Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia
THE Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia completes the reflection on the family conducted by the Synods of 2014 and 2015, a reflection that engaged the entire world.
In issuing Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis once again calls the Church to renew and intensify the Christian missionary proclamation of God's mercy, while presenting more persuasively the Church's teaching about the nature of the family and the Sacrament of Matrimony. Amoris Laetitia has sections of exceptional beauty and usefulness on the nature of family life and marital love. Over the next year (2016-17), these will be a key resource in revising and upgrading our Archdiocese of Philadelphia marriage preparation programs.
In all of this the Holy Father, in union with the whole Church, hopes to strengthen existing families, and to reach out to those whose marriages have failed, including those alienated from the life of the Church.
Amoris Laetitia therefore calls for a sensitive accompaniment of those with an imperfect grasp of Christian teaching on marriage and family life, who may not be living in accord with Catholic belief, and yet desire to be more fully integrated into Church life, including the Sacraments of Penance and Eucharist.
The Holy Father's statements build on the classic Catholic understanding, key to moral theology, of the relationship between objective truth about right and wrong — for example, the truth about marriage revealed by Jesus himself — and how the individual person grasps and applies that truth to particular situations in his or her judgment of conscience. Catholic teaching makes clear that the subjective conscience of the individual can never be set against objective moral truth, as if conscience and truth were two competing principles for moral decision-making.
As St. John Paul II wrote, such a view would "pose a challenge to the very identity of the moral conscience in relation to human freedom and God's law.... Conscience is not an independent and exclusive capacity to decide what is good and what is evil" (Veritatis Splendor 56,
60). Rather, "conscience is the application of the law to a particular case" (Veritatis Splendor 59). Conscience stands under the objective moral law and should be formed by it, so that "[t]he truth about moral good, as that truth is declared in the law of reason, is practically and concretely recognized by the judgment of conscience" (Veritatis Splendor 61).
But since well-meaning people can err in matters of conscience, especially in a culture that is already deeply confused about complex matters of marriage and sexuality, a person may not be fully culpable for acting against the truth. Church ministers, moved by mercy, should adopt a sensitive pastoral approach in all such situations — an approach both patient but also faithfully confident in the saving truth of the Gospel and the transforming power of God's grace, trusting in the words of Jesus Christ, who promises that "you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free (Jn 8:32)." Pastors should strive to avoid both a subjectivism that ignores the truth or a rigorism that lacks mercy.
As with all magisterial documents, Amoris Laetitia is best understood when read within the tradition of the Church's teaching and life. In fact, the Holy Father himself states clearly that neither Church teaching nor the canonical discipline concerning marriage has changed: "it is understandable that neither the Synod nor this Exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases" [Amoris Laetitia 300] — a point reiterated by Cardinal Schönborn at the Vatican's presentation of the document. The Holy Father's Exhortation should therefore be read in continuity with the great treasury of wisdom handed on by the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, the witness of the lives of the Saints, the teachings of Church Councils, and previous magisterial documents.
As Amoris Laetitia notes, bishops must arrange for the accompaniment of estranged and hurting persons with guidelines that faithfully reflect Catholic belief [Amoris Laetitia 300]. What follows are archdiocesan guidelines meant for priests and deacons, seminarians and lay persons who work in the fields of marriage, sacramental ministry and pastoral care regarding matters of human sexuality. They are effective as of July 1, 2016.
For Catholic married couples
Christian marriage, by its nature, is permanent, monogamous and open to life. The sexual expression of love within a truly Christian marriage is blessed by God: a powerful bond of beauty and joy between man and woman. Jesus himself raised marriage to new dignity. The valid marriage of two baptized persons is a sacrament that confers grace, with the potential to deepen the couple's life in Christ, especially through the shared privilege of bringing new life into the world and raising children in the knowledge of God.
Marriage and child-rearing are sources of great joy. They have moments (like the birth of a child) when the presence of God is palpable. But an intimately shared life can also cause stress and suffering. Marital fidelity is an ongoing encounter with reality. Thus it involves real sacrifices and the discipline of subordinating one's own needs to the needs of others. Amoris Laetitia reminds husbands and wives that their "common life...the entire network of relations that they build with their children and in the world around them, will be steeped in and strengthened by the grace of the sacrament" [Amoris Laetitia 74]. Integrated into every pastoral plan that seeks to support married couples should be instruction in the sacramental grace available to them and in particular, how they can more fully "tap into" this wellspring of grace, so that they experience the power of the sacrament to strengthen their relationship, not just as an idea but as a reality that impacts their daily married life.
Closely related to this, pastors should stress the importance of common prayer and reading Scripture in the home, profiting from the grace offered them by frequent reception of the Sacraments of Penance and Communion, and the need for building mutual support with committed Catholic friends and family. Every family is a "domestic church," but no Christian family can survive indefinitely without encouragement from other believing families. The Christian community must especially find ways to engage and help families who are burdened by illness, financial setbacks and marital friction.
For Catholics and Christians who are separated or divorced and not remarried
Pastors often encounter persons whose marriages face grave hardships, sometimes for reasons that seem undeserved, and sometimes through the fault of one or both married parties. The state of being separated or divorced, and thus finding oneself alone, can involve great suffering. It can mean separation from one's children, a life without conjugal intimacy, and for some the prospect of never having children. Pastors should offer these persons friendship, understanding, introductions to reliable lay mentors and practical help, so they can sustain their fidelity even under pressure.
Likewise, parishes should be keenly concerned for the spiritual good of those who find themselves separated or divorced for a long time. Some persons, aware that a valid marriage bond is indissoluble, consciously refrain from a new union and devote themselves to carrying out their family and Christian duties. They face no obstacle to receiving Communion and other sacraments. Indeed, they should receive the sacraments regularly, and they deserve the warm support of the Christian community, since they show extraordinary fidelity to Jesus Christ. God is faithful to them even when their spouses are not, a truth that fellow Catholics should reinforce.
In some cases, one can reasonably ask whether an original marriage bond was valid, and thus whether grounds may exist for a decree of nullity (an "annulment"). In our age, such grounds are not uncommon. People in those circumstances should be strongly encouraged to seek the assistance of a marriage tribunal of the Church. The inquiry in these cases should always be guided by the truth of the situation: Did a valid marriage exist? Decrees of nullity are not an automatic remedy or an entitlement. They cannot be granted informally or privately by individual pastors or priests. Because marriage is a public reality, and because a determination about the validity of a marriage affects the lives, the rights, and the duties of all parties touched by it, there must be a canonical process and a decision by the proper authority under canon law. Such matters require that those conducting the inquiry be both compassionate and alert to the truth. They should investigate these matters in a timely way, respecting the rights of all parties, and ensuring that all have access to the annulment procedures.
For Catholics and Christians who are divorced and civilly-remarried
Amoris Laetitia manifests a special concern for divorced and civilly-remarried Catholics. In some cases, a valid first marriage bond may never have existed. A canonical investigation of the first marriage by a Church tribunal may be appropriate. In other cases, the first marriage bond of one or both of the civilly-remarried persons may be valid. This would impede any attempt at a subsequent marriage. If they have children from the original marriage, they have an important duty to raise and care for them.
The divorced and remarried should be welcomed by the Catholic community Pastors should ensure that such persons do not consider themselves as "outside" the Church. On the contrary, as baptized persons, they can (and should) share in her life. They are invited to attend Mass, to pray, and to take part in the activities of the parish. Their children — whether from an original marriage or from their current relationship — are integral to the life of the Catholic community, and they should be brought up in the faith. Couples should sense from their pastors, and from the whole community, the love they deserve as persons made in the image of God and as fellow Christians.
At the same time, as Amoris Laetitia notes, priests should "accompany [the divorced and remarried] in helping them to understand their situation according to the teaching of the Church and the guidelines of the bishop. Useful in this process is an examination of conscience through moments of reflection and penance. The divorced and remarried should ask themselves: how they have acted toward their children when the conjugal union entered into crisis; if they made attempts at reconciliation; what has become of the abandoned party; what consequences does the new relationship have on the rest of the family and the community of the faithful; and what example is being set for young people who are preparing for marriage" [Amoris Laetitia 300]. Amoris Laetitia continues: "What we are speaking of is a process of accompaniment and discernment which `guides the faithful to an awareness of their situation before God.... [T]his discernment can never prescind from the Gospel demands of truth and charity as proposed by the Church' [Amoris Laetitia 300].
In light of this, priests must help the divorced and civilly-remarried to form their consciences according to the truth. This is a true work of mercy. It should be undertaken with patience, compassion and a genuine desire for the good of all concerned, sensitive to the wounds of each person, and gently leading each toward the Lord. Its purpose is not condemnation, but the opposite: a full reconciliation of the person with God and neighbor, and restoration to the fullness of visible communion with Jesus Christ and the Church.
In fact, pastors must always convey Catholic teaching faithfully to all persons — including the divorced and remarried — both in the confessional as well as publicly. They should do this with great confidence in the power of God's grace, knowing that, when spoken with love, the truth heals, builds up, and sets free (cf. Jn 8:32).
Can the divorced and civilly-remarried receive the sacraments? As a general matter, baptized members of the Church are always in principle invited to the sacraments. The confessional's doors are always open to the repentant and contrite of heart. What of Communion? Every Catholic, not only the divorced and civilly-remarried, must sacramentally confess all serious sins of which he or she is aware, with a firm purpose to change, before receiving the Eucharist. In some cases, the subjective responsibility of the person for a past action may be diminished. But the person must still repent and renounce the sin, with a firm purpose of amendment.
With divorced and civilly-remarried persons, Church teaching requires them to refrain from sexual intimacy. This applies even if they must (for the care of their children) continue to live under one roof. Undertaking to live as brother and sister is necessary for the divorced and civilly-remarried to receive reconciliation in the Sacrament of Penance, which could then open the way to the Eucharist. Such individuals are encouraged to approach the Sacrament of Penance regularly, having recourse to God's great mercy in that sacrament if they fail in chastity.
Even where, for the sake of their children, they live under one roof in chaste continence and have received absolution (so that they are free from personal sin), the unhappy fact remains that, objectively speaking, their public state and condition of life in the new relationship are contrary to Christ's teaching against divorce. Concretely speaking, therefore, where pastors give Communion to divorced and remarried persons trying to live chastely, they should do so in a manner that will avoid giving scandal or implying that Christ's teaching can be set aside. In other contexts, also, care must be taken to avoid the unintended appearance of an endorsement of divorce and civil remarriage; thus, divorced and civilly remarried persons should not hold positions of responsibility in a parish (e.g. on a parish council), nor should they carry out liturgical ministries or functions (e.g., lector, extraordinary minister of Holy Communion).
This is a hard teaching for many, but anything less misleads people about the nature of the Eucharist and the Church. The grace of Jesus Christ is more than a pious cliché; it is a real and powerful seed of change in the believing heart. The lives of many saints bear witness that grace can take great sinners and, by its power of interior renewal, remake them in holiness of life. Pastors and all who work in the service of the Church should tirelessly promote hope in this saving mystery.
For couples who cohabitate and are unmarried
Cohabitation of unmarried couples is now common, often fueled by convenience, fear of a final commitment, or a desire to "try out" relationships. Some couples delay marriage until they can afford an elaborate wedding celebration. Many children are born to these irregular unions. Cohabiting and contracepting couples often enter RCIA, or seek to return to the Catholic faith, only dimly aware of the problems created by their situation.
Working with such couples, pastors should consider two issues. First, does the couple have children together? A natural obligation in justice exists for parents to care for their children. And children have a natural right to be raised by both parents. Pastors should try, to the degree possible and when a permanent commitment of marriage is viable, to strengthen existing relationships where a couple already has children together. Second, does the couple have the maturity to turn their relationship into a permanently committed marriage? Often cohabiting couples refrain from making final commitments because one or both persons is seriously lacking in maturity or has other significant obstacles to entering a valid union. Here, prudence plays a vital role. Where one or another person is not capable of, or is not willing to commit to, a marriage, the pastor should urge them to separate.
Where the couple is disposed to marriage, they should be encouraged to practice chastity until they are sacramentally married. They will find this challenging, but again, with the help of grace, mastering the self is possible -- and this fasting from physical intimacy is a strong element of spiritual preparation for an enduring life together. (Of course, persons should also be guided to an awareness of their situation before God, so that they can make a good confession before their wedding, and so begin their married life with joy in the Lord.)
Couples who have no children should ready themselves for marriage by a time of domestic separation. Where a cohabiting couple already has children, the good of the young may require the couple to remain living together, but in chastity.
For persons who experience same-sex attraction
The same call to chastity and holiness of life applies equally to all persons, whether attracted to the same or opposite sex. The pastoral care of persons with same-sex attraction should be guided by the same love and respect the Church seeks to offer all people. Ministers of the Church should emphasize to such persons that they are loved by God, that Jesus desires them to receive an inheritance as adopted sons and daughters of the Father, and that, as with every Christian, this is made possible through the gift of grace.
Those who work in pastoral ministry often encounter persons with diverse forms of same-sex attraction. Many such persons have found it possible to live out a vocation to Christian marriage with children, notwithstanding experiencing some degree of same-sex attraction. Others have found it difficult to do so. Because Christian marriage with children is a great good, those who find themselves unable to embrace this good may suffer from a sense of loss or loneliness. And, as with those who are attracted to the opposite sex, some can find chastity very difficult. Pastoral care of such persons must never lose sight of their individual calling to holiness and union with Jesus Christ, and that the power of God's grace can make this a real possibility for their lives.
Catholic belief, rooted in Scripture, reserves all expressions of sexual intimacy to a man and a woman covenanted to each other in a valid marriage. We hold this teaching to be true and unchangeable, tied as it is to our nature and purpose as children of a loving God who desires our happiness. Those with predominant same-sex attractions are therefore called to struggle to live chastely for the kingdom of God. In this endeavor they have need of support, friendship and understanding if they fail. They should be counseled, like everyone else, to have frequent recourse to the Sacrament of Penance, where they should be treated with gentleness and compassion. In fact, more than a few such persons, with the help of grace and the sacraments, do live exemplary and even heroic Christian lives.
The pastoral situation of same-sex couples
When two persons of the same sex present themselves openly in a parish as a same-sex couple (including those who may have entered into a same-sex union under civil law), pastors must judge prudently how best to address the situation, both for the sake of the authentic spiritual good of the persons involved, and the common good of the believing community It's important to remember that some same-sex couples do live together in chaste friendship and without sexual intimacy, and many pastors have had the experience of counseling such couples. The Church welcomes all men and women who honestly seek to encounter the Lord, whatever their circumstances. But two persons in an active, public same-sex relationship, no matter how sincere, offer a serious counter-witness to Catholic belief, which can only produce moral confusion in the community Such a relationship cannot be accepted into the life of the parish without undermining the faith of the community, most notably the children.
Finally, those living openly same-sex lifestyles should not hold positions of responsibility in a parish, nor should they carry out any liturgical ministry or function.
This Webpage was created for a workshop held at Saint Andrew's Abbey, Valyermo, California in 2014