Communion for the divorced and remarried; ‘Amoris Laetitia’ at 5 years

Amoris Laetitia

Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” was released five years ago.

The 264-page document, whose title is Latin for “The Joy of Love,” is one of the longest papal writings in history.

It meanders through an introduction and nine chapters, offering everything from grandfatherly advice on family life to Scripture reflections to South American love poems, observing along the way the difficulties families face and gently urging pastors to be more compassionate toward parishioners whose relationships do not always match the church’s ideal.

The document marked a shift away from an exclusive emphasis on the church’s idealistic image of family life, one that had often felt out of reach for ordinary Catholics.

“At times we have also proposed a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families,” Pope Francis wrote.

“This excessive idealization, especially when we have failed to inspire trust in God’s grace, has not helped to make marriage more desirable and attractive, but quite the opposite.”

While still encouraging Catholics to live up to the church’s ideal for marriage, Pope Francis said, pastors must find ways to welcome the many Catholics living in relationships deemed “irregular” in church teaching: Catholics who had been divorced and civilly remarried without having their first marriage annulled, gay and lesbian couples and unmarried cohabitating couples.

Many Catholics in these situations had expressed that they felt ostracised by the church, being told they were “living in sin.”

The document marked a shift away from an exclusive emphasis on the church’s idealistic image of family life, one that had often felt out of reach for ordinary Catholics.

In light of the church’s “solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations,” the pope wrote, “it can no longer simply be said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace.”

Instead, the document instructs pastors to work with such couples to examine their consciences for what God is calling them to do and to discern “with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response that can be given to God,” keeping in mind that the answer may not be the same for everyone.

In a now-famous and controversial footnote, Pope Francis noted that in some cases, people whose relationships were not blessed by the church may find themselves called to return to the sacraments.

Previously, divorced and civilly remarried Catholics who did not receive an annulment were considered to be “persevering in manifest grave sin” and were barred from receiving Communion.

It is difficult to determine how many people this change actually affected.

According to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, around a quarter of U.S. Catholics had been divorced and one-third remarried.

Only about a quarter of those who had been divorced said they or their former partner had sought an annulment from the church, with 43 percent of those who did not have their first marriage annulled saying they did not think it was necessary.

Almost half of all respondents said that remarrying after a divorce was not a sin, and 62 percent supported allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion.

Only about three in 10 of those Catholics who attended Mass but were ineligible for Communion because of their relationship status said they never received Communion; the rest said they received at least sometimes.

Further obscuring the number of Catholics potentially affected by these changes in “Amoris Laetitia” are Pope Francis’ late 2015 annulment reforms, which simplified a process that could previously take years.

Those who were abstaining from Communion while awaiting annulments in 2015 would likely have had their annulments approved by now.

Finally, one must take into account the diverse interpretations of this document by bishops and theologians around the globe.

Pope Francis, shifting away from blanket rules and toward case-by-case discernment, left the decision on whether to admit remarried Catholics to Communion to local bishops, who have interpreted the teaching in a variety of ways in their own dioceses.

Bishops in Malta, Germany, Argentina and San Diego, Calif., for example, have instructed priests in their dioceses to help divorced and remarried Catholics discern whether they should return to the Eucharist, with the Maltese bishops going so far as to say that for some couples, living “as brother and sister” maybe “humanly impossible.”

On the other hand, some bishops have concluded that all divorced and remarried Catholics must choose between sexual relations with their spouse and reception of the Eucharist, effectively making no change relative to the practice prior to “Amoris Laetitia.”

One such bishop, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia, wrote soon after the document’s release, “Undertaking to live as brother and sister is necessary for the divorced and civilly-remarried to receive reconciliation in the Sacrament of Penance, which could then open the way to the Eucharist.”

For his part, Pope Francis has said informally that the Argentine bishops had interpreted “Amoris Laetitia” correctly when they stated, “When the couple’s concrete circumstances make it possible, especially when both are Christians with a journey of faith, one can propose a commitment to living in continence.”

In other cases, they said, further discernment may be necessary; for example, abstaining from sex could harm a new marriage and the children who are part of that family.

There could also be factors mitigating a spouse’s culpability in his or her divorce. In those cases, they said, “Amoris Laetitia opens the possibility of access to the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist.”

The Vatican, however, has not imposed that interpretation on all dioceses and has largely ignored those who have interpreted the document differently. Continue reading

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