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Mantua Bishop Gianmarco Busca

ROME, December 12, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) — The doctrinal dispute over Amoris Laetitia is in the air again this Advent, as one Italian bishop is inviting divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to begin an “ecclesial journey” that he says will lead, in some cases, to access to the sacraments of Penance and the Holy Eucharist. 

In an Advent letter to the faithful of his diocese, Bishop Gianmarco Busca of the northern Italian diocese of Mantua has said “the faithful who are divorced and remarried, or who live stably in a second relationship, can embark on an ecclesial journey of reconciliation which, in some cases, can lead to the possibility of gaining access to the sacrament of Penance and Eucharistic Communion.”

Photo of Bishop Busca’s Advent letter

The city of Mantua is traditionally hailed as the birthplace of the great pagan poet Virgil, who authored the Aeneid and served as Dante’s guide through hell and purgatory to the threshold of heaven in the Divine Comedy.

In his Nov. 30 letter, the Mantuan Bishop adds that “the diocesan guidelines for this journey are contained in a small document that is already available in all parishes.” The new directives (detailed below) avoid the question of whether Holy Communion will be given to couples engaging in sexual relations outside a valid sacramental marriage, and the bishop declined to clarfiy when asked by LifeSite. 

Presenting the Mantuan directives

The new directives are contained in a two-page pamphet, dated Sept. 8, and are titled: ‘Marriage and Ecclesial Paths of Reconciliation: diocesan directives for a fuller integration of divorced and remarried faithful into the ecclesial community.’ 

The two-page pamphlet is titled: ‘Marriage and Ecclesial Paths of Reconciliation: diocesan directives for a fuller integration of divorced and remarried faithful into the ecclesial community’

Bishop Busca presents the new initiative as the fruit of Pope Francis’ 2016 post-synodal apostolic exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia (AL).

Appointed by Francis in June 2016, Busca says the Pope “takes a broad view of family pastoral ministry” and “envisages a variety of paths” in Amoris Laetitia. He adds that “the doctrine and tradition on marriage” in AL are “re-read through a ‘pastoral’ lens, that is, with a view to their organic development along the Church’s journey.”

According to the Mantuan bishop, “the ‘novelties’ contained in Amoris Laetitia do not come from a break with tradition and the teaching of the Magisterium.” Nevertheless, he adds, “as the Pope points out, ‘this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it’ (AL n. 3).”

Discernment and mercy

In keeping with Amoris, Bishop Busca tells the faithful of his diocese that the new directives ought to be read in light of the two “key criteria” of “discernment and mercy.” 

Discernment, he said, means considering the experiences of people and couples “on a case-by-case basis.”

“No immediate and general rule is given, which is valid for any cultural context and applicable to every situation, that can relieve us of the duty of carrying out, under the guidance of the Spirit, a prudent and personalized discernment,” he explains.

The Mantuan bishop tells the faithful of his diocese: 

Amoris Laetitia implements the proposal of the 2015 Synod in which the [synod] fathers gave their consent to the assessment, on a case by case basis, by the priest ‘in the internal forum’ (i.e. in dialogue with the conscience of each individual person) about the possibility of admitting to Eucharistic Communion, after Confession, remarried divorcees who are rightly disposed. 

Quoting Pope Francis, and relying on AL’s controversial footnote 351, Busca says:

The Pope agrees, in fact, that “it is 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” (n. 301). The criterion of discernment leads us to understand what help the Church can give these faithful to ‘grow in the life of grace and charity’ (n. 305). ‘In certain cases’ — footnote n. 351 specifies — the help could also include ‘the Sacraments.’”

Regarding mercy, Busca continues:

Pope Francis “invites us not to present a ‘far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage,’ with an ‘excessive idealization’ that is ‘far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families’ (n. 36). And he reaffirms that ‘for a long time’ there was an insistence on ‘doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace’ (n. 37).” 

Citing Amoris Laetitia, Busca says the Gospel calls us to avoid “judgments that are ‘unduly harsh or hasty’ (AL n. 308), to act not as ‘arbiters of grace’ but as ‘facilitators’ (AL n. 310) of the encounter between God the Father and his creature who does not exist as an ‘ideal being’ but as a historical, concrete man.” 

Amoris Laetitia, he says, “opens the door to a positive, welcoming pastoral ministry, which makes possible a gradual approach to the demands of the Gospel, taking into account the key criterion of discernment which ‘must help to find possible ways of responding to God and growing in the midst of limits’ (n. 305).”  

Introducing the new directives 

The introduction to the new directives stresses that Pope Francis “did not want to give a direct and unequivocal response” to those with “problematic family situations from the point of view of the sacraments.” Instead, it says the Pope “wanted to begin a process of detailed reflection within episcopal conferences and the local churches.” The introduction to the directives quotes the following well-known passage from Pope Francis to support its claim:  

Since “time is greater than space”, I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium. Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it. (AL n. 3)

The Mantuan directives point out that “the first to develop a meaningful reflection, and one greatly appreciated by Pope Francis, were “the bishops of the region of Buenos Aires.” 

“Following in their footsteps,” the document adds, “many bishops in Italy” have sought to implement AL Chapter 8, including the bishops of Lombardy who, in April 2018, sent a letter to priests and laity encouraging local churches to “develop diocesan pastoral guidelines and to establish a permanent diocesan service that responds adequately to the demands of discernment.”

The present guidelines, it says, are part of the Church in Mantua’s response to this letter and outline “penitential and formative paths for those who have established a new union, even one civilly recognized, that is characterized by stability and by a desire to walk in the faith.” 

The document specifies that directives are addressed to “couples or individuals who, after celebrating a sacramental marriage, have separated and/or divorced and are civilly remarried” or are “living stably in a second relationship” that places them in an “irreversible situation with respect to the first union,” for example, “through the presence of other children.” 

It adds that “these people, who until now have been excluded from access to the sacraments of Penance and Eucharistic Communion, can develop the desire to participate in the community life in its fullness, including access to these sacraments.”

A four-step plan

The guidelines then outline four steps. In step one, an individual or couple speaks with a priest or layperson of their choosing. “Having listened to and understood the situation and perceived a basic sensitivity to a review of life,” this priest or layperson then invites the individual or couple to contact a priest appointed and prepared by the bishop. A list of 19 priests is provided on the two-page pamphlet.

In step two, the priest has three main tasks. First, he suggests that the individual or couple look into the possibility of obtaining a declaration of nullity for their first marriage. Should an individual begin the annulment process, he or she is still encouraged to pursue the formative penitential path. The directives instruct the priest to inform them to refrain from the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist “until the judgment has been given.” Second, the priest is to “verify and motivate” the individual or couple to “observe their civil duties” and “those deriving from their previous relationship,” such as “educating and being close to all the children.” Lastly, the priest meets personally with the individual to define the “steps and content” of the journey. According to the guidelines, these include “personal and ecclesial prayer, individual, ecclesial and social works of charity; wise and well prepared proposals for a possible and progressive reconciliation with the people with whom the person entered into conflict.” 

In step three, the guidelines say “it is to be hoped that both the priest leading the process and the individual are persuaded that the path has been positive.” The priest then invites the individual to go to his or her parish priest “to celebrate the Sacrament of Penance and receive Eucharistic Communion.” 

Should the priest discern that the person should not approach the sacraments, the guidelines stipulate that he can bring the case to the bishop or someone delegated by him “to help clear up the difficulties he sees.”

Finally, in step four, the person who is readmitted to the sacraments is “welcomed by the prayer of the community” but “without any reference to the individual person,” out of respect for their “privacy.” The directives say the priest and community should foster the newly reconciled individual’s growth in charity, but note: “This presupposes that Amoris Laetitia, its spirit and its diocesan application, is presented and widely known in the community through ordinary catechesis.” 

No ministries for now

The guidelines stipulate that a “positive outcome” of the penitential and formative path — i.e. readmittance to the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist – does not “automatically authorize” an individual to carry out particular ministries in the parish. The guidelines explain that this depends on the “visibility” of the ministry, and that “decisions that generate misunderstanding” are to be avoided.

The directives also note that the bishops of Lombardy have decided to hold to “the classic norms” on the “various forms of exclusion of remarried divorcees from service in the liturgical, pastoral, educative and institutional forms of service” until the Italian Bishops’ Conference decides otherwise, and say the diocese of Mantua will do the same.

They therefore reiterate that “divorced and remarried faithful, even when admitted to the Sacraments of Penance and Eucharistic Communion,” are excluded “from ministries that ‘demand a fullness of Christian witness such as the liturgical service of lector, the ministry of catechesis, and the role of godfather and godmother.”

Notable omissions

The Mantuan directives make no mention of the fact that extra-marital relations are adulterous according to the teaching of the Catholic Church (CCC 2380). Nor is there any mention of the need to repent of or refrain from sexual relations before being absolved in sacramental Confession and receiving Jesus in the Holy Eucharist. This notable lack of clarity makes it difficult to reconcile the Mantuan directives with the Pope John Paul II’s treatment of the issue in Familiaris Consortio, 84, where he clearly states:   

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. [John Paul II, Homily at the Close of the Sixth Synod of Bishops, 7 (Oct. 25, 1980): AAS 72 (1980), 1082]

It is also unclear how the Mantuan directives accord with the Catechism of the Catholic Church

The Catechism invites priests and the whole community to encourage divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to participate in the life of the Church through “listening to the Word of God, attending the Sacrifice of the Mass, contributing to works of charity, and bringing up their children in the Christian faith (CCC 1651),” but it makes clear that “reconciliation through the sacrament of Penance can be granted only to those who have repented for having violated the sign of the covenant and of fidelity to Christ, and who are committed to living in complete continence” (CCC 1650).

The Catechism is clear: “The sexual act must take place exclusively within marriage. Outside of marriage it always constitutes a grave sin and excludes one from sacramental communion (CCC 2390).”

LifeSite contacted Bishop Busca by email with a series of questions about his new directives, including if the “right dispositions” referred to in the guidelines include the need to repent of sexual relations outside of a sacramental marriage, and the firm resolve to live in complete continence, as indicated by Pope John Paul II in FC 84.

In response to our request, the Bishop’s communication officer, a priest of the diocese, said he would have to “postpone” answering our questions, but added that the local diocesan newspaper would be publishing a fuller explanation of the directives before the end of the year.

Check back with LifeSite in the coming weeks for an updated report.