Clarity and renewal can be the fruit of disputes and disagreements, Bishop James Conley of Lincoln has said to his priests, trying to reassure them in the face of confusion regarding Amoris laetitia.
At the same time, Conley offered his own firm stand on the meaning of
Pope Francis’s widely discussed document on marriage, stating clearly
that in his diocese, giving Communion to divorced and civilly remarried
Catholics who are living as man and wife is not on the table.
“Sexual relationships outside the bonds of marriage constitute circumstances of grave sin,” Conley wrote.
“The Lord calls those who are divorced and civilly remarried, or who
are cohabiting, to continence,” Conley said. “Like every person who is
conscious of grave sin, divorced and civilly remarried Catholics who
engage in ongoing sexual relationships may not approach Holy Communion.”
The bishop indicated that he had provided the priests with similarly
restrictive pastoral guidelines of several dioceses, among them those of the Philadelphia archdiocese, the Phoenix diocese, and the province of Alberta.
“I have provided these particular documents because they reflect the most faithful interpretation of Amoris Laetitia, and convey the intepretation that is to be considered normative in the Diocese of Lincoln,” Conley wrote.
That said, Conley said some of today’s tensions over the papal text can be fruitful.
“Amoris Laetitia will continue to be discussed among the
Church’s bishops and the Holy Father, in order to bring clarity and
understanding to difficult questions,” Conley wrote in a December 5
letter to the priests and seminarians of his diocese.
“I appreciate that public disagreement in the Church can become a
source of discouragement. The history of the Church has included great
theological disputes, which have been the source of division but,
ultimately, have led to clarity, and to renewal.”
He reflected that “the Church is the Bride of Christ, and is
protected and guided by the Holy Spirit…We can have confidence in the
enduring grace of God to lead us, as it has done in many moments of
difficulty or disagreement in the Church’s history.
“The lessons of history are that we need not be dismayed or anxious by the challenges of our own time,” he said.
Pope Francis’s March 2016 apostolic exhortation on love in the family
has been met with a varied reception and interpretation within the
Its eighth chapter, on accompanying, discerning, and integrating
fragility deals with, among other things, the pastoral care of the
divorced-and-remarried, who have not been admitted to Communion unless
they commit to living in continence with their partner, forgoing the
acts proper to married couples.
language in that chapter has led to uncertainties about this practice
and about the teaching and status of the apostolic exhortation.
have maintained it is incompatible with Church teaching, and others
that it has not changed the Church’s discipline.
Still others read Amoris laetitia as opening the way to a new pastoral practice, or even as a progression in continuity with St. John Paul II.
In June, a letter signed by 45 theologians identified 19 propositions in Amoris laetitia
“whose vagueness or ambiguity permit interpretations that are contrary
to faith or morals, or that suggest a claim that is contrary to faith
and morals without actually stating it.”
And in November, a letter sent by four cardinals to Pope Francis was made public, which had requested that he “resolve the uncertainties and bring clarity” regarding his exhortation.
Conley’s letter to his clergy is a pastoral response to the
situation, and begins by acknowledging that “in recent weeks, some of
you have asked me about media reports of controversy and disagreement
about the interpretation of Amoris Laetitia.”
“Disagreement and conflict in the Church can be unsettling,” he
wrote. “Yet moments of sincere disagreement provide the occasion for the
Holy Spirit to bring deeper clarity to our understanding and
proclamation of the faith. The questions being posed to the Holy Father
are intended to help achieve clarity.”
He added that discussion on Amoris laetitia “is an
opportunity to grow in our understanding of the Church’s teaching on the
sacraments, the nature of mercy, the process of evangelization and
conversion, and the pastoral mission of solidarity and accompaniment. I
know that many of you have questions about the meaning of Amoris Laetitia, and its impact on our pastoral ministry. I am writing to address those questions.”
The bishop acknowledged that the exhortation does contain “insightful
reflections on family life in the modern world, and on the meaning of
mercy and charity in pastoral ministry…the Holy Father calls us to
discern the hearts of those entrusted to our care, and to facilitate
meaningful encounters with Jesus Christ, who loves us, and who calls us
to love, uniquely, exclusively, and irrevocably.”
He also stated that Amoris laetitia “also includes some
passages which have proven challenging to interpret and understand,
especially regarding the pastoral care of Catholics who are divorced and
civilly remarried, or cohabiting.”
Conley affirmed that the exhortation “does not repudiate the
indissolubility of marriage, or the Church’s moral teachings regarding
divorce,” and neither does it “change the Church’s understanding that
conscience must be formed according to truth, and that a well-formed
conscience cannot guide us in a manner contrary to divine revelation.”
He said that “faithful pastoral care requires that we encourage
Catholics to live according to the Gospel’s teaching, and accompany them
as they grow in understanding and acceptance of the Lord’s call…the
goal of our pastoral ministry is the salvation of souls - holiness -
which is borne of cooperation with grace, and obedience to truth.”
Concluding, the bishop wrote, “I ask each one of you to continue
praying for the Holy Father, who is Christ’s vicar on earth. I ask you
to pray for the Church’s bishops, unworthy successors of the apostles.
And I encourage you to continue to lead the Church in fidelity, in
charity, in hope, and in peace.”