Let’s remember what happened. At the start of the two-year synod process, there were two groups wanting to resolve the question of access to the Eucharist for the divorced and remarried one way or the other.
One group wanted to open up an Orthodox-type pathway back to the sacraments, the other wished to restate and reaffirm the teaching and discipline of Familiaris Consortio (John Paul II’s 1980 exhortation, which on that topic calls for discernment of different situations, but precludes any return to the sacraments unless the couple promises to live together as brother and sister.)
Faced with that yes/no question, of precisely the sort that the cardinals have put to Francis, the synod rejected a yes/no answer. The synod affirmed the general principles of FC but developed John Paul’s teaching on the discernment of situations while refusing to impose the same blanket ban on readmission in all cases.
The synod decided, by a two-thirds majority, that they wanted both to preserve the doctrine of indissolubility in the current discipline of the Eucharist while at the same time creating sufficient pastoral latitude in the application of the Church’s law to allow pastors to respond to situations where there was a subjective lack of culpability.
Which situations? AL doesn’t specify, which has allowed the four cardinals and their supporters to claim the document is ambiguous and confusing. But how could it spell it out, without becoming a manual of casuistry?
The whole point is that there is no new law, no new doctrine, no new norms, because the synod determined that there should not be. “There is no general norm that can cover all the particular cases,” as Cardinal Christoph Schönborn says, adding: “The general norm is very clear; and it is equally clear that it cannot cover all the cases exhaustively.”
And that’s the heart of the matter. The synod kept the law – how could it not? It’s the law of Jesus – but defended a latitude in its application, recognizing, as did Jesus, that the law is necessary but insufficient, and has to be applied in such a way that respects the particularity of each person’s story.
Amoris Laetitia took the synod’s settlement – forged, by all accounts, in the white heat of the German group – and asks the Church to create mechanisms of accompaniment that will allow for this discernment.
It says: Let’s hear this particular couple’s history and see where sin has created blockages and wounds, and where God’s grace is needed.
And on the way, what will happen? It might mean ending a relationship and returning to a valid marriage; it might lead to an annulment; in some cases it might lead to re-integration into a parish, but not the sacraments; in some cases it might require living as brother and sister, and a return to the sacraments.
And in some, rare cases it might lead, yes, to being admitted to Communion where the lack of subjective culpability is beyond doubt, where, for example, an annulment is impossible, where the marriage is irrecoverable, where there are children by a new union, where a conversion has taken place in a person that creates a new state, and where the notion of ‘adultery’ simply fails to capture a reality. (Father Thomas Reese has suggested the kinds of distinctions Pope John Paul II had in mind in Familiaris Consortio.)
One bishop in South America whom I recently interviewed, when I asked about Chapter Eight of Amoris in an interview, kindly but firmly cut me short. “I can’t talk about that,” he said. “Every case is different.”
There speaks a pastor. There speaks the synod. There speaks the pope.
AL is, at the end of the day, a pastoral document, not a dogmatic one. It is, therefore, going to have a lot of squish to it.