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Remarried Divorcees: Integration and evaluation on a case by case basis

Vatican Insider - published on 06/30/16

Paragraphs 296-312 in chapter 8 of the Apostolic Exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” are dedicated to the discernment of “irregular” situations. The document contains three keywords: “accompany”, “discern” and “integrate”. Nowhere does the text explicitly mention admission to the Eucharist, although there is a note in which reference is made to the “sacraments”. The text explains that it cannot provide a general set of canonical rules that are applicable to all cases, rather what is required, is discernment on a case by case basis.  

“No one can be condemned for ever”

“No one can be condemned for ever,” the Pope writes, “because that is not the logic of the Gospel!” “Naturally,” the Pope adds, “if someone flaunts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal, or wants to impose something other than what the Church teaches, he or she can in no way presume to teach or preach to others; this is a case of something which separates from the community.” Basically, it is not about claiming rights nor about public self-justification. 

Different circumstances

Bergoglio reminds everyone that individuals who have divorces and entered into a second union, “can find themselves in a variety of situations, which should not be pigeonholed or fit into overly rigid classifications”. It is one thing, for example, to be in a second union that has been consolidated over time, with new children, “proven fidelity, generous self giving, Christian commitment, a consciousness of its irregularity and of the great difficulty of going back without feeling in conscience that one would fall into new sins”. The Church, the Pope observes, acknowledges situations where “for serious reasons, such as the children’s upbringing, a man and woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate”. “There are also the cases of those who made every effort to save their first marriage and were unjustly abandoned, or of “those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children’s upbringing, and are some¬times subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably broken marriage had never been valid”. “Another thing is a new union arising from a recent divorce, with all the suffering and confusion which this entails for children and entire families, or the case of someone who has consistently failed in his obligations to the family. It must remain clear,” Francis points out “that this is not the ideal which the Gospel proposes for marriage and the family.” 

Distinguishing between situations

The Pope refers back to the conclusions reached by the Synod fathers, affirming that “the discernment of pastors must always take place ‘by adequately distinguishing’, with an approach which ‘carefully discerns situations’,” as no ‘easy recipes’ exist.” Remarried divorcees who have not been excommunicated must be more fully integrated into Christian communities, “avoiding any occasion of scandal”. The Pope states that discernment is required in assessing “which of the various forms of exclusion” can be surmounted (for example they cannot become godparents in a baptism or do readings) but he refrains from presenting any decisions. 

No set of general rules

No one should expect “a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases”. “What is possible is simply a renewed encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases.” And “since ‘the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases’, the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same. Priests have the duty to “accompany [the divorced and remarried] in helping them to understand their situation according to the teaching of the Church and the guidelines of the bishop.” 

Remarried divorcees should examine their consciences

The Pope suggests “an examination of conscience through moments of reflection and repentance”. “The divorced and remarried should ask themselves: how did they act towards their children when the conjugal union entered into crisis; whether or not they made attempts at reconciliation; what has become of the abandoned party; what consequences the new relationship has on the rest of the family and the community of the faithful.” 

No to double standards

“Conversation with the priest, in the internal forum, contributes to the formation of a correct judgment on what hinders the possibility of a fuller participation in the life of the Church”. Francis clarifies that “this discernment can never prescind from the Gospel demands of truth”. Therefore, “the following conditions must necessarily be present: humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching”. “These attitudes are essential for avoiding the grave danger of misunderstandings, such as the notion that any priest can quickly grant ‘exceptions’, or that some people can obtain sacramental privileges in exchange for favours.” People are asked to be responsible and tactful, and “not presume to put his or her own desires ahead of the common good of the Church”. This prevents people from thinking “that the Church maintains a double standard”. 

“Special discernment”

The Pope goes on to discuss the factors that allow for a “special discernment” in certain situations, without “compromising” “the demands of the Gospel”. “Forms of conditioning” and “mitigating factors” need to be considered. “It is can no longer simply be said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin”. “More is involved here than mere ignorance of the rule.” A person may “be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin. As the Synod Fathers put it, ‘factors may exist which limit the ability to make a decision’.” 

Objective situation and imputability

Regarding these conditionings, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 1735) states that “the imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors”. Hence,“a negative judgment about an objective situation does not imply a judgment about the imputability or culpability of the person involved”. “Individual conscience needs to be better incorporated into the Church’s praxis”. “Naturally, every effort should be made to encourage the development of an enlightened conscience” yet a person’s conscience can “also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God” “while yet not fully the objective ideal”. Francis writes that “it is reductive to simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule”. And he recalled the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, who said: ‘the more we descend to matters of detail, the more frequently we encounter defects”. 

No to “casuistry”

“It is true that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations.” At the same time, Francis pointed out, it must be said that “what is part of a practical discernment in particular circumstances cannot be elevated to the level of a rule. That would not only lead to an intolerable casuistry, but would endanger the very values which must be preserved with special care.” 

Moral laws are not stones

A pastor “cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in ‘irregular’ situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives”. Francis recalls casts his mind back to something that was noted by the International Theological Commission and that is that: “natural law could not be presented as an already established set of rules that impose themselves a priori on the moral subject; rather, it is a source of objective inspiration for the deeply personal process of making decisions”. 

Receiving help from the Church

“Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors,” the Pope writes, “it is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.” Important footnote no. 351 states that “in certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments”. “By thinking that everything is black and white,” Francis observes, “we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth, and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God.” “In every situation, when dealing with those who have difficulties in living God’s law to the full, the invitation to pursue the via caritatis must be clearly heard.” 

Never desist from proposing the full ideal

The Pope stresses that “in order to avoid all misunderstanding, I would point out that in no way must the Church desist from proposing the full ideal of marriage”. Discerning situations on a case by case basis does not mean holding back from presenting “God’s plan in all its grandeur”. “Any kind of relativism” “would be a lack of fidelity to the Gospel”. 

Possible stages of growth

“At the same time, from our awareness of the weight of mitigating circumstances” it follows that “without detracting from the evangelical ideal, there is a need to accompany with mercy and patience the eventual stages of personal growth”. The Pope says he understands “those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion”. “But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness”. “The Church’s pastors, in proposing to the faithful the full ideal of the Gospel and the Church’s teaching, must also help them to treat the weak with compassion, avoiding aggravation or unduly harsh or hasty judgements.” 

Giving space to God’s love

The teaching of moral theology “should not fail to incorporate these considerations,” Francis remarks, explaining that “at times we find it hard to make room for God’s unconditional love”. The footnote added to this passage of the text is significant. In it, the Pope writes: “Some priests demand of penitents a purpose of amendment so lacking in nuance that it causes mercy to be obscured by the pursuit of a supposedly pure justice. For this reason, it is helpful to recall the teaching of Saint John Paul II,” who, in a letter to Cardinal William Baum, “stated that the possibility of a new fall “should not prejudice the authenticity of the resolution”.  

The logic of forgiveness

The mind-set that “should prevail” in the Church, is a pastoral discernment that “is ever ready to understand, forgive, accompany, hope, and above all integrate”. Francis invites faithful who find themselves “in complicated situations” “to speak confidently with their pastors”. “They may not always encounter in them a confirmation of their own ideas or desires but they will surely receive some light to help them better understand their situation”. The Pope ends by saying: “I also encourage the Church’s pastors to listen to them with sensitivity and serenity, with a sincere desire to understand their plight and their point of view”. 

Read also:

“Amoris Laetitia”, a new “constitution” for the family by Andrea Tornielli

Exhortation: “We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them” by Andrea Tornielli

Amoris Laetitia: Families and the “necessary” grace of the sacraments by Gianni Valente

Read the full text of the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia

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