The Flawed Strategy Behind Amoris Laetitia

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Photos:  Cardinal Francisco Coccopalmerio, Pope Francis and his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, and Cardinal Gerhard Muller

By Fr. Regis Scanlon, OFMCap, Aug. 18, 2017
 Fr. Regis Scanlon, OFMCap

Catholics continue to be confounded by the mixed signals sent by Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia. Given the high-ranking Church officials who have weighed in (but on opposite sides), and some who have been apparently released by the Holy Father due to their disagreement, it’s clear that a profound and troubling division exists at the highest levels of the Church about this document, and what it appears to be saying about Catholic teaching and the pastoral practice on marriage. Let us try to understand, yet again, what this document is trying to do, and the turmoil surrounding it.

On one side, we have the interpretation of a high-ranking Vatican official, Cardinal Francisco Coccopalmerio. In his recent book, published by the Vatican, Cardinal Coccopalmerio appeals to Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia as his reference for endorsing the idea that invalidly married Catholics may, in some cases, receive Communion, and continue their full marital/sexual relationship. The only condition that’s necessary, according to the Cardinal, is that these couples wish to change this situation, but cannot realize their desire.” The cardinal, who is the president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, represents what is described as “the top Vatican body for the interpretation of canon law.” According to the cardinal, the referenced material in Chapter 8 is in complete accord with the teachings of the Catholic Church.1

Then there is the opposite conclusion reached by Cardinal Gerhard Muller, the former head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. According to Cardinal Muller,Amoris Laetitia requires the invalidly married couple to live in complete sexual continence, as brother and sister, to be able to receive Communion. He implicitly repudiated the view of Cardinal Cocopalmerio by sharply criticizing the bishops from GermanyMalta, Buenos Aires, and San Diego for endorsing a pastoral approach that follows the conclusion reached by the Vatican-based Coccopalmerio.2   

What are we to make of this? Here we have two public and opposite “readings” of Amoris Laetitia, both coming from high-ranking Church officials. Cardinal Raymond Burke, and three other Cardinals, have formally requested from the Pope a clarification of Amoris Laetitia. So far, the Pope has avoided answering these questions.3

But how many hundreds (if not thousands) of clergy and lay people continue to wonder about, and to debate, what the document really means? Ultimately, there is no way of knowing the exact meaning of the statements in Amoris Laetitia. However, “actions do speak louder than words” so maybe we can learn something about the intention of the writer(s) from what they are doing, or from the method or strategy used in Amoris Laetitia. Let’s examine this.

Chapter 8 Uses Deliberate Ambiguity
The “poisoned apple” in this document comes in Chapter 8. That’s where one will find many statements which have Church leaders reeling in contradiction with one another.

These statements in Chapter 8 certainly appear to support the new interpretation of Cardinal Cocopalmerio, et al. However, ultimately the meaning is ambiguous.4 In fact, Chapter 8 is ambiguous throughout.

Is there a reason for this ambiguity? Archbishop Bruno Forte, whom Pope Francis appointed as Special Secretary to the 2014 Synod on the Family, has apparently made the claim—as reported by the Italian website zonalocale (and translated by OnePeterFive)—that the Pope told him: “If we speak explicitly about communion for the divorced and remarried, you do not know what a terrible mess we will make. So, we won’t speak plainly, but do it in a way that the premises are there, then I will draw out the conclusions.”5

Whether or not this conversation happened exactly as reported, we all know one thing — the Pope has been completely silent about Amoris Laetitia even when being asked by Cardinals to clarify itIn fact, it is difficult to conclude anything except that the Pope wants the document to remain ambiguous, and that this ambiguity was deliberately planned.

Who would do this? It’s unclear who was in charge of writing each section of the document, but Chapter 8, at least, was clearly written to extend to invalidly married couples a “welcome” into the full participation in the Church. Indeed, para. 297 calls for treating these invalidly married couples with compassion and tenderness, and show them “unmerited, unconditional, and gratuitous mercy.”

Chapter 8 Conceals and Omits Crucial Parts of Doctrine

The chapter makes the benign observation in par. 295 that people do not all come to a knowledge of good and evil at once (true, of course). It refers to a “gradualness” to their discovery of good and evil as they mature and grow in various circumstances. Therefore, these persons do not all have the same responsibility for their actions.

To bolster its “gradualness” theory, the author(s) of this section cites John Paul II’s statement in Familiaris Consortio (34) in which the late Pope recognizes “the law of gradualness.” The chapter even cites John Paul II’s insistence that this cannot be understood as “gradualness of the law.”

But oddly, the author omits the (absolutely critical) clarifying accompanying statement by John Paul II that it cannot be “as if there were different degrees or forms of precept in God’s law for different individuals and situations” (my emphasis).

In other words, the sixth commandment, “thou shall not commit adultery,” is a moral absolute. It does not oblige differently for different people in various situations no matter what their circumstance or knowledge of the sixth commandment. It obliges the same for married couples as it does for single persons.

But why would this clarifying phrase of John Paul II’s be omitted in Chapter 8?

One suspects that the intention is to keep alive the notion that in some cases, invalidly married couples may not be able to live the sixth commandment, and that God will understand and not require it of them. The clearest indication of this is the following statement in par. 303:

Yet, conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal (my emphasis).

The inescapable conclusion is that, according to the writers of this section of Amoris Laetitia, God does not expect or require certain couples to adhere absolutely to the sixth commandment in certain situations because the commandment is, at times, impossible to keep.

If this were true, there would really be no reason to keep these divorced and remarried couples from receiving Holy Communion.

Chapter 8 Misappropriates Doctrine

While para. 298 most directly raises the issue faced by invalidly married couples who want to receive Communion, it abruptly stops short of adding the critical and necessary clarification: that the invalidly married must practice “complete continence” (living as brother and sister), to receive the sacraments as stated in John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio (84). This critical piece of Catholic teaching is nowhere to be found in 298.

Instead, this all-important clarification is shifted to footnote 329, where it is twisted through misappropriation.

The authors cite in their footnote both John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio (84), referring to the previous discussion in para. 298, and the Second Vatican Council’s teaching in Gaudium et Spes (51), stated in the footnote. But, while John Paul II was speaking previously in para. 298 about helping  divorced and remarried couples, living in adultery, the Second Vatican Council is speaking about helping couples, living in the Holy Sacrament of Matrimony, in how to space their children. But the statements, one taken from Gaudium et Spes (51), and the other from Familiaris Consortio, are made to appear to be speaking of the same situation—which they are not. In a serious error, the author(s) of footnote 329 erroneously apply the phrase “in such situations” from Gaudium et Spes (51) to the “situation” of adultery which was previously discussed in Familiaris  Consortio (84). Here is how it is written in the footnote 329:

John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (22 November 1981), 84: AAS 74 (1982), 186. In such situations, many people, knowing and accepting the possibility of living “as brothers and sisters” which the Church offers them, point out that if certain expressions of intimacy are lacking, “it often happens that faithfulness is endangered, and the good of the children suffers” (Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, 51), (my emphasis).

The “situation” expressed in Gaudium et Spes (51) is meant to caution validly married couples to be careful that this abstinence to space births does not harm their relationship, and their children. Gaudium et Spes (51) even cites in its own footnote, 1 Cor. 7:5, where St. Paul cautions married couples: “Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then, come together again, so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”

So, footnote 329 ignores these distinctions, and leads readers to believe that the statement in Gaudium et Spes (51) also applies to divorced and remarried couples living in adultery. The inescapable message is that, if divorced and invalidly remarried couples abstain from sex, it’s possible that their “faithfulness is endangered and the good of children suffers.” Can it be — abstinence from sex can harm an adulterous relationship? This is moral madness! It amounts to a repudiation of the sixth commandment. This implied solution for the divorced and remarried is not only absurd, but if this idea (to defy the 6th commandment) was deliberately inserted in Amoris Lateitia, it is downright dishonest and evil!

However, as it stands now, the door remains open for Church leaders, such as the German and Maltese Bishops, along with Cardinal Cocopalmerio, et al, to interpret “such situations” as including the divorced and civilly remarried. They can do this by ignoring the clear context of Gaudium et Spes (51) which refers only to those in the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony.6

So, yes, Amoris Laetitia, taken in its entirety today, does open the door for invalidly married Catholics to receive communion while still engaging in sexual relationsWhile Amoris Laetitia does not directly and explicitly say this, it does lead people to believe this by means of a process which uses ambiguity, concealing key passages of Familiaris Cornsortio (34 & 84), and finally misappropriating a key Church document on marriage, Gaudium et Spes(51), in order to obtain the appearance of legitimacy in order that the divorced and remarried may receive Communion.

Many good Catholic cardinals and bishops would like to interpret Amoris Laetitia as if it did not open the door for the divorced and remarried to receive Communion. They would like Catholics to interpret Amoris Laetitia in an orthodox manner, and to ignore any suggestion in the document that it may be permissible for divorced and invalidly remarried couples to receive Communion while continuing their sexual relationship. But even though Church leaders hope the orthodox interpretation will be emphasized, it is not what is being stealthily insinuated in this document.

  1. Catholic World News, “Vatican launch for Cardinal’s book defending German/Maltese bishops’ reading of Amoris Laetitia,. Feb. 14, 2017 
  2. CWN, “Cardinal Mueller, German Bishops clash on interpretation of Amoris Laetitia,” Feb. 1, 2017;, John Bentz, “Vatican doctrine chief rebukes bishops using Amoris to justify ‘mortal sin’ of adultery,” Feb. 1, 20017. 
  3. Dan Hitchens, “Pope Francis declines to answer four cardinals’ Amoris appeal,” Catholic Herald, Nov. 14, 2016. 
  4. , Edward Pentin, “Cardinal Cocopalmerio Explains His Position on Catholics in Irregular Unions,” Vatican Correspondent, National Catholic Register, Mar. 1, 2017. 
  5., Claire Chretian, “Archbishop: Pope told me we must avoid speaking ‘plainly’ on Communion for the remarried,” LifeSiteNews, May 9, 2016;, Vasto Editione, Mar. 26, 2017, “Nessuno si deve sentire escluso della chiesa,” Mar. 7, 2016;, Steve Skojec, “Forte: Pope Did Not Want to Speak ‘Plainly’ of Communion for Remarried,” 1P5 (OnePeterFive), May 7, 2016. 
  6., Elsie Harris, “Maltese Bishops: Divorced and Remarried ‘at Peace with God’ May Receive Communion,” CNA/EWTN: News, Jan. 17, 2017. 

About Fr. Regis Scanlon, OFMCap

Fr. Regis Scanlon, OFMCap, was ordained in Aug. 26, 1972. He is currently in the process of developing the Julia Greeley shelter for homeless, unaccompanied women in metro Denver. He is spiritual director and chaplain for Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s Missionaries of Charity in Denver, as well as being one of the spiritual directors for the Missionaries of Charity in the western United States. He was director of prison ministry for the Archdiocese of Denver, from 1999 to 2010; a chaplain for Missionaries of Charity at their now-closed AIDS hospice, Seton House, and at Gift of Mary homeless shelter for women in Denver from 1989 to 2008; and in 1997, he was sent by Mother Teresa to instruct Missionaries of Charity in Madagascar and South Africa on the subject of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist . His articles have been published in Homiletic & Pastoral ReviewThe Catholic FaithSoul MagazinePastoral Life, and The Priest. He has also made two series for Mother Angelica’s EWTN: “Crucial Questions,” “Catholic Answers,” and “What Did Vatican II Really Teach?”