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Maltese bishops shock as critics warn of ‘meltdown’ over teaching on divorcees

From traditionalists to canonists and cardinals, Malta’s bishops dropped jaws with an interpretation of Francis’s call to priests to open the door to divorced Catholics

matthew_vella
Matthew Vella
30 January 2017, 12:00pm
Opening the doors to the Catholic Church: Archbishop Charles Scicluna and Gozo bishop Mario Grech say divorced Catholics at peace with God should be given Holy Communion
Opening the doors to the Catholic Church: Archbishop Charles Scicluna and Gozo bishop Mario Grech say divorced Catholics at peace with God should be given Holy Communion
A furious reaction has been aroused as critics of Pope Francis’s Amoris Laetitia have balked at the way Malta’s bishops suggested that divorcees and remarried Catholics can assess for themselves their readiness to receive holy communion.

Catholic observers around the world were stunned at the wording of the bishops’ guidelines, in which they said that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics could receive the sacraments if, with “an informed and enlightened conscience” they believe they’re at peace with God.

Archbishop Charles Scicluna and Gozo bishop Mario Grech’s guidelines on Amoris – which critics already say has put Church teaching on shaky grounds – say priests cannot exclude people from accessing the sacraments if in good conscience, they believe they are entitled to Communion.

This ‘subjective turn’ has worried both canonists and cardinals, as well as traditionalists who last week took out a full-page advert in The Times to tell Scicluna and Grech they had gone overboard.

To progressive Catholics and those outside looking in, the guidelines are welcome, because they exhort priests to meet persons in “irregular” situations and who show a “genuine desire [for] a serious process of personal discernment about their situation”, to assist them in this journey. 

Scicluna and Grech have told priests they must always affirm church teaching on the indissolubility of marriage as a first step, and consider whether the first union was a valid marriage to pave the way for a declaration of nullity.

Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith
Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith
But interpretations of Amoris Laetitia’s Chapter 8, which focuses on couples in irregular situations, have been varied. Bishops of Poland have issued criteria of their own which contradict the Maltese criteria, a situation which – Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith writes in The Catholic Herald – has made it “harder to argue the truth of Catholicity to a non-Catholic, and… harder for Catholics in the Church such as myself to believe in Catholicity. Frankly, I am struggling here to see how the faith as proclaimed in Krakow is the same faith as that proclaimed in Victoria, Gozo.”

Lucie-Smith, a doctor of moral theology, says that the Maltese criteria make explicit something that is only hinted at in Amoris. By welcoming the divorced to partake of the sacrament, the bishops are going against St John Paul II’s strict Familiaris Consortio, a 1981 teaching that rejects the acceptability of remarriage and alternatives like civil marriages.

Spiritual and political leaders. Archbishop Charles Scicluna has been a strong critic of Labour’s reforms, but some critics complained to the New Catholic Register that Gozo bishop Mario Grech has changed his stance since Labour’s election in 2013
Spiritual and political leaders. Archbishop Charles Scicluna has been a strong critic of Labour’s reforms, but some critics complained to the New Catholic Register that Gozo bishop Mario Grech has changed his stance since Labour’s election in 2013
What is Amoris?

Doctrinally, Amoris reaffirms Catholic teaching on marriage indissolubility. Chapter 8 states that “any breach of the marriage bond is against the will of God.” Nor does it question official church teaching such as Canon 915, which instructs priests that people “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin” cannot receive holy communion.

Instead it seeks to foster a new attitude towards divorcees, by assisting them in seeking integration into the Church instead of shutting the door on them and shunning them. St John Paul II was stricter in 1981’s Familiaris, written at a time when divorce was not common amongst Catholics, who were told that divorced and civilly remarried people had “broken the sign of the Covenant and of Fidelity to Christ” and therefore could not receive the sacraments until they repent by returning to the first union.

Amoris reflects life in 2017, where divorced Catholics are more numerous, and Catholics in irregular families more accepted. “Amoris looks at a wounded flock, and looks for ways of bandaging wounds and restoring the sheep to health. It recognizes that even when people have fallen short, grace remains operative; and that not all real-world situations of divorce and remarriage are straightforwardly cases of adultery,” writes British journalist Austen Ivereigh.

Edward Pentin
Edward Pentin
But kind words are not in abundance. Across the pond, the conservative National Catholic Register offers a more conspiratorial tone to proceedings, with journalist Edward Pentin suggesting that Gozo bishop Mario Grech – who famously warned of wolves in sheep’s clothing during the 2011 divorce referendum campaign – has committed a volte-face since Labour was elected to power (he may have discounted Charles Scicluna’s fearless criticisms of the government’s social reforms).

Pentin also questioned the decision by the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano to publish the Maltese criteria in full, giving the impression that it enjoys papal blessing. His suspicions were echoed by Fr Dwight Longenecker, writing in Cruxnow.com: “It is difficult not to draw the conclusion that Scicluna’s letter was published because it conforms with the desired direction of those who wish to promote a more progressive reading of the pope’s encyclical. If so, then it is also difficult to avoid the conclusion that someone, somewhere in the Vatican is promoting change by stealth.”

Bishops’ ‘subjective turn’

What irks scholars is the Maltese bishops’ apparent decision to allow remarried individuals to assess their own readiness to receive holy communion, which Pentin remarks, would run counter to the spirit of St John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor.

Veritatis Splendor was written in 1993 to set straight a liberal trend on moral theology that concerned sexual matters: “There is a tendency to grant to the individual conscience the prerogative of independently determining the criteria of good and evil and then acting accordingly. Such an outlook is quite congenial to an individualist ethic, wherein each individual is faced with his own truth, different from the truth of others.”

Fr Raymond J. de Souza, editor of Convivium magazine, suggests that Amoris threatens to exacerbate the divide between “pro-family Catholics” and “social-justice Catholics” by allowing individuals alone to assess their sexual morality. “The Maltese guidelines may be the first time that bishops have officially taught that the moral law is impossible to observe, contradicting the plain teaching of the Council of Trent. Their guidelines expose the very shaky foundation of Amoris Laetitia, which is why it will not long endure.”

Meltdown and disaster

Edward Peters
Edward Peters
Harsh language came from Edward Peters, a consultant to the Holy See’s top tribunal, the Apostolic Signatura, and professor of canon law at the Sacred Heart Major Seminary of the Archdiocese of Detroit. He called the Maltese criteria “a disaster”.

Dr Peters said the Maltese bishops had advanced a “canonically false view” that individuals can assess their own readiness to receive holy communion. He also said it was nonsense that the bishops had employed the word “conjugal” for sexual acts between non-married people, failing to differentiate between sex and what is “truly conjugal, acts as performed by married persons.”

Additionally, Dr Peters says that by extending their document to the sacrament of confession, the bishops were telling priests to absolve remarried divorcees who do not repent for what is, in the Church’s books, “public and permanent adultery”. They also get to serve as godparents during baptisms, again contravening canon laws.

Mario Grech in 2011 addressing a Fgura parish meeting at the height of the divorce referendum. He once warned his flock of ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’ but his views on the Synod on the family, which he attended, have been given much importance in Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano
Mario Grech in 2011 addressing a Fgura parish meeting at the height of the divorce referendum. He once warned his flock of ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’ but his views on the Synod on the family, which he attended, have been given much importance in Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano
New York priest Gerald E. Murray, writing in The Catholic Thing, was equally unforgiving about what he termed the ‘Maltese meltdown’.

“The Church is not in the business of supplying get-out-of-jail-free cards to people who violate God’s law and then search for excuses why that law does not apply to them in their particular cases. To do so is to treat God’s law on marriage, or any other matter, as merely a suggestion, subject to personal ratification before becoming obligatory.”

The operation of grace

Austen Ivereigh reminds his readers that Archbishop Charles Scicluna is hardly a liberal. A leading canon lawyer, he worked under Cardinal Ratzinger and later as Pope Benedict’s reformer of the law on abuse of minors.

“Yet Scicluna and his fellow pastors have grasped the ancient theology of conscience restored by Amoris… the bishops spell out a whole series of ‘ifs’… If, at the end of the discernment, if it has been undertaken – as Amoris asks – with humility, discretion, and love for the Church and her teaching, if a divorced and civilly remarried person has sincerely searched, with an informed conscience, for God’s will, and has a desire to respond more perfectly to it; and if, at the end of all that, they are ‘at peace with God’ then they ‘cannot be precluded’ from the sacraments of the Reconciliation and the Eucharist.”

Austen Ivereigh
Austen Ivereigh
The Maltese bishops say a priest is unable to withhold sacraments when someone has made peace with God as a result of an authentic discernment. “God goes beyond (not against) the law, and speaks directly to the human heart – and a minister of God, having accompanied and ‘ensured’ the process, can only respect that,” Ivereigh adds.

This internal examination irks many in the Catholic church, who dislike perforating natural laws with facile, subjectivist assessments of one’s conscience.

While Familiaris lays down the law and its boundaries, Amoris seeks to guide a divorcee in applying it and to give room to their conscience – which in Catholic theology is where humans “find God’s voice echoing in their depths” – in the way they do it. 

From ‘Dubia’ to door-openers

Archconservative cardinal Raymond Burke (left) was one of the authors of the ‘dubia’ sent to Pope Francis, to clarify the teaching in Amoris
Archconservative cardinal Raymond Burke (left) was one of the authors of the ‘dubia’ sent to Pope Francis, to clarify the teaching in Amoris
Critics and partisans of Pope Francis’s Amoris Laetitia

At the forefront of the criticism of Francis’s Amoris is the arch-conservative American Cardinal Raymond Burke, who together with three other cardinals, called on the pope to resolve what they described as “confusion” and “disorientation” as a result of his document. 

Italian Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, one of the four who signed the dubia, said “only a blind man could deny there’s great confusion, uncertainty and insecurity in the Church… In recent months, on some very fundamental questions regarding the sacraments, such as marriage, confession and the Eucharist, and the Christian life in general, some bishops have said A, and others the contrary of A,” Caffarra said.
  • Partisans


The Maltese bishops are also joined by the Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, who in a pastoral message titled “Embracing the joy of love” speaks of priests accompanying the faithful during the process of discernment, clearly stating that access to Communion can be at the end of the path.

The Buenos Aires bishops issued draft guidelines saying Amoris “opens up the possibility of access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist” for remarried couples.

German Cardinal Walter Kasper has written in Stimmen der Zeit, that Amoris “leaves open the concrete question of admittance to absolution and Communion.”

Cardinal Kevin Farrell, presently head of the Vatican’s office for laity, family and life, said that while there is “obviously… an objective moral law” you will never find two couples who have the same reason for being divorced and remarried.

Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, who is the main editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, said in an interview that “it is possible, in certain cases, that one who is in an objective situation of sin can receive the help of the sacraments.”
  • Critics


Bishop Steven Lopes, head of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter: “Unless and until the civilly remarried honestly intend to refrain from sexual relations entirely, sacramental discipline does not allow for the reception of the Eucharist.”

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia: Living “as brother and sister” is necessary for the divorced and civilly remarried to receive Communion.

The bishops of Alberta and the Northwest Territory, Canada said: “It may happen that, through media, friends, or family, couples have been led to understand that there has been a change in practice by the Church, such that now the reception of Holy Communion at Mass by persons who are divorced and civilly remarried is possible if they simply have a conversation with a priest. This view is erroneous.”

Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth in England and Archbishop Alexander K. Sample of Portland, Oregon, complained of “erroneous” interpretations of Amoris.

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix wrote that Francis focuses special attention on those who walk on the edge of despair because of personal failures and problems they have suffered in their families. “This does not, however, include receiving Holy Communion for those who are divorced and remarried.”

Italian Cardinal Ennio Antonelli, former president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, told L’Espresso that opening an outlet for the sacraments was risky because it might lead to the “mistaken view that the church is accepting divorce and remarriage.”

matthew_vella
Matthew Vella is executive editor at MaltaToday.