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Access to the Sacraments: from Familiaris Consortio to Amoris laetitia

The Church’s help the document refers to, in certain cases can include the help of the Sacraments of Reconciliation and of the Eucharist  (cf. note 351). Due notice should be paid to the restrictive implication of the expression in certain cases. To this regard, the statement cannot be eluded or dodged by planting high bushes around it thereby making it inaccessible! On the contrary, it should not surprise, for in line of principle it draws from the fact that “discernment can recognize that in a particular situation no grave fault exists” (note 336)

foto SIR/Marco Calvarese

The new book by Msgr. Marcello Semeraro, bishop of Albano, Secretary of the Council of Cardinals (C9) dedicated to Amoris laetitia, Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation on love in the family, was released a few days ago. The volume is titled: “L’occhio e la lampada. Il discernimento in Amoris laetitia”, Edizioni Dehoniane, 160 pages [“The eye and the lamp. Discernment in Amoris Laetitia” ]. Hereby follows the first paragraph of chapter 12 that addresses the theme of access to the Sacraments from Familiaris consortio to Amoris laetitia, by courtesy of the author.

Attention and concern with regard to those baptized who are in irregular marriage situations is clearly expressed by John Paul II in Familiaris consortio: “The Church, …set up to lead to salvation all people and especially the baptized, cannot abandon to their own devices those who have been previously bound by sacramental marriage and who have attempted a second marriage. The Church will therefore make untiring efforts to put at their disposal her means of salvation.” (n. 84). Francis follows the same guiding principle in Amoris laetitia. We will thus start by illustrating in which way, for which reasons, and under which conditions Familiaris consortio envisages and allows access to the Sacraments.

At n. 84 this Apostolic Exhortation starts by reiterating that “the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried.” It also explains: “They are unable to be admitted” thereto from the fact “that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church, which is signified and effected by the Eucharist.” To this theological motive – grounded in the objective contradiction between the status and condition of life of divorced persons who have remarried and the indissoluble union of  Christ with the Church – the Exhortation adds another one, motivated by pastoral reason: “if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.”

This said, given the act of “repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ”, Familiaris consortio opens up to the possibility first of all to derogate from the obligation to separate (when, “for serious reasons, such as for example the children’s upbringing, they cannot satisfy it”) and thus also from the total exclusion from the Sacraments. The condition for this is the availability to access a shared state of life which no longer contradicts the indissolubility of marriage: in concrete terms, if “they take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.” Repentance, serious reasons preventing the interruption of conjugal life and the willingness to live in complete continence are the three elements that Familiaris consortio enshrines in the derogation from the obligation to separate as well as from the possibility of receiving the Sacraments (1).

Familiaris consortio does not intend to extend beyond these points. Reconsidering all aspects, the theological reason that determines it is the objective contradiction “of that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist.” The indicated path is objectively “uphill”, especially when considered with regard to people who have felt and continue feeling called to married life. Moreover, especially with the support of grace, this path is not impossible.

By its nature, Familiaris consortio invites “not to abandon to their own devices those who have been previously bound by sacramental marriage and who have attempted a second marriage”, the same situation is observed in Amoris laetitia;

However it does not do so from the standpoint of objectivity, rather, it does so from the subjective angle of the persons involved, on the basis of the ever-reaffirmed principle: “For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: ‘Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church n. 1857),

whence stem consequences of great import, such as the principle enshrined in the same Catechism of the Catholic Church   n. 1735 whereby “Imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors.”

In acknowledging this, Amoris laetitia states, as mentioned: “it is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.” (n. 305).

Such help can also include the help of the Sacraments proclaimed in note 351. Such help must offered to those baptized persons who, while being in an objective situation of sin, by carrying out appropriate discernment prove to be responsible and to bear the burden only in part, or not at all.

The help of the Church described therein in some cases can also be the help of the Sacraments of Penance and of the Eucharist (Cf.  note 351). Due notice should be paid to the restrictive implication of the expression in certain cases. To this regard, the statement cannot be eluded or dodged by planting a high bushes around it thereby making it inaccessible! On the contrary, it should not surprise, for in line of principle it draws from the fact that “discernment can recognize that in a particular situation no grave fault exists” (note 336).

I wish to underline that in the Exhortation there is frequent reference to Saint Thomas Aquinas (the Summa Theologica is mentioned at least fifteen times). To further corroborate what stated so far, I would like to highlight also the following passage of the Saint: “Just as evil is more comprehensive than sin, so is sin more comprehensive than blame… Hence it follows that good or evil, in voluntary actions alone, renders them worthy of praise or blame: and in such like actions, evil, sin and guilt are one and the same thing (in quibus idem est malum, peccatum, et culpa)” (S. Th. I-II, q. 21, Art. 2). On the basis of such irrefutable presumptions, Francis confidently reaffirms in the Exhortation that: “It can no longer simply be said that all those in any “irregular” situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace.” (n. 301).

To be even more explicit in this respect, I wish to add that Amoris laetitia does not admit to the Sacraments, and in particular to Eucharistic Communion “divorced people who have remarried.” The Pope doesn’t speak of “categories” but of persons!  

Those referred to for the discernment hereby addressed, obviously require the “premises” which n.298 of the Exhortation can be said to enlist. For example, it mentions “a second union consolidated over time, with new children, proven fidelity, generous self giving, Christian commitment, a consciousness of its irregularity and of the great difficulty of going back without feeling in conscience that one would fall into new sins.” Further on it states: “There are also the cases of those who made every effort to save their first marriage and were unjustly abandoned or, o those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children’s upbringing, and are some- times subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably broken marriage had never been valid.”

Moreover, the doctrine expounded in the Exhortation, is the result of a new, beautiful centeredness on the moral grounds underlying the law on the human person.

To this is in fact directed the path of discernment, namely: “To understand – as pointed out by theologian Mauro Cozzoli – personal stories, situations, circumstances, along with the difficulties these persons are experiencing, their intentions and their degree of availability.”

This discernment draws inspiration from the twofold criteria of “the good that is possible” and of “gradualness.” The former is not an impure or unworthy form of goodness (B.Petrà). In fact, it focuses on the concrete good that can be done by each person; the second is the criteria whereby – when it becomes impossible to fulfil all the good established by the rule – it opens up to ways of drawing closer progressively.

The Pope’s recommendation falls within this context: “Discernment must help to find possible ways of responding to God and growing in the midst of limits. By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth, and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God.” (n. 305).

This means that the necessary intermediate stages, albeit marked by deficit and disorder, ought to be considered as stages leading to the achievement of full goodness. Quoting himself in Evangelii gaudium Francis invites us to remember that “a small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order, but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties.” (n. 305). Mauro Cozzoli concludes: “Wherever the ethics of law – which judges and condemns under the banner of all or nothing – is missing: the criteria of what “is applicable to everyone without distinction”; the ethics of mercy is present reaching out to all by means of what is possible: the criteria of what “is applicable to each one individually without distinction.’ The ethics of mercy gives value and credit to conscience, to its rectitude and responsibility before God. It also relies on the work of Grace: a grace that purifies from the dross of evil; enables intelligence and the love of what is good. The ethics of mercy does not change morals. In fact its call is to undertake an ethical-pastoral conversion of proximity, marked by the three verbs: to discern, to accompany, to integrate.”

One final aspect ought to be outlined: the entire above-mentioned discernment process, which will ultimately (but not necessarily) enable access to the Sacraments takes place within the sacramental forum. This solution differs from the simple “conscientious decision” referring to the individual in his relationship with God. If that were the case, we would run the risk of an undue privatization of access to the Eucharist and of a dualism involving doctrinal objectivity and moral subjectivity. Hence it is important to clarify that what happens in the “internal sacramental forum” is a true process (“forum”) taking place in the sacramental realm (the Sacrament of Reconciliation), involving a faithful and a minister authorized by the Church.

Hence, notwithstanding the importance of a conscientious choice, as the German Bishops argue in their document (“The Joy of Love experienced by families is also the joy of the Church. Introduction to a renewed pastoral care of marriage and of the family in the light of Amoris Laetitia”), adopted in January 2017, “Amoris Laetitia starts from the assumption of a decision-making process that is accompanied by pastoral guidance. On the basis of this decision-making process, whereby the conscience of all those who take part in it is put into play to the full, Amoris laetitia opens up to the possibility of receiving the sacraments of Reconciliation and of the Eucharist.”

(*) bishop of Albano, Secretary of the C9


(1) Neither Familiaris consortio, nor the CCC 1650 mention the obligation of accessing the Eucharist without scandal; this is found in subsequent documents: CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH, Letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church concerning reception of the Holy Communion by the divorced and remarried members of the faithful (1994), n. 4; PONTIFICAL COUNCIL FOR LEGISLATIVE TEXTS, Statement concerning the admission to Holy Communion of faithful who are divorced and remarried (2000), n. 2. Implicitly, BENEDICT XVI, Apolstolic Exhortation Sacramentum caritatis: “where the nullity of the marriage bond is not declared and objective circumstances make it impossible to cease cohabitation, the Church encourages these members of the faithful to commit themselves to living their relationship in fidelity to the demands of God’s law, as friends, as brother and sister; in this way they will be able to return to the table of the Eucharist” (n. 29).

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