When Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) was released in April, it was already clear that an unusual moment in the life of the Church had been reached. The September disclosure of guidelines formulated by Argentinian bishops — and explicitly endorsed personally by the Holy Father himself in a very peculiar manner — has served to reinforce how misunderstood this unusual moment has become.

Pope Francis clearly wanted to change the Church’s practice on the admission of the divorced and civilly remarried to holy Communion, but could not get the synod of bishops to agree. It was an example of the Holy Spirit guiding the magisterium of the Church through the bishops against their head rather than in concert with him. Thus, on the contested question, Amoris Laetitia was ambiguous, employing hints buried in footnotes and deceptive citations of previous magisterial teaching.

It did not teach what its author clearly wanted to teach, which meant that it could still be read, with some difficulties, in continuity with what the Church had taught before.

What followed over the summer was an even more strange exercise of the magisterium by stealth, with an ambiguous text being supposedly clarified by interventions of no magisterial authority at all. The Holy Father himself has referred people to the interpretation of Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, an admirable man and esteemed theologian, but who himself has been ambiguous on what the post-synodal apostolic exhortation means.

In any case, press interviews with a cardinal are not authoritative interpretations of magisterial texts. L’Osservatore Romano has run a series of commentaries arguing that Amoris Laetitia has changed the practice on reception of Communion as a sort of development of doctrine, but, again, the same lack of authority applies. The usual authoritative interpreter of magisterial texts, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, intervened strongly to argue that Amoris Laetitia had not changed the Church’s teaching on marriage and the Eucharist. Yet even he did so outside of an official text, delivering a lecture instead in Madrid.

For those who favored the original proposal, introduced by Cardinal Walter Kasper of Germany in February 2014, of admitting to the sacraments those living in conjugal unions outside of a valid marriage, the last hope was that bishops would say explicitly what Amoris Laetitia only implies. That, at least, had the merit of being rooted in Amoris Laetitia itself, which called for bishops to draw up guidelines (300) to assist priests in providing pastoral care to such couples. Bishops, of course, are official teachers of the faith. That project, though, has not been going well for the “Kasper proposal.” Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, charged by the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to assist the bishops in their response, released guidelines for his own diocese, which maintained the practice taught by St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. The bishops of Poland and Costa Rica did the same. So, too, did the bishops of Alberta and the Northwest Territories in Canada.

Hence the excitement in some circles — and consternation in others — when the bishops of the Holy Father’s hometown, the Buenos Aires pastoral region in Argentina, apparently permitted the change in their pastoral region.

In what one presumes was a maneuver orchestrated in Rome, a draft of the Buenos Aires guidelines was leaked in the Italian press, along with a letter from Pope Francis to those bishops praising their guidelines as an authentic interpretation of Amoris Laetitia. The letter goes as far as to say that “there are no further interpretations,” according to a translation of the letter issued by Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, of the Italian magazine La Civilta Cattolica, the Holy Father’s de facto spokesman.

Finally here was proof of what the Pope meant in Amoris Laetitia! Such was the news that was trumpeted in headlines around the world, which was evidently the intent of the maneuverers in Rome. Yet the real news was something quite different altogether.

First, it is not news that Pope Francis does not hold to the tradition on this point. That was first indicated in April 2014, when he phoned a woman in Argentina who claimed — quite plausibly, as there was no correction in Rome — the Holy Father told her that, despite being divorced and living with a man outside of marriage, she should go to Communion and switch parishes if her pastor would not permit her to do so. The Holy Father’s position was confirmed at the conclusion of the 2015 synod, when he spoke of those who favored the tradition as desiring to throw “dead stones” at the suffering.

Second, the continuing news is that the Holy Father does not teach what he apparently believes, as neither a private phone call to a lady in Argentina nor a private letter, no matter how conveniently leaked, constitutes an exercise of the magisterium.

It is more than interesting to know what the Holy Father thinks, and certainly newsworthy if it appears to be at odds with settled teaching. But that Pope Francis expresses himself in unofficial ways that are difficult to square with the Catholic tradition — well, that is not news either.

Third, and most important, the Buenos Aires bishops did not, in fact, teach what the headlines said that they had taught.

The guidelines follow the document’s lead, but they are not the Kasper proposal. The bishops first speak about leading couples to live their whole lives in “the light of the Gospel.” That is not pious boilerplate, for on the question of divorce and remarriage, the Kasper proposal is the position of the Pharisees, corrected explicitly by Jesus in the Gospels. The guidelines explicitly state that, for many such couples, their path will not lead to reception of the sacraments. In cases where “both partners are Christians walking the path of faith,” the Buenos Aires bishops state that they should follow the traditional teaching and refrain from conjugal relations if they wish to receive the sacraments.

Only then do the guidelines speak about the situation — presumably for couples where one party is not a Christian or is not practicing the faith — where abstaining from conjugal relations is “not feasible.” The situation foreseen here is apparently that of one party desiring such abstinence, but the other refusing and threatening dire consequences in the absence of conjugal life. The first party then agrees to sexual relations against his or her will, for example, to preserve the welfare of the children.

In such cases, the practicing Catholic party may not be guilty of serious sin and could therefore, in some cases, be admitted to the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist. This case, it should be noted, could be treated in such a manner even before Amoris Laetitia, according to application of the standard principles of moral theology and confessional practice, analogous to the determination of the moral culpability of contraception when the spouses do not agree.

The Buenos Aires bishops then immediately warn that any such admission to the sacraments is not “unlimited” and that in some of these cases such admission would be “particularly outrageous.” Further, they hasten to add that in practice admission to Communion may be best done secretly, so as to avoid the scandal warned against, for example, in Familiaris Consortio, St. John Paul II’s 1991 apostolic exhortation on the role of the Christian family in the modern world. Administering holy Communion in secret is a rather clear indication that the Buenos Aires guidelines consider even this complex and unusual case to be on shaky ground.

The guidelines of the Buenos Aires bishops would not permit the approach of the Holy Father himself in the April 2014 phone call to Argentina. They would not permit the Kasper proposal. They, in fact, may not permit anything new at all, despite the clear desire to frame such things in such a way as not to hand their former archbishop another apparent defeat, this time is his own city.

The real news from Buenos Aires is that, in the very city where one presumes Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio had been privately advising such couples to go to Communion during his years as archbishop, the bishops did not endorse the Kasper proposal and offered guidelines that are far less permissive than reported.

Indeed, it is possible to read the Buenos Aires guidelines as consistent with the Church’s traditional teaching — not without some difficulty, to be sure, but that is true about Amoris Laetitia as a whole.

Far from breathing new life into the Kasper proposal, the Buenos Aires guidelines may well be where the proposal definitively died — and the Holy Father finally accepted it.

Father Raymond J. de Souza 

is editor in chief of 

Convivium magazine.