VATICAN (SE): The bishops of Argentina issued a pastoral letter in August this year containing guidelines for priests accompanying the divorced and remarried, including a guarded, but at the same time clear statement of the possibility of readmission to the sacraments in some circumstances.
Pope Francis had hinted that his mind is not closed to this when he told journalists on a flight from Lesbos to Rome in April this year when asked if possibilities for access to the sacraments had changed, “I could say yes and leave it at that. But that would be too brief.”
He recommended a reading of the writing of Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, from Vienna, whom he described as a great theologian.
The cardinal writes, “Discernment must help to find possible ways of responding to God and growing in the midst of limits. 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.”
But Pope Francis spoke more specifically on September 5 when he praised the bishops of Argentina for their work in a letter, calling it, “A true example of the accompaniment of priests… (and) is very good and fully captures the meaning of chapter eight of Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love).”
He adds, “There are no other interpretations. I am sure it will do much good.”
Since the closing of the 2015 Synod on Family Life and more especially since the release of Pope Francis’ exhortation, The Joy of Love, the issue of whether the divorced could, under some circumstances, have access to the sacraments has been a hot topic of debate, with the most adamant for the negative side stressing that there has been no change in doctrine.
Specifically, the controversy has raged over interpretation of chapter eight, which addresses the reintegration of what are referred to as wounded and irregular families, and hints that a process of discernment could lead to readmission to the sacraments on a case by case basis.
The bishops of the Argentine agree, saying that this is not a matter of questioning or changing doctrine, or a question of granting a permission, which would override a long held Church requirement for people presenting themselves for the sacraments.
They insist that the guidelines they are drawing for priests dealing with such wounded families and couples are not a departure from doctrine and do not invalidate the traditional disciplines.
The bishops explain that the usually required commitment to continence can be considered as an option for couples, but only when their concrete circumstances allow for it.
They then note that this could well be feasible for two Christians firmly committed to following the same path and certainly leave the option for readmission to the sacraments open.
But in the following paragraph, the bishops also explain that where there are “other more complex circumstances and when it is not possible to obtain a declaration of annulment, the above mentioned option may not be viable.”
However, they strongly maintain that the possibility of discernment is still a possibility, especially in a situation where refraining from intercourse could threaten the continued existence of the union and consequent well-being of any children.
They write, “When there is acknowledgement, in a concrete case, of the existence of limitations that diminish the degree of responsibility and culpability—particularly when a person believes they would commit another mistake that could harm any children born into the new union—Amoris Laetitia introduces the possibility of access to the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist.”
At the same time they insist that this is not a window to unrestricted access to the sacraments, as it is not something that is justified by the situation, but the complexities that distort it.
The bishops also admit that this is a prickly path to tread and list some examples of where special attention is required; when a new union is forged quickly after a divorce or one partner persistently falls short in fulfilling their family obligations.
The say that people need to be guided in placing themselves and their conscience before God, but this is especially true “when it comes to their behaviour towards their children or towards the abandoned spouse. When there are injustices that remain unresolved, access to the sacraments is particularly controversial.”
Pope Franics said in his letter to the Argentine bishops that he knows that the process of hand-to-hand pastoral care is tiring and an area where programmes and organisational legal mediation are not enough, but they really are necessary.
The pope had already warned in his exhortation, “I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion” (No. 308). We put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance. That is the worst way of watering down the gospel.”
However, the bishops of the Argentine are also aware of the shortcomings of local communities and recommend that for a couple that may be readmitted to the sacraments that confidentiality and discretion are advisable.
They also stress the need for education of local communities on the matter.