The Italian diocese of Vittorio Veneto late last month became the latest to issue guidelines for the implementation of Pope Francis’s 2016 post-synodal exhortation Amoris Laetitia. Predictably, the news caused a stir in the Italian Catholic press, and even made it into the English-speaking news cycle.
The diocese shared the document with the Catholic Herald. The pastoral indications present a programme of outreach that encourages the careful examination of individual couples’ cases, with the guidance of a pastor and under the watchful eye of the local ordinary, supported by groups dedicated to pastoral care of people in difficult situations.
“First of all,” Bishop Corrado Pizziolo told the diocesan paper, L’Azione, “[the new document] aims to start a journey. It is not yet entirely clear and yet, it is necessary to start with the Pope’s indications. Going along the path, I am convinced that light will be shed, without being precipitous, of course, but also without fear of taking risks.”
The document outlining the new pastoral itinerary is called Accompagnare, discernere e integrare (“Accompanying, discerning and integrating”), which closely follows the title of a 2016 vademecum, or guide, curated by Fr José Granados, once a vice president of the former John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family (which sought to read Francis’s exhortation in the light of established teaching). Still, there is some novelty in the approach Bishop Pizziolo’s diocese is preparing to take. “The novelty,” Bishop Pizziolo said, “consists in providing, beyond the opportunities that already existed before, the possibility for certain couples who do not fully live Christian marriage, of accessing sacramental participation.”
He continued: “A couple that believes they can make this request will contact their parish priest, and through him the journey that the diocese proposes will begin.
“It is,” the bishop told L’Azione, “a journey of discernment, which involves in-depth consideration of one’s own situation and the effort to see what possibilities can be put in place.” The document deals with the more contentious parts of Amoris Laetitia, noting that the apostolic exhortation makes no “clear and explicit affirmations about the admission to the sacraments, of families [sic] considered not in conformity with the Christian perspective on marriage”, save for two footnotes – 336 and 351 – which nevertheless “do not subtract from us the need for a serious course of discernment, which must articulate itself in the rapport between the general norm (which does not disappear) and the particular situation, without pretending to elevate the singular discernment to [the status of] a universal set of rules.”
In practice, any pastoral approach to admission to the sacraments will have to reckon with the teaching John Paul II articulated in his 1981 post-Synodal exhortation, Familiaris Consortio, which reaffirmed that Confession, “which would open the way to the Eucharist”, is only possible for those civilly divorced people who “are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage”.
Normally, this means separating from a new partner. But “when, for serious reasons, such as for example the children’s upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate,” they are to “take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples”. The Vittorio Veneto document attempts such a reckoning, but the attempt is bound to be a subject of further theological controversy.
So is another text which came out of Italy last week: a pastoral letter from Bishop Renato Marangoni of Belluno-Feltre to couples in canonically irregular domestic arrangements. In the November 22 letter, Bishop Marangoni apologises in the name of the Church for “attitudes of judgment and criticism” to which some Christians have subjected people in irregular unions.
He apologised also for the times when people struggling in family life and those who made choices of which the Church does not approve were “ignored in our parish communities” .
Bishop Marangoni said that “we have become rigid, [stuck] on a very formal view of the family situations into which you had entered.”
Bishop Marangoni’s overture to couples in irregular situations appeared to be a bridge too far for some – which is no surprise, as the issues Amoris Laetitia raised in 2016 remain contentious. Amoris, however, was an official encouragement: an invitation to discernment. At bottom, the exhortation was a call to think together and publicly about challenges to contemporary family life in search of ways to harness the precious resource that is the family for the good of society and the cause of the Gospel.
Discussion of the document has generated some light, perhaps, but also a good deal of heat. One question often lost in the furious scribbling is: why? Why does a post-synodal exhortation require pastoral guidelines? Why does any apostolic exhortation require implementation by any means, especially ones that amount to special legislation, even when they are not formally couched as such? How are excessive formalism and legal rigorism effectively combatted by more legislation or quasi-legislation?
Perhaps it’s time to hit the reset button on the whole kerfuffle, and start afresh.