The debate over Communion for the remarried, which has dominated Pope Francis’s pontificate, has become harder to explain than the geopolitics of the Middle East. But last week the Pope attempted to clarify it. He has added an “apostolic letter” to the Acta Apostolicae Sedis – the record of the papacy’s official acts. The letter was sent to the bishops of Buenos Aires last year, approving their interpretation of Amoris Laetitia.
The bishops appear to say (this is disputed, as we’ll see) that Amoris Laetitia favours Communion for the remarried in some circumstances, even if the new relationship is sexually active. The Pope has now officially approved this reading.
So will everyone now accept that Communion for the remarried can be OK? It seems highly unlikely, for a few reasons.
First, there is little consensus about what the Buenos Aires bishops actually said. Some believe they were licensing Communion for the remarried (even if not living in continence). However, the canonist Edward Peters, an adviser to the Holy See’s top tribunal, tells me: “Its assertions regarding discipline (especially the reception of Holy Communion by divorced and remarried Catholics) avoids, albeit narrowly, directly saying that such reception is per se licit.”
More concerning, says Dr Peters, are “the pervasive ambiguities” of the Buenos Aires document, which could open the way for others to “impugn” Church teachings.
Second, even if the document did have a heterodox meaning, it doesn’t actually claim to be a statement of Catholic doctrine.
Dr John Joy, president of the St Albert the Great Center and an academic specialist in magisterial teaching, says: “The essential content of the two documents is this: Argentine bishops: ‘The Pope says that some divorced and remarried people may be able to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation without intending to live in continence.’ Pope: ‘Yep, that’s what I said.’ But these are merely factual assertions about what Amoris Laetitia says.”
In other words, the letter claims something not about Church teaching, but about the meaning of Amoris Laetitia – and, as popes can go wrong, these aren’t necessarily the same thing.
The Pope’s latest act “certainly does not mean,” Dr Joy says, “that Catholics are obliged to accept that anyone living in an invalid second union may actually receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation validly without intending to live in continence. If Amoris Laetitia in fact says that they can, so much the worse for Amoris Laetitia.”
That brings us to the third reason why the latest move will not simply make Catholics accept a new doctrine. The Church down the ages has taught that the divorced and remarried, if in a sexual relationship, cannot receive Communion. You’ll find it in the Church Fathers; in the teaching of Popes St Innocent I (405) and St Zachary (747); in the recent documents of St John Paul II, Benedict XVI and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
All the teaching of the Church about sin, marriage and the Eucharist would have been understood by those promulgating it to have excluded the sexually active divorced and remarried from Communion.
This has also become part of the Catholic mind: there can’t be much doubt that if you picked a random saint from the history of the Church and asked them what the Church taught, they would tell you the same thing.
This history puts limits on what can be taught today, says Thomas Pink, professor of philosophy at King’s College London. “Doctrinal development, to the extent that it is possible, cannot coherently be understood to permit a pope to use his teaching authority to contradict his predecessors, and impose that contradiction on Catholics as something they are obliged to believe,” says Prof Pink.
The doctrinal content of the Buenos Aires document, he continues, “is not entirely clear, does not meet conditions for infallibility, and comes without any accompanying explanation of its relation to previous teaching.” So it can scarcely “oblige Catholics to believe anything inconsistent with what the Church has so far taught and which they were already under an obligation to believe”.
In short, this latest episode leaves us pretty much where we were: with the doctrine expressed by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and believed by Catholics down the ages.
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