Did the Vatican OK communion for "some" divorced-and-remarried Catholics?

Ever since Pope Francis published Amoris Laetitia last April, debate has swirled around the issue which drove the Synod on the Family which produced it: did the pontiff approve of communion to divorced and remarried Catholics without first receiving an annulment? The cardinal in charge of the commission on canon law says yes — in certain circumstances, at least in his personal opinion. In a new booklet titled The Eighth Chapter of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio argues that those divorced and remarried Catholics who truly repent of their situation but cannot change it without incurring more sin should be admitted to the full sacramental life:

The provisions of “Amoris Laetitia” allow people in irregular marriage situations access to the sacraments only if they recognize their situation is sinful and desire to change it, according to the cardinal who heads the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts.

The fact that such a couple also believes changing the situation immediately by splitting up would cause more harm and forgoing sexual relations would threaten their current relationship does not rule out the possibility of receiving sacramental absolution and Communion, said Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, president of the pontifical council which is charged with interpreting canon law.

The intention to change, even if the couple cannot do so immediately, “is exactly the theological element that allows absolution and access to the Eucharist as long as — I repeat — there is the impossibility of immediately changing the situation of sin,” the cardinal wrote.

Coccopalmerio seems to have picked up where Francis left off in Amoris Laetitia. Paragraph 305 discussed the need to go beyond just applying “moral laws to those living in ‘irregular situations,’ as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives.” The doctrines of the Catholic Church exist to help people to “grow in the life of grace and charity,” and “thinking that everything is black and white” can “close the way of grace and growth.” In a key footnote (351) to this paragraph, Francis wrote, “In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments,” and quoted his own Evangelii Gaudium in declaring, “I would also point out that the Eucharist ‘is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak’.”

So how exactly does that get applied? In which situations would ending what Catholic doctrine still describes as an adulterous situation create a more difficult sinful environment? That’s still somewhat unclear, although Crux reporter Inés San Martín does relate one hypothetical from the book:

According to Coccopalmerio, Amoris Laetitia implicitly stipulates that to be admitted to the sacraments the men or women who, for serious motives such as the education of their children, can’t fulfill the obligation to separate, must nonetheless have “the intention or at least the desire” to change their status.

John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio, which like Francis’s, came in the aftermath of a synod of bishops on the family, said these couples were called to live “like brothers and sisters.”

According to Coccopalmerio, the couples who can, should, but there’s also the reality that without sexual intimacy between a couple, the temptation to be unfaithful and find intimacy elsewhere grows.

That hypothetical doesn’t quite make sense, however. Ending the adulterous aspect of the relationship does not create a new sin in and of itself; Coccopalmerio assumes that it will eventually lead to other adulterous relations. The answer to that is simple: don’t commit adultery, the same instruction everyone else receives too. Besides, if they did proceed into further adultery, it would be the same sin, only committed with others. This approach also appears to contradict another basic core tenet of Catholicism, which is that one cannot commit a sin to do what seems to be morally correct, or as the Catholic Catechism puts it (pp 1789): “Some rules apply in every case: one may never do evil so that good may result from it[.]”

There is also another problem with this interpretation, which is this: what exactly is the limiting principle here? Does this only apply to divorced and remarried Catholics, or does it apply to divorced and cohabiting Catholics, too? How about just cohabiting Catholics with kids? Without kids? Does this apply to those in same-sex unions, too, as long as the desire to repent exists without the actual repentance? For that matter, what about other mortal sins — will a desire to eventually repent suffice with those as well for access to communion? Coccopalmerio’s interpretation opens a very large can of worms whose contents will spread in many directions, especially given the ambiguity of the core document and his willingness to bend on the clear canon law of the present.

Perhaps, Wall Street Journal reporter Francix X. Rocca joked on Twitter, the limiting principle is misery:

Canon lawyer and expert Ed Peters is similarly nonplussed about Coccopalmerio’s interpretation. Furthermore, Peters notes that this kind of publication is not definitive on doctrine anyway, and that it runs in complete contradiction to a very recent pronouncement from a similarly high-ranking doctrinal official:

It is important to recall that, despite being published by the Vatican’s publishing house and to be rolled out in a Vatican press conference {which it seems the cardinal suddenly backed-out of attending of this morning}, Coccopalmerio’s book does not suffice as a vehicle for “authentic interpretation” of canon law itself, let alone is it a response by the Holy See to the Four Cardinals’ dubia—important, I say, because Coccopalmerio apparently stakes out, along with the Maltese and the Germans, an extreme position on reception of sacraments by divorced-and-remarried Catholics—a position not actually taken, whatever might be his personal predilections, by Pope Francis in Amoris—one that effectively endorses the absolution of those who do not, at the time of their Confession, intend to amend their conduct (contrary to the canonical and ecclesial values behind Canons 959 and 980) and which places confessors in proximate danger of committing the crime of solicitation in Confession. Further, by urging ministers of holy Communion to distribute the sacrament to those who “obstinately persevere in manifest grave sin” (contrary to the canonical and ecclesial values behind Canon 915), Coccopalmerio’s advice not only facilitates the irreverent reception of holy Communion, it tends toward giving what the Church has always recognized as classical scandal. Of course, those undeterred by my arguments offered on these points elsewhere are unlikely to be persuaded by my repeating them here, so I simply note them and move on, except to make one observation.

A few weeks ago, Cdl Muller of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith gave an interview that upheld the traditional practice of withholding holy Communion from divorced-and-remarried Catholics. Now, Cdl Coccopalmerio has published a booklet in which he apparently says that, subject only to the toothless requirement of ‘discerning their situation’, such Catholics may and should be admitted to holy Communion. In other words, the Church’s arguably two highest-ranking cardinals in the areas of canonical interpretation and the protection of doctrine and morals are in public, plain, and diametric opposition with each other concerning a crucial canonico-sacramental practice.

San Martín also covered that declaration for Crux:

Speaking to the Italian monthly Il Timone, Muller said that Francis’s Amoris Laetitia has to be interpreted in the light of the whole doctrine of the Church. He added he “doesn’t like” the fact that so many bishops are interpreting the apostolic exhortation “according to their way of understanding the pope’s teaching.”

This attitude, he said, “does not keep the line of Catholic doctrine.”

“The pope’s magisterium is interpreted only by himself, or through the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,” he said. “The pope interprets the bishops, it’s not the bishops who interpret the pope … this would constitute an inversion of the structure of the Catholic Church.” …

Müller also says that St. John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation on the family, Familiaris Consortio, just as Francis’s Amoris, was the conclusion of a synod of bishops on the family, and remains valid, including the part in which the Polish pope called for divorced and civilly remarried couples who can’t separate to live in continence.

“It is not overcome, because it is not only a positive law of John Paul II, but he expressed an essential element of Christian moral theology and the theology of the sacraments,” Muller said[.]

With this said, we all fall short of the glory of God and struggle in sin — me included, and at times me especially. Too often our discussions of this come down as excessively legalistic without understanding why doctrinal questions matter. The Church is called to be a beacon of God’s truth and love to the world, as well as the “field hospital for sinners” that Pope Francis beautifully described in Evangelii Gaudium. That is why the Synod on the Family sought real solutions to reach those in “irregular relationships,” so that we could welcome them into the Church and share that love and truth. There is no doubt that we need to find ways to express mercy to those on the battlefield of sin, and that churches should fill that role.

If, however, we disguise the truth on the sacramental nature of marriage and the sin of adultery and offer the Eucharist only to get people to come to Mass at all, we do them no favors. The point is not to be pharisaical, but to ensure that we don’t mislead people into remaining in sin. The church doctrine on these issues has not changed, and neither has the need to truly take action to repent before coming into full communion with the Church — which is the necessary condition to receive the Eucharist, or at least has been for the last two millennia. Our practice should align with our doctrine even as we offer mercy and love in all other ways to give the wounded a path back to full communion.

Now, it looks like the College of Cardinals and Pope Francis will have to take this up formally. With diametrically opposed interpretations from the two doctrinal authorities, the Catholic Church will have no choice but to make its position clear — clearer than Amoris Laetitia has been, anyway.

Addendum: If Amoris Laetitia is a bit too daunting for some to read, Fr. Matthew Schneider wrote a paragraph-by-paragraph summary to show that there’s much more for everyone than just those in “irregular unions.” He also had argued at Crux last week that one could read Amoris and find support for the use of traditional doctrine and practice too, although Coccopalmerio’s opinion clearly differed on this point.

Also, Fr. Schneider reminds me that Coccopalmerio offered up two more robust hypotheticals during the Extraordinary Synod in November 2014:

“Let’s take this case: A husband is abandoned by his wife. There are also three children. A woman goes to live with this man; she helps him, raises his three kids. Ten years go by, their union is solid. If this woman were to come to me for Communion, say, during her father’s funeral Mass, or the day of one of the children’s Confirmation, what should I do? Deny it to her, since she is in an illicit situation and in letting her go to Communion I would also be committing an illicit act, as I would be indirectly recognizing that that man’s marriage wasn’t indissoluble?”

“Or, while recognizing the non-legitimate nature of that situation, how could I ask that woman – in admitting her to Communion – to abandon the man and his three children? What would become of that man? What would become of those kids? In that case, realistically, it wouldn’t be possible to manage an (sic) non-legitimate situation without causing even more suffering and pain. So, would it really be totally impossible to admit her to Communion? In admitting her to Communion, would I be going against the doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage? I really don’t think so: in fact, this has to do with a case of exception.”

It’s worth noting that neither of these hypotheticals include any desire to repent eventually or at all, which now Coccopalmerio writes would be required. These are even more based on sentiment and circumstance, and even more so brings up the issue of limiting principles outside of the doctrine which clearly states the irregularity of the arrangements. In both cases, St. John Paul II’s instruction to repent and live as sister and brother — and, more practically, asking the diocese to review the first marriage for potential annulment — would suffice. Coccopalmerio just assumes that a marriage abandoned by one partner was sacramental at its inception, which may not be true. That’s why the Synod concluded with instructions to make the annulment process more available and responsive while still not watering down the meaning of sacramental marriage. All of that seems preferable to misleading the woman into believing that she was in full communion with Catholic doctrine, while having more true caritas for all involved.

Update: Again, we should keep in mind that these hypotheticals are not just points for debating doctrine, but when they occur in real life, challenge us to find ways to bring mercy and comfort to those in difficult situations — within the truth of the Gospel, Scripture, and the magisterium.