The real message of Amoris Laetitia has been obscured

Amoris Laetitia says the divorced and remarried 'should be made to feel part of the Church' (CNS)

Amoris Laetitia was intended, above all, as a document in praise and in defence of marriage. So Pope Francis must be frustrated that an ongoing row over the document could end up defining his pontificate.

As I noted at the time of its publication, the actual text of Amoris Laetitia makes no reference to – let alone an opening for – the notorious “Kasper proposal” to allow Communion for those living in irregular unions. Instead, it places a serious and urgent emphasis on individual pastoral care and spiritual guidance for all couples, in every shade and shape of union. This is Amoris’s great strength: it makes clear that every couple – even if they fall outside the bounds of a valid sacramental marriage – should be acknowledged, loved, and helped by the Church.

Unfortunately, this great pastoral message has been systematically obscured by those who want Amoris Laetitia to say something it simply doesn’t, and who are trying, with the zeal of medieval alchemists, to change the gold of Church teaching into the dross of the Kasper proposal.

Those who insist that divorced and civilly remarried couples who live together more uxorio can somehow be in a state of grace and receive Communion, including Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández, the man widely believed to have drafted much of Amoris Laetitia, usually do so through a rather tortured reading of a single footnote in a 250-page document.

This footnote 351 actually does nothing to alter, or even hint at, a changing Church teaching or discipline. The text itself speaks of couples in irregular situations being taken through a period of discernment which might lead them to approaching the sacraments of Confession and Communion – in that order.

Nothing is said about the norms for the sacraments being changed: so we can assume that the Church’s perennial teaching still stands, that as Pope John Paul II put it, “Reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage.”

Pope Francis himself has supported this interpretation, by saying that he “doesn’t remember” the footnote in question, and that his call for integration of divorced and remarried couples into parish life “doesn’t mean taking Communion.” It’s true that he has also written to the Buenos Aires bishops congratulating them on their guidelines for implementing Amoris Laetitia. But his letter is so non-specific, and the supposedly contentious section of the proposals is so unclear, tortured and ambiguous, that one can hardly see this as the Pope endorsing a radical reinterpretation of his document which clashes with all previous teaching. In any case, a private letter – in itself – has neither any legal force nor doctrinal authority.

Perhaps the language of Amoris Laetitia can be called vague in places, or open to confused or contradictory interpretations. But whatever public debate this might generate, this does not present a canonical or theological problem. If a papal document can be interpreted two contradictory ways, either in line with Church teaching or against it, of necessity it must be interpreted in line with the teaching of the Church.

Sadly, those advancing the “hidden meaning” interpretation of Amoris Laetitia have sucked up much of the oxygen of discussion and attention, doing a real disservice to those couples in irregular situations whose care the text urgently calls for. But the real pastoral potential of Amoris Laetitia isn’t going unexplored. This week, Bishop Pedro Daniel Martinez Perea of the diocese of San Luis, Argentina, published an excellent pastoral letter on the care of couples in the light of Amoris Laetitia.

What is so excellent about the letter is not merely the absence of the abstruse and contortionistic moral argumentation which others have deployed to make Amoris Laetitia say what it patently doesn’t. Free of any agenda other than genuine pastoral care, Bishop Martinez is able to let the urgency and concern of Amoris speak for itself. The result is a clear, coherent, straightforward celebration of marriage, and a message of uncompromising love for all couples, whatever their status.

This genuine care for couples in all manner of unique situations is given real depth in the letter since, free from a myopic focus on receiving Communion as the be-all and end-all of pastoral life, Bishop Martinez gives real weight to spiritual direction, habitual Confession, Eucharistic adoration and other aspects of full parish life.

But what I find most striking about the pastoral letter is the clarity and simplicity with which Bishop Martinez calls for the love of God to be announced to couples in difficult situations. Previous attempts at implementing Amoris Laetitia have too often fallen into the trap of treating couples in difficult circumstances as a pastoral problem to be solved; Bishop Martinez’s letter recognises them as people to be loved. In doing so, he reveals the heart of the Pope’s exhortation far better than those who often claim to speak for him.