She looked depressed when I saw her after Mass, so I went over to ask her how she was doing. She seemed a bit reluctant to speak so I did not push, but after a few minutes I offered to make an appointment to speak with her some more apart from the crowd of people in the gathering area after Mass. First she said, “no thanks”, and then seemed to warm to the idea. When I asked her what time would work for her schedule she said something that stuck with me for a while. She asked, “Will you really meet with me to talk? Priests don't usually do that, do they?” It was her sincerity that made me think more deeply about what she was saying. She really wanted to know whether it was the norm for priests to sit down and talk to their people. Over the years, I have come to find out that this is the perspective of quite a few parishioners.
Many of the laity in the Church today do not believe that their priests are talking to them enough. They feel as though they have been left out in the cold and given little to no help in dealing with life's challenges. I have personally heard of a few instances where there were priests who did take the time to sit with their people and discuss the challenges that they were going through, but often the advice that they gave was problematic. More than once I have heard of priests who told parishioners that the sin that they were struggling with was “no big deal” and “did not need to be confessed”. The person's conscience was deeply scarred by this because they usually (trusting their priest's truthfulness) went away confused about what the Church meant when it said “no” while the priest was saying “yes”. In other words, the laity are usually not being given the opportunity to form their consciences in a godly manner so that they can know what is holy, and feel guilt when they fall into what is sinful.
Let me mention that I am a “dotted i’s and crossed t’s” kind of guy. I like everything done appropriately, and when I make a mistake or forget something, I lament my actions for quite a while. So when someone says something like “Pope Francis did ‘such and such’ wrong” I am concerned that things be done right. Yet, in that, I know that I must not jump to conclusions regarding the actions or beliefs of anyone at all (especially the Holy Father). I am not a pessimist or an optimist, per se, but rather a realist; because “that’s the way things really are”. So my inclination is to help the person think through the situation and try to find a path to holiness that enables each of us to deal with the challenges that are being thrown at us today.
With this whole fiasco about the apparent unorthodoxy of Amoris Laetitia and now the added layer of the Buenos Aires Bishop’s guidelines, I have heard numerous Catholics lamenting the consequences of this. I have also read a large quantity of articles regarding what this all does and does not mean for us. As a result, I have come to realize one thing: many of us (myself included) tend to seek the quickest and shortest way to deal with our circumstances, and rarely do we want to put in the harder (and more time consuming) effort. Traditionals will tend to believe the bad news about things that look modernist, even when they do not want to, and modernists will tend to believe the things that look traditionalist, even when they do not want to.
Therefore, I chose to grit my teeth, and wade through the daunting task (!) of actually reading what the Bishops of Buenos Aires said, as well as the Pope's actual response to them. I was a bit surprised that none of it was as extreme as it has been claimed by many. True, I wish it was more clear and direct on a few issues (the way that my own Bishop, Steven Lopes, has done recently). Yet, I cannot claim that they are advocating something that they are not. I cannot claim that they are clearly and intentionally contradicting Church teaching. To do so would be to assume that I have perfect knowledge and understanding of their intentions. Furthermore, if they are trying to create a situation where unrepentant Catholics in invalid marriages can receive the Sacraments, then they are not doing a very good job of it.
Their guidelines never say “they don’t have to repent, just go ahead and let them have the Eucharist”. In fact, they are carefully worded in such a way that it appears very difficult (though, unfortunately, not impossible) for anyone with that interpretation to squeeze that in there. Realize that there are a lot of “ifs” in the document, and that makes it clear that there are conditions. This made me ask the question, “have I been blinded to what they are really saying (because I am so concerned that they not teach something unorthodox) and missed the actual primary point that Pope Francis said was ‘the only proper interpretation’?” I think this may be the case. I do need to be clear here on a couple things: I do wish that both the Holy Father and the Bishops of Buenos Aires were more clear about what they were saying, leaving no wiggle room (dot your i's and cross your t's!), yet to assume the worst of their intentions because someone can find a way to twist it is positively sinful.
Let me explain this last comment a bit more in depth. If I say something that can be taken in more than one way, then I may be guilty of inaccuracy, but not necessarily am I guilty of intentionally trying to lead people into sin. Alternatively, if I say something that can be taken in more than one way, then it may be the case that I want my statement to be taken in more than one way, which is a bit odd, but still possible. Finally, if I say something that can be taken in more than one way, it may be that I am intentionally trying to be vague to allow for the worst possible interpretation of what I am saying—but who would actually do that? The first two options, yes, I can see that these may occur, but the third seems like utter foolishness (and who would imagine that his words would not eventually be noticed as such?).
To insist on perfect clarity in every statement that a person makes is asking quite a lot. When I preach a homily, I occasionally find myself needing to take a moment to clarify something that I just said, because I realize that it may be misunderstood. That does not, however, mean that my clarification will satisfy every single person in the pews (as the questions I occasionally encounter after Mass rightly show). How could a person ever be sure of all the possible interpretations (or misinterpretations) of his words? This is especially so when we are dealing with words written in another country with another set of circumstances and another type of culture. I honestly do not know the situation in Buenos Aires, or what they are currently dealing with. It is likely similar to our situation here in North America, but also not likely the exact same.
There is one other problem with this insistence on accuracy. If I apply this same judgment to the Holy Scriptures, then about half of them are unorthodox, for there are a multitude of places where the Bible is not as clear as I would like it to be! We must seriously consider this as a major factor in this situation. Even Jesus Himself said that He made statements that will be misunderstood by those whose motivations are not holy, and only rightly understood by those who are seeking for holiness (like with many of His parables). Do we want things to be intentionally vague and unhelpful – of course not, no one does. So then, yes, I will say again, that I would prefer that there was greater clarity. Yet, if we are looking for errors, rather than looking for truth, then we can easily find a lack of clarity in even the most holy of writings, the very written words of God Himself.
So, then, what is that point (and this goes back to the first paragraph of this post)? Priests need to stop giving out quick answers to everyone’s situation and actually spend some time sitting down and talking to people. They need to find out what their circumstances are and help the faithful to think through what the Church says about repentance, holiness, and the Sacraments (and the proper process and order for those to occur). That is, after all, what the Buenos Aires Bishops are clearly emphasizing in their guidelines: how to deal with complicated and unclear situations that Catholics, in this day and age, get themselves into. They did not say that priests can break Canon 915, nor did they say that everyone can decide for themselves whether they need to stop sinning (things that I have heard upset Catholics [who appear to have not read the guidelines] claim).
Are there unusual circumstances that priests need to deal with? A resounding “yes!” is the answer. Is everyone’s situation clearly able to be resolved? An even louder “no!” is the answer. Yet, we cannot treat every one Catholic in a bad marriage situation as though they are “obstinately persisting in manifest sin”. Marriage is under attack and large percentages of the faithful have not been properly taught how to do marriage right (mostly because, once again, their consciences have not been formed properly).
Sometimes Catholics are in marital situations where the other spouse has chosen a behavior which leads the first into a sinful situation. The first spouse wishes to repent, but for fear of having the marriage destroyed (especially when there are children in the home), he or she is torn with trying to discover what really is the greater sin in the circumstances. Should they make this decision on their own? No. They are supposed to go to their priest and ask him to help guide them in what is the best way to deal with the situation. Yet, precisely because we live in an age where priests flippantly throw out “pat answers” to their people (if they spend time talking with them at all, and many do not!), then priests need to hear the admonition of Amoris Laetitia (in spite of its vagueness), “accompany your people to help them figure out how to deal with life’s challenges, and use the process of reconciliation—first—and Eucharist—second—to lead them to faithfulness.”
I, for one, will take a stand right now and say that I am going to give the best assumption to Francis' intent in Amoris Laetitia (as my own Bishop, Steven Lopes, has already done). I am going to accept his statement that the Buenos Aires Bishops have made the proper interpretation, and not assume that they are saying something that they have not clearly said. If any of them come out and clarify that they are teaching something that contradicts the moral teachings of the Church, then we can deal with that at that time, until then, let us give each of them the grace that we ourselves wish to receive. Remember, we can know for certain that we will be blessed if we “[d]o nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than [ourselves]” (Philippians 2:3). Here below is the actual English translation of the text of the Buenos Aires Bishop’s guidelines, and Pope Francis’ letter to them. Please read it, and read it carefully.
Buenos Aires Pastoral Region
Basic criteria for the implementation of chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia
We have received with joy the exhortation Amoris Laetitia, which invites us, above all, to encourage the growth of love between spouses and to motivate the youth to opt for marriage and a family. These are important issues that should never be disregarded or overshadowed by other matters. Francis has opened several doors in pastoral care for families and we are invited to leverage this time of mercy with a view to endorsing, as a pilgrim Church, the richness offered by the different chapters of this Apostolic Exhortation.
We will now focus on chapter VIII, since it refers to the “guidelines of the bishop” (300) in order to discern on the potential access to sacraments of the “divorced who have entered a new union.” We deem it convenient, as Bishops of the same Pastoral Region, to agree on some basic criteria. We present them without prejudice to the authority that each Bishop has over his own Diocese to clarify, complete or restrict them.
1) Firstly, we should remember that it is not advisable to speak of “permissions” to have access to sacraments, but of a discernment process in the company of a pastor. It is a “personal and pastoral discernment” (300).
2) In this path, the pastor should emphasize the fundamental proclamation, the kerygma, so as to foster or renew a personal encounter with the living Christ (cf. 58).
3) Pastoral accompaniment is an exercise of the “via caritas.” It is an invitation to follow “the way of Jesus, the way of mercy and reinstatement” (296). This itinerary requires the pastoral charity of the priest who receives the penitent, listens to him/her attentively and shows him/her the maternal face of the Church, while also accepting his/her righteous intention and good purpose to devote his/her whole life to the light of the Gospel and to practise charity (cf. 306).
4) This path does not necessarily finish in the sacraments; it may also lead to other ways of achieving further integration into the life of the Church: greater presence in the community, participation in prayer or reflection groups, engagement in ecclesial services, etc. (cf. 299)
5) Whenever feasible depending on the specific circumstances of a couple, especially when both partners are Christians walking the path of faith, a proposal may be made to resolve to live in continence. Amoris Laetitia does not ignore the difficulties arising from this option (cf. footnote 329) and offers the possibility of having access to the sacrament of Reconciliation if the partners fail in this purpose (cf. footnote 364, recalling the teaching that Saint John Paul II sent to Cardinal W. Baum, dated 22 March, 1996).
6) In more complex cases, and when a declaration of nullity has not been obtained, the above mentioned option may not, in fact, be feasible. Nonetheless, a path of discernment is still possible. If it is acknowledged that, in a concrete case, there are limitations that mitigate responsibility and culpability (cf. 301-302), especially when a person believes he/she would incur a subsequent fault by harming the children of the new union, Amoris Laetitia offers the possibility of having access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist (cf. footnotes 336 and 351).
These sacraments, in turn, prepare the person to continue maturing and growing with the power of grace.
7) However, it should not be understood that this possibility implies unlimited access to sacraments, or that all situations warrant such unlimited access. The proposal is to properly discern each case. For example, special care should be taken of “a new union arising from a recent divorce” or “the case of someone who has consistently failed in his obligations to the family” (298). Also, when there is a sort of apology or ostentation of the person’s situation “as if it were part of the Christian ideal” (297). In these difficult cases, we should be patient companions, and seek a path of reinstatement (cf. 297, 299).
8) It is always important to guide people to stand before God with their conscience. A useful tool to do this is the “examination of conscience” proposed by Amoris Laetitia 300, specifically in relation to “how did they act towards their children” or the abandoned partner. Where there have been unresolved injustices, providing access to sacraments is particularly outrageous.
9) It may be convenient for an eventual access to sacraments to take place in a discreet manner, especially if troublesome situations can be anticipated. At the same time, however, the community should be accompanied so that it may grow in its spirit of understanding and acceptance, without letting this situation create confusion about the teaching of the Church on the indissoluble marriage. The community is an instrument of mercy, which is “unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous” (297).
10) Discernment is not closed, because it “is dynamic; it must remain ever open to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can enable the ideal to be more fully realized” (303), according to the “law of gradualness” (295) and with confidence in the help of grace.
Above all, we are pastors. This is why we would like to welcome the following words of the pope: “I also encourage the Church’s pastors to listen [to the faithful] with sensitivity and serenity, with a sincere desire to understand their plight and their point of view, in order to help them live better lives and to recognize their proper place in the Church” (312).
With love in Christ,
The Bishops of the Region
5 September, 2016
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Vatican City, 5 September, 2016
To the Bishops of the Buenos Aires Pastoral Region
Mons. Sergio Alfredo Fenoy, Delegate of the Region
I received the document of the Buenos Aires Pastoral Region entitled “Basic criteria for the implementation of chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia.” Thank you very much for sending it, and let me congratulate you on the work that you have undertaken: a true example of accompaniment of priests…and we all know how necessary it is for a bishop to stay close to his priests and for priests to stay close to their bishop.
The bishop’s “neighboring” neighbor is the priest, and the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself begins, for us bishops, precisely with our priests.
The document is very good and thoroughly specifies the meaning of chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia. There are no further interpretations. I am confident that it will do much good.
May the Lord reward this effort of pastoral charity. And it is precisely pastoral charity that drives us to go out to meet the strayed, and, once they are found, to initiate a path of acceptance, discernment and reinstatement in the ecclesial community.
We know this is tiring, it is “hand-to-hand” pastoral care which cannot be fully addressed with programmatic, organizational or legal measures, even if these are also necessary. It simply entails accepting, accompanying, discerning, reinstating.
Out of these four pastoral attitudes the least refined and practised is discernment; and I deem it urgent to include training in personal and community discernment in our Seminaries and Presbyteries. Finally, I would like to recall that Amoris Laetitia resulted from the work and prayers of the whole Church, with the mediation of two Synods and the Pope.
For this reason, I recommend a full catechesis of the exhortation, which will, most certainly, contribute towards the growth, consolidation and holiness of the family.
Once again, thank you for your work and let me encourage you to carry on studying and teaching Amoris Laetitia in the different communities of the dioceses. Please, do not forget to pray and to remind others to pray for me.
May Jesus bless you and may the Holy Virgin take care of you.
English translation courtesy Religión Digital in Madrid, Spain.