In November 2016, then Cardinal-elect Kevin Farrell, head of the Vatican Office for Family, Life and Laity, very publicly criticized Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia over the pastoral guidelines for implementing Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) for his archdiocese.
Cardinal Farrell told Catholic News Service that he disagreed with Archbishop Chaput regarding whether Catholics who are divorced and civilly remarried may eventually receive Communion. While saying there is objective moral truth, Cardinal Farrell added, “I think there are all kinds of different circumstances and situations that we have to look at — each case as it is presented to us.”
In a response to CNS that was published in full at the time by the archdiocese, Archbishop Chaput noted, “The guidelines have a clear emphasis on mercy and compassion. This makes sense because individual circumstances are often complex. Life is messy. But mercy and compassion cannot be separated from truth and remain legitimate virtues.”
The dispute was emblematic of the polarizing challenge of implementing Amoris Laetitia in the individual dioceses of the world, let alone by national episcopal conferences.
From the time of the synods of the bishops on the family in 2014 and 2015 that led to Pope Francis’ exhortation, some bishops in the Church have publicly disagreed over the questions of Communion for divorced-and-remarried Catholics and how to help couples in irregular situations form their consciences properly, while most have maintained a deliberate and prudential silence on the entire controversy.
As Archbishop Chaput said, “I think every bishop in the United States feels a special fidelity to Pope Francis as Holy Father. We live that fidelity by doing the work we were ordained to do as bishops.”
In that spirit, a number of bishops have issued guidelines or pastoral plans for their own dioceses or archdioceses with stark contrasts to each other.
In fact, no sharper disparity in the interpretation of Amoris Laetitia could be found than in the first U.S. guidelines issued by Archbishop Chaput and by Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, in the immediate aftermath of the promulgation of the document.
Philadelphia’s priests were told in July 2016 that they “must help the divorced and civilly remarried to form their consciences according to the truth. This is a true work of mercy. … Undertaking to live as brother and sister is necessary for the divorced and civilly remarried to receive reconciliation in the sacrament of penance, which could then open the way to the Eucharist.”
Compare that language to the directive issued by Bishop McElroy in his pastoral letter, “Embracing the Joy of Love,” published only one month after the apostolic exhortation.
“It is important to underscore that the role of the priest is one of accompaniment,” he wrote, “meant to inform the conscience of the discerner on principles of Catholic faith. … Some Catholics engaging in this process of discernment will conclude that God is calling them to return to full participation in the life of the Church and the Eucharist.”
Meanwhile, several other U.S. bishops issued their own guidelines toward the end of 2016 with wording very similar to that of Archbishop Chaput, including Bishops James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska, and Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix, Arizona. They not only reiterated the prohibition against Communion for the divorced and remarried but staked out the ground that Amoris does not change Church teaching and must be seen in continuity with the Church’s magisterium.
Bishop Steven Lopes of the Anglican Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter wrote in his own January 2017 pastoral letter that “pastoral discernment admits of no exceptions to the moral law, nor does it replace the moral law with personal judgments of conscience.”
Likewise, Bishop Philip Egan, of Portsmouth, England, in July 2016 published a letter, read in the churches of his diocese, which stated Amoris “does not change Church discipline.”
Several bishops of Africa, such as Archbishop Telesphore-George Mpundu of Lusaka, Zambia, have restated the Church’s teachings on marriage in light of Amoris or warned about the dangers to the Eucharist when unworthily received.
Cardinal John Onaiyekan, archbishop of Abuja, Nigeria, told a Eucharistic Congress in Ghana last August that the Eucharist “is not for us to treat as we like. Indeed, we must always pray to God that we never be found guilty of disrespecting the Body and Blood of Jesus.”
By contrast, Portuguese Archbishop Jorge Ferreira da Costa Ortiga of Braga published a pastoral letter in January that gives the widest possible latitude for divorced-and-remarried Catholics to decide for themselves if they are ready to receive Holy Communion.
Bishops’ Conferences Speak
But what have episcopal conferences or regional bishops had to say on this issue? The short answer is that they face the same disagreements that now exist among individual bishops, even as most seem reluctant to place themselves on the record.
Given that the many German bishops had been vocal supporters of finding a path for Communion for divorced-and-remarried Catholics, it came as no surprise that the bishops of Germany in January 2017 decided to implement Amoris with a process of “accompanying, discerning and integrating,” culminating with the declaration, “The individual decision in the respective circumstances of not, or not yet, being able to receive the sacraments deserves respect and recognition. But a decision in favor of receiving the sacraments must also be respected.” The Belgian bishops also followed suit in May 2017 with nearly identical wording.
What did come as a surprise was the decision of the Maltese bishops to follow the same path.
The German, Belgian and Maltese declarations are at severe variance with the statements of the bishops of Kazakhstan and Alberta and the Northwest Territories in Canada.
In their guidance of September 2016, the western Canadian bishops taught that in the case where the tribunal upholds the validity of the first union, divorced-and-remarried Catholics “are bound to live with the consequences of that truth as part of their witness to Christ and his teaching on marriage. This may be difficult.”
Even stronger were the bishops of Kazakhstan in Central Asia, including the outspoken Auxiliary Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Astana, who declared at the end of 2017 that the interpretation of bishops’ conferences such as Germany and Malta is “alien” to the Church’s teachings. Their signatures on the declaration were soon joined by other bishops, including Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, former papal nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Luigi Negri, archbishop emeritus of Ferrara-Comacchio, Cardinal Janis Pujats, archbishop emeritus of Riga, Latvia, and Bishop René Gracida, bishop emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas.
Far more complicated was the statement of the bishops of Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 2016 that, under particular circumstances, Amoris Laetitia opens up the possibility of access to the sacraments.
The vaguely worded statement received apparent papal approbation from Pope Francis, who, in a letter in September 2016, told the Argentine prelates, “The document is very good and completely explains the meaning of Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia. There are no other interpretations.”
The letter was subsequently published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, the official record of Vatican documents and acts.
A Disintegrating Catholicity?
The pastoral guidelines of such Church leaders as Bishop Conley and Bishop Egan, with their working assumption that doctrine has not changed but that extensive pastoral care is needed in many ways, anticipated the pastoral plan for implementing Amoris issued in March by Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., “Sharing the Joy of Love.” On the one hand, it declares (with an exclamation point) that Church teaching has not changed, but it also strives to shift the discussion to what he considers to be the neglected application of Amoris’ broader teachings on family life.
Two years into the debate over Amoris Laetitia, the lamentable gulf among bishops seems to be growing even wider. Cardinal Wuerl’s plan might point a way forward for other U.S. bishops and perhaps for the episcopal conferences across the globe, but for all of the upheaval, it is also worth noting that only a tiny number of the world’s 5,000-plus bishops and hundreds of episcopal conferences have actually spoken publicly on Amoris.
For its part, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) approved the drafting of a formal statement and pastoral plan in light of Amoris Laetitia at its general meeting last November, but it is unclear whether the U.S. bishops will reach a consensus without considerable internal disagreement.
Dioceses and countries — sometimes right next to each other — have wildly different approaches to sacramental practice and conscience formation, with the predictable result of what some theologians are warning is the slow disintegration of the Church’s Catholicity.
Or, as George Weigel put it in First Things, “The Catholic Church is beginning to resemble the Anglican Communion (itself the product of a traumatic ‘paradigm shift’ that cost John Fisher and Thomas More their heads). For in the Anglican Communion, what is believed and celebrated and practiced in England is quite different from what is believed, celebrated and practiced in Nigeria or Uganda.”
Matthew E. Bunson is a Register senior editor.