On Saturday, March 11, a new pastoral letter (PDF link) was issued by the bishops of Malta to be read in all parish Masses. In it, they address — rather abruptly, and without introduction as part of a larger reflection — the question of their approach to providing sacraments to the “remarried”:
[W]e, Bishops, gave our priests a number of criteria to assist couples who find themselves in complex situations, either in their married life, or in their life together. We, Bishops, are not giving permission to a category of people to receive Communion without going through the necessary process of discernment. In no way do we want to lessen the power of the Lord’s Gospel on the family and marriage. At one with the heart of the Pope, we, Bishops, would like to draw the heart of the Church closer to each and every one of you, to each and every one of our brothers and sisters who are going through difficult situations. The priest, in our name and on behalf of the Church, does not hide the words of Jesus, nor does he fail to convey the merciful heart of the Lord.
As the Pope teaches, the temptations that we mentioned apply to everyone. They also apply to those who are preparing for marriage. As a Christian community, we are committed to announce marriage as it has been created by God: a permanent union between one man and one woman, open to the gift of life. The fact that we care for our brothers and sisters who have made different choices in their affective life, does not in any way detract from the beauty of the Gospel that has been from the very beginning the Gospel of the Joy of love between one man and one woman. [emphasis added]
As OnePeterFive has previously reported, however, the Maltese bishops’ guidelines on Amoris Laetitia provide one of the most permissive interpretations of the exhortation issued to date. A look at the Maltese bishops’ guidelines shows just how anemic their standards for “discernment” really are:
9. Throughout the discernment process, we should also examine the possibility of conjugal continence. Despite the fact that this ideal is not at all easy, there may be couples who, with the help of grace, practice this virtue without putting at risk other aspects of their life together. On the other hand, there are complex situations where the choice of living “as brothers and sisters” becomes humanly impossible and give rise to greater harm (see AL, note 329).
10. If, as a result of the process of discernment, undertaken with “humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching, in a sincere search for God’s will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it” (AL 300), a separated or divorced person who is living in a new relationship manages, with an informed and enlightened conscience, to acknowledge and believe that he or she are at peace with God, he or she cannot be precluded from participating in the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist (see AL, notes 336 and 351).
Fr. Brian Harrison’s January 16 analysis of these guidelines punctures the feigned innocence of the Maltese bishops’ March 11 letter:
“Humanly impossible”, Your Excellencies? Have you forgotten that the Council of Trent has anathematized as heresy the view that, even with the help of sanctifying grace, compliance with God’s commands can sometimes be impossible? (Cf. canon 18 on justification, Dz 828 [DS/DH 1568].) And how could obeying a divine command ever “give rise to greater harm” than disobeying it? Would it not be blasphemous to suggest that our loving Father could ever command us to do something that is to our real detriment, not our benefit?
It is all too easy to foresee the conclusion that will naturally be drawn from this paragraph (art. 9) by invalidly remarried Maltese Catholics: “Our official teachers of the faith are clearly telling us that sex between divorced and civilly remarried couples is not always gravely sinful; for they’re saying that the ‘brother-sister’ option is no longer a prerequisite for receiving the sacraments. And their rationale is that continence is not only humanly impossible for most couples but will in any case usually do more harm than good. So why we should even attempt to live according this so-called ‘ideal’ when our bishops are saying that if we find it too burdensome we can go to Communion anyway?”
Fr. Harrison continues, with specific attention to article 10 of the guidelines:
Thus, Catholics in Malta who are cohabiting with one partner while still legally and sacramentally married to another will henceforth have access to the sacraments on the same basis as the divorced and remarried. Note also the ominous word “cannot” in art. 10. The island nation’s priest confessors are being told they not only may, but must, grant absolution (and thus, access to Communion) to unrepentant adulterers provided only that the latter insist they have “manage[d], with an informed and enlightened conscience, to acknowledge and believe that [they] are at peace with God”. What, then, of the priest whose own “informed and enlightened conscience” tells him he may not comply with this revolutionary diktat? Once again Orwell’s scenario springs to mind: in Malta, it seems, all Catholic consciences may (perhaps) be equal, but some are now clearly “more equal than others”.
Precisely what Fr. Harrison predicted — that priests in Malta would be compelled to offer sacraments to unrepentant adulterers — made headlines just days later as reports surfaced that one of Malta’s two bishops — Mario Grech of Gozo — was overheard on a flight back from Rome threatening a priest with suspension if he did not implement the new guidelines. The Diocese of Gozo later denied these allegations, but a Maltese priest who contacted me with the story stands by them.
Further evidence of this zero-tolerance approach came to light in February, when National Catholic Register Rome correspondent Edward Pentin reported that Archbishop Scicluna of Malta
confirmed to the Register that he told the country’s seminarians earlier this month that if any of them do not agree with Pope Francis, “the seminary gate is open,” implying they are free to leave.
Archbishop Charles Scicluna’s remarks are the latest in what Church sources in Malta say is a heavy-handed crackdown on any ecclesiastic unwilling to subscribe to the Maltese bishops’ interpretation of the apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia — an interpretation the bishops say is identical to the Holy Father’s.
Since the Criteria were published Jan. 13, a number of clergy sources in Malta have contacted the Register alleging the bishops won’t tolerate any clergy having a different interpretation of Amoris Laetitia than the one presented in the Criteria among the clergy.
According to the sources, three priests are allegedly intimidating anyone who does not agree with the Criteria. The three had been opponents of the previous bishop, Archbishop Paul Cremona, but have now become the present bishops’ allies. One of them reputedly attacks any priest who shares critical stories on the Internet.
“This group of priests, with a few others, have been hogging the conversation for decades,” said a Maltese priest on condition of anonymity. “No one else seems to be allowed to contribute to the debate and they have done untold damage to bridge-building since they brook no opposition.” [emphasis added]
In that same report, Pentin revealed that Archbishop Scicluna, in a meeting with the priests of his diocese,
appealed for understanding, saying he had no choice in co-signing the guidelines. According to sources present, he said in conscience he could not go against the wishes of the Pope.
Such an admission raises questions about whether the Archbishop himself felt pressured to issue the permissive guidelines which, when compared to the pope’s letter affirming similar guidelines from the bishops of the Buenos Aires region, represent what Francis believes is the authoritative interpretation of Amoris Laetitia.
A source who works for the Church in Malta and who spoke to 1P5 on condition of anonymity said that they believed Malta was chosen to be the tip of the spear on permissive guidelines because of the island nation has only two bishops. “It’s easier to get all bishops to agree,” this person said, “When the episcopal conference is tiny.”
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have seven children.