Photo: Cardinal Kasper and the pope
By Fr. Gerald E. Murray, The Catholic Thing, Jan. 6, 2018
The publication in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis of Pope Francis’ letter confirming the interpretation of Amoris Laetitia by the bishops of the Buenos Aires region marked a new phase in the serious crisis affecting the Church. We now know that the pastoral advice of this group of bishops embodies what Pope Francis intended in chapter 8 of AL. Pope Francis wrote to them: “The document is very good and completely explains the meaning of chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia. There are no other interpretations.” Pope Francis’ endorsement had previously been in the form of a private letter. Such a letter does indicate the pope’s mind on a certain matter, but it is not an act of official teaching for the whole Church.
With its publication in the Acta (along with the Argentinean document) under the new title of Apostolic Letter, and further described in an accompanying note as possessing the quality of “authentic magisterium,” it is no longer a private letter. And it’s no surprise that three Kazakh bishops this week issued a public statement affirming traditional teaching and (in an extraordinary move) were quickly joined by former nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò and Archbishop Luigi Negri – with perhaps others to follow.
It’s worth noting, however, that the Buenos Aires guidelines leave room for further interpretation by each bishop: “We believe it is convenient, as bishops of the same pastoral region, to agree to certain minimal criteria. We offer them without prejudice to the authority that each bishop has in his own diocese to specify them, complete them, or restrict them.” So the guidelines for interpreting AL do not ask individual bishops, in the Buenos Aires region or now of the whole world, simply to follow what they propose. Rather, individual bishops can “specify, complete, or restrict” the “minimal criteria.” And thus, the papal endorsement also implies that each bishop retains authority in his own diocese.
The advice given in the guidelines seems at first to reaffirm – but then contradicts – the constant teaching and discipline of the Church. The Buenos Aires bishops write: “When the concrete circumstances of a couple [in a second marriage] make it feasible, especially when both are Christians with a journey of faith, it is possible to propose that they make the effort of living in continence.” The encouragement to live as brother and sister, when their particular circumstances (for example, ill health, young children, advanced age) would make separating inadvisable, in order to receive worthily the help of the sacraments, was clearly taught by Saint John Paul II in various places.
The next paragraph, however, teaches the exact opposite:
In other, more complex circumstances, and when it is not possible to obtain a declaration of nullity, the aforementioned option may not, in fact, be feasible. Nonetheless, it is equally possible to undertake a journey of discernment. If one arrives at the recognition that, in a particular case, there are limitations that diminish responsibility and culpability (cf. 301-302), particularly when a person judges that he would fall into a subsequent fault by damaging the children of the new union, Amoris Laetitia opens up the possibility of access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist (cf. notes 336 and 351). These, in turn, dispose the person to continue maturing and growing with the aid of grace.