It was no accident the way the bishops waded into the controversy over whether divorced and remarried Catholics should receive Holy Communion. Their recently published guidelines on chapter eight of the papal exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The joy of love), were carried in L’Osservatore Romano, considered as the semi-official newspaper of the Vatican. The implication was their position had official blessing.
Amoris Laetitia, a document on the family, was published after the Vatican held two synods on the theme. There was no unanimity at those synods, which explains why the bishops have been getting the flak from those who do not see eye to eye with the Pope on the issue.
Divorced and remarried Catholics have until now been banned from receiving Holy Communion because the Church teaches that their first marriage is still valid and, therefore, the second union is adulterous. The Maltese bishops reiterated exactly that position in 2010, saying that the way of life of cohabiting couples violated the sacrament of marriage.
Archbishop Charles Scicluna and Gozo Bishop Mario Grech have since ‘loosened’ that rigid position and say the Church should enter into dialogue with people in so-called “irregular situations”, help them in the process of personal discernment and make them feel a part of the Church.
Their guidelines recognise that not all cases are the same and that there are serious reasons, such as children’s upbringing, where a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate.
The bishops said that if “a separated or divorced person who is living in a new relationship manages, with an informed and enlightened conscience, to acknowledge that he is at peace with God, he cannot be precluded from participating in the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist”.
That came as a shock to some but they were really saying nothing new. German Cardinal Walter Kasper, one of the prominent reforming voices, had for decades been promoting the possibility of giving remarried divorcees access to the sacraments. But the Maltese bishops were among the first to come up with clear bold guidelines, putting themselves in the eye of the storm.
Back in 1993, Cardinal Kasper and two other German bishops, Mgr Karl Lehmann and Mgr Oskar Saier, had issued a pastoral letter arguing there should be “room for pastoral flexibility in complex, individual cases” concerning remarried Catholics. At the time, they found no backing from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict.
Pope Francis’s election reopened the debate and Amoris Laetita, in the words of Cardinal Kasper, did not change doctrine and, yet, “changed everything”.
One canon law expert, Edward Peters, called the Maltese guidelines a “disaster” and he was not alone in his criticism. More recently, Mgr Grech had to deny media reports he had threatened to suspend priests who refused communion to divorce and remarried people.
The clash between the old and new could not be more vivid and the Maltese bishops here are clearly on the side of the more liberal-minded, putting compassion above everything else.
Challenging or updating long-held beliefs is bound to provoke controversy. The Maltese bishops, no doubt to the surprise of some, have come across as trailblazers. But, in reality, they are applying the teachings of the 2013 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, which said that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak”.
We frequently act as arbiters ofgrace rather than its facilitators, the Pope had said. The bishops have opted to be facilitators.
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