Pope Praises Controversial Maltese Bishops Guidelines

During the 2014 and 2015 synods on marriage and the family, the issue that rose to greatest prominence and concern was the so-called “Kasper Proposal” — a pastoral allowance suggested by Cardinal Walter Kasper of Germany that would create provisions to give the sacraments of Confession and Holy Communion to Catholics who are divorced and living in a new, adulterous union. This proposal later solidified into a papal pastoral directive in the form of the eighth chapter of the post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (AL)Still, between unclear language and the most controversial portions being buried in footnotes, many viewed these statements as troubling, but insufficiently explicit to provide a definitive indicator that Pope Francis favored the possible heterodox interpretation that appeared implicit in the text. As His Eminence Cardinal Raymond Burke said in a recent interview:

The Holy Father says himself – in the document – that he’s not presenting the Magisterium – it’s a kind of reflection – and the language is often times imprecise, and there aren’t a lot of citations of the tradition regarding the teaching regarding Holy Matrimony and on the Holy Eucharist, and so I say the document is acceptable if the key to interpreting it is what the Church has always taught and practiced, and this is where the debate comes in, because there are other people who are saying – including Cardinals – “No, this represents a completely new approach.”

But we have seen not insubstantial evidence that Pope Francis himself favors the “completely new approach” interpretation of his exhortation. One of the earliest of these examples can be found in Francis’ November 2015 interview with Eugenio Scalfari, before AL was even published. In that interview, Francis is reported to have said:

The diverse opinion of the bishops is part of this modernity of the Church and of the diverse societies in which she operated, but the goal is the same, and for that which regards the admission of the divorced to the Sacraments, [it] confirms that this principle has been accepted by the Synod. This is bottom line result, the de facto appraisals are entrusted to the confessors, but at the end of faster or slower paths, all the divorced who ask will be admitted.” [emphasis added]

At the time, the credibility of the report was called into question, because of the notorious unreliability of the journalistic methods of Scalfari, who reports on his interviews from memory rather than by means of recordings or notes. (We addressed these concerns — and the apparent intentionality of Francis using Scalfari’s dubious reputation as a smokescreen for floating his more radical ideas — here.)

But after AL was published, even stronger evidence was made public. Most notable was Francis’ letter praising the bishops of the Buenos Aires region for their guidelines on the document, which stated that in certain circumstances involving second, non-sacramental sexual unions, “Amoris Laetitia opens the possibility of access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist”. In Francis’ own words, “The [Buenos Aires bishops’] document is very good and completely explains the meaning of chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia. There are no other interpretations.”

Shortly thereafter, the Cardinal Vicar of Rome — the pope’s administrator of his personal diocese — issued guidelines allowing Communion for the “remarried”. Then the Maltese bishops came out with their own guidelines, which were so surprisingly permissive that they invoked, in the minds of some theologians, an anathema from the Council of Trent. The Maltese bishops nevertheless had their guidelines published — without criticism or comment — in L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican Newspaper, signalling an implicit papal endorsement. Two months later, Cardinal Marx, head of the German Bishops’ Conference and close adviser to the pope, stated publicly that Francis was “joyful” about the German bishops’ own guidelines to the same effect.

Now, Francis is issuing praise yet again for AL guidelines that are to his liking, this time returning to his implicit endorsement of the Maltese bishops’ document and making it explicit:

On behalf of Pope Francis, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri has reportedly sent a letter to Malta’s bishops to thank them for their guidelines on applying the controversial Chapter 8 of the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love).

The Maltese website Newsbookreported April 5 that the secretary general of the Synod of Bishops sent the letter of gratitude to co-signatories of the guidelines, Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta and Bishop Mario Grech of Gozo, but did not give any further details.

The bishops’ document, published Jan. 13 and entitled Criteria for the Application of Chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia, drew strong criticism from some theologians, canon lawyers, and some Vatican officials who argued that it appeared to assert the primacy of conscience over the objective moral truth.

The bishops stated in the guidelines that some remarried divorcees can receive Holy Communion after a period of discernment, with an informed and enlightened conscience, and if they are “at peace with God.”

Critics said the criteria clearly contradicted previous papal teaching, the Catechism, canon law, and Vatican instruction, stressing that Church teaching clearly forbids allowing Holy Communion for remarried divorcees engaging in sexual relations without an annulment.

If there was any remaining doubt that Pope Francis supports the worst interpretation of the eighth chapter of Amoris Laetitia, it should now finally be put to rest.

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