VATICAN CITY — After several days of speculation over the veracity of a leaked papal letter, the Vatican has confirmed that Pope Francis’ missive to the bishops of Buenos Aires, praising them for their pastoral guidelines on the implementation of his post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, is authentic.
Confirmation of the pope’s letter in response to “Basic criteria for the application of chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia,” came in an article which appeared in the Monday, September 12, Italian edition of the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, and was later reprinted in Italian by Vatican Radio.
The document covers a variety of issues, including some of the most controversial aspects of the two-year synod on the family. In a move with far-reaching consequences, Pope Francis stated in the letter that “there is no other interpretation” of Amoris Laetitia other than that contained in the document drafted by the bishops of Buenos Aires, a text which, according to the Osservatore Romano report, leaves open the possibility in some cases of the acceptance of sexually-active unmarried couples receiving the Holy Eucharist.
Since the publication of Amoris Laetitia, there has been some speculation about the pope’s own interpretation of the document, while a number of bishops, cardinals and high-ranking prelates have weighed in with various readings.
Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, who was tasked by the pope with presenting Amoris Laetitia, said it does not change the Church’s teaching but represents a development of doctrine, in continuity with previous popes and the Church’s Magisterium. Asked by Aleteia at a Vatican press conference last April whether the entirety of John Paul II’s teaching on the pastoral care of divorced and remarried couples [as stated in Familiaris Consortio, 84], including prohibiting Holy Communion in such cases, still stands, the Archbishop of Vienna said he did not “see a change” but rather an “organic development of doctrine,” in accordance with that articulated by Blessed John Henry Newman. In a more recent interview, however, Schönborn set aside all reference to “organic development” and instead used the term “evolution.”
But German Cardinal Walter Kasper said that Amoris Laetitia “changes everything,” explaining that by applying the “general vision” of the document, there is a possibility of giving remarried divorcees access to the Sacraments.
Meanwhile, Fr. Anthony Spadaro, SJ, a close advisor to the pope, offered this interpretation: “The pastoral practice of ‘all or nothing’ seems more sure to the ‘rigorist’ theologians, but it inevitably leads to a ‘Church of the pure.’ Valuing formal perfection before all else and as an end in itself brings the risk of unfortunately covering up many behaviors that are in fact hypocritical and pharisaic.”
Yet critics maintain that elements of the “Kasper Proposal” seemingly contained in the Argentine bishops’ document contradict the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 1994 document that calls such a norm “impossible” and which the Pontifical Council for Legislative texts called a “scandal” that does “objective harm to the ecclesial communion.”
Anticipating such a position, before the 2014 synod Italian Cardinal Velasio de Paolis said that allowing sexually-active unmarried persons to receive Holy Communion “could not be made good or admissible under any circumstances,” would have “no effect on spiritual growth” and instead “might lead to a state of spiritual death.” (cf. Remaining in the Truth of Christ). Following the synod, Italian Cardinal Ennio Antonelli therefore argued that the Church must continue “to confirm the traditional pastoral practice” of insisting on complete continence for unmarried persons to receive Holy Communion. Doing otherwise, American Cardinal Raymond Burke stated, would make the Church “hypocritical in its praxis.”
“I think the important thing is that when one reads critically the document, one is always respectful of the person of the pope,” Cardinal Burke said following the promulgation of Amoris Laetitia. “You have to read the contents and when you do, you see that this document has to be read critically in the light of the Catechism, in the light of the Church’s magisterium. Those parts which support and give full expression to the Church’s magisterium are fine, but there may be other things that are reflections of the Holy Father, but they are not magisterium.”
Here below we offer our readers an English translation of the article which originally appeared in L’Osservatore Romano and was reprinted in full by Vatican Radio.
It is pastoral charity that urges one “to go out to encounter those who are far away and, once encountered, to begin a path of welcoming, accompaniment, discernment and integration into the ecclesial community.”
It is around this premise that the letter Pope Francis has sent to the bishops of Buenos Aires — addressing it to their delegate, Bishop Sergio Alfredo Fenoy — in response to the document “criterios básicos para la aplicación del capítulo viii laetitia de Amoris” (“Basic criteria for the application of the chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia”).
Expressing his appreciation for the text drafted by the bishops, the Pope highlighted how it manifests in its fullness the sense of Chapter 8 of the Apostolic Exhortation — which deals with “accompanying, discerning and integrating weakness” — clarifying that “that are no other interpretations.” The bishops’ document, the Pope said, “will do much good,” especially for that “pastoral charity” which runs through the whole of it.
The text drafted by the pastors of the Church in Argentina is “a true example of accompaniment to priests,” the Pope said, noting essential is the closeness“of the bishop to his clergy and clergy to the bishop.” In fact, he wrote, the “‘closest’ neighbor of the bishop is a priest and the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself begins for us bishops precisely with our priests.”
Naturally, pastoral charity understood as the ongoing tension of seeking out those who are far away is tiring. It is a “hand to hand” pastoral care which cannot be reduced to “programmatic, organizational or legal mediation, although these are necessary.” Of the four “pastoral attitudes” indicated in the document — “welcome, accompaniment, discernment and integration” — the one least practiced, according to Francis, is discernment.
“I consider personal and communal formation in discernment in our seminaries and rectories to be urgent,” Francis stated. Lastly, the pope said that Amoris Laetitia was “the fruit of the work and prayer of the entire Church, with the mediation of two synods and the Pope.” He therefore recommended a thorough catechesis on the exhortation, which “certainly will help the growth, strengthening and holiness of the family.”
Focusing precisely on Chapter 8 of the Apostolic Exhortation, the document of the Argentine bishops state that “we should not speak of ‘permission’ to have access the Sacraments, but a process of discernment accompanied by a pastor.” This process must be “personal and pastoral.” Accompaniment is an exercise of the via caritatis, the document states, an invitation to follow the path of Jesus.
Such an itinerary, the bishops write, requires the pastoral charity of the priest, who “welcomes the penitent, listens to him attentively and shows him the maternal face of the Church, as he accepts his good intention and his good intention to place his whole life in the light of the Gospel and to practice charity.” This path, the warn, does not necessarily end in the Sacrament, but may lead to other forms of greater integration into the life of the Church: a greater presence in the community, participation in prayer or reflection groups, and a commitment to various forms of ecclesial service.
“When the concrete circumstances of a couple make it feasible, especially when both are Christians with a journey of faith, one may propose that they commit to living in continence.” Amoris Laetitia “does not ignore the difficulties of this option (cf. note 329) and leaves open the possibility of receiving the sacrament of Reconciliation when one fails in this intention” (cf. note 364).
“In other more complex circumstances, and when it is not possible to obtain a declaration of nullity,” the document continues, “the aforementioned option may not, in fact, be viable. Nonetheless, it is equally possible to undertake a journey of discernment.” And “if one arrives at the recognition that, in a concrete 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 disposes the person to continue maturing and growing with the strength of grace.