Top Vatican Legal Expert: Pope Francis opens the door to Communion for Catholics in irregular marriages
In the post-synod exhortation on the family, Pope Francis made it possible for Catholics in non-legitimate unions, including civil remarriage after divorce, to receive the Eucharist under certain conditions, Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, the Vatican’s top legal expert, affirmed.
He defended this interpretation in a short book on Chapter 8 of “Amoris Laetitia,” released in Italian by the Vatican’s publishing house; an English version of the 51-page text is forthcoming.
In an interview with America on Feb. 17, Cardinal Coccopalmerio described the book as his “personal reflection” on what “Amoris” says about the possibility of admitting Catholics in “non-legitimate” marital situations to the sacraments. He denied that it is his or the Holy See’s response to the questions raised by four cardinals on this matter.
The cardinal’s commentary carries weight. He not only participated in the two synods on the family but is the president of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts and a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the supreme court for church law.
Chapter 8 begins with ‘a clear definition of marriage; it presents an ideal of marriage. Therefore no one can think the doctrine of marriage has been changed.’
The pope’s exhortation “affirms with great clarity the indissolubility of marriage,” he said. Chapter 8 begins with “a clear definition of marriage; it presents an ideal of marriage. Therefore no one can think the doctrine of marriage has been changed.” But “Amoris” also addresses the reality of Catholics in non-legitimate unions and opens the possibility for them to receive the Eucharist under certain conditions.
He cited as an example the case of a woman who is free to marry according to church law and decides to enter into a stable relationship and lives with a married man, whose wife had left him with three young children. In such a case, he explained, “the children would now consider her their mother and for the man, she is his life,” as she means everything to him. If she eventually recognizes the problem with her situation and decides to leave, then her husband and children will find themselves in great difficulty. But the cardinal said, “If this woman concludes ‘I cannot leave. I cannot do such harm to them,’ then this situation, where she wants to change but cannot change, opens the possibility of admissions to the sacraments.”
In such a situation, the cardinal said, there is the recognition of sin and the sincere desire to change but also the impossibility of making it happen. In this situation, he would tell her, “remain in this situation, and I absolve you.”While he said that he has never had to refuse absolution to anyone, the cardinal nevertheless insisted that “one cannot give absolution except to persons who are repentant and desire or want to change their situation, even if they cannot put their desire into practice now because that would harm innocent persons.” In this way, he said, “the doctrine is safeguarded but takes account of the impossibility.”
Many pastors think admission to the Eucharist is possible only if the couple in an irregular union agree “to live together as brother and sister,” as St. John Paul II stated in “Familiaris Consortio” (No. 84). The cardinal recognized this possibility and said that Francis’ exhortation says “if you are able to do so, very good.”
But, he noted, “‘Amoris Laetitia’ recalls that the Second Vatican Council (“Gaudium et Spes,” No. 51) recognized that if a couple abstains from conjugal relations, this could create a crisis for one or both spouses and could lead to a breakdown in fidelity or the breakup of the marriage.”
In such situations, he said, “it’s the person’s conscience that must decide.”
This approach, he said, is in line with the ‘great intuition’ of Vatican II to recognize the good that is already present in a situation and build upon it.
Cardinal Coccopalmiero shares Cardinal Christoph Schönborn’s view that “Amoris” develops church teaching: “It is always the same doctrine, but it takes account of the concrete situation. You affirm the doctrine and can say they should live as brother and sister, but the reality at times does not make this possible.”
He emphasized, however, that when it comes to the question of whether to allow persons in irregular marital situations to receive the sacraments, “Amoris” states clearly that “this must be evaluated by the competent ecclesiastical authority, which normally—in my view—should be the parish priest, consulting if necessary with the ordinary, so that he can say to the couple, ‘Yes, you can go to the sacraments.’”
Moreover, he said, it is necessary “to educate the faithful, the community, in this whole matter, through catechesis and explanation, to help them avoid making negative or false judgments when a couple in non-legitimate union is allowed access to the Eucharist.”
He recognized there is resistance in some sectors to “Amoris” but believes this is mainly due to “a pastoral formation, a theoretical formation, that privileges the affirmation of the truth, of doctrine, and at times does not look at the fact that people are in situations where one cannot pretend that they put it into practice.”
Moreover, he said, “We have an ontology of the person that is general and abstract: Man is made this way, a Christian has this structure, but the fact is you do not simply have in front of you a man, a Christian. You have a person with limitations, conditionings and situations, and if we do not take account of the concrete ontology, then we do not respect the person.”
For example, “if a person comes to you that can only do 50 of the 100 [that is expected], and you recognize that this 50 is the good that is possible now, then I give approval for the 50, but I don’t say you shouldn’t aim for 100.”
The cardinal advises those who have difficulty accepting Pope Francis’ approach “to not be afraid, to try to understand, to see the beauty of the 50 percent and give them the sacraments, which does not mean that this is definitively the best, no, but it is the best for those who cannot do more at this stage. There are these two elements, therefore: the desire to do more, to reach the maximum, but the impossibility of arriving at that maximum, and so valuing the lesser quantity.” This approach, he said, is in line with the “great intuition” of Vatican II to recognize the good that is already present in a situation and build upon it.