PHILADELPHIA —The Archdiocese of Philadelphia released “Pastoral Guidelines for Implementing Amoris Laetitia” on July 1, thus providing a clear blueprint for outreach to Catholics on the fringes of the Church, including the divorced and civilly remarried, cohabiting couples and those in same-sex relationships.

Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), Pope Francis’ recent post-synodal apostolic exhortation, “calls for a sensitive accompaniment of those … who may not be living in accord with Catholic belief, and yet desire to be more fully integrated into Church life, including the sacraments of penance and Eucharist,” read the guidelines, approved by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia — a key figure in the two-part synod of bishops on the family, which finished its work in 2015.

But while pastors are encouraged to welcome all Catholics to parish life, the document upholds Church discipline, which prohibits Catholics in irregular unions from receiving the Eucharist.

“As with all magisterial documents, Amoris Laetitia is best understood when read within the tradition of the Church’s teaching and life. In fact, the Holy Father himself states clearly that neither Church teaching nor the canonical discipline concerning marriage has changed,” explains the document, which spells out when and how Catholics in a range of difficult situations can return to the sacraments.

“Archbishop Chaput’s text is the most important episcopal response to the exhortation that has yet been published,” Christian Brugger, a professor of moral theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, told the Register.

Brugger said he has not yet seen similar guidelines released by other U.S. delegates to the synod and expressed hope that the document will serve as a “model” for other dioceses in this country.

Meanwhile, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, who was baptized a Catholic, on July 6 criticized Archbishop Chaput for the guidelines, tweeting, “Jesus gave us gift of Holy Communion because he so loved us. All of us. Chaput’s actions are not Christian.”

 

July 1 Implementation

Designed for Philadelphia “priests and deacons, seminarians and laypersons who work in the fields of marriage, sacramental ministry and pastoral care regarding matters of human sexuality,” the guidelines took effect July 1.

They strongly encourage pastoral support for married couples who are able to receive the sacraments but still face an array of challenges. Likewise, sensitive consideration is given to the problems of Catholics who are civilly remarried after a divorce and others who cohabit or have entered into a same-sex union.

In its concise review of Catholic doctrine, the document upholds moral absolutes that prohibit sexual intimacy outside of a lawful marriage and tackles misconceptions about the role of the conscience in the moral decision-making process.

“Conscience stands under the objective moral law and should be formed by it, so that ‘[t]he truth about moral good, as that truth is declared in the law of reason, is practically and concretely recognized by the judgment of conscience,’” states the document, which quotes from Pope St. John Paul II’s landmark encyclical Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth). “Pastors should strive to avoid both a subjectivism that ignores the truth or a rigorism that lacks mercy.”

 

Call for Engagement

The second portion of the document begins with an examination of the needs of married couples who are able to receive the sacraments but may face an array of serious challenges that can threaten the stability of their union.

“Every family is a ‘domestic church,’ but no Christian family can survive indefinitely without encouragement from other believing families. The Christian community must especially find ways to engage and help families who are burdened by illness, financial setbacks and marital friction,” state the guidelines.

Catholics who are separated or divorced, sometimes through no fault of their own, also require special sensitivity from Church ministers.

“It can mean separation from one’s children, a life without conjugal intimacy, and for some the prospect of never having children. Pastors should offer these persons friendship, understanding, introductions to reliable lay mentors and practical help, so they can sustain their fidelity even under pressure,” the guidelines explain.

When appropriate, such Catholics “should be strongly encouraged to seek the assistance of a marriage tribunal of the Church,” the document advises.

Annulments “cannot be granted informally or privately by individual pastors or priests. Because marriage is a public reality, and because a determination about the validity of a marriage affects the lives, the rights and the duties of all parties touched by it, there must be a canonical process and a decision by the proper authority under canon law.”

The document offers an equally sympathetic treatment of Catholics who have divorced and civilly remarried.

“Couples should sense from their pastors, and from the whole community, the love they deserve as persons made in the image of God and as fellow Christians.”

At the same time, Church ministers are directed to help such couples make an examination of conscience that grapples with the moral choices that brought them to their present predicament.

“The divorced and remarried should ask themselves: how they have acted toward their children when the conjugal union entered into crisis; if they made attempts at reconciliation; what has become of the abandoned party,” reads the document, which suggests an array of topics for review.

 

The Communion Question

The guidelines also consider the contentious question introduced into the synodal process in early 2014 by German Cardinal Walter Kasper: “Can the divorced and civilly remarried receive the sacraments?” While the document offers a more developed response to this query, it also provides a concise answer: “With divorced-and-civilly-remarried persons, Church teaching requires them to refrain from sexual intimacy. This applies even if they must (for the care of their children) continue to live under one roof.”

Guidance for ministering to cohabiting couples is also included.

“Where one or another person is not capable of, or is not willing to commit to, a marriage, the pastor should urge them to separate,” states the document, which observes that some couples cohabit because of immaturity, and so are ill-prepared for marriage.

“Where the couple is disposed to marriage, they should be encouraged to practice chastity until they are sacramentally married.”

The document also makes clear that persons with same-sex attraction are loved equally by God and that the required practice of chastity, though often very difficult, is possible.

“They should be counseled, like everyone else, to have frequent recourse to the sacrament of penance, where they should be treated with gentleness and compassion,” the guidelines explain.

The document notes that many pastors already have experience working with same-sex couples who live together chastely. But the text explicitly rejects the inclusion into parish life of “two persons in an active, public same-sex relationship,” as “a serious counter-witness to Catholic belief.”

 

Earlier Interpretations of the Exhortation

After the Vatican released Amoris Laetitia in April, news headlines that greeted Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation said it would result in a more “inclusive” Church.

Pope Francis wants the “Church to be more welcoming and less judgmental, and he seemingly signaled a pastoral path for divorced-and-remarried Catholics to receive holy Communion,” reported The New York Times.

Indeed, Cardinal Kasper — the retired German Church leader who roiled the synod with his proposal of an “internal forum” provision that would open the door for divorced-and-civilly-remarried Catholic to receive the Eucharist without living in continence in the second union — also welcomed the exhortation as a game changer.

Reception of the Eucharist for Catholics in irregular unions, Cardinal Kasper told the British Catholic newspaper The Tablet, would not be permitted “as a general permission, but according to a spiritual and pastoral discernment, judging case by case.”

Pope Francis did not endorse the internal-forum provision in Amoris Laetitia, and most U.S. Church leaders have shown little enthusiasm for the proposal, even as they move ahead with plans to incorporate elements of the exhortation in marriage-preparation courses and in catechetical and seminary formation.

Archbishop Chaput, one of several delegates who represented the U.S. bishops at the 2015 synod, earlier sought to reset expectations regarding the changes in store for the Church.

“It would be a mistake to misread the compassionate spirit of Amoris Laetitia as a license to ignore Christian truth on matters of substance — matters that include the Catholic teaching on marriage and the discipline of the Church in the administration of the sacraments,” Archbishop Chaput cautioned in an April 14 column in his archdiocesan newspaper.

 

‘Clear Christian Guidance’

Now, with the release of the concise, clear guidelines for implementation of Amoris Laetitia, Archbishop Chaput has offered a pastoral path that grounds compassion in an adherence to established Church practice. At the same time, the language of the text reflects an urgent desire to bridge the divide between alienated Catholics and their cradle faith.

This striking approach will likely generate considerable attention. At present, Archbishop Chaput is an elected member of the Vatican’s synod council, which will direct the global follow-up to the synods on the family. And as chairman-elect of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, he has agreed to coordinate a working group of committee chairmen that will assist the bishops with implementation of the exhortation in this country.

Brugger applauded the guidelines for providing “clear Christian guidance for caring for the souls of Catholics living in difficult or objectively sinful situations.”

Of equal importance, he added, the text “clarifies five doctrinal questions generated by Amoris Laetitia, namely, on the nature of conscience; on reception of holy Communion for civilly remarried divorcees who are unwilling to refrain from sexual intimacy; on priestly pastoral competency to ‘accompany’ divorced Catholics in the [internal] forum; on the nature of moral absolutes; and on the biblical meaning of mercy.”

Asked to comment on the substance of the guidelines, Kurt Martens, a leading canon lawyer at The Catholic University of America, told the Register: “Archbishop Chaput only applies the teaching of the Church and shows where the lines are drawn.”

“He does a good job explaining in general what it means to receive Communion” and “the relation between sin and Communion. Moreover, he does it in a pastoral way, precisely what Pope Francis has asked for,” Martens added.

That said, the canon lawyer predicted that some Catholics will look for a starkly different implementation of an inspiring and controversial papal exhortation.

“For sure, there will be people who do not like what is in these pastoral guidelines,” Martens concluded, “but they should be encouraged to read and reread Amoris Laetitia to discover what’s there and what’s not there.”

 

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.