Pope Francis’s Controversial Step on Communion for the Divorced and Remarried

Pope Francis gestures during a news conference, December 2, 2017. (Vincenzo Pinto/Reuters)
Must faithful Catholics now give a ‘religious submission of mind and will’ to Francis’s teachings on this issue?

Last week, Pope Francis made another move to advance his teachings on Communion for the divorced and remarried.

In September 2016, the pope sent a private letter to bishops in Buenos Aires to clarify his teachings on the issue, which he had expressed in his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. Now, the pope declared this letter to be his “authentic magisterium,” which means it is one of his official teachings.

The pope’s letter approved of the guidelines formulated by Argentine bishops in Buenos Aires on how Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics should be handled. The guidelines assert that, in certain circumstances, a person who is divorced and remarried and is living in an active sexual partnership might not be responsible or culpable for the mortal sin of adultery, “particularly when a person judges that he would fall into a subsequent fault by damaging the children of the new union.” The guidelines add that “Amoris Laetitia opens up the possibility of access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist.”

This caused confusion among some Catholics, who saw the statements as violating Canon 915 in the Code of Canon Law, which forbids anyone whose soul is in a state of mortal sin from receiving the Eucharist. According to the Council of Trent, a marriage cannot be dissolved by a civil divorce. Therefore, if one gets divorced and then engages in sexual activity in a second marriage, he or she is committing adultery. While true repentance through confession can absolve this sin, one cannot have true repentance if one intends to continue sexual activity in this remarriage.

Pope Francis, however, in his private letter, which is now authentic magisterium, affirmed the Buenos Aires bishops’ guidelines and wrote that there is “no other interpretation” of Amoris Laetitia. This, of course, is hugely important: When the letter was private, it was not required that Catholics agree with this interpretation; indeed, many interpreted Amoris Laetitia differently. But now this interpretation takes an authoritative position. As the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, states, the faithful are instructed to give a “religious submission of mind and will” to teachings that are authentic magisterium even though the teaching may not be an infallible declaration on faith and morals.

Father James Martin, S.J., a consultant to the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communications, told me via email that Pope Francis is reaffirming the Catholic teachings on the primacy of conscience, which Martin says have been downplayed in the last 40 years.

“The particular teaching in question (in this letter) is that those who are divorced and remarried and who have not received an annulment may, in some cases, receive Communion,” Martin said. “Now, someone in his or her own conscience may disagree with that, but this particular teaching is directed mainly at those who seek to be welcomed at Communion.”

According to Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 1790, individuals are obligated to follow their conscience, because they must do what they think is right. However, paragraph 137 of Instrumentum Laboris, the “working document” of the 2015 synod on the family, clarifies that teaching, pointing out that one’s conscience should be informed by the Church teachings. Otherwise, one may make “selfish” or “arbitrary” decisions.

Questions surrounding divorce and remarriage have caused controversy over the past few years. The perceived ambiguity of Amoris Laetitia led four cardinals in September 2016 to sign the dubia — Latin for “doubts” — which consisted of five questions asking Pope Francis for clarification on his views. After being ignored by the Holy Father, one of the signers, Cardinal Burke, said the cardinals will have to issue a formal correction of the pope.

A year later, in September 2017, more than 60 Catholic scholars signed a filial-correction document, which took a much harsher approach than the dubia. The filial correction alleged that Pope Francis committed seven heresies regarding his teachings on divorce and remarriage and moral relativism.

One of the signers of the filial correction, Anna Silvas, told me via email that Francis’s decision to put this letter to the Buenos Aires bishops in the authentic magisterium shows that his intention is to breach “the moral and sacramental truth of the faith.” She added, “You cannot obey the disobedient,” referring to Francis.

Taking a different approach than both Martin and Silvas, Father Thomas Petri, a dean and theology professor at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., said that, despite the dramatic reaction of some, he does not think Francis is fundamentally changing anything.

‘You cannot obey the disobedient.’ 

— Anna Silvas

Father Petri argued that the guidelines in Buenos Aires are themselves quite ambiguous and that we must interpret them based on the traditions of the Church. The guidelines, Petri pointed out, do not open up Communion for all divorced and remarried Catholics. Rather, Petri believes the guidelines must be interpreted as referring to situations in which one person in the remarriage is only submitting to sexual acts under duress.

Father Petri used the Vademecum, a 1997 Church document, to defend his point. The Vademecum discusses contraception, which is forbidden by the Church when it is used to prevent pregnancy. It states a person may not be culpable for cooperating with the sexual sin if the specific acts of the cooperating person are not themselves illicit, if there are proportionally grave reasons for cooperating, and if the one cooperating is trying to help the spouse stop engaging in the conduct. All three conditions must be met. Petri believes these principles can apply to the divorce-and-remarriage question.

A more comprehensive expansion of Communion to the divorced and remarried, however, would be “contrary to the word of Jesus Christ himself,” according to Father Petri, and he doesn’t think Francis will or can permit that. Pope Francis, Petri said, “is a man of the Church.”


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Tyler Arnold is a freelance journalist who writes about politics and theology.

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