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October 4, 2016 (LifeSiteNews) — At the request of the Vatican, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) surveyed bishops and leaders across the country to determine how Amoris Laetitia is being implemented and received across the country. The USCCB’s survey led it to recommend the development of resources on “best practices based on Amoris Laetitia,” particularly “further resources on the application [of] aspects … such as those treating the internal forum and reception of the sacraments with regard to persons in irregular marital situations” and “advice on how confessors can assist persons in irregular marital relationships.”

The survey results indicate from 59 American dioceses and 18 “national organizations” there is “significant energy and interest in the United States in advancing marriage and family life ministry in light of the Holy Father’s rich, pastoral encouragement in Amoris Laetitia,” according to the USCCB report.

Amoris Laetitia, which Pope Francis released in April after two heated synods on the family during which various bishops and cardinals defended or criticized Catholic moral teaching, reaffirms Catholic teaching in certain areas but seems to directly undermine it in others. Prelates and Catholic scholars have expressed different opinions on its authoritative weight and whether it allows those living unrepentantly in mortal sin to receive the Sacraments — something the Church has always forbidden as sacrilege.  

Critics of the exhortation point to footnote 351 as one of its most troubling parts. The footnote suggests, “in certain cases,” the divorced and civilly remarried who are not living abstinently may receive the Sacraments.

After its release and controversial, varied interpretations, the lay group Voice of the Family called for Amoris Laetitia to be withdrawn. Dr. Josef Seifert, a well-known Austrian philosopher and close friend of the late Pope St. John Paul II, said Amoris Laetitia contains “objectively heretical” statements that Pope Francis must revoke in order to avoid “schism.”

A group of 45 scholars sent an appeal to the 218 living Catholic cardinals and patriarchs asking them to ask Pope Francis to clarify the document’s ambiguities and confirm that heretical interpretations of them are errant. The pope has not publicly responded. Some of the scholars have faced serious retaliation for having signed the letter. Notably, one signatory lost his position as a director of academic affairs at a Pontifical university and another was forbidden by superiors to speak about Amoris Laetitia publicly.

‘Further attention’ to ‘irregular marital situations’

In November, the USCCB will vote on “the development of a new pastoral plan for marriage and family life ministry and advocacy” for the coming year, which the bishops indicated “is anticipated to be a key way to assist in advancing the implementation of Amoris Laetitia throughout the United States.”

Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, the USCCB president, called Amoris Laetitia a “tremendous gift.”

According to the USCCB report, survey respondents expressed “excitement” about the exhortation and its “hopeful, positive tone about marriage.”

“A number of bishops and national Catholic leaders said that receiving Amoris Laetitia has inspired further attention to how Catholics in irregular marital situations can be welcomed, accompanied and integrated into the Church,” the report continued.

Some prelates like Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich have called Amoris Laetitia a “game changer” or suggested it opens the door to a more liberal sacramental discipline. Others have insisted the exhortation doesn’t have the authority to make such a change, which would be out of step with Catholic doctrine and go against what Pope St. John Paul II wrote in Familiaris Consortio.

Pope Francis fueled this debate’s fire when he wrote to Argentine bishops that there is “no other interpretation” of Amoris Laetitia than one allowing Holy Communion for remarried divorcees in some cases. The Vatican confirmed the pope’s words as authentic.

“Many” survey respondents suggested marriage enrichment programs should be reevaluated in light of the exhortation.

“Emphasis [from respondents] was also given to enhancing accompaniment of newly married couples, couples experiencing difficulty in their relationships, and those who have separated or civilly divorced,” according to the report. “Several bishops shared an increased attention to couples in remarriages, including pastoral care for those who are seeking a declaration of nullity for their previous union.”

‘Further resources’ on ‘the internal forum’

The USCCB suggested the development of a “Q&A brochure for all the faithful and the identification of best practices based on Amoris Laetitia for a variety of ministry areas,” such as “the pastoral care of newlywed couples, parents, single parents, families in crisis or split by divorce or separation, second marriages, blended families, and persons who experience same-sex attraction.”

The USCCB suggested priests be given “guidance” on effective preaching about the exhortation and “advice on how confessors can assist persons in irregular marital relationships.”

In recent years, there has been within the Catholic Church a push to replace the term “objectively sinful” with “irregular.” For example, some prelates label a second “marriage” when a previous one has not been declared by the Church to be null “irregular.” Nevertheless, the Church’s perennial teaching indicates that sexual relations with a person other than one’s spouse are gravely immoral.

It would be “helpful” if there were “further resources” on “the internal forum and reception of the sacraments with regard to persons in irregular marital situations,” the report concluded.

The USCCB provided materials from the Archdiocese of Washington, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles as examples of some of the resources dioceses have produced on the document.

The Archdiocese of Washington’s pastoral guidelines include prayers asking God that those who are separated or divorced may “through the Church … discover a path of healing and … discern their proper ways of participating in the ecclesial community.” The Archdiocese of Washington’s resources affirm that marriage is indissoluble, but “Pope Francis calls for the Church and her pastors to accompany those in irregular families with the fullness of the Gospel and the Church’s teaching.”

“The exhortation does not create some sort of internal forum process where, for example, a marriage can be annulled or where the objective moral order can be changed,” Cardinal Donald Wuerl of the Archdiocese of Washington wrote after its release. “The teachings of the Church on marriage and family, and conscience and moral decision-making, remain unchanged. The role of the priest in listening and offering affirmation or challenge to persons as they work through their own understanding of their situation, is not the same as absolving from the law or annulling a marriage.”

The guidelines Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput released on Amoris Laetitia upheld the Church’s longstanding practice of prohibiting divorced and civilly remarried Catholics from receiving the Sacraments unless they are abstinent. Secular media and politicians viciously attacked him, but Chaput didn’t back down. Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois stood with Chaput’s reasoning that Amoris Laetitia must be read through the lens of other Church documents and therefore does not in any way change canon law or Church doctrine.

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles’s study guide on Amoris Laetitia asks people, “How does your parish community journey with Catholics experiencing separation, divorce and remarried so that they will know that they have not been abandon[ed] by the Church?”

“Guiding, discerning and integrating” are fundamental to Pope Francis “in addressing fragile, complex or irregular situations.” Such situations “do not fully match what the Lord proposes,” according to the study guide.