Last Sunday our bishops published a set of guidelines to help priests apply Chapter 8 of the Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation The Joy of Life. This chapter addresses the situation of couples divorced and remarried who want to continue living a Christian life to the full.

Are the guidelines an unmitigated disaster as some conservatives abroad and also in Malta are saying? Or are they a sign that our bishops have internalised the Pope’s analogy of the Church as the battlefield hospital? Are our bishops’ heretics fomenting the idea that persistent adultery and the reception of Communion go hand in hand? Or are they pastors intent on communicating God’s love and mercy to persons in difficult situations?

What is happening now in the Church resembles, to a certain extent, what happened after the publication of Blessed Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae about artificial contraception. Like then, there are now bishops interpreting The Joy of Love in a restrictive way while others give it a more open interpretation.

The bishops of Poland, Costa Rica and several North American bishops have taken a restrictive approach. A similar attitude has been taken by four conservative cardinals who have published a letter sent to the Pope.

Other bishops, for example, in North America, in Europe as well as the Argentine bishops, took a more open approach. While Pope Francis ignored the letter of the four cardinals he fully supported the position of his homeland bishops saying that there is no other interpretation of The Joy of Love than allowing communion for the divorced/remarried in some cases.

By the publication of their guidelines the Maltese bishops are now firmly on this side. The negative reaction of the conservative lobby was predictable. The blog Rorate Coeli had described The Joy of Love as “a catastrophe”.  Now the conservative blogger Edward Peters is describing the Maltese guidelines as a “disaster”.

It is very comforting to note that on this subject our bishops have thankfully moved away from the conservative stance taken in their guidelines to confessors during the divorce referendum debate in 2011 and their pastoral letter on in-vitro fertilisation in 2012.

Describing Archbishop Charles Scicluna, an eminent canon lawyer, who was not part of the statements just referred to, as an antinomian is farcical. Attributing to Bishop Grech the epitaph of liberal heretic is stupid. He has been consistently taking this position since his intelligent address to the Synod of Bishops.

The bishops’ guidelines are not a roundabout way for divorced and remarried couples to jump from bed to communion procession

A careful reading of the guidelines clearly shows that the Maltese bishops are not proposing an easy way out to those trying to square their lifestyle with good Christian living. This is not a question of someone popping up in the sacristy five minutes before a funeral, a quick absolution and off to communion. The bishops’ guidelines are not similar to the January sales where stuff is sold at a discount. These guidelines are not a roundabout way for divorced and remarried couples to jump from bed to communion procession.

In line with Pope Francis, our two bishops are proposing a period of accompaniment and discernment that can lead one to reach a mature decision in conscience whether to receive or not receive communion in one’s particular situation. Fr Paul Keller, writing in the Catholic website Crux, discussed such a possible case wherein the period of accompaniment and discernment took almost two years!

The bishops are proposing a serious and onerous path, but one guided by God’s infinite love and mercy. Discerning God’s will in conscience is more difficult that aligning oneself to a list of minutely crafted instructions. Discernment respects the dignity of Christians who take their faith seriously. The strategy proposed in the bishops’ guidelines asks for a lot of maturity from priests who have to respect their role as those who accompany people in the formation of conscience, not its replacement.

Maturity has to be shown by those who aspire to live the ideal of a Christian way of life in their difficult marital situation, which instead of bringing them joy has brought them pain, delusions, disappointment and desperation. A prayerful attitude is a must. A heart open to the ways of the Spirit is essential. A deep desire to discover God’s will and conform to it is a sine qua non.

Some media spin portrays the bishops’ guidelines as saying that if a couple divorced/remarried feel that they can receive communion then so be it. This facile interpretation based on simple feelings does not result from the guidelines. In paragraph 10 the bishops outline a series of ‘ifs’.

The bishops say that a person cannot be precluded from confession and communion only if a decision is taken at the end of the process of discernment, undertaken with humility, discretion and love for the Church and its teaching, if there is a sincere search for God’s will, if there is a desire to make a more perfect response to it, if one follows an informed and enlightened conscience, and if, after all this, one believes that one is at peace with God.

Who said that the bishops have adopted a fast track to cheap confession or easy communion?

One problem is that the vast majority of the people listening to the reading of the pastoral letter do not know what a period of accompaniment and a process of discernment are. And probably quite a few of those reading the pastoral letter to the congregation do not have a thorough understanding either. Besides, one has to remember that the formation many priests received makes them believe that life is made of black or white patches with little room for grey.

The bishops are certainly not heretical so the conservatives’ chopping of wood for a big bonfire is front of the Mdina Cathedral is premature. However, unless confessors and the laity are well conversant with the process of accompaniment and discernment there is the real risk that the bishops’ status as true pastors would be dented and their well-intentioned guidelines thwarted.

joseph.borg@um.edu.mt

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