The most controversial moment of Pope Francis’ new apostolic exhortation – Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) – might be confined to a humble footnote, but the implication is clear: the pope has opened the door to Cardinal Walter Kasper’s proposal that in some circumstances divorced and remarried Catholics could be readmitted to the sacraments, including the Eucharist.
In so doing the pope appears to have taken up a position contrary to that of his predecessors, most notably Pope Saint John Paul II, who had flatly rejected the idea of admitting the divorced and remarried to Communion in his apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio. Pope Benedict XVI, during his time as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had also addressed the controversy, and come down definitively against liberalizing the Church’s practice.
It isn’t until Chapter 8 of Pope Francis’ historically lengthy apostolic exhortation that he deals directly with the question that has embroiled the Church in debate for the past two years – ever since Cardinal Kasper, at Pope Francis’ personal invitation, outlined his controversial proposal in a keynote address to a consistory of Cardinals at the Vatican.
The text of the final document (or relatio) of last year’s Synod on the Family had caused concern among some synod fathers by referencing the idea of the “internal forum” in relation to the debate over the divorced and remarried. This idea has been used by some theologians to argue that a penitent who persists in an objectively sinful state could discern, in private discussion with his confessor, that his subjective culpability is limited, and he could therefore return to the sacraments.
In the exhortation released today, Pope Francis has adopted and expanded that reasoning.
Though the entire thrust of Chapter 8 is making the case for a deeper “integration” of those in “irregular unions” into the life of the Church, in the main body of the text the pope leaves the meaning of the phrase more or less ambiguous. However, he provides a clear answer at the end of a footnote to paragraph 305, where he states that this “integration” can, “in certain cases,” involve admittance to the sacraments, including the Eucharist.
In paragraph 305, the pope warns that “a pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in ‘irregular’ situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives.” Quoting a well-known section of his own speech at the conclusion of the Synod on the Family last October, Francis says that such a pastor would be “sitting on the chair of Moses and judging at times with superiority and superficiality difficult cases and wounded families.”
Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that 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.
At the end of that sentence, he includes a footnote (351), which clarifies: “In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments,” and then refers to both Confession and the Eucharist. He writes: “I would also point out that the Eucharist ‘is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.’”
Speaking of the problem of integrating people in irregular unions, the pope says it would be impossible to establish “general rules,” such as through canon law. Rather, he encourages individuals to discern their individual circumstances in the “internal forum” – i.e. in private consultation with their priest – and following guidelines established by the bishop.
He writes: “What is possible is simply a renewed encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases, one which would recognize that, since ‘the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases’, the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same.”
This applies even to “sacramental discipline,” he writes in a footnote to that text, because “discernment can recognize that in a particular situation no grave fault exists.”