On Feb 6th this year, Manuel Clemente, the Cardinal-Patriarch of Lisbon, issued guidelines on how to interpret and implement Amoris Laetitia‘s (AL) polemic Chapter 8 in his diocese. I wrote an article about it on this blog, titled “The Patriarchate of Lisbon’s faithfulness to Amoris Laetitia“.
One of the things I appreciated more in these guidelines was how they didn’t try to artificially fit AL into a preconceived idea, be it the Kasperite liberalization of Communion to most divorced and remarried couples, or the immobilist position that tried to maintain the previous status quo, by sweeping any difference in praxis between AL and Familiaris Consortio under the rug.
No, the Lisbon guidelines didn’t try to use AL as a way to hammer into the Church a pre-existing project, but tried to interpret the Pope’s manifest will on its own terms. This is something – I have written elsewhere – that should be present in any attempt at adequately interpreting AL. As I said then:
“It is my firm belief, however, that it is possible to know what the true interpretation is by reading AL carefully. The answers are in the text itself. We must simply avoid reading it with an aprioristic conclusion in mind — one that is comfortable with our worldview — and simply allow ourselves to be guided to wherever the truth may take us. It is necessary to do a proper exegesis of this document. This means we must try to understand what is the actual will of the Pope on this issue. What was in the Pope’s mind when he wrote those words?”
The Lisbon guidelines do this through extensive quoting of the source material, be it AL itself or the Buenos Aires Pastoral Region guidelines (which Pope Francis has said are the only possible interpretation), as well as the interpretation from the Papal Cardinal Vicar for the Diocese of Rome, Agostino Vallini.
Cardinal Manuel Clemente minimizes as much as possible his own personal interpretation and lets AL speak for itself. By doing so, he arrives at the only rationally possible interpretation on the true meaning of AL’s Chapter 8: “To bear in mind exceptional circumstances and the possibility of the sacraments”.
Until now, those who, contradicting the Pope’s manifest will, used “confusion” as a justification to dissent from AL, could just say that the Lisbon guidelines were just one interpretation among many, ranging from the Polish guidelines to the German ones. They would then (like the atheist who uses the excuse of the existence of multiple gods to eschew belief in any of them, including the Christian God), postulate that this diversity meant that the Lisbon guidelines would not have value in themselves, but would just add to the growing “confusion”.
However, this is not the case anymore. The Pope has just issued a letter to the Cardinal-Patriarch of Lisbon, which the good cardinal has made public, stating that:
“I am writing to thank you for having sent me, during the past Lent, the Note you addressed to the priests of the Patriarchate concerning the application of the VIII Chapter of the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia.
This deep reflection of yours filled me with joy, as I recognised in it the effort of a pastor and father who, aware of the duty to accompany his faithful, wished to begin with his priests so that they can better fulfil their ministry.
Today, the reality of married life is one of the fields where this accompaniment is most delicate and necessary. That is why I wished to call the Bishops to a long synodal path which might prove propitious – despite the inevitable difficulties – to the maturing of shared guidelines which would benefit the entire People of God.
Therefore, in expressing my gratitude, I would like to take advantage of the opportunity to encourage my Brother Cardinal and his collaborators in the pastoral ministry – in primis the priest – to carry on, with wisdom and patience, in their commitment to accompany, discern and integrate the fragility which shows itself in many forms in couples and their ties.”
This is an important development. Apart from the Buenos Aires interpretation, I have no knowledge of any other set of guidelines from any other diocese or bishop conference receiving so much praise and support from Pope Francis. I do believe that this papal letter elevates the Lisbon guidelines to the level of “authentic interpretation”, just like the Buenos Aires ones (being Buenos Aires, in fact, among the foundations where Lisbon builds upon and expands on.) It seems obvious that Cardinal Clemente “got it right” on what the Pope’s manifest will for the document would be.
People who are genuinely confused (either because of AL itself, or because of the misinformation being spread around by dissenters) have one more resource where they can lean on to know what the apostolic exhortation really means.
Manuel Clemente is one of the most accomplished intellectuals in contemporary Portuguese society. His intellectual prowess, scholarship and culture is acknowledged, even among the most secular elites in Portugal. It is no wonder that his analytical mind was able to not only interpret the document accurately, but also to present it in such a clear way.
He is also perfectly orthodox, having been one of the most instrumental personalities in thwarting a recent attempt to legalize euthanasia in Portugal. In fact, from the Family Synod up to the very day after AL was published, Manuel Clemente was apparently against allowing the divorced and remarried to receive Communion unless they lived in total continence… but, when confronted with a magisterial document from the Pope stating otherwise, he reeavaluated his stance, thus perfectly showing how to dovetail mental aptitude with humility, so that the intellect is not a stumbling block to obedience, but rather a tool that allows oneself to perfect said obedience.
So, genuinely confused Catholics may look upon Clemente for clarity and guidance. He has shown, through extensive quoting, how AL may be read in continuity with Familiaris Consortio and Sacramentum Caritatis, pastoral differences aside. He has, in fact, concluded his guidelines with a hierarchy of procedures that shows the necessary steps before considering the novelty of AL’s pastoral paradigm. He doesn’t shun (in fact, he highlights) the necessity of the divorced and remarried person to try to regularize his/her situation (namely through an annulment) and to see if the “brother-sister” approach is possible. Also, he brings into attention the necessary steps after the opening up of the sacraments, so that the person may strive for the eventual fulfilment of the Christian ideal for that marriage in its entirety.
“Bearing all this in mind, I present herein some operative guidelines: a) To accompany and integrate people into the life of the community, in line with the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortations Familiaris Consortio, 84, Sacramentum Caritatis, 29 and Amoris Laetitia, 299 (see appendix). b) Carefully examine the specificity of each case. c) Not to exclude recourse to the diocesan tribunal, whenever there is doubt concerning the validity of the marriage. d) In cases in which validity is ascertained, not to neglect the proposal of a life in continence in the new situation. e) To bear in mind exceptional circumstances and the possibility of the sacraments, in line with the aforementioned apostolic exhortation and documents. f) To continue the process of discernment, bringing the practice ever closer to the ideal of Christian marriage and sacramental consistency.”
Of course, this also means that people who, though not really confused, use “confusion” has a pretext to dissent from a magisterial document they disagree with, have now been dealt another severe blow.
First of all, the Pope’s manifest will has been made even the more manifest. Not that it wasn’t manifest before, with the Pope’s publishing of the Buenos Aires guidelines on the vatican.va site and on the Acta Apostolicae Sedes. But this weighs even more heavily on the side of those who have said that communion to the divorced and civilly remarried with mitigating circumstances is possible. It is increasingly more and more difficult to argue: “What does the Pope even mean? It’s so confusing!”
As the amount of Pope-endorsed guidelines keeps piling up, produced from good and orthodox bishops, it becomes more and more obvious that dissenters are going to miss the train and be left behind. They can still get on board… or dig their heels on the ground and find solace in the self-made narrative according to which they are the only remnant of the true Church left, even if they have no authority to claim it.
But, ultimately, they are not just losing ecclesiastical and authoritative ground… they are losing intellectual ground as well. The guidelines from the Cardinal-Patriarch are very clearly defined and prove that it is possible to reconcile AL with orthodoxy, even if we take the Buenos Aires approach. As time passes by, claiming that it is impossible to be orthodox while being faithful to AL (interpreted according to the manifest will of the Pope) becomes an exercise of sticking the head deep in the sand to avoid seeing what’s clear before the eyes.
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.