Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Maltese bishops cannot alter St John Paul II’s teaching – but they can damage Church unity (Comment)

St John Paul II (CNS)The Maltese bishops’ conference has published a set of “Criteria for the Application of Chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia”

The Criteria have not met with a positive reception in many quarters, as Edward Pentin observes in the National Catholic Register.

The Criteria are problematic, to say the least. 

Firstly, they say – claiming to follow Amoris Laetitia – that if “a separated or divorced person who is living in a new relationship manages, with an informed and enlightened conscience, to acknowledge and believe that he or she are at peace with God, he or she cannot be precluded from participating in the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist.” 

In other words, the Maltese Criteria make explicit something that is only hinted at in Amoris Laetitia; moreover, the Criteria give permission for something that is specifically forbidden in Familiaris Consortio, the very clear teaching of St John Paul II, not to mention the very clear teaching of the Church up to now.

Has Familiaris Consortio been abrogated? Has the Church changed her teaching? Has there been a change not just of pastoral practice, but of doctrine itself?

My answer to that question is as follows. 

No Episcopal Conference can abrogate the teaching of Familiaris Consortio, let alone the constant teaching of the Church until now. 

In other words, faced with a choice between the teaching of St John Paul II, and the reasoning contained in these Criteria, one must go with the saint.


Secondly, and perhaps more seriously, we are faced with an ecclesial problem. The Bishops of Poland, along with other bishops round the world, have issued criteria of their own which contradict the Maltese Criteria. 

Now the Maltese bishops and the Polish bishops are in communion with each other, and all other Catholic Bishops round the world. This is an essential fact of Catholicism and the communion of the Church. 

The trouble is, with the Maltese bishops now issuing these Criteria, it becomes harder to argue the truth of Catholicity to a non-Catholic, and it becomes harder for Catholics in the Church such as myself to believe in Catholicity. Frankly, I am struggling here to see how the faith as proclaimed in Krakow is the same faith as that proclaimed in Victoria, Gozo.

Thirdly, these criteria introduce a very serious theological problem. What does it mean when the bishops write: “a separated or divorced person who is living in a new relationship manages, with an informed and enlightened conscience, to acknowledge and believe that he or she are at peace with God”? 

Isn’t this precisely what my moral theology professors at the Gregorian University in Rome warned me of when I was a student there? Namely that no man or woman can be a judge and jury in his or her own case? That we cannot ever practice self-absolution? And above all that morality is a matter of objective truth, not subjective feeling?

Many people have in the past judged themselves to be a peace with God when they were anything but, because, quite simply, the conscience, which is a judgment, can and does make mistakes. It is this subjective turn that is most disturbing about the entire document.

Finally, it might be worthwhile to remember that the bishops gathered in Synod in Rome did not vote for the divorced and remarried to be admitted to Holy Communion. This document not only goes beyond what is written in Amoris Laetitia, it goes far beyond anything authorised by the Synod.

In a short article I cannot offer a solution to the pastoral problem posed by those living in second unions. 

But one thing seems certain to me: the solution is not the one that is advanced in these Criteria.

The Episcopal Conference of the Maltese Islands consists of two bishops: ipso facto that must make it the smallest (or joint smallest) conference in the world. 

Larger conferences will surely find it harder to reach consensus. 

Perhaps the Maltese Criteria are being advanced as a model for other conferences. 

If so, the reception they have received should make everyone pause and consider.

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