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Pope’s leaked letter suggests support for Communion for the remarried

Pope Francis celebrates morning Mass in the chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae at the Vatican (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)

The debate over Amoris Laetitia has reopened after a letter  by Pope Francis was leaked. The Pope wrote to Buenos Aires bishops about their proposed guidelines for priests. These said that if the “responsibility and culpability” of a remarried person are “diminished”, then “Amoris Laetitia opens up the possibility of access to … Reconciliation and the Eucharist”.

The Pope’s letter said the document “completely explains the meaning” of Amoris Laetitia’s chapter eight – the most controversial. The Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, published an article yesterday confirming Pope Francis had written the letter, which was addressed to the the bishops of the Buenos Aires pastoral region.

The bishops’ guidelines said: “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, the bishops said, when abstaining from relations could harm the new union and the children who are part of the new family, further discernment is necessary. It could be that there are factors that limit the responsibility or culpability of the divorced spouse, they said, and in those cases “Amoris Laetitia opens the possibility of access to the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist.”

In those circumstance, the bishops said, priests must take care not to give scandal to their congregations, something which could be done by ensuring the couple receive in “a reserved way,” somewhat privately, although parish congregations also should be helped to “grow in a spirit of understanding and welcome.”

The Pope’s letter to the bishops said they accurately explained what Amoris Laetitia taught and captured its full meaning. “There are no other interpretations,” he said.

The letter has already provoked debate. Steve Skojec of One Peter Five argued that, if authentic, the Pope’s letter would confirm “that he intended to allow those living in objective grave sin to receive the Sacraments of Confession and Communion without the requisite repentance.” Skojec argued that this was a proposal of “sacrilege” which “could arguably be considered heretical”.

But another blogger, Fr John Zuhlsdorf, said the letter’s importance shouldn’t be overstated. “The Pope does not change doctrine or discipline in letters to individual bishops.” In any case, he said, “those who are faithful to the Church’s teachings will probably continue to do what they did before the advent of Amoris Laetitia and dissenters and liberals will continue in their own way as well.”

The Twittersphere was similarly divided. While one user tweeted gloomily, “Habemus Papam haereticum”, others pointed out that Amoris Laetitia has to be read in continuity with established Church teaching. Catholic tradition says that the remarried cannot be admitted to Communion unless they resolve to live as brother and sister.

Pope John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio said it affirmed the Church’s tradition that “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.

“This means, in practice, that when, for serious reasons, such as for example the children’s upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they “take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.’”

Dominican Fr Thomas Petri, who teaches theology at the Dominican House of Studies, tweeted: “For the record – of itself, Amoris Laetitia has no magisterial weight. Neither does his private letter on his understanding of it.” Another Twitter user argued: “The issue isn’t that Church teaching might change (it can’t), but rather that public perception will be that it has changed.”