In this process, special attention ought to be given "to the conditioning restraints and attenuating circumstances," since certain factors might exist which either limit the ability to make a decision or "diminish the imputability or responsibility for an action," such as fear, violence, immaturity, anxiety, or various psychological or social factors, the bishops wrote.
Quoting Amoris laetitia, they said that as a result of these "conditioning restraints and attenuating circumstances," it 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."
It's possible that even in "an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God's grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church's help to this end," the bishops said, again quoting Amoris laetitia.
Discernment in this area is especially important "since, as the Pope teaches, in some cases this help can include the help of the sacraments."
"By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth, and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God," the bishops said.
They called for "more prudent instruction in the law of gradualness" so as to discern the presence and grace of God "in all situations" and to help people draw nearer to God, "even when not in a position to understand, appreciate, or fully carry out the objective demands of the law."
"Throughout the discernment process, we should also examine the possibility of conjugal continence. Despite the fact that this ideal is not at all easy, there may be couples who, with the help of grace, practice this virtue without putting at risk other aspects of their life together. On the other hand, there are complex situations where the choice of living 'as brothers and sisters' becomes humanly impossible and give rise to greater harm," the Maltese bishops wrote.
In this, they referred to footnote 329 of Amoris laetitia. This footnote applies the words of Vatican II's pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world, Gaudium et spes, that "where the intimacy of married life is broken off, its faithfulness can sometimes be imperiled and its quality of fruitfulness ruined" – in its context, speaking about married couples – to "the divorced who have entered a new union."
Malta's bishops then wrote: "If, as a result of the process of discernment, undertaken with 'humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching, in a sincere search for God's will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it', a separated or divorced person who is living in a new relationship manages, with an informed and enlightened conscience, to acknowledge and believe that he or she are at peace with God, he or she cannot be precluded from participating in the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist."
Neither should these couples be excluded from being godparents, they said. However, if on the other hand someone "flaunts an objective sin" as if it were the Christian ideal or tries to impose something contrary to Church teaching, "he or she can in no way presume to teach or preach to others."
The bishops concluded their guidelines stressing that "in order to avoid any cause for scandal or confusion among the faithful, we must do our utmost in order to inform ourselves and our communities by studying and promoting the teachings of Amoris Laetitia. This teaching requires us to undergo a 'pastoral conversion'. Together with the Pope, we do understand those who would prefer a 'more rigorous pastoral care', but together with him, we 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''."
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The Maltese bishops issued their guidelines days after Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said in an interview with an Italian TV station that while Chapter 8 of the document has met with fierce criticism, Amoris laetitia is "very clear" in its doctrine.
He challenged the four cardinal who recently published a letter they had sent to Pope Francis requesting that he "resolve the uncertainties and bring clarity" to the exhortation, particularly Chapter 8. Cardinal Müller said that making the discussion public "does damage to the Church."
Cardinal Müller has consistently maintained that Pope Francis' 2016 apostolic exhortation on love in the family has not changed the Church's discipline on admission of the divorced-and-remarried to Communion, and that it must be read in continuity with the preceding Magisterium.
In a May 4 speech, he countered arguments that Amoris laetitia eliminated Church discipline on marriage and allowed in some cases the divorced-and-remarried to receive the Eucharist "without the need to change their way of life." He stated: "This is a matter of a consolidated magisterial teaching, supported by scripture and founded on a doctrinal reason."
If Pope Francis' exhortation "had wanted to eliminate such a deeply rooted and significant discipline, it would have said so clearly and presented supporting reasons," Cardinal Müller said during his address at a Spanish seminary.
The dubia and Cardinal Müller's response – and now the norms issued by Archbishop Scicluna and Bishop Grech – demonstrate the varied reception and interpretation of the apostolic exhortation within the Church.