On 3 February 2017, the Vatican’s official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, published an article presenting the new pastoral guidelines concerning marriage as published by the German Bishops’ Conference on 1 February. This fact in itself is already newsworthy and of great importance, especially since the new German guidelines are, first of all, approvingly presented and not at all criticized. Moreover, the presentation of the pastoral guidelines itself seems to be attenuated, and even defective and misleading. As a deeper look into the matter shows, L’Osservatore Romano has somewhat subtly diluted or taken away a few of the controversial aspects of the original German document.
First, let us consider once more the two most controversial aspects of the new German pastoral guidelines with regard to the access of the “remarried” divorcees to the Sacraments. As we have reported over the last couple of days, the German bishops have now given much weight to the individual conscience of the “remarried” persons, inasmuch as the document now says: “But, one also has to respect a [an individual] decision in favor of the reception of the Sacraments.” Or, as Archbishop Heiner Koch has now said repeatedly with regard to the new guidelines: “We [German bishops] write that – in justified [sic] individual cases and after a longer process – there can be a decision of conscience on the side of the faithful [i.e., “remarried” divorcees] to receive the Sacraments, a decision which must be respected.” [my emphasis] The German bishops do not require from these “remarried” couples that they must also live as brother and sister in order to have licit access to the Sacraments. Thus it would seem that the German guidelines are not much less liberalizing than the Maltese guidelines which say that individual “remarried” persons may go to Holy Communion if somehow they are in their own conscience “at peace with God.”
The second controversial part relates to those persons who would and should – according to the German bishops – accompany these “remarried” divorcees in their process of coming to such a decision of conscience with regard to their possibly having access to the Sacraments, especially to the Sacrament of Penance and to the Sacrament of the Eucharist. As we have shown, the German document speaks two times of “pastoral caretakers” (“Seelsorger”) and not once does it mention the word “priest” (“Priester”) or “pastor” (“Pfarrer”). The promulgated original German guidelines explicitly say: “Amoris Laetitia proposes a process of coming to a decision which is accompanied by a pastoral caretaker [“Seelsorger”].” [my emphasis]
This more inclusive formulation would mean – and it has been confirmed to me by a speaker for the German Bishops’ Conference – that such a process may be accompanied by a layman or a laywoman who works for a diocese in the larger field of pastoral care. Thus the German guidelines effectively weaken the role of the ordained priest altogether when it comes to the grave decision to admit an unrepentant or habitual adulterer to the Sacraments. How this will practically and more enduringly work out, is still unclear to many Catholic observers.
When we now consider the Vatican’s newspaper’s own presentation of the German guidelines, it is striking that both of these controversial aspects are somewhat, if not altogether, omitted and effectively mistranslated. With regard to the latter problem of the weakening of the priestly role in “discernment” and “accompaniment,” and “integration,” L’Osservatore Romano now says – and here I use the translation of Andrew Guernsey:
In cases where the marriage is not null, however, Amoris laetitia “starts with a process of discernment that should be accompanied by a pastor,” and, in this context, “it opens up the possibility of receiving the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist.” [my emphasis]
In justice, one ought to give the benefit of the doubt that this is an unintentional mistranslation on the side of the newspaper (I double-checked the Italian word which is “pastore”), since I myself first made that mistake, as well as have others. (See here for a partial translation of the German guidelines, but with the same mistranslation.)
The second and more serious omission, however, might also indicate that L’Osservatore Romano has intended to present a less controversial version of the German guidelines. Nowhere does the Vatican newspaper mention that the German bishops have given wide and authoritative scope to the individual decision of conscience, finally, namely in the matter of inquiring and discerning “remarried” divorcees. Altogether missing is one crucial sentence: “But, one also has to respect a [an individual] decision in favor of the reception of the Sacraments.”
That this permissive aspect is also crucial to the German guidelines may be further seen in the recent reactions to it in Germany. For example, one Catholic organization in Germany – the Forum Deutscher Katholiken (Forum of German Catholics) – draws now a parallel to the German Bishops’ notoriously dissenting 1968 Königsteiner Erklärung (Declaration of Königstein) which firmly opposed Pope Paul VI and his prohibition of the use of artificial contraception. The Forum Deutscher Katholiken now says:
In a document concerning Amoris Laetitia, the German bishops presented the individual decision of conscience as a criterion for the admittance of “remarried” divorcees to Holy Communion. That reminds us of the Declaration of Königstein concerning [artificial and pharmaceutical] contraception after the  papal document Humanae Vitae.
That is to say, the German bishops, back in 1968, had already then determined to leave it up to the individual consciences of the faithful whether or not to use artificial contraception.
The second proof of the importance of the aspect of the individual conscience in the new German pastoral guidelines with regard to Amoris Laetitia is that, already a few days later, one German bishop now proposes to apply this criterion to other moral problems. As the German Catholic author, Mathias von Gersdorff now reports, the Diocese of Limburg published last Sunday (5 February) an article in its diocesan newspaper discussing the idea of now allowing homosexuals to make their own permissive decisions of conscience:
Der Sonntag – the diocesan newspaper for the Diocese of Limburg – is of the opinion that the document of the German Bishops’ Conference which gives a decisive role to the conscience of the individual person could be “a model for other difficult and tricky questions.” Der Sonntag, on 5 February 2017: “The discussion will come as to whether or not it [this “solution” with the individual decision of conscience] is not also applicable to unmarried or homosexual couples who, of course, are not mentioned in the new document [of the German bishops]. [my emphasis; here is a link to the full article which is dated 1 February 2017.]
In light of the possibly grave consequences of the German bishops’ decision to give much scope to the individual conscience of the faithful, one may thus wonder as to whether the Vatican in its own recent presentation of the original German guidelines now tries to soften the strongly liberalizing, if not permissive, tendency of that document. But, at least, the Vatican article is attenuated and ambiguously unspecific, if not intentionally omissive. I have contacted L’Osservatore Romano concerning these omissions and will post an update should I hear from them.
For the sake of integrity and a fuller disclosure, we now post below the entire L’Osservatore Romano article. The translation has been kindly provided by Andrew Guernsey.
“Mercy and Authority”
The German Bishops’ Invitation to a Renewed Pastoral Care for Marriage and the Family
February 3, 2017
Published in L’Osservatore Romano, pg. 6
Translated by Andrew Guernsey
BERLIN – If “the indissolubility of marriage is an essential part of the faith of the Church,” Amoris laetitia “leaves little doubt about the need for a differentiated view of the individual situations of people’s lives.” With the divorced and remarried, “it must be clear that they belong to the Church, that God does not deprive them of his love, and that they are called to live out the love for God and neighbor by being authentic witnesses of Jesus Christ.” This is one of the central passages of the document released yesterday by the German Bishops Conference, “The Joy of Love which is Lived in Families is also the Joy of the Church – an Invitation to a Renewed Pastoral Care of Marriage and Family in light of Amoris laetitia.” Frequently citing the post-synodal apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis, the bishops note how Amoris laetitia specifies for some situations the possibility of “receiving the help of the Church and in some cases even the help of the sacraments,” to continue walking in the grace and love of God.
In these guidelines, adopted by the Permanent Council on January 23, the German episcopate offers directives regarding “accompanying, discerning, and integrating” the “weakness” of marriage, according to the magisterium of the Pope. Amoris Laetitia, it is emphasized, “overlooks neither the heavy guilt that many people live with in these situations where the marital relationship has broken and failed, nor the problematic issue that civil second marriages contradict the visible sign of the sacrament of marriage, even if the person involved was left behind without fault.” The exhortation, however, “does not stop at a categorical and irreversible exclusion from access to the sacraments.” Francis writes that “what is possible is simply a renewed encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases, one which would recognize that, since ‘the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases’, the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same.” Even “with regard to sacramental discipline, since discernment can recognize that in a particular situation no grave fault exists.” And again: “Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, 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.” In certain cases, the Pope affirms, “this can include the help of the sacraments.”
According to the German Bishops’ Conference, “not all the faithful whose marriage has failed and who are separated and civilly remarried can indiscriminately receive the sacraments. Instead, more differentiated solutions are needed, which take the individual case into consideration, when marriages cannot be annulled.” Those who have a reasonable doubts of the validity of their marriage should be encouraged to “take into consideration the duty of the ecclesial matrimonial judges to verify whether new marriages in the church may be possible.” In cases where the marriage is not null, however, Amoris laetitia “starts with a process of discernment that should be accompanied by a pastor,” and, in this context, “it opens up the possibility of receiving the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist.”
Numerous directives are stipulated by the bishops. The pastoral care of marriage preparation must be “intensified, to have a more binding character and at the same time a more convincing one.” By following the path of a “catechumenate of marriage” that accompanies the journey to the sacrament as “a conscious journey of faith,” taking into account the concrete situations of life. It will also be necessary “to strengthen efforts in the accompaniment of married life” and “to develop a spirituality of marriage and family.” The accompaniment also ought to be seen as an aid in the problems and concrete difficulties of life: “Only in this way will the accessibility and and humanity of the Church be able to be experienced in people’s daily lives,” writes the German episcopate. One of the indications is regarding the dimension of faith: “Families should be supported as learning places of faith and strengthened in this often difficult task.” [my emphasis]