“The Church seeks to find different ways of demonstrating not simply a desire to accompany people where they are, but also to show we are walking with them in the concrete situations of their lives toward the truth, and so we can hear them and they can begin to hear us.
In Amoris Laetitia, the Church is asked to proclaim the saving love of Jesus with joy. It invites us to be particularly aware of those who live at the peripheries and who may have lost hope wondering whether God could love them or if they can find a place of welcome within the Church.”
—Sharing in the Joy and Love of Marriage and Family
On Saturday, March 3, at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, Cardinal Donald Wuerl unveiled the new pastoral plan for the implementation of Amoris Laetitia in the Archdiocese of Washington. Entitled Sharing in the Joy and Love of Marriage and Family, it arrives as an attractive and well-formatted 58-page booklet.
As soon as it was announced last week, as has become the case with each new set of guidelines issued by a diocese or bishops’ conference, the immediate question on the minds of the Catholics who follow this sort of thing was, “What will he say about communion for the divorced and remarried?”
Here’s what’s interesting: he doesn’t.
Much to the surprise of many, the plan doesn’t even address the question. Instead, it’s a broad and lengthy document that summarizes and applies the major themes of Amoris in a pastoral context. The fifth part of the document (beginning at page 42) provides information about ministries and links to resources from the archdiocese and the USCCB that are intended to help fully implement the exhortation in the Archdiocese of Washington.
Many Catholics, especially those who have followed the controversy over the exhortation’s footnote 351 will see this as a cop out, or an overtly political move made to please both sides. Indeed, many conservative commentators, including Dominican Father Thomas Petri, Washington priest Msgr. Charles Pope, and Catholic University professor CC Pecknold had high praise for the document, suggesting that they believe the document rejects the possibility of the sacraments for some people in irregular situations, contrary to what is written in chapter 8 of Amoris and the magisterially-sanctioned guidelines of the bishops of Buenos Aires.
Fr. Petri writes:
“It’s a plan that doesn’t get bogged down in a question that was neither asked nor answered in the exhortation: whether divorced and civilly remarried can receive Holy Communion. That question was already answered by Pope St. John Paul II in his 1981 exhortation on the family, Familiaris Consortio, and has been reaffirmed repeatedly by the Holy See.”
I’m not entirely sure why Fr. Petri thinks the plan disregards the detailed guidelines of the Buenos Aires bishops. It also isn’t clear why he doesn’t believe Francis’s explicit endorsement of Cardinal Schonborn’s explanation of Amoris Laetitia and the Vatican’s publication of Cardinal Coccopalmerio’s booklet on the subject alleviate any doubt on the papal interpretation of the question.
Not everyone is completely thrilled with this pastoral plan. Some critics fear that one sentence in the document can lead to some of the faithful using their consciences to determine their suitability for reception of communion, rather than the objective criteria laid out in canon law. The sentence reads, “Priests are called to respect the decisions made in conscience by individuals who act in good faith since no one can enter the soul of another and make that judgment for them.”
Canonist Ed Peters fears that this is the case. He writes,
“In short, if encouraging ministers to give holy Communion to divorced-and-civilly-remarried Catholics is indeed what SJL intends by its wording here, then SJL is wrong; even if such is the use that some ministers intend to make of this passage in SJL, they are using the ambiguous wording of this sentence to avoid the clear directives of canon law and sacramental discipline.”
Writing for the Catholic Herald, Fr. Alexander Lucie-Smith echos Peters’s concerns, saying,
“The sentence seems to say that everyone can be the judge of his or her own case. This implies that moral decisions are subjective. In other words, when I ask myself should I go to Holy Communion (a question we all need to ask ourselves, by the way), the answer depends not on my consideration of objective criteria, but on something much less robust, namely how I feel about myself and my actions.”
By now, we should not be surprised when the usual subjects fixate on a single sentence buried in a lengthy document and fret about its potential to destroy the foundations of the Church’s teachings on the sacraments. Still, while I don’t share their concerns regarding the integrity of doctrine and Church law, I noticed how the same sentence, and how it reflects Pope Francis’s teaching in Amoris.
We have no reason to believe that Cardinal Wuerl is trying to subvert the pope’s intentions.
Cardinal Wuerl has, since the beginning of the synod process, praised the intentions and actions of the Holy Father. He has voiced nothing but praise and gratitude for Amoris Laetitia since its release. He has also had some measured but rather harsh words for critics of this pope. In many ways, his has been a voice of optimism and sanity during this entire papacy. By remaining above the fray and out of the trenches, he’s reminding the faithful of our responsibilities as Catholics: to love and respect the Holy Father, to receive his teachings with joy and gratitude, and to live out our Catholic faith with confidence and without fear.
I see no subversion of Francis’s agenda in these directives. In fact, I see assent and obedience to the Holy Father’s teaching. Silence gives consent, after all.
This is also in line with Francis’s letter to the Buenos Aires bishops, who focused their guidelines entirely on the eighth chapter:
“I would like to remind you that Amoris laetitia was the fruit of the work and prayer of the whole Church, with the mediation of two Synods and the Pope. Therefore, I recommend a complete catechesis of the Exhortation that will certainly help the growth, consolidation and holiness of the family.” (Google translation)
While Francis wholeheartedly endorsed their interpretation of Chapter 8 and the question of admission to the sacraments as the only correct way to interpret that part of the exhortation, he did gently suggest that he would like to see guidelines that implement the entire document and the fruit of the two synods. The Washington plan does just that. And with the communion question definitively and magisterially answered, there really was no need to delve into that controversy again.
I believe what Cardinal Wuerl is doing is placing footnote 351 back into its proper place in the exhortation. Within the scope of the document, it’s simply a footnote that advises a pastoral possibility in certain situations. In his announcement of the pastoral guidelines, Cardinal Wuerl gets to the core of Amoris: “The Holy Father’s magisterial teaching focuses on the centrality of God’s infinite love – which became Incarnate in a human family – and the vocation of the human family to reveal that love.” This debate has done nothing but distract us about what Pope Francis is trying to teach us.
“I think Wuerl’s plan will help priests and lay people engaged in ministry to families to get past the fireworks of the debates and focus on the people in the pews. … I am not one to shy away from controversy, but I confess I am getting tired of playing rhetorical whack-a-mole with the anti-Amoris brigade. … It is time for the ranting to stop. Cardinal Wuerl has pointed the way forward for the church in the United States: Let’s get out and accompany the people of God and their families.”
Potentially these guidelines could mark the beginning of the Church moving past all the distraction caused by the debate over Amoris Laetitia’s chapter 8 and toward implementing the entire exhortation. The controversy has undermined many of Francis’ initiatives and reforms because it has drawn so much attention away from them and toward a single issue. Both sides have made their point, and both intend to stand their ground. By now, both must acknowledge that neither is going to budge anytime soon. Perhaps it is time to shake the dust off our feet and get on with this papacy.
No amount of arguing or politicking or undermining is going to change the fact that Amoris Laetitia and its official interpretation are part of the magisterium. A sober look at the situation confirms this, but not everyone believes it. As Austen Ivereigh put it in 2016, “[E]ven as they insist that there is a debate to be had, a case to answer, a matter to be settled, the train is leaving the station, and they are left on the platform, waving their arms.”
To put it bluntly: it’s a footnote. It’s magisterial. You’re not going to change it. Get over it, lest the Church go on without you.
A hundred years from now, theologians and historians are going to write papers about how Pope Francis was opposed by a cadre of cardinals, bishops, and lay theologians over the promulgation of his well-regarded exhortation Amoris Laetitia.
Let us pray that Cardinal Wuerl’s new guidelines for the Archdiocese of Washington mark the beginning of a new day in this papacy. Let us hope it’s a day where the Church can leave this dispute in the past and work together to advance the mission of good Pope Francis.
Mike Lewis is a writer and graphic designer from Maryland, having worked for many years in Catholic publishing. He’s a husband, father of four, and a lifelong Catholic. He’s active in his parish and community. He is a founding editor for Where Peter Is.