This week the bishop of Chur, Switzerland published his guidance for confessors for the implementation of Amoris Laetitia. Here I offer an English translation:
The Holiness of the Marriage Bond:
a word on the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia
Dear confreres in the priestly ministry,
In discussion about the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, the eighth chapter, with the question about civilly remarried divorced persons, has come to stand in the center. For this reason I am, in my responsibility as bishop, bringing some guidance to the attention of pastoral ministers (confessors).
As a preface, I would like to hold fast to the following: the Holy Father says in the introduction to Amoris Laetitia, “that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium” (AL 3). This statement helps us recognize the level of authority of the post-synodal apostolic exhortation.
“If we consider the immense variety of concrete situations such as those I have mentioned, it is understandable that neither the Synod nor this Exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases. What is possible is simply a renewed encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases” (AL 300), says the Pope in connection with discernment in irregular situations. This also means that the bishop is called upon all the more to point the way with a word, because priests have the task to “accompany [the affected persons] in helping them to understand their situation according to the teaching of the Church and the guidelines of the bishop.” (AL 300). Furthermore, “every effort should be made to encourage the development of an enlightened conscience, formed and guided by the responsible and serious discernment of one’s pastor, and to encourage an ever greater trust in God’s grace” (303). This corresponds fully to what the Holy Father says in Amoris Laetitia 307: “In order to avoid all misunderstanding, I would point out that in no way must the Church desist from proposing the full ideal of marriage, God’s plan in all its grandeur: ‘Young people who are baptized should be encouraged to understand that the sacrament of marriage can enrich their prospects of love and that they can be sustained by the grace of Christ in the sacrament and by the possibility of participating fully in the life of the Church’. A lukewarm attitude, any kind of relativism, or an undue reticence in proposing that ideal, would be a lack of fidelity to the Gospel and also of love on the part of the Church for young people themselves.” Keeping in mind all this guidance within Amoris Laetitia, I ask priests to observe the following:
1. The starting point for accompaniment, discernment, and integration must be the holiness of the marriage bond. The task of the pastoral minister is to convey to people an awareness of the holiness of the marriage bond; or to reconvey it. The Holy Father speaks of “pastoral care … centered on the marriage bond” (AL 211: in the Italian language, “vincolo”). The official German translation of “vincolo” with “Bindung” (connection) is too weak. Therefore I am speaking expressly here of the bond.
2. The marriage bond is already holy, from the creation itself (natural marriage), and all the more through the new creation (the order of grace), through sacramentally contracted marriage (the supernatural order). The formation of conscience in regard to this truth is a pressing duty in our time (cf. AL 300).
3. This formation of conscience is all the more necessary, as a pastor cannot be satisfied “simply to apply moral laws to those living in ‘irregular’ situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives.” (AL 305). The marriage bond itself is a gift of God’s love, wisdom, and mercy that lends grace and help to the married couple. Therefore reference to the marriage bond must come first on the path of accompaniment, discernment, and integration.
4. If, during the confession of an unknown penitent, a confessor recognizes questions that call for clarification, in regard to the marriage bond, he will ask the penitent to confide in a priest who can accompany him on a longer path of conversion and integration; or the penitent should contact the confessor himself outside the context of confession.
5. In the pastoral accompaniment of civilly remarried divorcees, the next point to examine is whether the marriage contract (the “first marriage”) was made validly: whether a marriage bond really exists. The individual priest cannot undertake this examination, and certainly not in the confessional. The confessor must refer the affected person to an official of the diocese.
6. As always in regard to the validity of the marriage contract, a failed marriage must be treated in every case humanely and according to our faith. That means one must tread a longer pastoral way which demands more patience. “Useful in this process is an examination of conscience through moments of reflection and repentance. The divorced and remarried should ask themselves: how did they act towards their children when the conjugal union entered into crisis; whether or not they made attempts at reconciliation; what has become of the abandoned party; what consequences the new relationship has on the rest of the family and the community of the faithful; and what example is being set for young people who are preparing for marriage. A sincere reflection can strengthen trust in the mercy of God which is not denied anyone” (AL 300). “The Church’s pastors, in proposing to the faithful the full ideal of the Gospel and the Church’s teaching, must also help them to treat the weak with compassion, avoiding aggravation or unduly harsh or hasty judgements” (AL 308).
7. The reception of Holy Communion by civilly remarried divorcees may not be left to subjective decision-making. One must be able to base oneself on objective factors (on the conditions of the Church for the reception of Holy Communion). In the case of civilly remarried divorcees, respect for the existing marriage bond is determinative.
8. If in conversation (during a confession) the absolution of a civilly remarried divorcee is requested, it must be established that the person is ready to take on the prescriptions of Familiaris consortio 84 (John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio, November 12, 1981). That means: if both partners cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they are required to live together as brother and sister. This rule still applies now as then, because the new apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia expressly does not intend “a new set of general rules, canonical in nature” (cf. AL 300). The penitent must manifest the firm intention to live with respect for the marriage bond of the “first” marriage.
9. In the preparation and accompaniment of engaged couples, married couples, and families, let us always keep the word of St. Paul in view: “This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:32) – Sacramentum hoc magnum est, ego autem dico in Christo et in Ecclesia.
With my thanks for your fidelity to the Lord and his work, I send cordial greetings, together with my episcopal blessing
Chur, February 2, 2017
+Vitus Huonder, Bishop of Chur
On the topic: José Granados, Stephan Kampowski, Juan José Pérez-Soba: Amoris Laetitia, Accompagnare, discernere, integrare. Vademecum per una nuova pastorale familiare, Siena 2016. A German translation is anticipated from femedienverlags GmbH, D-88353 Kisslegg. [Translator’s note: Also available in Spanish as “Acompañar, discernir, integrar”.]