Cardinal Müller: Latest Vatican Guidance on Divorce-Remarried Communion Represents a ‘Rupture’ With Church Teaching

The former prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith published his concerns in an open letter Oct. 13.

Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Muller at opening of the Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in the Paul VI Hall. Vatican City (Vatican), October 4th, 2023.
Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Muller at opening of the Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in the Paul VI Hall. Vatican City (Vatican), October 4th, 2023. (photo: Grzegorz Galazka/Mondadori Portfolio/Sipa USA / Sipa via AP )

Eight years after a footnote in one of Pope Francis’ signature documents appeared to open the door for divorced-and-remarried Catholics to receive Communion while remaining sexually active, a new round of public conflicts over its doctrinal legitimacy has exposed just how unsettled the issue remains at the highest levels of the Church.

The latest salvo came last week from a former chief of doctrine at the Vatican, German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, after the Pope and his new prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), Cardinal Víctor Fernández, the purported ghostwriter of much of Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), on Oct. 3 released their joint response to a formal set of questions, or dubia, on the topic submitted by Czech Cardinal Dominik Duka. Their responsa doubles down on the 2016 apostolic exhortation’s groundbreaking implications.

Cardinal Müller responded on Oct. 13 by releasing his own analysis of the Vatican’s responsa, calling it a “rupture” with the clear teachings of Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. He said it also stands at odds with the Church’s established doctrines about grave sin and the licit reception of the Eucharist.

The main point of contention raised by this document, according to the cardinal, is the criterion for admission to the sacraments for divorced-and-remarried people. The Vatican’s response stated, indeed, that the bishops should develop Amoris Laetitia-based criteria in their dioceses that “can help priests in the accompaniment and discernment of divorced people living in a new union.” It added that the Pope’s letter of approval of the guidelines issued by the bishops of Buenos Aires’ pastoral region for the interpretation of the apostolic exhortation, in 2016, were “authentic magisterium.”

This Buenos Aires document, quoted by the DDF, suggests that the pastor should be able, after discernment and in the face of “complex circumstances,” to extend access to the sacrament of reconciliation and the Eucharist to remarried divorcees who do not observe the commitment to continence in their new union.

In his response to the dubia, Cardinal Fernández elaborated on the Argentinian bishops’ guidelines, stating that Francis “admits that there may be difficulties in practicing [continence] and therefore allows, in certain cases, after appropriate discernment, the administration of the sacrament of Reconciliation even if one fails to be faithful to the continence proposed by the Church.”

Such an approach, Cardinal Müller points out, is, contrary to what the DDF’s response asserts, incompatible with the teachings of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, which “permit the reception of Communion by persons who, for serious reasons, live together in a second union without sexual relations.”

“They do not allow Communion when these persons habitually have sexual relations, because in this case there is an objectively grave sin in which these persons want to remain and which, because it regards the sacrament of marriage, takes on a public character,” he wrote.

He also openly accused the responsa of not accurately quoting the passage from John Paul II’s encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, thus retaining only the idea that “the judgment of the state of grace obviously belongs only to the person concerned, since it is a matter of an examination of conscience,” while omitting the statement that, “in cases of outward conduct which is seriously, clearly and steadfastly contrary to the moral norm, the Church, in her pastoral concern for the good order of the community and out of respect for the sacrament, cannot fail to feel directly involved.”

Going Beyond Amoris Laetitia?

Cardinal Müller also points to two ways in which the responsa go even beyond Pope Francis’ teaching. Firstly, the DDF suggests, in his view, that access to Holy Communion should ultimately be a decision taken by the faithful living in a second union on the basis of their personal examination of conscience.

“It turns out that the faithful themselves decide whether or not to receive absolution, and the priest only has to accept this decision! If we apply this conclusion to all sins, the Sacrament of Reconciliation loses its Catholic meaning,” he commented.

Another evolution brought about by the responsa in relation to the Pope’s magisterium is the freedom given to each diocese to develop its own guidelines for this discernment. Stressing that “the unity of the Catholic Church has always meant unity in the reception of the Eucharist,” the former prefect of the DDF stated that “the fact that a person can receive Communion in one local Church and not in another is an exact definition of schism.”

This DDF document, Cardinal Müller argues — instead of providing guidance and restoring a consensus on this topic, which had already been the subject of a set of dubia in 2016 and has given rise to deep and lasting discord within the Church in recent years — maintains an overall ambiguity since its “lack of precision in the wording” can “allow for alternative interpretations.”

His doubts about the reliability of the responsa are reinforced, he pointed out, by the absence of the formula that usually formalizes papal approval of documents produced by the dicastery, which in this case bears only a dated signature, as if it were nothing more than a “careless ‘Appunto.’”

The German prelate believes that such a context of uncertainty calls for a new dubium: “Are there cases in which, after a period of discernment, it is possible to give sacramental absolution to a baptized person who maintains sexual intercourse with someone with whom he lives in a second civil union, if this baptized person does not want to make the resolution not to continue to have sexual intercourse?”