OVIEDO, Spain — Those who think Pope Francis’ recent apostolic exhortation changed the Church’s discipline on holy Communion for the divorced and remarried are reading him wrong, according to the head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office.
Cardinal Gerhard Müller emphasized in a May 4 speech that the Pope wanted to offer “hope for the family” in Amoris Laetitia, through the Church’s promotion of “the culture of the family” and the “culture of the bond” based, “first of all, in the indissoluble love of a man and a woman open to the transmission and upbringing of life.”
“We discover here the great mission and challenge of the Church for the family. … The family needs to live within the Church, where it is reminded of the great vocation that it has received and the love that enlivens and sustains it is commemorated.”
The cardinal, who is prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), spoke at the Metropolitan Seminary of Oviedo in Spain. Throughout his speech, which was published at Chiesa May 11, he used the image of the Church as Noah’s ark, offering salvation to all amid a flood.
According to Cardinal Müller, the Pope is concerned with the question of “how to give hope to those who live in alienation and especially those who have lived the drama and the wound of a second civil union after a divorce.”
He countered the claim that Amoris Laetitia has eliminated Church discipline on marriage and has permitted in some cases the divorced and remarried “to receive the Eucharist without the need to change their way of life.” He placed Francis’ apostolic exhortation in the context of previous papal writings, including St. John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio and Reconciliatio et Paenitentia and Benedict XVI’s Sacramentum Caritatis.
“This is a matter of a consolidated magisterial teaching, supported by Scripture and founded on a doctrinal reason: the salvific harmony of the sacrament, the heart of the ‘culture of the bond’ that the Church lives.”
The prefect of the CDF said that if Pope Francis’ exhortation “had wanted to eliminate such a deeply rooted and significant discipline, it would have said so clearly and presented supporting reasons.”
“There is, however, no affirmation in this sense; nor does the Pope bring into question, at any time, the arguments presented by his predecessors, which are not based on the subjective culpability of our brothers, but, rather, on their visible, objective way of life, contrary to the words of Christ.”
The reason for this discipline is “the harmony between the sacramental celebration and Christian life. … Thanks to this, the Church can be a community that accompanies, welcomes the sinner without thereby blessing the sin, and thus offers the foundation so that a path of discernment and integration may be possible.”
The cardinal also countered claims that Footnote 351 of the document offers the sacraments to those “living in an objective situation of sin.”
“The basic principle is that no one can truly desire a sacrament, that of the Eucharist, without also desiring to live in accord with the other sacraments, including that of marriage,” the cardinal added. “One who lives in contrast with the marriage bond is opposed to the visible sign of the sacrament of marriage; in that which touches his bodily existence, even if he should be subjectively not culpable, he makes himself an ‘anti-sign’ of indissolubility.”
“And precisely because his bodily life is contrary to the sign, he cannot be part, in receiving Communion, of the supreme Eucharistic sign, where the incarnate love of Jesus is revealed.”
Changing the discipline on the sacraments, “admitting a contradiction between the Eucharist and marriage, would necessarily mean changing the profession of faith of the Church, which teaches and realizes the harmony among all the sacraments, just as she has received it from Jesus.”
“On this faith in indissoluble marriage, not as [a] distant ideal but as concrete reality, the blood of martyrs has been shed,” he said.
Cardinal Müller recalled that “it is true that the relationship between the spouses must grow and mature; that it will have its stumbles and will need forgiveness. From this point of view, it will always be imperfect and in progress. But on the other hand, as a sacrament, marriage gives the spouses the full presence of the love of Jesus between them, the bond of an indissoluble love, until death, like that of Christ and his Church.”
Invoking the imagery of Noah’s Ark and the flood, Cardinal Müller said Pope Francis is “sensitive to the ‘flood situation’ of the contemporary world.”
He said the Pope has “opened all possible windows of the boat and has invited all of us to throw ropes from the windows in order to pull the castaway onto the barque.”
To give holy Communion to those who visibly live contrary to the sacrament of marriage would not be opening another window, he said. Rather, it would open “a leak in the bottom of the boat, allowing the sea to enter in and endangering the navigation of all and the service of the Church to society.”
“Rather than a way of integration, it would be a way of the disintegration of the ecclesial ark, a way of water,” the cardinal said. Preserving this ark preserves “our common home that is the Church.”
“The consistency between the sacraments and the Christian way of life guarantees … that the sacramental culture in which the Church lives and which she proposes to the world remains habitable,” he said. “It is only in this way that she can receive sinners, welcoming them with care and inviting them on a concrete journey that they may overcome sin.”
He said divorced-and-remarried persons should “decline to establish themselves in their situation” and should be “ready to illuminate it in the light of the words of Jesus.” Others should not “make peace with the new union.”
“Everything that may lead to abandoning this way of life is a small step of growth that must be promoted and enlivened,” he said.
Those in a new union who abstain from receiving Communion and work to conform to the Eucharist are also “protecting the dwelling of the Church, our common home,” he said.
In discussing Amoris Laetitia’s presentation of discernment for those who are in irregular unions, Cardinal Müller pointed out that the goal of this discernment is “the goal that the Church proclaims for all. … It consists in returning to the fidelity of the marriage bond, thus entering anew into that dwelling or ark, which the mercy of God has offered to the love and desire of man.”
“Discernment is necessary, therefore, not for selecting the goal, but for selecting the path. Having clearly in mind where we want to take the person (the full life that God has promised us), one can discern the ways by which each one, in his particular case, may arrive there.”
The process of discernment is directed, he said, “with patience and mercy, to revivifying and healing the wound from which these brothers (and sisters) suffer, which is not the failure of the previous marriage, but, rather, the new union established.”
As for the “integration” of those who are divorced and remarried, Cardinal Müller said it is “essential that the word of God be proclaimed in the process. … Thus these baptized persons will shed light, little by little, on this second union that they have begun and in which they live.”
This could include the possibility of reviewing the nullity of their sacramental marriage, he said, and a possible “assumption of certain public ecclesial offices.” He emphasized that the criterion is “the person’s journey of concrete growth toward healing.”
For Cardinal Müller, the key to interpreting Amoris Laetitia is its exegesis of the “hymn to love” in 1 Corinthians 13: “According to it, only in the light of true and genuine love (AL, 67) is it possible ‘to learn to love’ (AL, 208) and build a dwelling for desire.”
Cardinal Müller also reflected on the broader cultural context.
Men and women’s desire for a family today, if it does not have any reference in God’s plan, “ends up closed off in itself and is incapable of growing toward the promised goal. It is obvious that this desire is then multiplied in the variegated ‘models’ or types of family, in which desire, disoriented, loses its way,” he said.
In this environment of fluid relationships, “the Church must be able to create a favorable dwelling, environment and culture in which the family may grow,” he maintained, calling this “a culture of love.”
“The Church encourages this culture of love precisely in her sacraments, which constitute her. She will be able to offer hope to men, to all, even to the most alienated, as long as she remains faithful to this dwelling that she has received from Christ,” said the cardinal.
“In the waters of fluid modernity, the Church can offer a hope to all families and to all of society, like Noah’s Ark,” Cardinal Müller concluded. “She recognizes the weakness and need for conversion of her members.”
“Precisely for this reason, she is called to maintain, at the same time, the concrete presence in her of the love of Jesus, living and active in the sacraments, which give the ark its structure and dynamism, making it able to plough through the waters. The key is to develop, and the challenge is not a small one, an ‘ecclesial culture of the family’ that may be a ‘culture of the sacramental bond.’”