My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
There have been various reactions to the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation of His Holiness Pope Francis on Love in the Family, Amoris Laetitia, since it was released on April 8. Some praise it, some do not. Some find it helpful, others less so. Most everyone finds it to be very long, which means they will probably not read it, at least not in its entirety. I very quickly read the advance copy I received the night before it was released so I could talk about it intelligently in the television interviews I would have the next day.
In my reading of the papal exhortation, I found plenty of solid material for thoughtful reflection and prayerful meditation. The Holy Father’s great love of the family is foremost in his mind and heart as it is in mine. In particular, I share the Holy Father’s pastoral empathy as a shepherd of souls for people in irregular marital arrangements. The church does not seek to exclude anyone and wishes to welcome everyone honestly seeking God. The good intentions of people who want a change in the church’s eucharistic discipline and teachings are understandable, but the law is a yes, not a no. In other words, the law exists to positively sustain and protect the sacraments and the believing community, not to push anyone out. But it does need to reinforce and support the truth of both marriage and the Eucharist, and thus, current church teaching and discipline continue to make good sense.
In this regard, in my statement released on the day the document was issued, I noted, “There are no changes to canon law or church doctrine introduced in this document.” Having since then read the document again, patiently and carefully, as the pope requested, I stand by my initial statement, despite claims to the contrary from some commentators.
As the basis for my statement that there are “no changes to canon law or church doctrine introduced in this document,” I cited Pope Francis himself, as he stated in the document that “neither the Synod nor this Exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases” (n. 300). Nevertheless, some people are citing other passages of the document which they claim contradict this statement, notably footnote 351, in which Pope Francis says with reference to persons living in an objective situation of sin, “In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments.” The pope does not explicitly name the sacraments to which he is referring, but continues the footnote by saying, “Hence, I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy. I would also point out that the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” By referring to “sacraments” in the plural and then mentioning the “confessional” and the “Eucharist,” he seems to be implying that these sacraments can be given to people in such irregular situations. But his use of phrases such as a “torture chamber” and “a prize for the perfect” are instances of using a rhetorical device known as hyperbole, which involves an exaggeration meant to emphasize his pastoral point about how the sacraments are to be administered, not to introduce a canonical or doctrinal innovation.
Adding to the discussion are the Pope’s comments on board a flight last week in response to a reporter who asked Pope Francis if there are “new concrete possibilities that did not exist before the publication of the Exhortation or not,” the Holy Father answered, “I can say yes. Period.” But these new “concrete possibilities” could be referring to a variety of pastoral initiatives to address irregular situations. Indeed, Pope Francis himself seemed annoyed with the focus on the question of Holy Communion for those in irregular situations, as he went on to say in answer to the next question, which asked specifically about footnote 351: “One of the recent popes, speaking of the Council, said that there were two councils: the Second Vatican Council in the Basilica of St. Peter, and the other, the council of the media. When I convoked the first synod, the great concern of the majority of the media was communion for the divorced and remarried, and, since I am not a saint, this bothered me, and then made me sad. Because, thinking of those media who said, this, this and that, do you not realize that that is not the important problem? Don’t you realize that instead the family throughout the world is in crisis? Don’t we realize that the falling birth rate in Europe is enough to make one cry? And the family is the basis of society. Do you not realize that the youth don’t want to marry? . . . Don’t you realize that the lack of work or the little work (available) means that a mother has to get two jobs and the children grow up alone? These are the big problems. I don’t remember the footnote, but for sure if it’s something general in a footnote it’s because I spoke about it, I think, in ‘Evangelii Gaudium.’”
So what is one to make of all this? The starting point for interpreting papal statements and ecclesiastical documents is to remember that they do not all carry the same authoritative weight. They bear different names because they carry varying levels of importance and authority. They are grouped, for example, on the Vatican website (www.vatican.va) under different categories with a variety of titles, including: apostolic constitutions, encyclicals, motu proprios, apostolic exhortations, apostolic letters, audiences, homilies, letters, messages, speeches, prayers and daily meditations. At the top of this hierarchy in terms of importance and authority are apostolic constitutions, highest in significance because they constitute papal legislation defining laws and doctrines. Among the lowest levels of authority would be extemporaneous answers given in response to impromptu questions during an in-flight press conference on an airplane. Footnotes in an apostolic exhortation would also rank low in significance, particularly since apostolic exhortations themselves simply exhort, encourage and urge the faithful to follow existing church laws and teachings. Apostolic exhortations by their very nature are not vehicles for introducing or amending legislative texts or making dogmatic pronouncements.
Thus, it is important to note that the Catechism of the Catholic Church was promulgated on October 11, 1992, by Pope St. John Paul II by means of an Apostolic Constitution, Fidei Depositum, the highest level of papal authority. In that document, the sainted Holy Father wrote: “The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which I approved 25 June last and the publication of which I today order by virtue of my Apostolic Authority, is a statement of the Church’s faith and of catholic doctrine, attested to or illumined by Sacred Scripture, the Apostolic Tradition and the Church’s Magisterium. I declare it to be a sure norm for teaching the faith and thus a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion.”
With regard to the question of Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried, the Catechism says clearly in paragraph 1665, “The remarriage of persons divorced from a living, lawful spouse contravenes the plan and law of God as taught by Christ. They are not separated from the Church, but they cannot receive Eucharistic communion. They will lead Christian lives especially by educating their children in the faith.” There is nothing in Amoris Laetitia that changes, amends or repeals this doctrine.
Moreover, the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which remains currently in force, was promulgated by Pope St. John Paul II on January 25, 1983, by means of an Apostolic Constitution, Sacrae Disciplinae Leges, with these words: “Trusting therefore in the help of divine grace, sustained by the authority of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, with certain knowledge, and in response to the wishes of the bishops of the whole world who have collaborated with me in a collegial spirit; with the supreme authority with which I am vested, by means of this Constitution, to be valid forever in the future, I promulgate the present Code as it has been set in order and revised. I command that for the future it is to have the force of law for the whole Latin Church, and I entrust it to the watchful care of all those concerned, in order that it may be observed.”
Canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law says that those “who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.” There is nothing in Amoris Laetitia that changes, amends or repeals this canon. While we cannot judge people’s consciences, we can judge external situations to determine if they are gravely sinful from an objective perspective. This is relevant to the reception of Holy Communion, which is an external, public act as well. The question of the proper disposition of the soul while receiving Holy Communion is eminently pastoral. It has long standing in the Church going back to the early centuries.
The Church’s discipline with regard to acting as a lector, an Extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, a godparent, a catechist, or a teacher or administrator in a parish school also remains unchanged.
A few months ago, Pope Francis did formally change canon law to expedite and simplify the procedures for handling cases petitioning for a declaration of nullity of marriage. He did this by means of a formal document known as a Motu Proprio, which we have fully implemented in our Diocesan Tribunal. As a result, these irregular situations of divorced and remarried persons can often be regularized. Our diocesan Office for Marriage and Family Life and our parishes are committed to providing pro-active preparation for couples planning to get married to help them establish a strong marriage with the help of the sacramental graces received in the Sacrament of Matrimony.
Let me conclude by reaffirming my agreement with the Holy Father that the gravest problems of marriage and the family in the 21st century have to do with the harsh fact that these basic constitutions are in crisis. Where the Holy Father wants us to devote our attention is for everyone to “realize that instead the family throughout the world is in crisis.” As I pointed out in my statement last month, “In 1970, married couples with children constituted 40 percent of American households. By 2012, that figure had fallen to less than 20 percent. Thus it is timely and fitting that His Holiness Pope Francis has issued his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on Love in the Family bearing the Latin title, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love).”
I offer these observations in keeping with my duty as diocesan bishop “to present and explain to the faithful the truths of the faith which are to be believed and applied to moral issues” (canon 386). I hope they are helpful.
May God give us this grace. Amen.