couples to receive Holy Communion.
While some still insist that an orthodox interpretation of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia is possible, Belgium is following a growing number of bishops and bishops’ conferences around the world that are taking the document at face value. The Belgian hierarchy is doing so in a less discrete manner.
Amoris Laetitia suggests that there are circumstances where a couple may receive Holy Communion despite the first union not still being valid and without undertaking — should circumstances make it necessary for them to continue living under the same roof — to refrain from sexual intercourse.
The Belgian bishops even go one step further, suggesting that the lay faithful themselves should have the last word when it comes to being admitted to Communion or not. In its early stages, the letter states: “Attention for marriage and family is part of our pastoral concern in general, the more so insofar as the pastoral attitude adopted by Pope Francis in this area can also be found to apply in all other sectors of pastoral care.”
Does this mean that changing the requisites for admission to Holy Communion of “remarried” divorcees will also affect other permanent situations of sin, such as the habitual use of contraception or living in a same-sex relationship? If the Belgian bishops’ logic is to be followed, it should.
To date, there has been no call to order from Rome – no more than when the bishops of Buenos Aires, Malta, and other regions expressed similar thoughts about the practical implementation of Amoris Laetitia. Nor can we expect one.
It was said from the beginning – in paragraph 3 of the Exhortation – that “each country or region (…) can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs.” This was already an opening to the more “progressive” interpretations of a text that is in itself progressive. And the Belgian episcopate is generally more progressive than most.
The current bishop of Brussels, Cardinal Jozef De Kesel, was the protégé of Cardinal Godfried Danneels, who is not only very close to Pope Francis but who, despite his age, was one of the Pope’s personal delegates to the Synods on the Family. Danneels was admittedly was part of the “Sankt-Gallen mafia” working to “modernize” the Church and to obtain the election of a Pope in that vein.
All of the Belgian bishops signed the pastoral letter aimed at priests, deacons, pastoral workers, and the lay people. It was also publicly presented by Cardinal De Kesel on May 24, making it a reference document for all Belgian Catholics.
The five-page letter devotes nearly half of its text to “people whose relationship has come apart” – not to give recommendations about helping them rebuild those relationships or to live according to God’s law but mainly to speak about their admittance or not to Holy Communion.
While it speaks of the beauty of marriage and family life, and insists that couples should get better preparation for marriage in a new sort of “marriage catechumenate,” there is no reference to the specific demands surrounding procreation, abstinence before marriage, rejection of contraception and so forth. The text is more interested in situations that undermine the marital union: “worries about the children, housing problems, job loss, psychological pressure.”
It goes on to speak about broken marriages and their impact on the spouses, “but also their family and above all their children.” The bishops of Belgium want to “help and accompany” these people, affirming that this is already being done.
“We want here to answer more at length a particular question, more precisely, the question and the desire of divorced and remarried persons who want to receive communion during the eucharist [lower-case letters are used in the pastoral letter for these words]. From apostolic times onward, receiving the eucharist has been perceived as something very serious.
“Thus Paul underscores in his first letter to the Christians of Corinth: 'Therefore anyone who eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily is answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone is to examine himself and only then eat of the bread or drink from the cup” (1 Cor 11, 27-28). What does this mean for persons who are divorced and remarried? In chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis explicitly discusses this,” write the bishops.
But like the Exhortation, the conclusions drawn contradict the premise.
In his press conference presenting the letter, Cardinal De Kesel also made clear the bishops’ “great appreciation and gratitude for Amoris Laetitia and for the way shown to us by Pope Francis,” a “way of hope and confidence.” Plainly, the Belgian bishops deem themselves to be walking in his footsteps in the way he would want them to.
They do recall the “indissolubility of marriage” but waste no time in getting to the “complexity of various situations,” in the words of Amoris Laetitia, which they also quote when it says: “No one can be condemned forever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel.” While they truly remark that “God does not refuse his love” to “the divorced and remarried,” they gloss over the fact that human beings can refuse God’s love – and suffer eternal damnation as a result. “They are still sent forth to give witness to the Gospel,” say the Belgian bishops. Even though their life choices contradict it?
Like the Argentinian bishops but even more so, the Belgian episcopate speaks of “discernment” as the “central concept in Pope Francis’ approach to the problematic” of the divorced. “Amoris Laetitia does not formulate any general guideline, but asks for necessary discernment. It so happens that someone who has committed no fault is abandoned by his or her spouse. But it also happens in a divorce that a grave fault has been committed. It also remains true that, whatsoever the circumstances having led to a divorce, the new civil marriage is in opposition to the promise of the first Christian marriage,” write the bishops who go on to quote paragraph 300 of Amoris Laetitia that insists on “a renewed encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases”.
This is considered sufficient by the Belgian bishops to be able to clarify:
“It cannot therefore be decreed that all divorced and remarried can all be admitted to communion. It cannot either be decreed that they should all be excluded from it. The forward path of each person requires necessary discernment in view of a pastoral decision made in conscience.”
“Accompaniment, discernment, integration” are the three “basic concepts that are like a refrain with which Pope Francis impregnates our heart,” resting on discernment that is at once of the person and of the community, in which pastors are called to “help.”
“Amoris Laetitia does clearly open a door to the divorced and remarried so that they can receive ‘the help of the sacraments’ (AL 305, footnote 352),” provided these persons ask themselves some hard questions about the failure of their marriage – answers to those questions appear to be less relevant.”
Here the bishops hark back to paragraph 37 of Amoris Laetitia, which reads as follows:
“We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life. We find it difficult to present marriage more as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfilment than as a lifelong burden. We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.”
Having quoted the second half of this paragraph, the Belgian bishops proceed:
“A path of discernment does not lead to an automatic ‘yes’ or ‘no’ as regards admittance to communion. It can happen that someone decides not to receive the eucharist. We have the greatest respect for such a decision. It can also happen that someone decides, in conscience, to receive the eucharist. This decision also deserves respect. In between laxness and rigorism, Pope Francis chooses the way of personal discernment and of a decision made carefully and in conscience.”
So there you have it: The divorced and remarried themselves, and they alone, make the decision to receive communion or not. Their pastors can only look on, their role being simply to “help” the faithful’s “discernment” and their feeling that they have atoned and been pardoned while making no change to their life choices.
This is perfectly consistent with the now universally-known phrase: “Who am I to judge?” If the Belgian bishops are to be believed, one can only judge one’s self.
At the press conference in Malins where Cardinal De Kesel presented these guidelines, the coordinator of the Belgian Inter-diocesan pastoral care for families (IDGP), Hilde Pex, seated at his side, greeted the pastoral letter warmly, calling it “encouraging and important.”
“We are happy with the open attitude of the bishops, in line with Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia, towards families who until recently were called ‘irregular’ in Church documents,” Pex said. “The judgmental tone has gone. And even though we have been accompanying these families for a long time, it is still good that this pastoral practice should be officially enforced. The Church accepts that not everyone has the same degree of guilt in a divorce and that a discernment process can lead to the reception of the Eucharistic sacrament.”
But the presence or absence of guilt in a divorce is not the point: It is the fact of entering into a new union. By Amoris Laetitia’s reasoning, as picked up by the Belgian bishops, guiltless divorce could lead to a guiltless second marital union despite the true marriage not having legitimately ended. Whatever that means, it is not consistent with traditional Church teaching.