Cardinal Coccopalmerio Explains His Positions on Catholics in Irregular Unions
The senior Vatican official last month published a booklet supporting reception of Communion by some divorced-remarried Catholics and advocating support for positive aspects of cohabiting Catholics’ relationships.
VATICAN CITY — Rather than admonish cohabitating Catholics as “public sinners,” the head of the Vatican department for interpreting Church law has said it’s more important to look “beneficently upon” the couple in the hope that through encouragement they will eventually marry.
And in a Feb. 21 interview with the Register, Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio also insisted his interpretation, published in a recent booklet, of Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), Pope Francis’ recent apostolic exhortation on marriage and the family, does not breach canon law or Church doctrine.
He said allowing some remarried divorcees to receive the sacraments if they desire to change their sinful situation but cannot amend it because doing so would lead to further sin was fully in line with Church teaching.
Cardinal Coccopalmerio, the president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, also spoke about a recent Vatican talk he gave in which he advocated for a “less rigid” understanding of the priesthood, one that essentially rejects an objective and metaphysical notion of priesthood in order to draw nearer to Protestants.
Your Eminence, would you please help our readers understand your intention in writing this booklet?
I wanted to understand exactly what the eighth chapter [on “Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness”] meant and then explain it to others. So I read these parts of the eighth chapter, reading but [also] to lead people to understand the sense and the logic of all the points, according to certain subjects which seemed to me more important. The most difficult is to see what the document says of the faithful who find themselves in irregular conditions — to see how is it possible, if it is possible, to admit these faithful to the sacraments, both confession and the Eucharist, and for what motives.
So it interested me to see what the document says and then explain it to others — to make just a reading of the steps [this requires] to be a little clearer than the document. The document is very rich and puts together many things, which it is important to keep apart, to examine with more analysis, more analytically.
Did the Pope review the publication before it was published?
No, no, no. I gave the book to the Pope after its publication. But I spoke with the Pope at other times about these questions, and we always thought the same; also during the synods. I gave the Pope the book after its publication, as a gift.
As you know, there has been a vast chasm in interpretations. We have the German and Maltese bishops in agreement on one side. On the other side, there is Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia and also Bishop Steven Lopes of the Anglican ordinariate, among many others. How does your book clarify things in the face of these interpretations?
We have to distinguish the cases quite precisely, those unions that are not legitimate, are not regularized, because marriage is indissoluble. There are faithful who find themselves in this situation. They are aware that this situation is not good. They want to change, but they cannot do it. Because if they did, if they were to leave these unions, innocent people would be hurt.
Think of a woman who lives with a married man. She has three little children. She has already been with this man for 10 years. Now the children think of her as a mother. He, the partner, is very much anchored to this woman, as a lover, as a woman. If this woman were to say: “I am leaving this mistaken union because I want to correct my life, but if I did this, I would harm the children and the partner,” then she might say: “I would like to, but I cannot.” In precisely these cases, based on one’s intention to change and the impossibility of changing, I can give that person the sacraments, in the expectation that the situation is definitively clarified.
But in such cases, in which you say it is better for a woman to continue in her sinful situation, how is that coherent with St. Paul and the Catechism? Both say it is never permissible to deliberately do evil for the sake of a greater good. How do you reconcile these things?
Let us say, if you agree, that if she leaves this situation, it will harm people. And then to avoid this evil, I continue in this union in which I already find myself.
But this union is a situation of sin.
Yes, however …
Isn’t it better to try to stop the situation of sin completely?
How can you stop the whole thing if that will harm people? It is important that this person doesn’t want to be in this union, wants to leave this union, wants to leave, but cannot do it. There are two things to put together: I want to, but I cannot. And I cannot — not for my own sake, but for the sake of other people. I cannot for the sake of other people.
If the two can live together as brother and sister, that’s great. But if they cannot because this would break up the union, which ought to be conserved for the good of these people, then they manage as best they can. Do you see? That’s it. And it seems this whole complicated thing has a logical explanation, motivation. If others depart from other points of view, they can also arrive at other conclusions. But I would say there would be something missing of the human person. I can’t damage a person to avoid a sin in a situation that I haven’t put myself into; I already find myself in it, one in which I, if I am this woman, have put myself into without a bad intention. On the contrary, I’m trying to do good, and, at that moment, I believed myself to be doing good, and certainly I did do good. But maybe if, already at the beginning I had known, if I knew with moral certitude that this is a sin, maybe I would not have put myself in that condition. But now I already find myself there: How can I go back? It is one thing to begin, another to interrupt. These are also different things, no?
What is the situation with regard to the first marriage, which remains valid? Have you also thought about the situation of the other person and the validity of their first marriage, as it seems that is ignored in this discussion?
He was abandoned by the wife, no? I use this example. He was abandoned by the wife, and then this woman came to his aid.
Regarding cohabitating couples, do you believe they should be given Communion in some cases?
No, I only say what is said in the document of the apostolic exhortation. We see this couple that is cohabitating or only civilly married — cohabitating, let’s say. It’s not the Christian ideal. Let’s admit that it’s not the ideal, a good thing, not a legitimate union. But let’s see also that there is good. They really love each other. They are not yet married because they don’t have sufficient means for the future. They are people who do good in the community in which they find themselves. All these things are positive.
We have to recognize that and have a pastoral dialogue with these persons and say: Let’s reflect on this together. Wouldn’t it be better to marry? What are the obstacles? Can we help you as an ecclesial community? All this to bring them, step by step, to a canonical marriage. We can’t say: “You are public sinners. Shame on you.” Let’s begin by saying: “You love each other. You have reasons for not marrying; at least you feel these reasons are important for you. You are also good people, respected by everyone.” These things are important. Let’s say it. Let’s underline these things. Let’s have a discussion, in order to arrive at the maturation of a marriage in the Church.
Isn’t it better to simply say this situation is sinful, that it is better to be married and not to continue living together?
If these two love each other, they want to be married. They don’t do it now for reasons that, for them, seem important. Why do you have to tell them to separate? Rather, you should say: “Let’s go together toward a canonical marriage. It will be in a year? Okay. Let’s go.”
Should they be able to receive the sacraments before they marry, in your view?
I don’t necessarily have to give Communion to them. There may be particular cases. It’s not a case of permitting Communion. It’s only a case of looking beneficently upon them. The people who find themselves in these unions have positive elements.
You say Communion can be given, despite living in situations not in line with traditional matrimonial canons, if they express the sincere desire to approach the sacraments after an appropriate period of discernment. But your pontifical council explained in a 2000 declaration why Canons 915 and 916 prevent the admission of such couples to holy Communion and makes the point, in legal language, that it can’t be changed because Jesus said so.
I know the canons by heart. I know them very well. Who is in serious sin cannot receive the Eucharist without first going to confession or having the desire to confess if he is now unable to confess.
But let me read part of this, because it is important. It says: “Any interpretation of Canon 915 that would set itself against the canon’s substantial content, as declared uninterruptedly by the magisterium and by the discipline of the Church throughout the centuries, is clearly misleading. One cannot confuse respect for the wording of the law (Canon 17) with the improper use of the very same wording as an instrument for relativizing the precepts or emptying them of their substance.”
Is this declaration still in force, and, if not, why not declare it no longer in force?
It is always in force. Who is in grave sin and says I have no intention to change: These are the Canons 915 and 916. But if someone says: “I want to change, but in this moment I cannot, because if I do it, I will kill people,” I can say to them, “Stop there. When you can, I will give you absolution and Communion.” Or also, I can insist on this intention of yours and say you are not in sin because you have the serious intention to change but at this moment you cannot do it. There are two things to put together. Understand? This person is already converted, is already detached from evil, but materially cannot do it. It’s a matter of caring for these situations. You rush to say it, but if a light doesn’t turn on, then you can understand the other interpretations. Don’t worry.
Canonists say these rules, 915 and 916, were changed in certain interpretations of Amoris Laetitia.
They haven’t changed. It hasn’t changed absolutely anything. I say this in the book to whom you cannot give absolution and Eucharist. Those are the canons. To the one who says, “I’m in grave sin, but I don’t want to change” [absolution is not possible]. When someone comes to confess and says to you, “I committed this sin. I want to change, but I know that I am not capable of changing, but I want to change,” what do you do? Do you send him away? No, you absolve him.
So they can receive the sacraments?
The sacraments are absolution and the Eucharist. The person does the same things, but he sincerely wants to change. Do you see there is an impossibility in this case? One cannot change immediately.
Do they have to change their style of life before receiving Communion?
No, they have to change their intention, not their style of life. If you wait until someone changes their style of life, you wouldn’t absolve anymore anyone at all. It’s the intention. I want to change even if I know I am not able. But I began to walk. I’ll take little steps. I will pray five minutes more so that I can. The important thing is take a step. If someone does nothing, I can’t absolve them. If someone says, “Yes, I want to. I will do what I can, the least thing,” then he is already on the road to conversion.
The discipline is coherent with the doctrine, according to you?
Perfectly. The doctrine says who is converted can receive the absolution of sins and the Eucharist. Absolution of sin means the Eucharist; the two go together. Who is truly penitent? Who undertakes to do all that they can? If someone does just one thing out of a hundred, that is already something important. This is the thing to understand.
How do you recognize a true penitent?
You have to pay attention to what the penitent says. If you know — you can tell if he is misleading you. But someone who comes to confession, already by the fact that he comes to confess, means he has the intention to change. In this moment, in this world, where confession is absolutely of one’s free will, if someone comes to confess, it doesn’t make any sense that he comes and doesn’t want to change — I come but I don’t want to change. If I come to confess, it’s because I have a positive intention, even a small one, but serious, to change. You have to put all your attention on this intention. I’ll do all that I can.
For the divorced and remarried, their status and receiving Communion is very public, a possible source of scandal for others. What do you say to this point?
I say in the book, it’s necessary to instruct the faithful that when they see two divorced and remarried that go to the Eucharist, they ought not to say the Church now says that condition is good, therefore marriage is no longer indissoluble. They ought to say these people will have reasons examined by the ecclesial authorities on account of which they cannot change their condition, and in the expectation that they change, the Church has placed importance on their desire, their intention to change with the impossibility of doing so. Therefore, it’s one of those cases in which it is possible that the Church says go to the Eucharist. Do you see? There it’s necessary to instruct the faithful. There ought not to be the possibility of, as is said, of scandal, of false judgment. It’s necessary to instruct the faithful. Do you see? I wrote all this.
In these sinful situations, they can in certain cases receive the sacraments, but won’t the public read this as the Church condoning their adulterous situation?
Not if you instruct the faithful and say it is not like that. Someone can think what they want. But if you stand by what the Church says, which explains it to you, you can’t anymore think differently. If you are a person who doesn’t understand, or sees only certain things and not others, okay.
With regard to the indissolubility of marriage, to you, this remains the same?
The same, even more so.
Some divorced and remarried continue to live in sinful situations if they desire to do it, but some have given their lives for the indissolubility of marriage as Christ taught, like St. Thomas More. Was their martyrdom in vain?
Let’s stop, because I know I won’t be able to explain it to you well. These people — take the women I spoke about in the book — say to everyone that marriage is indissoluble: “I am in a bad situation. But I would like to change it precisely because marriage is indissoluble. But at this moment I can’t do it.”
If you continue to say that marriage is not indissoluble, it means we haven’t understood each other; but this woman continues to say that marriage is indissoluble. But how can she leave the union? He [her civilly married spouse] will kill himself. The children, who will take care of them? They will be without a mother. Therefore, she has to stay there.
But these cases are very rare.
That is great if they are rare, but they do exist. I have experienced them personally.
But if they are so rare, why didn’t the Pope simply write a note to all the bishops saying in these cases to apply the Church’s doctrine differently?
He’s written [about this].
But there wouldn’t have been a need for the two synods.
If I read the document to you, I would show you the various passages. I didn’t write all of this; it’s in the document. I have to go now. More than this, I can’t tell you. Don’t be anxious. Marriage is indissoluble. These persons are in irregular situations. They want to change, but they can’t.
One last topic: At a recent plenary meeting with the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, you reportedly encouraged the members to push for a less rigid understanding of the priesthood, essentially telling them to give up on an objective and metaphysical notion of priesthood. Your notion was that as we have an understanding of different levels of communion with the Church among the baptized, we should have different degrees of the fullness of priesthood, so as to permit Protestants to minister without being fully ordained. What exactly did you say, and why did you say it?
I was saying we have to reflect on questions. We say, everything is valid; nothing is valid. Maybe we have to reflect on this concept of validity or invalidity. The Second Vatican Council said there is a true communion even if it is not yet definitive or full. You see, they made a concept not so decisive, either all or nothing. There’s a communion that is already good, but some elements are missing. But, if you say some things are missing and that therefore there is nothing, you err. There are pieces missing, but there is already a communion, but it is not full communion. The same thing can be said, or something similar, of the validity or invalidity of ordination. I said let’s think about it. It’s a hypothesis. Maybe there is something, or maybe there’s nothing — a study, a reflection.
Is the goal intercommunion?
No, it’s just a reflection that one might make. The consequences are not taken into consideration. It’s only a reflection.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.