Pope Francis has been understood to encourage those who interpret Amoris laetitia as opening the way to a new pastoral practice – as he seemed to do in a letter to the bishops of the Buenos Aires region, which is the subject of the latest furor.
His letter approves those bishops' pastoral response to the divorced-and-remarried, based on Amoris laetitia. The response had said that ministry to the divorced-and-remarried must never create confusion about Church teaching and the indissolubility of marriage, but may also allow access to the sacraments under specific limits. These might include specific situations when a penitent in an irregular union is under attenuated culpability, as when leaving such a union could cause harm to his children, although the circumstances envisioned are not precisely delineated, which, some theologians say, has contributed to the confusion.
The Pope's Sept. 5, 2016 letter addressed to Bishop Sergio Alfredo Fenoy of San Miguel said, “The text is very good and makes fully explicit the meaning of the eighth chapter of ‘Amoris Laetitia’. There are no other interpretations. And I am sure it will do a lot of good. May the Lord reward you for this effort of pastoral charity.”
It was reported this weekend that Pope Francis' letter, as well as the pastoral response of the Buenos Aires bishops, were promulgated in the October 2016 issue of the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, a Vatican publication in which official documents of the Pope and the Roman Curia are published, and through which universal ecclesiastical laws are promulgated.
Dr. Edward Peters, a professor of canon law at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, wrote Dec. 4 that the Buenos Aires document contains assertions “running the gamut from obviously true, through true-but-oddly-or-incompletely phrased, to a few that, while capable of being understood in an orthodox sense, are formulated in ways that lend themselves to heterodox understandings.”
He noted that what prevents the admission of the divorced-and-remarried to eucharistic communion is canon 915 “and the universal, unanimous interpretation which that legislative text, rooted as it is in divine law, has always received.” The canon states that those “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.”
In an August 2017 post anticipating the possible publication in AAS of the Buenos Aires letter or the Pope's commendation of it, Peters had written that “many, nay most, papal documents appearing in the Acta carry no canonical or disciplinary force.”
He wrote that “Unless canon 915 itself is directly revoked, gutted, or neutered, it binds ministers of holy Communion to withhold that most august sacrament from, among others, divorced-and-remarried Catholics except where such couples live as brother-sister and without scandal to the community.”
“Nothing I have seen to date, including the appearance of the pope’s and Argentine bishops’ letters in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, makes me think that Canon 915 has suffered such a fate.”
He added: “Neither the pope’s letter to the Argentines, nor the Argentine bishops’ document, nor even Amoris laetitia so much as mentions Canon 915, let alone do these documents abrogate, obrogate, or authentically interpret this norm out of the Code of Canon Law.”
While the Pope's letter and the Buenos Aires bishops' pastoral response do contain ambiguous “disciplinary assertions”, they are insufficient “to revoke, modify, or otherwise obviate” canon 915, Peters wrote.
Aside from the canonical problems with the admission of the divorced-and-remarried to eucharistic communion is the question of what it means that the Buenos Aires document and the Pope's letter in support of it are intended to be a part of the Church’s Magisterium.
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A rescript from Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, in the AAS notes that their promulgation was intended “as authentic Magisterium.”
The Magisterium is a part of teaching office of bishops, by which they are charged with interpreting and preserving the deposit of faith. In its 1990 declaration Donum veritatis, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith noted that the Magisterium “has the task of discerning, by means of judgments normative for the consciences of believers, those acts which in themselves conform to the demands of faith and foster their expression in life and those which, on the contrary, because intrinsically evil, are incompatible with such demands.”
Catholics are bound to assent to divinely revealed teachings with faith; to firmly embrace and retain those things which are required to safeguard reverently and to expound faithfully the deposit of faith; and to give religious submission of intellect and will to doctrines on faith or morals given through the authentic Magisterium.
The critical question regarding Amoris laetitia is what, precisely, it teaches with regard to faith and morals, and what it doesn’t, or even, can’t, teach. On the latter question, especially, the Church’s existent doctrine is helpful.
Even while some bishops, such as those of the Buenos Aires region and those of Malta, have interpreted the apostolic exhortation as allowing a new pastoral practice, many others have maintained that it changes nothing of doctrine or discipline.
For example, while prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller said that Amoris laetitia has not eliminated Church discipline on marriage, nor has it has permitted in some cases the divorced-and-remarried “to receive the Eucharist without the need to change their way of life.”