Featured Image
Vatican Synod on the Family 2015Lisa Bourne/LifeSite


April 8, 2016 (LifeSiteNews) — From the mainstream media to Catholic experts, from conservatives to liberals, and everything in between, have come opposing interpretations of what Pope Francis means in Amoris Laetitia, his post-Synodal apostolic exhortation released today. Particularly on the central question of admittance to Holy Communion of divorced and remarried Catholics, the document has left the question so open as to cause profound confusion. We encourage our readers to read the document for themselves, particularly chapter 8 where that matter is discussed most fully.  We released our analysis of the question as soon as the embargo on the document was lifted this morning after having spent all night combing through the entire document.

When Vatican watchers were awaiting the exhortation it was common to hear talk from conservatives noting the worst possible outcome would be ambiguity.  After seeing the resistance to his proposal of Communion for remarried Catholics, Cardinal Walter Kasper suggested that the only conceivable way forward for his cause was an ambiguous document that would achieve consensus and yet allow the practice at least where bishops wanted it.

Led by Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the bishops of Germany already said that they would go forward with the proposal regardless of the outcome of the Synod.  The pope’s exhortation seems to allow for such regional compartmentalization. “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,” says Pope Francis. “Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs.”

The varied reactions demonstrate a reading with wide divergence of opinion is possible. Of all the many posts I’ve read, and I’ll be summarizing below, one was most interesting to highlight – that of Robert Royal, the editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C.

Royal proposes a hypothetical situation which puts the most likely eventual outcome of the ambiguous exhortation in sharp focus:

Here’s a hypothetical that may soon be a test case: suppose that, taking cues from the overall tendency of Amoris Laetitia, the German bishops follow their avowed inclinations and allow Communion for the divorced and remarried. The Polish bishops, adamantly orthodox and finding nothing in the text that explicitly requires changing millennia-old teaching, choose instead to read it as only encouraging greater pastoral counseling with the ultimate goal of leading people to change their lives and follow Christ’s words on marriage.

Both readings may be possible, but the consequences, in this instance and others, are impossible. On one side of a border between two countries, Communion for the divorced and remarried would now become a sign of a new outpouring of God’s mercy and forgiveness. On the other side, giving Communion to someone in “irregular” circumstances remains infidelity to Christ’s words and, potentially, a sacrilege. In concrete terms, around the globe, what looms ahead is chaos and conflict, not Catholicity. A new Iron Curtain may descend between Western Catholicism and the Church in the rest of the world – to say nothing of civil wars within “developed” countries.

Now here's a brief rundown, with significant passages excerpted (and links to the full text), of some of the varied commentary on the exhortation. Some support our take that the pope has opened the door to Communion for the divorced-and-remarried, while others maintain that the door remains firmly shut.

Russell Shaw, Our Sunday Visitor contributing editor, who spent 20 years handling communications for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

Pope Francis in his new document on marriage opens the door to allowing some divorced and remarried Catholics whose first marriages haven’t been annulled to receive holy Communion. How widely the door is open and what the results of opening it will be are things no one, the pope included, can say with certainty.

Still, the document stopped short of saying these people should be allowed to receive Communion, leaving that to the pope. Now Francis has said yes — reception of Communion is possible in some cases.

In a way, this isn’t new. Pope St. John Paul II, in his 1981 document on marriage, Familiaris Consortio, also suggested that divorced Catholics in second marriages might receive Communion. But he set as a condition that they live in a brother-sister relationship with their second partners — one excluding marital intimacy, that is. Pope Francis mentions that but in effect dismisses it by quoting a Vatican Council II document which appears to criticize such an approach.

Some who welcome this new development see it as an act of mercy expressing the reality of the Church as an agent of divine mercy. Others see it as an exercise in sentimentality that separates pastoral practice from moral truth.

EWTN host and Mother Angelica biographer Raymond Arroyo in an interview with Fox News about the exhortation:

The real take away here is he seems to be opening the door to the possibility of communion for divorced and remarried Catholics outside of the annulment process. To give you the quick shorthand, my distillation of 256 pages, it is ‘go and sin no more but check with your priest first you might not have sinned as bad as you thought’. He seems to be trying to change the Church’s approach to those who find themselves in what the Church used to call objective sin.

Inés San Martín, the Vatican correspondent for Crux – the news organization now funded by the Knights of Columbus

But when it comes to access to Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried, the devil is in the footnotes. The pontiff writes that a “personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases” would recognize that there are different degrees of responsibility.

In comes footnote number 336, where Francis cautiously, if not surreptitiously, opens the door to Communion, saying that “this is also the case with regard to sacramental discipline, since discernment can recognize that in a particular situation no grave fault exists.”

He goes even further in the footnote 351. In the body of the text Francis writes about “mitigating factors” which make it possible that “in an objective situation of sin- which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such- a person can be living God’s grace, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.”

In the footnote he says that in certain cases, that grace can include the help of the sacraments. “I would also point out that the Eucharist ‘is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak’,” he writes.

Knowing that not everyone agrees with this view, in Amoris Laetitia Francis also says that he understands those who “prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion.” However, he adds, “I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, a Mother who, while clearly expressing her objective teaching, ‘always does what good she can, even if in the process, her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street’.”

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., distinguished professor at Georgetown University for nearly 50 years, writing on the exhortation in Catholic World Report

It would be difficult to know what else to call this section but an exercise in sophisticated casuistry. Every effort is made to excuse or understand how one who is in such a situation is not really responsible for it. There was ignorance, or passion, or confusion. We are admonished not to judge anyone. … the prime interest is in mercy and compassion. God already forgives everything and so should we. The intellectual precision that the Holy Father uses to excuse or lessen guilt is cause for some reflection. The law cannot change but the “gradual” leading up to understanding this failure to observe the law takes time and patience.

But when we add it all up, it often seems that the effect of this approach is to lead us to conclude that no “sin” has ever occurred. Everything has an excusing cause. If this conclusion is correct, we really have no need for mercy, which has no meaning apart from actual sin and its free recognition. One goes away from this approach not being sorry for his sins but relieved in realizing that he has never really sinned at all. Therefore, there is no pressing need to concern oneself too much with these situations.

One wonders sometimes, in reflecting on this innovative approach, whether Christ himself or Paul really meant anything by their often blunt judgments and admonitions on our deeds. If love and mercy are so understood as to make us see that nothing really wrong occurred, how are we to read a passage like the following: “God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him avoids condemnation, but whoever does not believe is already condemned for not believing in the name of God’s only son” (John 3:17-18). We can find many such frank passages in the Scripture.

In 1 Thessalonians, we read: “We beg you, brothers, to respect those whose task it is to exercise authority in the Lord and admonish you…” (5:12). The principal question that one is left with in reading this wide-ranging document is: who is admonishing whom and for what?

Associated Press Vatican correspondents Nicole Winfield and Rachel Zoll

Pope Francis said Friday that Catholics should look to their own consciences rather than rely exclusively on church rules to negotiate the complexities of sex, marriage and family life, demanding the church shift emphasis from doctrine to mercy in confronting some of the thorniest issues facing the faithful.

In a major church document entitled “The Joy of Love,” Francis made no explicit change in church doctrine and upheld church teaching on the lifelong bond of marriage between a man and a woman.

But in selectively citing his predecessors and emphasizing his own teachings in strategically placed footnotes, Francis made innovative openings in pastoral practice for Catholics who civilly remarry and signaled that he wants nothing short of a revolution in the way priests guide ordinary Catholics in their spiritual life. He said the church must no longer sit in judgment and “throw stones” at those who fail to live up to the Gospel's ideals of perfection in marriage and family life.

Jimmy Akin, Senior Apologist at Catholic Answers writing in National Catholic Register:

What does the document say regarding Cardinal Walter Kasper’s proposal to give Holy Communion to some who are divorced and civilly remarried after a “penitential period”?

Nothing. This proposal is not brought up.

Does the document foresee any possibility for sacramentally absolving and giving Communion to people who are civilly remarried if they are not living as brother and sister?

It does… The document thus envisions administering sacramental absolution and holy Communion to those living in objectively sinful situations who are not mortally culpable for their actions due to various cognitive or psychological conditions.

George Weigel, famed biographer of St. Pope John Paul II writing at National Review:

(V)arious pre-exhortation Catholic spin machines have set a context for the reception of Amoris Laetitia that the world media will find irresistible, by focusing almost exclusive attention on the question of whether the pope would endorse one or other of Walter Cardinal Kasper’s proposals for admitting divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to holy communion (quick preview: Francis doesn’t).

So look in the early going for a vast, global argument over whether a “door has been opened” or a “first step taken” to vindicating Kasper. Those who will say that Kasper has not been vindicated seem to me to have the better of the argument, on a close reading of the text of the exhortation. But that won’t prevent others, including German-speaking bishops and theologians who don’t seem capable of recognizing that their proposals were rejected by two synods of bishops, from claiming victory.

Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput writing in Catholic Philly:

Amoris Laetitia is a serious and extensive reflection on Christian marriage. While it changes no Church teaching or discipline…

Elizabeth Scalia, Editor of Aleteia:

What struck me about Amoris Laetitia, is how clearly it demonstrates the consistency of Francis’ thinking…

There are really no surprises in this document — and no change in doctrine, because this is more about how we find the pastoral way to the doctrine

Nothing in this document is going to “destroy the church.” It does not establish a “pathway back to the sacraments.”

Thomas D. Williams, Ph.D., permanent research fellow at the Center for Ethics and Culture, Notre Dame University, writing at Breitbart:

Pope Francis released his long-awaited letter on marriage and families Friday, and despite predictions of radical changes in Church teaching, Francis hewed to the line of his predecessors regarding traditional Catholic doctrine on marriage and family life.

While the 256-page apostolic exhortation called “Amoris Laetitia,” Latin for “The Joy of Love,” makes no change to church doctrine it establishes that the pope sees individual conscience as the most important principle for Catholics trying to navigate difficult issues surrounding sex, marriage and family life.

Fr Mark Drew, PhD in ecumenical theology from the Institut Catholique in Paris, writing in the Catholic Herald:

Nothing in the document reads like a manifesto for revolution; there are no departures from those principles of Catholic teaching which the secular word so ardently awaits.

Of course, what everyone was waiting for was a decision on the access of the divorced and remarried to Holy Communion. On that point, the document has, strictly speaking, nothing new to say.

The letter stresses the necessity for pastoral discernment, of helping people in imperfect situations to grow, of not putting obstacles in their path by a rigid legalism which tries to assimilate different situations under a one-size-fits-all application of general principles whose validity is not called into doubt.

However, on the question about which everybody was waiting for a decision, the only concrete answer is a twice repeated reference (although it is slipped into footnotes) to two paragraphs from Evangelii Gaudium in which the Pope had reminded us that priests should not behave like torturers in the confessional, and that Holy Communion “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak”.

We must now expect continued, protracted, and perhaps acrimonious debate about how this principle is to be applied in the cases under consideration.

Liberals like Kasper will exploit the openings they will spot, notably on implications of the relation of individual consciences to universal norms. Other weighty voices will continue to oppose them energetically. Rather than settling a contentious issue Francis has chosen, if not to throw it open, then at least to ease it gingerly ajar.

And perhaps that is precisely where the document marks a turning point. In the past, popes have intervened with authoritative documents to settle issues causing division or confusion within the Church.