Amoris Laetitia, released two years ago this month, is one of the longest papal documents in history – and one of the most contentious. Pope Francis issued the apostolic exhortation on the pastoral care of families after two acrimonious synods of bishops in Rome. At 60,000 words, the text read like several documents merged into one. It contained lyrical passages on married love, sage advice on child-rearing and a handful of footnotes that some interpreted as permitting remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion.
That last element has, of course, dominated the debate about Amoris. Two clear camps have emerged. The first regards the exhortation as a bold, compassionate attempt to draw a marginalised group back into the heart of the Church. The second sees Amoris as a dangerously ambiguous text that threatens to undermine Catholic teaching on marriage and the Eucharist.
The latter group marked the exhortation’s second anniversary with a major gathering in Rome. The meeting was organised by friends of Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, who called for a conference to address doctrinal confusion within the Church shortly before his death last September. The Italian was one of four cardinals who sent a private letter to Pope Francis in September 2016 asking five questions (dubia) about the compatibility of Amoris with previous papal teaching. Two of the four – Cardinals Raymond Burke and Walter Brandmüller – spoke at the conference. The fourth, Cardinal Joachim Meisner, died a few months before Cardinal Caffarra.
Observers saw the Rome event as a test of the strength of opposition to Amoris. Several concluded, from the hundreds present at the meeting, that the text’s critics were a tiny minority within the Church. But that is a mistake: what they were seeing was only the tip of the iceberg. Many more have misgivings about Amoris, but they remain largely hidden from view.
They include many bishops. That is evident from the sluggish response of most episcopal conferences to the Vatican’s demand for local guidelines on Amoris. The bishops of England and Wales, for example, have produced little more than an anodyne statement welcoming the exhortation. The Polish bishops’ document on Amoris has been repeatedly held up, reportedly over infighting.
What this shows is that the exhortation was never the consensus document that its supporters claimed it to be. They argued that the text reflected the wishes of the overwhelming majority of the world’s bishops as expressed at the family synods. But there was never a majority on Communion for the remarried.
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