al4by Deacon Nick Donnelly


The publication of Pope Francis’Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, The Joy of Love, finally provides us with the Holy Father’s answer to the vexed question that has been at the focus of two synods and three years of intense debate in the Church, ‘can the divorced and re-married receive Holy Communion’? 


Nowhere in the 260 pages of Amoris Laetitia will you find Pope Francis write the words, ‘The divorced and re-married can now receive Holy Communion’. Only when speaking of,  husbands or wives abandoned by their spouses, who remain faithful to their marriage vows, will you find Pope Francis state categorically that they must be encouraged to receive Holy Communion. 


“Respect needs to be shown especially for the sufferings of those who have unjustly endured separation, divorce or abandonment, or those who have been forced by maltreatment from a husband or a wife to interrupt their life together… At the same time, “divorced people who have not remarried, and often bear witness to marital fidelity, ought to be encouraged to find in the Eucharist the nourishment they need to sustain them in their present state of life.”(AL 242).

You will also find in Amoris Laetitia that in his discussion of the pastoral care of the divorced and re-married, Pope Francis indicates that those who incorrigibly cause scandal by their public sin cannot receive Holy Communion:


“Naturally, 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 (cf. Mt 18:17). Such a person needs to listen once more to the Gospel message and its call to conversion. Yet even for that person there can be some way of taking part in the life of community, whether in social service, prayer meetings or another way that his or her own initiative, together with the discernment of the parish priest, may suggest.”(AL 297).

The passage of sacred Scripture that Pope Francis refers to in AL 297 is one of the so called ‘hard sayings’ of Our Lord about excommunication:

“If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Mt 18:17-18)."


Pope Francis graphically describes divorce as a great evil, a traumatic event in the life of the couple and their children that wounds and burdens all involved. (AL 246).


A Storm of Controversy over Amoris Laetitia 


Al1Though Pope Francis does not categorically state in Amoris Laetitia that the divorced and re-married can receive Holy Communion, a storm of controversy has broken out in the Church about whether or not the Holy Father has said the divorced and re-married can receive Holy Communion! So, it is worth looking at what is going on.


Walter Kasper, the German cardinal who has long proposed relaxing the exclusion of the divorced and re-married from the Eucharist, has quickly expressed his opinion that Amoris Laetitia does allow such couples to receive Holy Communion. According to the German language service of Vatican Radio:


“On dealing with divorced and remarried who are excluded from communion according to Catholic doctrine the cardinal said: "Clearly, there are openings”. 


Furthermore. Cardinal Marx, President of the German Bishops’Conference, also issued a statement welcoming Amoris Laetitia’s openness to communion for the divorced and re-married on a case-by-case basis. Cardinal Marx asserts that, while Pope Francis does not give a general ruling for the admission of remarried divorcees to sacramental communion,  sections of Amoris Laetitia (AL 301, footnotes 336 & 351) allow a pastoral approach towards the divorced and re-married that assesses their life history and reality to determine whether or not there is culpability that bars them from reception of the Eucharist. 


Pope Francis is in continuity with Pope St John Paul II


However, during the Holy See’s press conference presenting Amoris Laetitia Cardinal Schönborn insisted that it was in continuity with Pope St John Paul II’s categorical re-iteration in Familiaris Consortio that the divorced in second unions cannot receive Holy Communion unless they practice perfect continence. Cardinal Schönborn later gave the example of a couple he knows who do not receive Holy Communion because the wife is divorced and re-married, who are bringing up their eight children in the faith, “despite the sinful origins”of the family, “Every Sunday at Mass, beautifully the children of the mother or the father say:‘Today I go to Communion for you.’ So that’s a powerful witness to the Church’s teaching.”


Furthermore, Cardinal Eijk, Archbishop of Utrecht. Holland, is definite in his assertion that Amoris Laetitia does not allow communion for the divorced and re-married. During his own press conference launching Pope Francis’apostolic exhortation, Cardinal Eijk said that the “traditional praxis”that the divorced and re-married cannot receive Communion as “formulated”by Pope St John Paul in Familiaris Consortio in 1981 “remains current”. He then proceeded to read out the relevant section from Pope John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation on the family, paragraph 84, outlining the reasons why the divorced and re-married cannot receive Holy Communion.


How does Pope Francis want us to listen to Amoris Laetitia?


Pope Francis is unusual among popes due to his frequent indications that he doesnt want all his words and writings to be seen as magisterial statements. Fr Lombardi, the Director of the Holy Sees press office, has explained the differences in authority between his daily meditations during his celebration of the Mass at St Marthas, and his public homilies:


“We must insist on the fact that, in all of the Pope’s activities, the difference between different situations and celebrations, as well as the different levels of authority of his words, must be understood and respected.”


The Holy Father has also indicated in his first apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium that it is not magisterial teaching, “Nor do I believe that the papal Magisterium should be expected to offer a definitive or complete word on every question which affects the Church and the world.” (EV16). Pope Francis repeats the same caution in his introduction to Amoris Laetitia:


Since “time is greater than space”, I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium. Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it.”(AL 3). 


Therefore, rather than this teaching being interpreted as ‘new’ or ‘changed’ it can only be properly understood in the context of the ‘necessity’ of unity about the doctrine on divorce and “remarriage”.  This could only be reflected in the practice of showing respect to, the divorced and remarried,without admitting to the reception of the Eucharist. It is in this light that Cardinal Burke considers Pope Francis’s repeated insistence that his apostolic exhortations are not magisterial teaching to be the key by which we should pitch our hearing of Amoris Laetitia:


The only key to the correct interpretation of Amoris Laetitia is the constant teaching of the Church and her discipline that safeguards and fosters this teaching. Pope Francis makes clear, from the beginning, that the post-synodal apostolic exhortation is not an act of the magisterium (No. 3)…In other words, the Holy Father is proposing what he personally believes is the will of Christ for His Church, but he does not intend to impose his point of view, nor to condemn those who insist on what he calls “a more rigorous pastoral care.”

Throughout Amoris Laetitia Pope Francis picks up the sweeping symphony of seminal and definitive magisterial teaching, referencing Pope Pius XI’s Casti Connubii, Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes, Blessed Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, and Pope St John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio. By so doing, the Holy Father is signalling that he wants us to listen to Amoris Laetitia in the ‘key’ of established magisterial teaching, following his example as a “loyal son of the Church”.


A Hymn to Indissolubility and Fidelity


al2During the 2015 Synod some Synod Fathers advocated that the Church replace the term “indissolubility”to describe the life-long commitment of marriage, arguing most modern couples don’t understand the word. However, indissolubility can be described as the dominant motif of Amoris laetitia, with the word used ten times and ‘lifelong’six times.  It should not surprise us that Pope Francis views indissolubility as the one of the essential characteristics of the sacrament of Marriage:


“The indissolubility of marriage –‘what God has joined together, let no man put asunder’(Mt 19:6) –should not be viewed as a ‘yoke’imposed on humanity, but as a ‘gift’granted to those who are joined in marriage…”(AL 62).

The Holy Father describes the indissolubility of the sacrament of marriage as ‘salvation history’for the couple, a reference to the Biblical notion of ‘Salvation History’, the history of God’s fidelity, constancy and loyalty towards Israel and the human race:

“Each marriage is a kind of “salvation history”, which from fragile beginnings –thanks to God’s gift and a creative and generous response on our part –grow over time into something precious and enduring.”(AL 221).

A number of time in Amoris Laetitia Pope Francis refers to the indissolubility and fidelity of marriage as being a great and mysterious gift, quoting the words of St Robert Bellarmine:

“the fact that one man unites with one woman in anindissoluble bond,and that they remain inseparable despite every kind of difficulty, even when there is no longer hope for children, can only be the sign of a great mystery”. (AL 124).

The Holy Father, with the Synod Fathers, is clear that the guarantor of this great mystery of indissolubility in marriage is the presence of Our Lord Jesus Christ, He who is perfectly faithful and perfectly loyal:

“‘Only in contemplating Christ does a person come to know the deepest truth about human relationships. ‘Only in the mystery of the Incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light... Christ, the new Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and his love, fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear’(Gaudium et Spes, 22). It is particularly helpful to understand in a Christocentric key... the good of the spouses (bonum coniugum) which includes unity, openness to life, fidelity, indissolubility and, within Christian marriage, mutual support on the path towards complete friendship with the Lord.’”

Pope Francis exhorts us to so cherish and uphold the divine gift of indissolubility, that we have the courage to accompany and care for those wounded by the evil of divorce. Such care acknowledges the tragedy of separation and divorce and expresses the love at the heart of indissolubility:

“The Christian community’s care of such persons is not to be considered a weakening of its faith and testimony to the indissolubility of marriage; rather, such care is a particular expression of its charity”. (AL 243).

Are there discords in Amoris Laetitia?

al3Reading Amoris Laetitia and hearing some cardinals and priests proposing that Pope Francis allows the divorced and re-married to receive Holy Communion, I am reminded of JRR Tolkien’s mythological description of God’s creation as a sublime movement of music. The angels were overwhelmed by the unsurpassed beauty of this Great Music, but a number of angels in their midst introduced jarring and ugly notes of discord because they sought to introduce “matters of their own imagining that were not in accord with the theme”(Silmarillion, p. 16). The question now facing the Church is this, is the pandemonium created by those saying communion for divorced and re-married is now permissible a discord of their own making or can this discord be found in Amoris Laetitia

Accepting at face value Pope Francis’s repeated assertion that he is a “loyal son of the Church”, and his consistent declarations that his apostolic exhortations are not magisterial teaching, means  it is reasonable to assume that the Holy Father wants us to listen to Amoris Laetitia in the ‘key’ of the Church’s perennial teaching on the indissolubility of marriage and the “traditional praxis”that the divorced and re-married cannot receive Communion. I will examine further the contested sections of Amoris Laetitia in my next article.