‘Amoris Laetitia’: A Hymn to Indissolubility and Fidelity


(photo: CNA/Daniel Ibáñez)

The publication of Pope Francis’ post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), finally provides us with the Holy Father’s answer to the vexed question that has been at the focus of two synods and nearly three years of intense debate in the Church, “Can the divorced and remarried receive holy Communion?” Nowhere in the 260-plus pages of Amoris Laetitia will you find Pope Francis write the words, “The divorced and remarried can now receive Communion”.

Though the Holy Father does not categorically state that the divorced and remarried can receive Communion, a storm of controversy has broken out in the Church about whether or not the Holy Father has said the divorced and re-married can receive the Eucharist. So, it is worth looking at what is going on.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, the German prelate who has long proposed relaxing the exclusion of the divorced and remarried from the Eucharist, has quickly expressed his opinion that Amoris Laetitia does allow such couples to receive Holy Communion. According to the German language service of Vatican Radio:

“On dealing with divorced and remarried who are excluded from communion according to Catholic doctrine the cardinal said: ‘Clearly, there are openings.’”

Furthermore Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German Bishops’ Conference, also issued a statement welcoming Amoris Laetitias openness to Communion for the divorced and re-married on a case-by-case basis. Cardinal Marx asserts that, while Pope Francis does not give a general ruling for the admission of remarried divorcees to sacramental Communion, sections of Amoris Laetitia (AL 301, footnotes 336 & 351) allow a pastoral approach towards the divorced and remarried that assesses their life history and reality to determine whether or not there is culpability that bars them from reception of the Eucharist.


Pope Francis Is In Continuity with Pope St. John Paul II

However, during the Holy See’s press conference presenting Amoris Laetitia, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna indicated that it was in continuity with Pope St. John Paul II’s categorical reiteration in Familiaris Consortio that the divorced in second unions cannot receive Communion unless they practice perfect continence. Cardinal Schönborn later gave the example of a couple he knows who do not receive Communion because the wife is divorced and remarried, who are bringing up their eight children in the faith, “despite the sinful origins” of the family, “Every Sunday at Mass, beautifully the children of the mother or the father say: ‘Today I go to Communion for you.’ So that’s a powerful witness to the Church’s teaching.”

Furthermore, Cardinal Wim Eijk, archbishop of Utrecht, Holland, is definite in his assertion that Amoris Laetitia does not allow Communion for the divorced and remarried. During his own press conference launching Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Cardinal Eijk said that the “traditional praxis” that the divorced and remarried cannot receive Communion as “formulated” by Pope St. John Paul in Familiaris Consortio in 1981 “remains current.” He then proceeded to read out the relevant section from Pope John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation on the family, paragraph 84, outlining the reasons why the divorced and remarried cannot receive Communion.


How Does Pope Francis Want Us to Listen to Amoris Laetitia?

Pope Francis, like Pope Benedict XVI, has indicated that he doesn’t want all his words and writings to be seen as magisterial statements. Father Lombardi, the director of the Holy See’s press office, has explained the differences in authority between his daily meditations during his celebration of the Mass at St. Martha’s, and his public homilies:

“We must insist on the fact that, in all of the Pope’s activities, the difference between different situations and celebrations, as well as the different levels of authority of his words, must be understood and respected.”

The Holy Father cautions that his post synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia is not magisterial teaching,

Since ‘time is greater than space,’ I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium. Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it.” (3).

Therefore, rather than this teaching being interpreted as “new” or “changed” it can only be properly understood in the context of the “necessity” of unity about the doctrine on divorce and “remarriage.” This could only be reflected in the practice of showing respect to the divorced and remarried, without admitting to the reception of the Eucharist. It is in this light that Cardinal Burke considers Pope Francis’s repeated insistence that his apostolic exhortations are not magisterial teaching to be the key by which we should pitch our hearing of Amoris Laetitia:

The only key to the correct interpretation of Amoris Laetitia is the constant teaching of the Church and her discipline that safeguards and fosters this teaching. Pope Francis makes clear, from the beginning, that the post-synodal apostolic exhortation is not an act of the magisterium (). … In other words, the Holy Father is proposing what he personally believes is the will of Christ for His Church, but he does not intend to impose his point of view, nor to condemn those who insist on what he calls “a more rigorous pastoral care.”

Throughout Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis picks up the sweeping symphony of seminal and definitive magisterial teaching, referencing Pope Pius XI’s Casti Connubii, Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes, Blessed Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, and Pope St John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio. By so doing, the Holy Father is signalling that he wants us to listen to Amoris Laetitia in the “key” of established magisterial teaching, following his example as a “loyal son of the Church.”


A Hymn to Indissolubility and Fidelity

During the 2015 Synod, some synod fathers advocated that the Church replace the term “indissolubility” to describe the life-long commitment of marriage, arguing most modern couples don’t understand the word. However, indissolubility can be described as the dominant motif of Amoris Laetitia, with the word used 10 times and ‘lifelong’ six times.

It should not surprise us that Pope Francis views indissolubility as the one of the essential characteristics of the sacrament of Marriage:

“The indissolubility of marriage — ‘what God has joined together, let no man put asunder’ (Matthew 19:6) — should not be viewed as a ‘yoke’ imposed on humanity, but as a ‘gift’ granted to those who are joined in marriage…” (62).

The Holy Father describes the indissolubility of the sacrament of marriage as “salvation history” for the couple, a reference to the Biblical notion of “salvation history,” the history of God’s fidelity, constancy and loyalty towards Israel and the human race:

“Each marriage is a kind of “salvation history,” which from fragile beginnings — thanks to God’s gift and a creative and generous response on our part — grow over time into something precious and enduring.” (221).

A number of times in Amoris Laetitia Pope Francis refers to the indissolubility and fidelity of marriage as being a great and mysterious gift, quoting the words of St. Robert Bellarmine: “the fact that one man unites with one woman in an indissoluble bond, and that they remain inseparable despite every kind of difficulty, even when there is no longer hope for children, can only be the sign of a great mystery” (124).

The Holy Father, with the Synod Fathers, is clear that the guarantor of this great mystery of indissolubility in marriage is the presence of Our Lord Jesus Christ, He who is perfectly faithful and perfectly loyal:

“‘Only in contemplating Christ does a person come to know the deepest truth about human relationships. ‘Only in the mystery of the Incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light... Christ, the new Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and his love, fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear’ (Gaudium et Spes, 22). It is particularly helpful to understand in a Christocentric key... the good of the spouses (bonum coniugum) which includes unity, openness to life, fidelity, indissolubility and, within Christian marriage, mutual support on the path towards complete friendship with the Lord.’”

Pope Francis exhorts us to so cherish and uphold the divine gift of indissolubility, that we have the courage to accompany and care for those wounded by the evil of divorce. Such care acknowledges the tragedy of separation and divorce and expresses the love at the heart of indissolubility:

“The Christian community’s care of such persons is not to be considered a weakening of its faith and testimony to the indissolubility of marriage; rather, such care is a particular expression of its charity” (243).


Are There Discordant Notes in Amoris Laetitia?

Reading Amoris Laetitia and hearing some cardinals and priests proposing that Pope Francis allows the divorced and remarried to receive Communion, I am reminded of J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythological description of God’s creation as a sublime movement of music. The angels were overwhelmed by the unsurpassed beauty of this Great Music, but a number of angels in their midst introduced jarring and ugly notes of discord because they sought to introduce “matters of their own imagining that were not in accord with the theme” (Silmarillion, p.16).

The question now facing the Church is this: Is the pandemonium created by those saying Communion for divorced and remarried is now permissible a discord of their own making, or can this discord be found in Amoris Laetitia?

As has become common since the Second Vatican Council we are being faced with the choice of reading Amoris Laetitia either through the symphonic hermeneutic of continuity and innovation, or a discordant hermeneutic of revolution and rupture.

Accepting at face value Pope Francis’s repeated assertion that he is a “loyal son of the Church,” and his consistent declarations that his apostolic exhortations are not magisterial teaching, it is reasonable to assume that the Holy Father wants us to listen to Amoris Laetitia in the “key” of the Church’s perennial teaching on the indissolubility of marriage and the “traditional praxis” that the divorced and remarried cannot receive Communion.

Deacon Nick Donnelly is a contributor to EWTN Radios Celtic Connections program

 and a columnist with Catholic Voice Ireland.

He has written two booklets on Pope Francis, 

Loving Mary: What Pope Francis Says and  Finding Forgiveness With Pope Francis,