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ROME, October 5, 2016 (LifeSiteNews) – New guidelines about the interpretation of Amoris Laetitia issued for the pope’s own diocese of Rome suggest that couples living in a state the Church labels objectively sinful may in limited circumstances receive Holy Communion in a “discreet manner.” The release of the new guidelines follows closely on the Vatican’s authentication of a letter from Pope Francis to Argentine bishops affirming that the only valid interpretation of the exhortation is one that similarly liberalizes sacramental practice.

The vicar of the Diocese of Rome, Cardinal Agostino Vallini, publicized the official diocesan guidelines for the implementation of Amoris Laetitia last month. Pope Francis is the bishop of the Diocese of Rome. According to veteran Vatican journalist Sandro Magister, “it is unthinkable that the cardinal vicar…made these guidelines official without the supreme proprietor of the diocese having first read and approved them.”

The Diocese of Rome’s guidelines suggest that unmarried couples living together and engaging in a sexual relationship may receive the Sacraments without repenting if continence makes the “stability” of their relationship “difficult,” and after a period of discernment with their confessor. Such couples only may be admitted to the Sacraments if “there is the moral certainty that the first marriage [of one of the parties] was null but there are not the proofs to demonstrate this in a judicial setting.” However, they may not receive the Sacraments if their sinful relationship is “shown off as if it were part of the Christian ideal,” according to the guidelines. 

The guidelines state:

This is not necessarily a matter of arriving at the sacraments, but of orienting them to live forms of integration in ecclesial life. But when the concrete circumstances of a couple make it feasible, meaning when their journey of faith has been long, sincere, and progressive, it is proposed that they live in continence; if this decision is difficult to practice for the stability of the couple, ‘Amoris Laetitia’ does not rule out the possibility of accessing penance and the Eucharist. This means a certain openness, as in the case in which there is the moral certainty that the first marriage was null but there are not the proofs to demonstrate this in a judicial setting; but not however in the case in which, for example, their condition is shown off as if it were part of the Christian ideal, etc.

The guidelines also state that the decision to permit a couple to the Sacraments should be taken by a confessor in the context of the “internal forum.” Through discussions with a couple's confessor “over time … it is possible to begin and develop with him an itinerary of long, patient conversion, made of small steps and of progressive verifications,” read the guidelines.

“So it can be none other than the confessor, at a certain point, in his conscience, after much reflection and prayer, who must assume the responsibility before God and the penitent and ask that the access take place in a discreet manner.

It is possible to interpret Amoris Laetitia this way, explained Dr. Josef Seifert, an Austrian Catholic philosopher, member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, and close friend of the late Pope St. John Paul II, in an in-depth analysis of the exhortation. However, Seifert said that such an interpretation goes against the Council of Trent, when the Church authoritatively taught that people cannot determine for themselves that their marriage is invalid.

“It must not be left to the conscience of the individual to judge whether or not his marriage was valid, and also not to the judgment of a single priest, because to judge … the existence of a Sacrament requires a careful investigation and that’s [exactly] the task of Church tribunals and therefore one simply cannot … in conscience say, I was not married and now I marry again,” said Seifert.

Father John Zuhlsdorf, who runs a popular Catholic blog, reacted to the Diocese of Rome’s new guidelines by writing that unless an unmarried, sexually active couple intends to live as brother and sister, then their reception of Holy Communion would be a mortal sin and sacrilege. 

“That ‘this decision is difficult to practice’ means that the couple who are not married are still having adulterous sexual relations,” he wrote. “That ‘for the stability of the couple’ must mean that without sexual relations they are not a ‘couple’, and that it is, for one reason or another, important that they (who aren’t married) stay together and have sex together. No?”

“However….If they have entered into a process with a priest who has helped them to see what their situation is according to the teaching of Christ and His Church, then they know that what they are doing is wrong,” Zuhlsdorf continued. “They know that they have committed a mortal sin.  They know that they are not properly disposed to receive. Wouldn’t that be part of what the priest must help them to understand?”

“I cannot see anyway around this,” wrote Zuhlsdorf. “It must be either one way or the other. It is either 1) that they say that they will not live in continence as brother and sister, or 2) they say that they will try to live in continence as brother and sister. If they say they won’t, and they don’t, they cannot be admitted to Communion. They must not approach to receive Communion. That would be a mortal sin and a sacrilege. If, on the other hand, they say that they will try, really try, if they confess their sins and really intend to live in continence, they probably can be admitted to Communion – remoto scandalo – provided that scandal is avoided.”

Rome Diocese’s interpretation ‘too restrictive’?

Many other Catholic intellectuals and even prelates have echoed Seifert’s concerns about the exhortation.

Professor Robert Spaemann, a German philosopher and close friend of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, called Amoris Laetitia a clear “breach” with Catholic tradition.

Forty-five scholars sent each member of the College of Cardinals a letter asking them to ask Pope Francis to condemn heretical interpretations of the exhortation. In their letter to cardinals, they outlined the document’s seeming contradictions with Catholic teaching on morality, sin, hell, and other matters related to theology.

The scholars wrote that two heretical interpretations of Amoris Laetitia are:

Our Lord Jesus Christ wills that the Church abandon her perennial discipline of refusing the Eucharist to the divorced and remarried and of refusing absolution to the divorced and remarried who do not express contrition for their state of life and a firm purpose of amendment with regard to it.

Absence of grave fault due to diminished responsibility can permit admission to the Eucharist in the cases of divorced and civilly remarried persons who do not separate, nor undertake to live in perfect continence, but remain in an objective state of adultery and bigamy.

Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, archbishop emeritus of Bologna and a former member of the Pontifical Council for the Family, said that bishops’ varying interpretations of Amoris Laetitia demonstrate that it is “objectively unclear.” He also told Catholics to always follow what the Catechism says about marriage – that it is an indissoluble, lifelong bond – even if a cardinal tells them otherwise.

In 1981, Pope St. John Paul II wrote in his exhortation Familiaris Consortio:

…the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church's teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.

Reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage. This means, in practice, that when, for serious reasons, such as for example the children's upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they ‘take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.’

Pope Francis “is not saying that [the divorced and remarried] must be admitted to the sacraments, although he does not exclude this in some cases and under some conditions,” according to Vallini. The guidelines call for “discernment that would distinguish adequately case by case. Who can decide? From the tenor of the text and from the ‘mens’ of its Author it does not seem to me that there could be any solution other than that of the internal forum.”

Magister labeled this notion – that an unmarried, sexually active couple can under limited circumstances receive the Sacraments if abstinence is too “difficult” for them – an “innovation introduced by Pope Francis.”

According to Magister, “some priests of the diocese of Rome have complained that [the new guidelines] are ‘too restrictive.’”

He noted that although Pope Francis apparently approved the “limited” Rome guidelines, the pontiff also wrote to the bishops of Buenos Aires that there “no other interpretation” of Amoris Laetitia than one that allows remarried divorcees to receive Communion in some cases. The Vatican subsequently confirmed the letter as authentic.

This means “that for Pope Francis, the interpretation of ‘Amoris Laetitia’ presented by Cardinal Vallini with all the trappings of official status is the minimum threshold below which one cannot descend without betraying his intentions,” Magister argued.

Magister argues that in the mind of Pope Francis, the only acceptable interpretation of Amoris Laetitia that is close to – but not in line with – what the Church has always taught is Vallini’s. But, he says, Pope Francis intends for the normal interpretation to be the much more liberal one of the Buenos Aires archdiocese, which contradicts the Church’s divinely received tradition.