Vatican Cardinal: Some in Irregular Unions Can Receive the Sacraments

Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio pens short booklet on 'Amoris Laetitia' arguing the pastoral practice could be acceptable if such persons “desire to change” their sinful situation.

(photo: Daniel Ibanez/CNA)

Catholics living in “irregular unions” including some civilly remarried divorcees can receive the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist if they desire to change their sinful situation but cannot amend it because it would lead to further sin, the head of the Vatican’s department for interpreting Church law has said.

In a booklet titled Chapter Eight of the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia published Feb. 8, Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio writes that the exhortation repeatedly affirms that it remains faithful to doctrine, but also cites cases where mitigating circumstances can lead to some Catholics living in irregular unions to receive the sacraments, guided by ecclesial authority.

The president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, who says his aim in the booklet is to “take into timely consideration the valuable text of the eighth chapter to try to grasp its rich doctrinal and pastoral message,” argues that the Church “can admit Catholics in irregular unions to Penance and the Eucharist.”  But the 78 year-old cardinal says only under “two essential conditions”: that they wish to change this situation, but cannot realize their desire because they would feel “in their conscience that they would fall into a new sin.”

As examples, the cardinal points to a couple who must remain together in an irregular union in order to educate and take care of children, and yet have “the intention or at least the desire” to change their unlawful status. For these couples, living as “brother and sister” — a Church instruction stressed by Pope St. John Paul II and based on Jesus’ clear teaching, Sacred Scripture and Tradition on the indissolubility of marriage — may not be feasible as the lack of intimacy can “endanger” fidelity and compromise the “well-being of the children.”

He cites as a further example the case of a woman cohabitating with a man who has three children from his first wife who has abandoned him. This second woman “has saved the man of a state of deep despair, probably from the temptation of suicide,” the Italian cardinal writes. She has helped him raise the children, they have cohabited for ten years and had a child together.

The woman is “fully aware of being in an irregular situation,” he continues. “She would honestly like to change her life, but evidently she can’t. If in fact she left the union, the man would turn back to the previous situation, the children would be left without a mother.” Again, he stresses, the lives of innocent children would suffer. It’s clear, he goes on, she could not leave the union “without ‘new sin’” being committed.

Cardinal Coccopalmerio, a former of auxiliary bishop of the late Jesuit Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan, bases his guidance on paragraph 301 of Amoris Laetitia which states that it “can no longer simply be said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace.

“More is involved here than mere ignorance of the rule,” the Pope continues in the exhortation. “A subject may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding ‘its inherent values’, or be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin.”

Such cases require “careful and authoritative discernment” on the part of an ecclesial authority in which there is “no subjectivism,” Cardinal Coccopalmerio writes in his booklet, stressing the principle of natural justice, nemo judex in causa sua — no-one should be a judge in his own cause.


Not a response to the dubia

The sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist “must be given even to those so-called wounded families and to however many who, despite living in situations not in line with traditional matrimonial canons, express the sincere desire to approach the sacraments after an appropriate period of discernment,” he argues. Such a gesture of “openness and profound mercy on the part of Mother Church” is necessary, he continues, so that she does not “leave behind any of her children, aware that absolute perfection is a precious gift, but one which cannot be reached by everyone."

The Italian canonist also stresses the Church “cannot possibly” give the sacraments to those who, despite being in grave sin and having the opportunity to change, do “not have  any sincere intention” to do so. This is why, he continues, Amoris Laetitia says that anyone who “flaunts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal, or wants to impose something other than what the Church teaches, he or she can in no way presume to teach or preach to others; this is a case of something which separates from the community. Such a person needs to listen once more to the Gospel message and its call to conversion.“ 

Although scheduled to present his booklet and field questions, Cardinal Coccopalmerio did not attend the launch event at Vatican Radio Tuesday morning, saying he had another engagement at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, of which he is a member. He said he would give individual interviews on it in the coming days instead.

Some reports had said Pope Francis had authorized the booklet and that it was a response to the dubia ­— the 5 doubts four cardinals have sent the Pope to clarify whether these and other contentious passages in Amoris Laetitia are in line with Church teaching, Sacred Scripture and Tradition (the Pope has yet to respond to the questions).

But Cardinal Coccopalmerio’s booklet is “not a Vatican answer to the dubia,” Father Giuseppe Costa, director of Libreria Editrice Vaticana which published the booklet, told reporters. The cardinal, he said, “assumes responsibility” for the publication, adding that the LEV gave a “clear, authoritative voice” to his contribution, but it is “not an official response from the Vatican.”

In his absence, Cardinal Coccopalmerio had two figures promote the booklet: Orazio La Rocca, Vaticanist for the leftist newspaper La Repubblica, and Father Maurizio Gronchi, professor of theology at the Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome.

A consultant to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and to the two synods on the family, Father Gronchi comes from the same Tuscan diocese as Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, and worked in tandem with the cardinal to aggressively push through a clear agenda at both synods for admitting some in irregular unions to receive the sacraments.


Person first

Among the topics in his presentation, Father Gronchi pointed to the final chapter of the booklet, which Cardinal Coccopalmerio calls “The Hermeneutic of the Person in Pope Francis”. This, he said, is the “central perspective” of Pope Francis, to “put the person first and so value the reality”. What matters “is the person”, Cardinal Coccopalmerio writes, “the rest is logical consequence. And the person is a value in himself, regardless of the reason of his structural peculiarities or of his moral condition.” This leads to searching for the lost sheep, overcoming every marginalization, but this does not mean disavowing doctrine, said Father Gronchi, quoting the cardinal from his booklet.

The Italian professor also highlighted the importance of the “internal forum”, and said, quoting John Paul II, that if the Church were to focus mainly on Jesus’ words in the parable of the adulterous woman to “sin no more”, it would be “a disservice to the truth about man, as we would be declaring to the Lord that we no longer needed him.” What’s important, he said, and which Cardinal Coccopalmerio notes in his booklet, is to be “conscious of irregularity”, of a “situation of sin”, and the fact that people are “discussing the problem of change and therefore have the intention, or at least the desire, to change their condition.”  That can be achieved in these cases through a “law of graduality”, with the help of the sacraments.

La Rocca shared the pain of his divorced and remarried friends, unable to receive the Eucharist. The cardinal’s booklet is directed at them, he said, adding that it presents two new concepts: to “come down and recognize reality in a new way”, an approach that is “not attached to doctrine as an end in itself, but to enter the problems and realities of people.” Such practice has been undertaken by many priests for years, he said, “but finally it’s been codified, written down, thanks to the synods, to this great Pope.”

He also said “it’s petty to deny Communion because the law says so,” and argued that the booklet and Amoris Laetitia are “not taking exceptions from principles.” It’s important to understand why some choose “civil marriage or cohabitation,” he said, and not look at such situations with preconceptions, hasty judgment or condemnation, but to come closer pastorally, to dialogue and be friendly. “This is a new approach,” he said.


No confusion, no break with doctrine?

Asked if producing such a booklet indicated confusion and the need for clarification, Father Gronchi dismissed the charge with a joke, saying: "We comment every Sunday on the Gospels which have a lot of confusion: this is why we comment on them.”

When put to him the criticism that these passages represent a break with Church teaching, a contradiction rather than a development of doctrine, Father Gronchi replied: “It’s a break with doctrine? Where is the break? There isn’t any contradiction.” He said the booklet of Cardinal Coccopalmerio “calmly” upholds the Church’s teaching. It is about helping those who “desire the help of the Church to have the strength to overcome” a situation of sin, he said. “This is the traditional doctrine of the Church…The proposal is to convert oneself if one finds oneself in difficult situations. It’s enough to read the text of the booklet. Amoris Laetitia is the same,” he said.   

Cardinal Coccopalmerio’s reflection puts him on the same page as the bishops of Malta, Germany and others who say Amoris Laetitia opens the door to communion for some remarried divorcees, but it places him in clear opposition to others such as Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the CDF. In an interview last month, the cardinal firmly ruled out holy Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, consistent with the Church’s traditional practice. Thousands of priests also expressed similar concerns as the cardinal prefect. 

The widely differing interpretations of Amoris Laetitia, and the disunity that has ensued, are what prompted the four cardinals to send the dubia to Pope Francis last September. 

For a critical take on Cardinal Coccopalmerio’s reflection, see canonist Edward Peters’ response here.