The Pope’s Endorsement of Argentina’s Amoris Guidelines: What It Means

Senior Vatican canonist Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta unequivocally endorses the move, but Cardinal Gerhard Müller has some reservations.

Pope Francis at the general audience in St. Peter's Square Nov. 8.
Pope Francis at the general audience in St. Peter's Square Nov. 8. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis’ recent decision to formally declare the Buenos Aires bishops’ interpretation of Amoris Laetitia “authentic magisterium” is the “correct” and “balanced” way to deal with the issue, a senior Vatican canonist has said, but Cardinal Gerhard Müller is uneasy with some aspects of the move.

Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, the Vatican’s department for interpreting Church law, told the Register Dec. 7 that the Pope’s decision is a “polite way” to handle the contentious issue of admitting some civilly remarried divorcees to the sacraments and will give guidance to both bishops and the faithful.

On the Pope’s personal instruction, the 2016 Buenos Aires bishops’ guidelines on Chapter 8 of his post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, appeared last week in the Holy See’s journal of juridical record, the Acta Apostolicae Sedis (AAS). The interpretation permits the sacrament of reconciliation and Holy Communion in some cases for remarried divorcees who, for example, try to live lives of sexual abstinence but must continue to live together for the sake of raising their children.

Alongside the bishops’ guidelines in the same authoritative journal, which promulgates laws when it publishes them, the Holy See also published Pope Francis’ 2016 letter to the Buenos Aires bishops, in which he said the guidelines “fully express the meaning” of Chapter 8 and declared there are “no other interpretations” of this issue.

The Vatican made clear in Acta Apostolicae Sedis that this private papal letter congratulating the bishops on their guidelines would be raised to the magisterial status of an apostolic letter (less magisterial than an encyclical but more than an apostolic exhortation). It also included a special rescript — an official papal decision on doctrine — written June 5 by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, which declares that Pope Francis expressly intends that both his letter and the Buenos Aires guidelines are “authentic magisterium.”

The Pope’s declaration comes after months of debate over what should be the correct interpretation of the issue in Amoris Laetitia, with some reading Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on marriage and the family as giving those living in irregular unions broad access to the sacraments and others insisting it could and should be only read in an orthodox manner with no change in the Church’s teaching and practice. It also comes just over a year since the dubia, five questions drawn up by four cardinals aimed at clarifying the underlying principles in the document, were sent to the Pope but which the Holy Father has not answered.

Bishop Arrieta, the second-ranking official at the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, said the Buenos Aires guidelines take into account “norms but also the concrete situations” affecting the conscience of remarried divorcees “in order to deal with a complex pastoral matter.”

But Cardinal Müller, the prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has expressed some reservations, telling the Register Dec. 6 that he finds it “disturbing” the Holy Father would declare an interpretation of a group of bishops as “almost infallible” teaching.

However, Cardinal Müller generally agrees with the Argentine bishops’ guidelines and said in an Oct. 6 interview with the Register that the Argentine interpretation could be read “in an orthodox way.”


The Buenos Aires Guidelines

The Buenos Aires bishops stressed in their guidelines that the issue with respect to access to Holy Communion for divorced-and-civilly-remarried Catholics is not about “permission” to the sacraments, but rather a “discernment process” and conversion through “pastoral accompaniment.” They stated that this path does “not necessarily end” with access to the sacraments, but may lead to other ways divorced-and-civilly-remarried Catholics can be better integrated in the life of the Church.

They added that “whenever feasible and depending on the specific circumstance,” a priest may suggest such couples “live in continence” without marital relations — something previous magisterial teaching has always mandated. They further added that, in view of the “difficulties” arising from this option, the sacrament of reconciliation is available if “partners fail in this purpose” (they cited Pope St. John Paul II’s 1996 letter to Cardinal William Baum as an example).

Then, in a crucial paragraph, the bishops stated that in “more complex cases” the option of living in continence “may not, in fact, be feasible,” but a path of discernment is “still possible.” They added: “If it comes to be recognized that, in a specific case, there are limitations that mitigate responsibility and culpability [as per Amoris Laetitia, 301-302], especially when a person believes they would incur a subsequent wrong by harming the children of the new union, Amoris Laetitia offers the possibility of access to the sacraments of reconciliation and Eucharist (cf. Amoris Laetitia, Footnotes 336 and 351). These sacraments, in turn, dispose the person to continue maturing and growing with the power of grace.”

The Buenos Aires bishops stressed this did not grant “unlimited access” to the sacraments, but that proper discernment applies to “each case” and that “it is always important to guide people to stand before God with their conscience.” Access to the sacraments when there are “unresolved injustices” in a relationship is “particularly scandalous,” the bishops wrote.

The bishops said access to the sacraments may be required “privately” to avoid giving “confusion” about the indissolubility of marriage. They added that discernment is “not closed” but “dynamic” and must remain open to “new stages of growth and to new decisions,” according to the “law of gradualness” and with confidence “in the help of grace.”


Bishop Arrieta

In his comments to the Register, Bishop Arrieta explained how Amoris Laetitia deals with the complexity of individual cases and marks a change from applying a single objective rule to all cases. “It takes into account both rules and the conscience, not only the rules,” he said. Previously, the relevant canon (915) prohibiting Communion in these cases “was interpreted in quite an objective way,” he added. “The general idea was to do that, but it resulted in a lot of injustice in many cases.”

The Vatican official added, “The norm of conduct that we are all obliged to follow is not, properly speaking, the general dictate of the law, but the dictate of our ‘right’ conscience, which indicates the application — serious and before God — of that law, while bearing in mind the circumstances of the individual case that only he knows. In this process, the subtleness and formation of the spiritual life of each person intervene, so it becomes more refined along the path of faith towards God. It is therefore very risky to want to judge our neighbor with parameters that serve each of us.”

According to Bishop Arrieta, the “breakthrough” in Amoris Laetitia, acknowledged in the Buenos Aires bishops’ guidelines, is that it shows a higher regard for conscience. “It’s conscience which allows you to go to Communion, and that act of conscience is a mix of objective and subjective things,” he said.

Every person’s evaluation is different, depending on circumstance, Bishop Arrieta explained, but a priest still must inform the person of the rules and be close to Christ in order to help him make “a correct judgement in conscience.” It is a “demanding task for the priest,” the Spanish Opus Dei bishop said, and “takes a lot of time” if it is to be handled responsibly.

But Bishop Arrieta stressed the Argentinian bishops’ guidelines “make it clear that it is not a matter of receiving the Eucharist at all costs” and that, in many cases, that won’t be possible “because the objective circumstances or the internal disposition of the subject do not allow it.” But even in these cases, the Vatican official added, in agreement with the Argentine bishops, efforts must be made to better integrate them into the Christian community through activities that, “with the grace of God, can be the way to remove the obstacles and dispositions.”

He believes the Argentinian interpretation is consistent with Canon 915, which states that those “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.” He also believes it is consistent with John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio, No. 84, which clearly reaffirmed the Church’s teaching, based upon sacred Scripture, of not allowing the divorced and civilly remarried to receive Communion unless living in “complete continence.”  

In a speech given in March this year, Bishop Arrieta said Amoris Laetitia had made “an important step forward by changing the practice without altering the Church’s doctrine on the indissolubility of marriage nor the conditions for accessing the sacraments, mainly the Eucharist.”

In this way, he said, it “broke through a barrier that had led to deadlock and was insufficient in resolving concrete pastoral situations.” He said the previous grounds for pastoral practice, given by his pontifical council in 2000 — that the persons are in “objectively grave sin,” show “obstinate persistence” and are in a “situation of habitual grave sin” — have been “overturned” by Amoris Laetitia because “many contexts” can modify seemingly “objective” situations, such as a “state of necessity, the existence of natural obligations, the difficulty of proving the truth of things.”

“The novelty of Amoris Laetitia consists mainly in having considered as a whole the objective and subjective elements established by the traditional doctrine of the Catholic Church to evaluate the morals of human acts,” the Spanish bishop said, adding that it “overcomes” previous pastoral practice of “applying to all situations the same closed ‘objective’ pattern.”

He gave the example of a civilly-remarried divorcee living with a woman with whom he has had three children and which presents an “occasion of sin.” But he added that this is an occasion of sin that “traditional morality calls ‘necessary’ because, even though she is not his wife, that woman is the mother of his children, and they have the duty, according to natural law, to educate those three in a Christian way. He cannot go and live in a hotel; he must accept the situation and try to reorganize his life in these circumstances in a Christian way, trying to live in God’s grace and avoiding scandal.”

He said that Amoris Laetitia and the Argentine bishops’ guidelines hold up the ideal of living in continence, and the couple must strive for that through prayer and God’s grace, but they acknowledge that sometimes this is not possible, in which case the sacrament of reconciliation is there for when they fail. The general rule, he said, is “maintained,” while there is an effort to “convert from sin,” according to a “law of gradualness.”

Bishop Arrieta dismissed fears this “evolution,” as he called it, in pastoral practice could lead to people living in other immoral situations, such as a cohabiting couple, to receive the sacraments. This is because he said the “first thing” they would have to do would be to “change their immoral situation.”


Cardinal Müller

In his comments to the Register Dec. 6, Cardinal Müller, who served as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith until his five-year term expired in early July, expressed unease with the Pope calling a bishops’ document “authentic magisterium” of the Church.

Cardinal Müller — who said he had learned about the Pope’s decision “through the media” — believes the Holy Father justified this in the context of Lumen Gentium, No. 25, which states that bishops can proclaim doctrine infallibly on faith and morals if there is “the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter” and if the one position is to be “definitively” held. If this is the case, Cardinal Müller added that, according to Lumen Gentium, every Catholic must submit their “mind and will” to the “authentic magisterium” of the Pope, even if the teaching is not ex cathedra.

But he stressed that Footnote 351 of Amoris Laetitia, which some respected theologians say contradicts past doctrine and which opens the door to the reception of the Eucharist for some remarried divorcees who are not living in continence, “does not claim to present an infallible pastoral decision in individual cases.” He said it is therefore “all the more disturbing that an individual letter from a pastoral region anywhere in the world is credited with an authentic and almost infallible teaching authority, and which in addition is confirmed as almost infallible.”

He further underscored that “bishops of any pastoral region do not exercise any infallible magisterium, and certainly their pastoral guidelines do not oblige all the faithful of the world to accept this interpretation of Footnote 351 as divinely necessary for salvation and accepted Catholic belief.”

The German cardinal said the Pope can make such binding statements with ex cathedra pronouncements (an infallible teaching that is contained in Revelation), but he cannot “submit his personal view of things for others to believe, or force their acceptance with canonical punishments, which they must unconditionally accept for the eternal salvation of their souls.”

He said the magisterium “teaches nothing other than what is contained in Revelation,” and the “word of Jesus on marriage and adultery and the impossibility of a second marriage during the lifetime of the legitimate spouse is the norm of all pastoral and pastoral action of the Church.”

Cardinal Müller noted that neither the bishops nor the Pope “can authentically or infallibly submit to the Church and to all the faithful a doctrine, which they would have to accept for salvation, that contradicts the teachings of Christ and the apostles and the dogmatic decisions of the previous magisterium.”

“Communion can only lawfully and fruitfully be received by a Catholic who is in the state of sanctifying grace,” he said. “Those who need forgiveness for a grave sin of adultery must first recognize and confess their sins and have the firm intention to sin no more and to avoid the opportunity to sin.”

Quoting from Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council dogmatic constitution on Divine Revelation, he said the magisterium “is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit.”

He added: “Faithfulness to the word of God authentically distinguishes the apostles of Christ from the Pharisees, who interpreted the word of God according to their own traditions.”

But Cardinal Müller welcomed Amoris Laetitia for dealing with the question of “how to sensitively bring those Catholics who, in addition to their sacramental marriage, are living together with another partner into close relationship with the Church, and how, before God, with the help of the grace of Christ, their living situation can be regulated.”

As with Pope Francis, he believes people should “not be abruptly confronted with the commandments of God,” but in the “spirit of the Good Shepherd, the priest is to help them recognize their situation before God and lead them, in the light of the Gospel, to the path of following the crucified and risen Lord.”


Cardinal Kasper

In a Dec. 7 commentary on Vatican Radio, Cardinal Walter Kasper welcomed the papal move regarding the Buenos Aires guidelines, saying he hoped it would end the “tiresome” debate over the issue. The German cardinal, who in 2014 at Pope Francis’ invitation initiated the discussion over reception of Communion for divorced-and-civilly-remarried Catholics, said the admission of remarried divorcees to the sacraments in individual cases is part of the Church’s teaching tradition.

According to Cardinal Kasper, it is not “an innovation, but a renewal, of an old tradition against Neo-scholasticism” (the 19th-century revival of St. Thomas Aquinas’ teachings which some view as rigid and formalistic). He said this has been shown by specialists in Pope St. John Paul II’s teaching and that “there is no contradiction” with the teaching of Francis’ two predecessors.

Cardinal Kasper argued that the mistake of Amoris Laetitia’s critics is “a unilateral moral objectivism, which undervalued the importance of personal conscience in the moral act.” He said this is “not to deny that the conscience must pay attention to the objective commandments of God,” but that, in common with the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas, “they cannot be mechanically or purely applied with deductive logic, in particular in often complex and perplexing situations.” 

Rather, he said, “it is the cardinal virtue of prudence, guided by love, to ask which is the right and fair use of the commandment in a specific situation.” He said that contrary to what critics have said of this approach, it “has nothing to do with situational ethics, which knows no generally valid commandments.” He said it is also not about “exceptions to the rule.”

But Joseph Shaw, a senior research fellow at Oxford University and a public supporter of the dubia cardinals’ request for clarity regarding Amoris Laetitia, believes the kind of case which the Argentine bishops argue would allow remarried divorcees to receive Holy Communion is likely to be rare and of very limited pastoral relevance.

A further problem, he said, is the risk of giving public scandal by allowing such couples to receive the Eucharist, which is the focus of Canon 915. Lastly, he argued that Catholics cannot assent to such teaching, as its meaning is not clearly “in accord with the magisterium.”

The faithful, he told the Register, “cannot be obliged to believe in two contradictory things at the same time” — that what was clearly forbidden by popes in the past and continues to be according to canon law is now allowed in some cases. 


‘Normal Pontifical Act’

Vatican spokesman Greg Burke declined to comment on why the Pope had chosen AAS as the means to clarify his teaching in Amoris Laetitia, and Bishop Arrieta also did not know the reason. However, he believes it is a “normal pontifical act, in a collegial sense, because it represents the formal adhesion of the Pope to a pastoral indication, made by a group of bishops from a region of the Church.”

Asked why this concession is being taught now, instead of 50 or 100 years ago, and why it was not included in Familiaris Consortio, he said that, “in the magisterium of the Church, there has always been progress and further clarification, always in line with the previous magisterium. In a certain way, it happens in the activity of a journalist or a writer.”

He said he hoped and believed the Argentine directive and the Pope’s declaration “should help many individual bishops on this issue.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.