.- Pope Francis’ teaching on marriage aims to help people in difficult family situations without departing from the broader context of Catholic teaching, Bishop Steven J. Lopes of the Personal Ordinariate of St. Peter has explained in a new pastoral letter.
“Only a careful and faithful reading of Amoris Laetitia will ensure that we receive the Holy Father’s words with the gratitude and respect due them, safeguarding this beautiful reflection from those who would misuse it to promote practices at odds with the Church’s teaching,” he wrote Jan. 16 in "A Pledged Troth".
The bishop cautioned against a reading of the Pope’s 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia based on secular media reports.
“As we navigate the joy and pain of family life, including obstacles and challenges that seem, at times, insurmountable, we know that we have a Savior who has gone ahead of us, has suffered as we have, and promises that nothing can separate us from his love and mercy,” he said.
The bishop cited Amoris laetitia’s presentation of marriage as “an image for understanding the mystery of God himself” as “a communion of love.”
Bishop Lopes’ Houston-based ordinariate, which covers the United States and Canada, is a special Church jurisdiction set up by Benedict XVI to aid Anglican communities who entered into full communion with the Catholic Church while retaining certain elements of their liturgy and other customs.
The bishop’s pastoral letter reflects on the ordinariate’s marriage rite, in which spouses pledge “a deep, exclusive loyalty and lifelong faithfulness.”
The marriage rite for the husband includes the words “to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God’s holy law.”
A valid marriage is “irrevocable” and not even the Church has the power to contravene it, said the bishop, citing the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
The pastoral letter gave particular attention to ordinariate members who may have divorced while part of Episcopalian or Anglican ecclesial communities.
“Knowing well the reality of sin and weakness, the Church tenderly accompanies those who struggle and fail in their attempts to live God’s holy law,” Bishop Lopes said. “Constantly encouraging that daily conversion by which those who fall, can, by God’s grace, rise again, the Church never abandons her children. No one is excluded from the love and mercy of God!”
Bishop Lopes noted Amoris laetitia’s emphasis on pastoral accompaniment of those who have divorced and civilly remarried. This process begins “in reminding people in this circumstance that they are loved by God and remain cherished members of the Church.” It continues through “discerning whether the irregular marital situation can be effectively resolved through a declaration of nullity of the previous marriage.”
This process can appear complicated or can cause fears of opening “old wounds best left alone.” The process should not be done alone but rather within the community of the Church to help a person “peer into difficult realities with the strength of faith and Gospel truth, so that what was hurtful in the past does not inflict new pain now.”
Bishop Lopes said members of the ordinariate who are divorced-and-remarried should speak to their pastor or another priest or deacon of trust. The bishop’s ordinariate does not yet have a marriage tribunal, but its priests and deacons can help the faithful navigate the local Catholic diocese’s tribunal.
Concerning cases where a person’s first marriage was valid, Bishop Lopes cited both Amoris laetitia and St. John Paul II’s 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris consortio. The entire community of the faithful must be attentive to a couple’s situation and ensure that they do not consider themselves separated from the Church. The community must help the couple and any of their children experience the Church “as a mother who welcomes them always.”
The bishop cited Pope Francis’ exhortation, which said a lukewarm attitude or any relativism would be “a lack of fidelity to the Gospel and also of love on the part of the Church.”
“To show understanding in the face of exceptional situations never implies dimming the light of the fuller ideal, or proposing less than what Jesus offers to the human being,” the Pope’s exhortation said.
The Pope warned against hasty judgements about individuals and encouraged treating the weak with compassion.
Pastoral discernment with the divorced-and-remarried must avoid the “grave danger” of misunderstandings, including the idea that “any priest can quickly grant ‘exceptions’,” according to Amoris laetitia.
Bishop Lopes explained that the prohibition against adultery “admits of no exceptions.” As Familiaris consortio says, discernment does not allow us to “look on the law as merely an ideal to be achieved in the future” and there are not different degrees of God’s law for different individuals and situations.
The bishop stressed the need for formation of conscience in the light of Church teaching. He cited Amoris laetitia’s statement that conscience formation “can never prescind from the gospel demands of truth and charity, as proposed by the Church.”
“Consequently, pastoral discernment admits of no exceptions to the moral law, nor does it replace moral law with the private judgments of conscience,” Bishop Lopes said.
Bishop Lopes interpreted Amoris laetitia’s footnote 351 as saying that the formation of conscience “can include the help of the sacraments.” This phrase has been the source of much controversy.
The bishop explained this help of the sacraments can include the Eucharist, under conditions of Church teaching on worthy reception of the Eucharist: anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the Sacrament of Confession.
His pastoral letter placed Pope Francis’ teaching in the context of St. John Paul II’s 2003 encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, which repeated the Council of Trent’s teaching that confessing one’s mortal sins must precede the worthy reception of the Eucharist.
A civilly remarried couple “committed to complete continence” could receive the Eucharist after proper discernment with their pastor and after making a sacramental confession, the bishop taught.
“A civilly remarried couple firmly resolving complete chastity thus resolves not to sin again, which differs in kind from a civilly remarried couple who do not firmly intend to live chastely, however much they may feel sorrow for the failure of their first marriage,” Bishop Lopes explained. “In this situation, they either do not acknowledge that their unchastity, which is adultery, is gravely wrong, or they do not firmly intend to avoid sin.”
At the same time, no one should regard themselves as beyond God’s grace.
“The firm intention for a chaste life is difficult, but chastity is possible, and it ‘can be followed with the help of grace’,” Bishop Lopes said, quoting Pope Francis’ exhortation.
“God orders us to our happiness and well-being, he commands only what is for our goodness, and he never abandons us in our weakness and need,” he added.
His pastoral letter noted that the Anglican Communion’s pastoral practice includes, in some jurisdictions, accommodation of divorce, contraception, and same-sex unions.
“As a result, that Communion has fractured as the plain teaching of Scripture, Tradition, and reason was rejected,” Bishop Lopes said, noting that this situation motivated groups of Anglicans to repeatedly request individual and corporate reception into the Catholic Church.