When Philadelphia’s Archbishop Chaput released his “Pastoral Guidelines for Implementing Amoris Laetitia,” he accomplished two things.
First, he corrected the narrative that Amoris Laetitia, the pope’s recent apostolic exhortation on the family, revolutionizes Catholic teaching on marriage and morality, and encourages Holy Communion for Catholics engaged in serious sin. Second, he provided clarity and guidance to pastors and ordinary Catholics who have been disoriented by the contentious debates surrounding the two recent synods, and especially by the apostolic exhortation.
As Archbishop Chaput makes clear, Amoris Laetitia is not a charter to relax the Church’s moral precepts, but rather a call to present them more persuasively in a culture that is becoming more secular every day. Doing this means following Francis’s teachings on mercy, discernment, and accompaniment—and, equally, his teachings on Christian courage and our duty to uphold the full truth of Catholic teaching.
Archbishop Chaput’s new guidelines are particularly helpful in addressing pastors dealing with those living in objective sin:
Church ministers, moved by mercy, should adapt a sensitive pastoral approach in all such situations—an approach both patient but also faithfully confident in the saving truth of the Gospel and the transformative power of God’s grace, trusting in the words of Jesus Christ, who promises that “you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” … Pastors should strive to avoid both a subjectivism that ignores the truth or a rigorism that lacks mercy.
This last line reflects what Francis expressed in his first major interview as pope:
The confessor … is always in danger of being either too much a rigorist or too lax. Neither is merciful, because neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by saying, “This is not a sin,” or something like that. In pastoral ministry, we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds.
Healing people’s wounds means counseling them with the love of Christ, but never misleading them with erroneous teachings (for instance, on the nature of conscience) or allowing them to abuse Holy Communion. Consequently, while welcoming all Catholics to parish life, the archbishop’s guidelines uphold moral absolutes and prohibit Catholics in illicit sexual unions—whether heterosexual or homosexual—from receiving the Eucharist. “Every Catholic,” writes Archbishop Chaput, “not only the divorced and civilly-remarried, must sacramentally confess all serious sins of which he or she is aware, with a firm purpose to change, before receiving the Eucharist.”
Archbishop Chaput realizes that these are challenging words, but to say less would cast doubt upon the power of the Holy Spirit to transform people’s lives: “The grace of Jesus Christ is more than a pious cliché; it is a real and powerful seed of change in the believing heart. The lives of many saints bear witness that grace can take great sinners, and, by its power of interior renewal, remake them in holiness of life.”
Archbishop Chaput’s guidelines have met with praise and are being described as a model for the rest of the U.S. Church to follow. Of course, they have been assailed by dissident Catholics as well, most notoriously by the mayor of Philadelphia, Jim Kenney, who tweeted: “Jesus gave us [the] gift of Holy Communion because he so loved us. All of us. Chaput’s actions are not Christian.”
Other liberal Catholics have been more temperate in their dissents. Philadelphia Daily News columnist Ronnie Polaneczky, a self-described “lapsed Catholic,” carefully compared Amoris Laetitia with the archbishop’s guidelines and concluded: “Chaput and the Pope are on the same page, even if Kenney and others—including me—don’t like it.” Kenneth Briggs, of the National Catholic Reporter, commented: “The uproar against Chaput has been strong, much of it claiming he violated Francis’s openness to change. But did he? I don’t think so.”
These honest assessments were not reflected in much of the mainstream media, which seems determined to drive a wedge between Chaput and the Holy See. One of their tactics has been to invoke Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, whom the pope selected to present the apostolic exhortation to the world, and who has been singled out by Francis as a reliable interpreter of Amoris Laetitia.
Citing Schönborn’s recent interview with the Italian journal La Civilta Cattolica, the Wall Street Journal commented: “The Cardinal said Pope Francis had reinterpreted the Church’s teaching to mean that some Catholics in an ‘objective situation of sin,’ including remarried divorcees, may receive Communion” (emphasis added). But that’s not what Cardinal Schönborn said the pope said. What Schönborn said—twice—is that “it is possible, in certain cases, that the one who is an objective situation of sin, can receive the help of the sacraments” (emphasis added). Neither the pope nor the cardinal has said that Catholics in such a state should be given Holy Communion before they attend the sacrament of reconciliation; much less did either say that it was permissible to give Holy Communion to Catholics in objectively sinful situations who continue to practice their sins and do nothing to amend their lives.
The notion becomes especially absurd when we consider other comments and speeches by Schönborn, including what the Catholic Herald reported shortly before Cardinal Schönborn's presentation of Amoris Laetitia:
Cardinal Schönborn, whom the Vatican has asked to help present Pope Francis’s post-synod exhortation, … said that at a parish visit a man told him, “ ‘Cardinal, the Church is without mercy for [us] who are divorced and remarried.’ And I responded, ‘Look, it’s true that for us pastors it would be easier to say, “Do what you want,” but there is an obstacle, which is the teaching of Jesus.’ And I quoted this, ‘Anyone [who] divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery.’”
The man turned pale, the Cardinal said. “I understood that this word of Jesus touched him because he had committed adultery. All of a sudden, it was no longer the Church that lacked mercy, but it was he who lacked mercy toward his wife and he betrayed her.”
The Church is fortunate to have leaders who are willing to go against the tide of secularism and relativism and present the liberating truths of the Gospel in a charitable but uncompromising way. As the Holy Father has said, we should always be “understanding” with sinners, but there must be “no negotiating the truth.”
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.