Critics of Amoris Laetitia are claiming that Pope Francis has created a rupture with the traditional discipline of the Catholic Church by asking confessors to consider subjective circumstances when discerning whether to allow a divorced and civilly remarried person to receive absolution in confession and access to the Eucharist. Many even claim that divine law itself requires the Church to consider only the objective circumstances of the couple (i.e., that they are cohabiting and having sex), and not whether each person is actually in a state of mortal sin.
This is a strange claim, given that God tells us in the Bible:
"For the Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” 1 Samuel 16:7
Of course, critics will reply with:
"I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with immoral men; not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But rather I wrote to you not to associate with any one who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber—not even to eat with such a one." 1 Corinthians 5:9
Never mind that the Catholic Church has no sacramental discipline in place for excluding greedy people from Holy Communion. This is actually an old dispute in the Catholic Church, going back at least to the 3rd Century, when Novatian rebelled against Pope Saint Cornelius because Cornelius was too lax on sinners. Pope Saint Cornelius wanted to allow Christians who had apostatized in the Decian persecution to return to the Church, whereas Novatian insisted that the Church was exclusively for the pure and holy elect, and no one who denied the name of Christ could be readmitted to Holy Communion. Novatian made himself anti-pope and gathered a worldwide following of puritan schismatics who took the position that no one who committed a mortal sin could ever be readmitted to the Church.
The Catholic Church stood its ground against Novatian and his following eventually died out. But his puritanical ideas live on in every generation, always waiting for another opportunity to disturb the flock of Christ. It seems the enemy believes such an opportunity has once again presented itself.
It is alleged that Pope Saint John Paul II, in Familiaris Consortio, established (re-established?) a sacramental discipline that looks solely at the objective circumstances of the divorced and civilly remarried. If they are having sexual relations, then they cannot be admitted to the sacraments of Penance and Reconciliation.
Forget that this was a development (rupture?) of prior sacramental discipline, enshrined in the 1917 Code of Canon Law, that the divorced and civilly remarried were to be excommunicated following a warning from their bishop, and which said nothing at all about whether or not the couple were having sex.
If we look at the text itself of Familiaris Consortio, we can see that it does not simply look at the objective circumstances of the couple. Rather, it says:
Reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage. This means, in practice, that when, for serious reasons, such as for example the children's upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they "take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples."
The distinction, which is the key to this entire debate, is that being "sincerely ready" and "taking on the duty" to be continent are subjective states of mind, not objective circumstances. The Philadelphia guidelines for Amoris Laetitia, widely regarded as being in line with Familiaris Consortio, make it clear that a couple can actually fail in their commitment to continence and subsequently be absolved in confession, following which they can receive Holy Communion. The Philadelphia guidelines don't impose any minimum objective threshold for upholding the commitment to continence (e.g., that the couple must go at least X days after each confession without having sex). It simply says the couple need to commit to continence.
So what are the objective circumstances of a couple allowed to receive Holy Communion under Familiaris Consortio?
- They are cohabiting.
- They are having sexual relations.
- They have a commitment to continence.
An intention is an internal disposition of the will. It can be conflicted. It can be stronger in some persons than in others. It can be very weak in some persons. It can come on strong at times and fade at others. In short, an intention is subjective. And this subjective condition provided the basis under prior sacramental discipline for divorced and remarried couples to access the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist.
Pope Francis, in Amoris Laetitia, has asked the Catholic Church to take a deeper look at the subjective circumstances of a divorced and remarried couple. This is a development of, not a rupture with, Familiaris Consortio, which asked the Church to consider the subjective question of whether the couple had a commitment to continence.
Pope Francis has also asked the Church to have a deeper look at the objective circumstances. Familiaris Consortio was silent on whether the couple actually succeeded in their commitment to continence. It didn't specify how long the couple had to go without failing in their commitment, or how frequent a failure was too frequent to allow a divorced and civilly remarried person to receive absolution in confession.
Amoris Laetitia asks these questions. The Buenos Aires guidelines ask whether the commitment to continence is actually feasible. A divorced and civilly remarried couple might have a commitment to refrain from sexual relations, but if they've failed in this commitment every week for 2 years in a row, their priest will probably come to the conclusion that this commitment isn't feasible, at least under the present circumstances.
Whereas Familiaris Consortio was silent on this situation and presumably would have allowed the priest to keep granting absolution in confession, Amoris Laetitia, as interpreted by the Buenos Aires guidelines, tackles the question head on. If the commitment to continence isn't feasible, then further discernment is needed to see if there are "limitations that mitigate liability and guilt." In all likelihood, priests were already doing this under Familiaris Consortio, and it's hard to see how such an approach would have been inappropriate. The Lord, after all, looks at the heart.