In his post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (Love in the Family), Pope Francis sums up the results of the two synods on the family of 2014 and 2015.
When it comes to one of the questions that were most heatedly debated, he says “No” to those who would have hoped for binding criteria to regulate the possible access of the divorced-and-civilly “remarried” to Communion (Cardinal Walter Kasper, The Gospel of the Family, p. 52).
It is not unlikely that Pope Francis was thinking precisely of this matter when he wrote: “Not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium” (AL, 3). According to its own testimony, then, Amoris Laetitia does not want to make clear decisions here.
Rather, the exhortation sets other priorities. As Pope Francis himself formulated the emphasis during the press conference above the clouds on his return flight from Lesbos on April 16: The document wants to address today’s crisis of the family that is expressed by the fact that young people increasingly renounce marriage altogether, that ever fewer children are born and that the children who are born very often have to grow up without their parents.
The principal problem, thus, is that the family is no longer perceived as good news. It is this challenge that Francis seeks to confront (AL, 35). To this end, he reflects on love and assigns a central place to the topic of education.
Accordingly, Chapters Four and Five do not only literally but also thematically stand at the center. They offer a meditation on St. Paul’s “Hymn of Charity” (1 Corinthians 13) and a reflection on the fruitfulness of love. The topic of education, too, receives its own dedicated chapter (Chapter Seven). However, it practically permeates the whole work, as does the argument of love’s fruitfulness. In this context, the teaching of Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth) is explicitly reaffirmed (AL, 80 and 222).
Even if it is with great respect that Pope Francis, together with the synod fathers, addresses those who live in non-marital unions, he does not fail to underline the necessity to seek “the grace of conversion for them” (78).
At a different place, he points out that marriage and the family are specific and without alternative: “No union that is temporary or closed to the transmission of life can ensure the future of society” (52) and — so one may legitimately add — of the Church. Hence it is of decisive importance to prepare young people for marriage as soon as possible. Indeed, for the Holy Father, marriage preparation begins practically with birth (208).
Part of it is a “training in the areas of emotion and instinct” (148) as a formation of the passions and a rediscovery of the virtue of chastity as “invaluable for the genuine growth of love between persons” (206). One may quite fittingly sum up all this in the idea of a “pedagogy of love” (211).
In his presentation of the gospel of the family, Pope Francis makes extended reference to St. John Paul II’s theology of the body (150-164). The central themes of the theology of the body are taken up by Amoris Laetitia: the significance of sexual difference, the indissoluble and faithful union between man and woman and the fruitfulness of their love in their openness to life.
It is quite evident that the question of divorce and “remarriage” is not remotely the main argument of the post-synodal apostolic exhortation. The document’s main concern is, rather, to show that the family is not a problem but “first and foremost an opportunity” (87).
Where does this leave us with the divorced and “remarried”? One would think that a pope as courageous as Pope Francis, a pope who has the heart of a shepherd and whose great concern is the well-being of his flock, would say it very clearly if he wanted to change the existing praxis in any fundamental way. After all, he knows that nothing is more poisonous for the pastoral care of the family than ambiguity. Why should he be afraid to speak out unequivocally?
There are two documents by his predecessors that describe in the clearest terms that under certain circumstances the divorced and “remarried” can be exonerated from their obligation to separate — for instance, if the welfare of children is at stake — and that they can even receive Communion as long as they take on the commitment to live according to the truth of their situation, that is, as people who are not married, which means in continence (John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, 84; Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis, 29).
Pope Francis himself speaks of a pastoral care that should be centered on the marriage bond (211). Therefore, when it comes to discerning a particular situation, the question of the possible existence of a prior marriage bond will certainly continue to play a decisive role.
The passage in Amoris Laetitia that more than any other might be read as suggesting a change in the ecclesial praxis is 305, with its corresponding note, 351:
“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.”
In Footnote 351, we then read: “In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments,” while immediately afterwards we learn that what is meant are Communion and confessions. There are different ways of interpreting this text in consonance with the Tradition, and I have proposed such a reading in a different place: At this point, all I want to do is to ask one question: Is it really likely that Pope Francis — who desires a pastoral care centered on the marriage bond and who is conscious of the fact that “mercy does not exclude justice and truth” (311) — would want to change in a footnote the constant praxis of the Church that goes back to Jesus and St. Paul and is rooted in doctrine?
Even if, as Cardinal Christoph Schönborn put it, using a footnote to enact such significant a step should simply be a sign of humility (presentation of Amoris Laetitia, Vatican, April 8), one should think that the Pope himself would be conscious of this measure.
Explicitly asked about the footnote on April 16 by journalist Jean-Marie Guénois of Le Figaro, the Pope said, “I do not remember this note.” What, then, is the value of his reference to Cardinal Schönborn’s explanation of the document by which, during the same press conference, the Pope responded to the question about the new possibilities for the divorced and “remarried”?
Cardinal Schönborn had greatly emphasized the very note the Pope could not remember. Therefore, the Pope will not remember the corresponding explanations of the Viennese cardinal either.
Thus, to interpret the document, we are left with the text itself: a text that at times seems to make hints in a certain direction, but in which Francis does not ever take an explicit stance.
In fact, he explicitly says that he does not want to take a stance (3). A reasonable principle for discernment would seem to be the following: What is clear takes precedence over what is doubtful. Familiaris Consortio (84) and Sacramentum Caritatis (29) are crystal clear in what they are saying. To change the praxis described in these documents, one would need a papal declaration of the same authority (hence, at least an apostolic exhortation and not an interview, which is not magisterium) and one of the same clarity. Until now, this is certainly not the case.
Therefore, despite the pressure of public opinion and despite the moves of those who even within the Church seek simply to create facts, an objective and careful reading of Amoris Laetitia does not justify changes with respect to the question of Communion for the divorced-and-civilly “remarried.”
Rather, the existing praxis remains in act. This does not mean that after the publication of Amoris Laetitia there are no “new concrete possibilities” for the divorced and “remarried.” A path of welcoming, accompanying and integrating, as imagined by Francis, has many possibilities that will be in perfect consonance with the pastoral care centered on the marriage bond (211) as desired by the same pope.
Stephan Kampowski is a professor of philosophical anthropology
at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome.