In last June 28th, António Marto, the Portuguese bishop of Leiria-Fatima, was made cardinal. This is a validation of his ministry, since António Marto has been said to be supportive of the Pope’s approach, namely by adopting a merciful demeanor toward sinners and an attitude of closeness to ordinary people. It is also interesting to note that this diocese encompasses none other than the Sanctuary of Fatima: a hub of sanctity, a treasure for the Catholic Church and, unfortunately also a pretext for many dissenters who wish to resist Francis’ reforms.

It is, therefore, extremely significant that in the days immediately preceding his elevation to the cardinalate, bishop Marto published his own guidelines on how to interpret and implement Amoris Laetitia (AL) in his diocese. I’m pretty sure that, prior to its official publishing, the good bishop has probably sent his guidelines to Pope Francis, who knew at least the gist of them prior to nominating him as cardinal.

The full guidelines can be seen here, even though they are in Portuguese.

First of all, Fatima’s guidelines, just like AL itself and the Buenos Aires guidelines (which Pope Francis has officially stated are the correct interpretation), re-center the discussion on what’s truly important, balancing the brouhaha from the dissenting community, who made it all about the issue of Communion to the divorced and civilly remarried. For the document states on its introduction (the translation from now on is always mine):

“The various agents involved (person or “remarried” couple and their spiritual director) must accept that this is not about a process to gain access to the sacraments, but rather a path to search for the will of God – which may or may not be, to make it possible to access the sacraments. (…) The first requisite for any discernment is interior freedom. Without it, any procedure becomes vitiated and, deep down, tries to force God to accept the will of those who “discern” and not the other way around.”

In other words, the most important is not whether these people gain access to the Eucharist (which may not happen), but whether they are helped to live holy lives through a close accompaniment. Only by being accompanied by someone with authority and orthodoxy, they may understand what God’s will is for their lives, instead of conflating their own wills with God’s. For the practical guide continues as such:

“Only freedom allows an affective distance which may evaluate the situation, in order to accept truly what is perceived to be the will of God (…) For this reason, it is necessary that discernment be accompanied by an external element to the couple, usually a pastor (priest), with experience in accompaniment and spiritual direction. The confront with a third person is essential (cf. AL 300). The function of this minister of the Church is to accompany this path from the beginning and serve as a confronting referent to unblock personal and internal processes in one of the elements of the couple, or the couple itself, helping them to free themselves from inordinate affections and desires relating to this topic, of wounds that do not take reality into account, etc.”

In other words, this is not about a couple just deciding that they want to receive the Eucharist, without any change or work on their part, as some dissenters make AL to be. There must be a minister of the Church  present in the whole process, and its task is not to validate, but to confront, therefore filtering out preconceptions and disordered expectations that may hinder this discernment, diverting it from the path to holiness.

On the other hand, Cardinal Marto is faithful to AL’s true interpretation. He meets Pope Francis’ call to discern every situation on a case by case basis, without a one-size-fits-all approach. Also from the introduction:

“Naturally, these orientations we have provided here will have to be adapted to each situation and each person, for this is the essence of discernment. Other aspects to take into account when putting in practice this process of discernment are the ages of the people being accompanied, the duration of their current relationship, if they have been both sacramentally married or just one of them, if their relationship includes children or not, their faith experiences, their participation in the life of the Church, etc.”

But most importantly, Cardinal Marto manifests his faithfulness to the true interpretation of AL by allowing (just like the Buenos Aires or the Lisbon guidelines) the opening of Communion to some people who have divorced and remarried. The final section of the guide is named, very appropriately, “The Question of the access to the Sacraments.” I’ll quote it in full:

“Concerning the access to the Sacraments, we propose the following two steps:

  1. Make an exercise of conclusion of the discernment as follows: during one week, to pray and to live as if the decision was not to access the sacraments, to take conscience of what one is feeling, of the spiritual feelings, where peace or disturbance lie; on the following week, do the opposite… pray and live as the decision was to access the sacraments, taking note of the spiritual feelings that are experienced. In that way, it is possible to understand what God’s calling is, what brings the most peace, what brings us most together with Him and with Christian life and with others.
  2. To confirm, through a rational process, and in light of everything that has been read, prayed upon, shared and heard, a list is to be done, with two columns, with the pros and cons of accessing the sacraments. At another time, do another list with the same process with the pros and cons of not accessing the sacraments. After selecting the pros and cons for each possibility, see what is more evident. As affirmed in the beginning, this may be 1) access the sacraments; 2) not access the sacraments; 3) not yet, there are necessary steps to be followed through in life and discernment must go on.

After these (…) stages, with honesty before God, with all freedom and based on what has been learned through the entire process, the person or couple takes the decision that seems more in line with God’s will.”

This is a very interesting approach, since it seems to integrate an Ignatian component to the matter of discernment (something that certainly pleases Pope Francis’ Jesuitic streak.) Namely, it seems based on the spiritual motions described by Saint Ignatius of Loyola. The 3rd and 4th rules of his 14 rules for “Discernment of the Spirits” are, respectively, “Spiritual Consolation” and “Spiritual Desolation.” Whether a particular choice brings consolation or desolation is used to discern whether a particular decision is informed by the Holy Spirit or by the spirit of darkness.

By living in one week as if he/she would receive the sacraments and in the next as if he/she would not, by praying upon both decisions and by doing a list of pros and cons, the person who is discerning may try to understand which of the two possibilities gives spiritual consolation or desolation, in order to follow through with the former and avoid the latter.

This is, as far as I know, a completely new way to implement AL. We will have to see if Pope Francis will validate it the same way he did with Buenos Aires or with Lisbon.

At a first glance, this approach caused me some strangeness. This is natural… after all it happens with everything new. My greatest fear was how definitive the decision to access the sacraments seemed to be, once taken. The divorced and remarried person takes the decision, acts upon it and even documents it, sending a written record to the bishop and the parish priest (in case this was not the spiritual director.)

In my view, discerning whether someone is in a state of mortal sin is a continuous process when we are dealing with recurring, addicting sins like the sins of the flesh. Someone may have sinned in a venial way on account of limited liberty (eg. because of addictive behavior) in one day, and then sin in a mortal way the next day with the same sin, if he/she gave full consent then. This is especially true if the person gets complacent, which a definitive decision regarding access to the Eucharist seems to promote.

But the problem was that I had made the same mistake dissenters have made regarding AL… focusing too much on the “access to the sacraments” part and ignoring the rest.

For you see, “Question of the access to the Sacraments” is just the last part of the discernment process. It is stage 4. Before a divorced and remarried person gets to stage 4, he/she will have to undergo stages 1, 2 and 3.

First stage is seeking an attitude of righteous intention before God, humbly asking Him for the grace of interior freedom. Second stage is seeking interior (and, if possible, exterior) reconciliation with one’s past history, with every person involved and with badly resolved situations… this includes Pope Francis’ proposed “exam of conscience” as stated in AL. Third stage is seeking what God’s will is and evaluating the current relationship (stability, rearing of children, religious practice.) Only then comes the fourth stage regarding the access to the sacraments, by living and praying upon both possibilities and doing the pros and cons list.

Each of these stages is filled with intense prayer, spiritual retreats, regular meetings with the spiritual director and even meditations on various passages from the Gospel and AL, that the Fatima guidelines specifically propose for each step.

In other words, what we have here is a true formation of conscience. For many years, apologists have responded to the charges from lapsed Catholics about the primacy of conscience by replying that such a primacy only applied to well-formed consciences. And yet, here we have a true practical guide to forming good consciences, even in those who are currently living in irregular marital situations.

This is groundbreaking.

By doing so, these guidelines mitigate the fear that a divorced and remarried person who may have decided he/she can receive Communion gets complacent, for he/she has undergone a lengthy process whereby his/her conscience was well-formed according to the Gospel teachings and the doctrine of the Church. As Francis declares in AL #300: “the following conditions must neces­sarily be present: humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching, in a sincere search for God’s will and a desire to make a more per­fect response to it. These attitudes are essen­tial for avoiding the grave danger of misunder­standings, such as the notion that any priest can quickly grant “exceptions,” or that some people can obtain sacramental privileges in exchange for favours.” If these attitudes are present, there is no fear that AL may be abused to obtain sacrilegious Communions. Cardinal Marto anticipates these dangers and faces them head-on, by instilling these attitudes on the person undergoing accompaniment since the beginning of the path.

And this forming of consciences, not the access to the sacraments, is the true focus of the Fatima’s guidelines. In this way, António Marto has gone the extra mile in a fundamental part from AL that seems to have been a bit overlooked by other guidelines: Francis’ plead to “better incorporate individual consciences into the Church’s practice”, as stated in AL #303.

In light of this, I really hope that practical guides such as this may be extended to other dioceses and, in fact to other addicting sins of the flesh, like homosexuality, masturbation or pornography. Forget about the polemic of who gets to receive Communion or not. This is weighing down on the possibilities laid before us. An adequate formation of consciences duly accompanied by an orthodox pastor is paramount, so that these sinners may start a path of conversion, without falling into the extremes of overlaxity or overscrupulosity. Both of these extremes are hallmarks of an unacompanied spiritual journey, which may drive the soul off from the way to holiness. By duly forming consciences, it is easier to make a proper exam of conscience and understand, at any given point, whether one is in a state of grace or of mortal sin. Only then may the sacraments truly exert their proper, medicinal function.

Not to condemn (nor validate) sinners, but to truly rehabilitate them. To tackle sin not with a “take it or leave it, this way or the highway” approach, but as a work in progress. To catechize people by teaching them to deal with the concrete situations they are facing, and not by forcing conformity with a perfect framework that probably was achievable in the past, but is now beyond reach. Being truly Christ-like and not feeding into the prejudiced stereotype of the judgmental Church. This is Francis’ project for the Catholic Church. And this is the true answer, if we really want to win the Culture Wars affecting the Church on matters sexual.  Not through raw power. But one soul at a time, with patience and love.

[Photo credits: Agência Ecclesia]

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Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.

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