May they or may they not?

May they or may they not?

Communion for remarried divorcees? © dpa

Discussions about the papal letter on marriage and family are still in full swing in the Catholic Church. Trigger is a seemingly simple footnote.

It has now been more than a hundred days since Pope Francis published "Amoris laetitia". But the debate over how to understand the letter on marriage and family that appeared in early April continues unabated. Since the encyclical "Humanae vitae," in which Paul VI. In 1968, when the papal decree banned artificial contraception, hardly any papal letter has been so controversially discussed and differently interpreted within the church.

The waves rose so high that the "Osservatore Romano" felt compelled on Wednesday to call critics of "Amoris laetitia" to reason. This is as unusual as a recent letter by 45 theologians to the entire College of Cardinals. Their request: The cardinals may lobby the pope to remove "errors" in the letter.

It is a concrete question that priests may face every day: May remarried divorcees be admitted to Communion, and if so, under what conditions??

Different conclusions

Two examples from recent weeks show how different the conclusions can be. Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Joseph Chaput, in a handout from his diocese, recommended that remarried divorcees live like "brother and sister" if they wanted to receive communion. Klaus Ludicke, emeritus professor of canon law at Munster, on the other hand, said that with "Amoris laetitia," Francis was leaving the decision on whether to receive communion to the conscience of remarried divorcees.

The debate was triggered by footnote number 351. It said remarried divorcees could also seek the "help of the sacraments" in "some cases". This is the only passage in "Amoris laetitia" that refers to any communion received by remarried divorcees. At least according to the wording, many agree, it can be understood as an innovation: In the future, remarried divorcees would no longer have to be sexually abstinent in their second union in order to receive communion, as was previously the valid doctrine.

Footnote instead of clear announcement

Critics like the Italian Cardinal Carlo Caffarra argue, however, that one cannot throw the church teachings of the past centuries overboard with a single footnote. If the pope had wanted to do this, Caffarra said, he should have made a clear announcement. But in this way, it only creates ambiguity. In this case, however, the old ecclesiastical practice applies that in cases of doubt the previous teaching is the guideline for the interpretation of a papal document. The German Cardinal of the Curia Walter Brandmuller had also expressed himself in this sense.

Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna opposed this view. Previous church teaching must also be read in light of "Amoris laetitia," he stressed. At the same time, he reiterated that Francis would allow remarried divorcees to receive communion on a case-by-case basis. He did not go into the concrete preconditions.

Consequences in Germany still open

In Germany, there has been no major public debate so far. The German Bishops' Conference has not yet conclusively addressed what consequences it will draw from "Amoris laetitia" for dealing with remarried divorcees. The Bishop of Passau, Stefan Oster, now emphasized in preliminary "Orientierungslinien" for his diocese that there is still no access to communion for this group of people. However, he placed this under the reservation of a regulation by the Bishops' Conference. According to Osnabruck Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, the pope's letter opens doors "for differentiated paths, for individual case decisions and considerations in discussions with priests". The conference chairman, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, as well as a majority of the bishops, like Bode, are apparently of the opinion that Francis connects the current doctrine more strongly with the aspect of mercy – and that this must shape the church's actions, also on the subject of receiving communion.

Francis himself responded to the question of whether his letter brings "concrete innovations" in the matter of sacramental reception for remarried divorcees: "I could say 'yes' and point. But that would be too small an answer." However, one should rather read the remarks of Cardinal Schonborn about "Amoris laetitia".

The silence of the highest guardian of the faith after the Pope in this debate is conspicuous: Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Muller of the Curia. The prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has not yet spoken a clarifying word.

"Typically Jesuit"

The "Osservatore Romano" now resorted to a strategic move, using an old driving man of John Paul II, of all people. The Italian Christian Democrat and former Minister for Europe, Rocco Buttiglione, has entered the race. In a guest article, he accused critics of the letter of only wanting to see their own theories and thought patterns confirmed and not being open to the new, which is always also contained in the Gospel.

Finally, one question remains: Why did Francis hide such a decisive statement in a footnote?? The pope himself responded, "I don't remember that footnote". The statement of one of Francis' confidants, Archbishop Bruno Forte, may be revealing. For the final paper of the Synod of Bishops on Marriage and the Family, Francis instructed him not to directly address the reception of Communion for remarried divorcees; that would only cause a stir, Italian media quoted Forte as saying. He should only create the preconditions, the conclusions would then be drawn by him, the Pope. Forte's comment on this: "Typically Jesuitical".

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