Divorced and remarried: pastoral accompaniment as a path to the Eucharist

Pope Francis: Apostolic Exhortation Amoris laetitia

The publication of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s document on the sacraments for the divorced and remarried has elicited many comments, both positive and negative.

The positive comments underline the clarity and strength of the document, which reaffirms the Church’s traditional teaching on marriage. The positive comments emphasize the clarity and strength of the document, which reaffirms the Church’s traditional teaching on marriage, and points out that the document provides a pastoral framework for accompanying divorced persons in a new union, with the aim of helping them to live out their faith consistently.

The negative comments criticize the document for being rigid and for not taking into account the reality of divorcees living in a new union. These comments also point out that the document may contribute to the marginalization of these people within the Church.

It is a document that reaffirms the Church’s traditional teaching, but also offers a pastoral framework for the accompaniment of divorced persons in a new union.

L’Osservatore Romano

The apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia (AL) by Pope Francis opens the possibility of access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist when, in a particular case, “there are limitations that mitigate responsibility and guilt.” This is one of the responses, published on the website of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, regarding a “series of questions” about “the administration of the Eucharist to divorced individuals living in a new union” (link to full text). These questions were submitted to the Congregation on 13 July by Cardinal Dominik Duka, Archbishop emeritus of Prague, on behalf of the Czech Episcopal Conference.

It should be noted, as stated in the text of the Dicastery, that this is a process of accompaniment that “does not necessarily end with the sacraments but can be oriented towards other forms of integration into the life of the Church: greater participation in the community, involvement in prayer or reflection groups, or engagement in various church services.”

We are, therefore, in the presence of pastoral accompaniment as an exercise of the “way of charity,” which is nothing other than an invitation to follow the path “of Jesus: of mercy and integration.” On 5 September 2016, the bishops of the Pastoral Region of Buenos Aires prepared an explanatory text of the apostolic exhortation titled “Basic Criteria for the Application of Chapter VIII of Amoris laetitia” for their priests, in which it is emphasized that it is not appropriate to speak of “permissions” for access to the sacraments but of a discernment process accompanied by a pastor. It is a “personal and pastoral discernment” (AL, 300).

It should be considered that, as Pope Francis recalls in his letter to the Delegate of the Pastoral Region of Buenos Aires, Amoris laetitia was the result “of the work and prayer of the whole Church, with the mediation of two Synods and the Pope.” This document is based on the “teaching of the previous Popes, who already recognized the possibility for divorced individuals in new unions to access the Eucharist,” provided that they commit “to living in full continence, that is, abstaining from the acts proper to spouses,” as proposed by John Paul II. Or to “commit to living their relationship… as friends,” as proposed by Benedict XVI. Pope Francis maintains “the proposal of full continence for divorced and remarried individuals in a new union, but admits that there may be difficulties in practicing it and therefore allows in certain cases, after adequate discernment, the administration of the sacrament of Reconciliation even when it is not possible to be faithful to the continence proposed by the Church.”

On the other hand, the Dicastery emphasizes that the apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia is a “document of the ordinary pontifical magisterium, to which all are called to offer the homage of intellect and will.” It affirms that “priests have the task of ‘accompanying the interested parties on the path of discernment according to the teaching of the Church and the guidance of the Bishop.'” In this sense, it is possible, indeed “desirable,” for the Ordinary of a diocese to establish certain criteria that, in line with the teaching of the Church, can assist priests in the accompaniment and discernment of divorced individuals living in a new union. Cardinal Duka, in his series of questions, referred to the text of the bishops of the Pastoral Region of Buenos Aires and asked whether Pope Francis’s response to the query from the pastoral section of the same diocese of Buenos Aires can be considered a statement of the ordinary Magisterium of the Church. The Dicastery unequivocally states that, as indicated in the rescript accompanying the two documents in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, these are published “as authentic Magisterium,” that is, as authentic teaching.

In response to Cardinal Duka’s question about who should evaluate the given situation of the couples in question, the Dicastery highlights that it is about initiating a pastoral accompaniment journey for the discernment of each individual. In this sense, Amoris laetitia emphasizes that “all priests have the responsibility to accompany the interested parties on the path of discernment.” It is the priest, it is stated, who “welcomes the person, listens to them attentively, and shows them the motherly face of the Church, welcoming their right intention and good purpose to bring their entire life into the light of the Gospel and practice charity.” However, it is each person, “individually, who is called to stand before God and present their conscience, with its possibilities and limitations.” This conscience, accompanied by a priest and illuminated by the guidance of the Church, “is called to be formed to assess and render a judgment sufficient to discern the possibility of accessing the sacraments.”

Regarding whether it is appropriate for such cases to be handled by the competent ecclesiastical tribunal, the Dicastery notes that in situations where it is possible to establish a declaration of nullity, recourse to the ecclesiastical tribunal will be part of the discernment process. The issue, it observes, “arises in more complex situations where obtaining a declaration of nullity is not possible.” In these cases, it may also be possible to undertake “a path of discernment that stimulates or renews personal encounter with Jesus Christ even in the Sacraments.” Since this is a process of individual discernment, divorced and remarried individuals should ask themselves some questions to assess their responsibilities and consider how they have behaved toward “their children when the marital union entered into crisis; whether there have been attempts at reconciliation; the situation of the abandoned partner; the consequences of the new relationship on the rest of the family and the community of the faithful.”