Gozo Bishop Mario Grech has flatly denied a German media report that he threatened to suspend priests who refuse communion to divorced and remarried Catholics.

The Curia of Gozo was yesterday forced to release the one-line statement after a German Catholic news portal claimed that on his return from Rome, Mgr Grech had threatened priests in his diocese if they refused to adhere to the principles laid out in the Papal exhortation Amoris Laetitia.

“What is being stated by certain sections of the international media with reference to Bishop Mario Grech, namely that he ‘threatens priests will be suspended a divinis for refusing communion to divorced/remarried Catholics’, is absolutely false,” the statement from the Gozo Curia read.

Church sources said the story in the German portal Katholisches may have been prompted by a Gozitan priest who protested against the guidelines and refused to abide by them.

Mgr Grech, who is in Rome, was not available for comment yesterday.

The Gozo bishop and Archbishop Charles Scicluna have come under fire from certain conservative quarters in the Catholic Church over guidelines they released last week dealing with the implications of Amoris Laetitia.

People questioning the guidelines are actually questioning the stand adopted by Pope Francis

The guidelines make it clear that people living in what the Church considers to be irregular family set-ups may receive communion and act as godparents following a discernment process.

The German report was picked up by various conservative Catholic websites that have been critical of what they describe as the ambiguity of Pope Francis’s exhortation, which has ditched orthodoxy.

For theologian Fr Rene Camilleri, the inter­national criticism towards the bishops was a reflection of the opposition Pope Francis faced. “The critical reaction is something I expected, especially because the guidelines are bold and the Maltese bishops are at the forefront in offering this guidance to priests,” Fr Camilleri said.

Bishops around the world who have come out with their guidelines are very few and “isolated”, Fr Camilleri said, adding this was symptomatic of disagreements that may exist in episcopal councils across the globe.

“The Maltese bishops have also faced flak in Malta from priests and lay people, but at the end of the day, people questioning the guidelines are actually questioning the stand adopted by Pope Francis through Amoris Laetitia,” he added.

A leading American conservative Canon law expert even described the bishops’ guidelines as “a Maltese disaster”, accusing the bishops of leading Catholics down a path of sin.

Mgr Scicluna has refuted the criticism, insisting the guidelines quoted extensively from the Papal exhortation and spoke of a process of reflection.

The fact that the guidelines were published in the official Vatican organ, L’Osservatore Romano, was interpreted by Vaticanologists as receiving the Pope’s official approval. The controversy involving the Maltese bishops is a reflection of a wider debate within the Catholic Church on the contentious chapter eight of Amoris Laetitia, which deals with irregular family arrangements.

Cardinals Raymond Burke, Walter Brandmüller, Carlo Caffarra and Joachim Meisner wrote to Pope Francis last September seeking chis larifications on aspects of the exhortation.

The doubts expressed by the cardinals, known by the Latin dubia, were ignored by the Pope. The Pope’s snub has been interpreted by many in the Church as a sign that he wants the debate closed. Nobody can force the Pope’s hand on the matter.

Amoris Laetitia was released in April last year by Pope Francis after two synods on the family in 2014 and 2015 that brought together bishops and Church leaders from around the world to the Vatican.

kurt.sansone@timesofmalta.com