Blogs > Amoris Laetitia: Pope Francis has created confusion where we needed clarity

18 April 2016 | by Clifford Longley

Amoris Laetitia: Pope Francis has created confusion where we needed clarity

His thesis on the synod of the family is perfect in every way - except the vital topic of communion for divorced and remmarieds

Still they argue, argue, argue. Yes he did; no he didn't. He can; he can't. What exactly did Pope Francis intend to convey by chapter eight of his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia? Conservatives say Pope Francis cannot have meant that "divorced and remarried Catholics could be admitted to Holy Communion in certain circumstances", as many have interpreted the document, because that would be plain contrary to long-standing Catholic practice sanctioned by the magisterium.

But that would have meant that he too is a conservative, and we know he is a liberal. We are free to interpret his words in the light of that. But why the uncertainty? Why couldn't he have spelt it out with a simple statement such as the one above? Was he under pressure, for instance facing threats of resignation from senior cardinals in the Vatican, so he had to create a smoke screen so everyone could claim a victory? How does that help the rest of us, or at least those of us who aren't conservative curial cardinals? He has created confusion precisely where there needs to be clarity.

In every other respect Amoris Laetitia is a pastoral triumph. But not this one. It is a mess. In those circumstances the only possible advice is to follow the instincts and intuitions of one's conscience as honestly as possible, consulting whomever one likes in the process. Let liberals interpret the document liberally and conservatives conservatively. But don't let anybody tell them they are wrong, because nobody knows that for sure.

I have to say, on a forensic examination of the text alongside other previous statements on these issues, that the Pope's conservative critics do have a point; indeed several of them. Saying that doesn't alter my fundamental conclusion that the liberals are right - the Pope's intention is that divorced and remarried Catholics can receive Holy Communion in certain circumstances. But let's face it, many of them do already.

There are several places in the text where Pope Francis could be accused of disingenuousness - I hesitate out of respect to say dishonesty - by drawing conclusions that do not follow from the evidence he cites, by choosing selectively from some of the sources he quotes, and by ignoring related passages which go against his argument. If I had written this document and taken such liberties with the evidence, I would be very uneasy. These are the sorts of weaknesses which, had they occurred in a document at the centre of a libel action, would have been mercilessly exposed under cross examination by a well briefed counsel.

Take footnote 345 in paragraph 302, which refers to a 2000 statement by the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts called Declaration Concerning the Admission to Holy Communion of Faithful Who are Divorced and Remarried. The passage in Amoris Laetitia to which the footnote is attached states "...a negative judgment about an objective situation does not imply a judgement about the imputability or culpability of the person." It can be deduced that this refers specifically to the issue of the admission of divorced and remarried Catholics to Communion from an earlier sentence in the previous paragraph - "Hence 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."

Yet the entire argument of the 2000 document points emphatically and unambiguously the other way. The issue here is the correct interpretation of Canon 915 - "Those ... who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to Holy Communion." It refers to unnamed authors who "offer various interpretations of the above-cited canon that exclude from its application the situation of those who are divorced and remarried". It then lists those interpretations and dismisses each one. The degree of subjective culpability - the good faith of the remarried Catholic - is not relevant, it says; the test is objective, and applies to all those who are in this situation regardless of how they got there, whether it was their fault, and what their conscience had to say about it. Whatever, they are "obstinately persisting in manifest sin."

There is no pussy-footing here with the oft-quoted provision that to avoid scandal a priest should not publicly refuse Communion even to someone he or she knows is not entitled to it under this rubric. "The minister of Communion must refuse to distribute it to those who are publicly unworthy," it bluntly declares. Indeed it goes further, and says the priest must instruct deacons and lay Eucharistic ministers that they too must also refuse to distribute Communion to divorced and remarried Catholics. In other words they have to be told which members of the parish this applies to. This is an almost impossibly onerous responsibility to put upon a lay person, not to mention a probable breach of confidence by the priest. And it could lead to severe scandal in the parish. That does not seem to have occurred to the drafters.

I have never heard of a parish applying it. But why then does the Pope cite this appalling document, in support of his case that degree of subjective culpability must be taken into account, the exact opposite of what it plainly says? Why not just let this particularly nasty sleeping dog lie? It is mystifying.

Something similar happens when Pope Francis deals with the way this issue is treated in Pope John Paul II's 1981 exhortation, Familiaris Consortio. It too followed a synod on the family, the year before. He quotes it as saying "Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations’.

He goes on to quote from the final report of the 2015 synod - "Therefore, while clearly stating the Church’s teaching, pastors are to avoid judgements that do not take into account the complexity of various situations, and they are to be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience and endure distress because of their condition”.

But Pope John Paul II did not stop there. "There is in fact a difference," he insisted in 1981, "between those who have sincerely tried to save their first marriage and have been unjustly abandoned, and those who through their own grave fault have destroyed a canonically valid marriage. Finally, there are those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children's upbringing, and who are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably destroyed marriage had never been valid." All well and good so far...

But then, disregarding all that talk about discernment of various degrees of guilt, Pope John Paul II slams on the brakes and gives this unambiguously negative ruling: "However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church's teaching about the indissolubility of marriage."

But Pope Francis does not quote this definitive declaration, surely central to this whole debate, and unless one knows quite a lot of recent church history, one might not even be aware of it. The impression he gives is that Pope John Paul II wants priests to discern culpability and proceed accordingly. Instead, at this point in the text, Familiaris Consortio changes direction. It is inconsistent, even incoherent. Did Pope Francis not know this?

It goes on in similar hardline vein by spelling out that the only divorced and remarried Catholics permitted to receive Holy Communion are those who "take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples." This is the so-called "brother and sister" solution. Forget all about "careful discernment of situations" - abstinence from sexual relations is the only option.

In these passages Pope Francis is totally ignoring his predecessor's negative ruling, but is quoting Familiaris Consortio as if it meant the opposite. The fact is I think Francis is right and John Paul II was wrong on the point of principle, but the fly in the ointment is the way quotations to back up his argument are taken from the earlier Pope selectively, and I would have to say, highly tendentiously.

The same thing happens with the brother and sister solution itself. It is mentioned both in Familiaris Consortio and in the 2000 Declaration regarding legislative texts. But it is not mentioned in connection with divorce in any document of the Second Vatican Council. Yet Pope Francis invokes a passage from Gaudium et Spes (Church in the Modern World) of 1965, to eliminate the brother and sister solution as a feasible option. Footnote 329 states that "many people, knowing and accepting the possibility of living 'as brothers and sisters' which the Church offers them, point out that if certain expressions of intimacy are lacking, 'it often happens that faithfulness is endangered and the good of the children suffers'." And gives the reference to the appropriate Gaudium et Spes paragraph. I am sure this is sound advice, but is it strictly honest to quote in support of it a remark from a Vatican II document that was discussing something else entirely?

What is irritating is that a good sub-editor, willing to shorten this overlong text by a few hundred words, could easily have left out these contentious misrepresentations and not weakened the argument one bit. Indeed, without them it would have less assailable and therefore stronger. Were they kept in deliberately, as a kind of sabotage by curial officials who did not like the way things were going? The one thing this demonstrates to me is that the claim that Pope Francis has not "changed" church doctrine is more spin than truth.

True, he hasn't actually announced any changes. His text just ignores previous teachings that he does not agree with, and quotes the bits he does. He is the Pope after all - he is entitled to say about Familiaris Consortio what Cardinal Raymond Burke has said about Amoris Laetitia, that if anyone disagrees with it, it can safely be dismissed as one man's personal opinion.

In fact it is far better than the 1981 document. Pope John Paul II was laying down rules and imposing them on people's consciences - precisely what Pope Francis says church teaching should not do. Amoris Laetitia speaks to the truth of intimate human relationships like no other Catholic document I have ever come across. It hands back to people the right to exercise their own moral judgements, asking their pastors for help when appropriate. It does not leave those pastors in the seat of judgement: they are no longer gatekeepers of the Sacraments, checking the passports of those who apply.

While congratulating him on it, I sincerely wish Pope Francis had been more careful with the evidence he cited. He has handed his critics more ammunition than he needed to. And so the arguments will go on and on - and on.



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