Canadian dioceses clarify Pope's teaching on marriage
By Deborah Gyapong
Photo caption: Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast and Military Ordinary Bishop Scott McCaig greet each other at the CCCB plenary last Sept.
Two more Canadian dioceses have joined the Alberta and Northwest Territories Bishops in issuing guidelines on Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried.
Like their western Canadian counterparts, the Archdiocese of Ottawa and the Military Ordinariate of Canada have responded to the controversial chapter eight of Pope Francis’ post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia by interpreting it in light of the Church’s constant teaching on the indissolubility of marriage and her discipline on the reception of the sacraments.
Chapter eight, entitled “Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness,” has led to a wide range of interpretations by bishops and cardinals around the world.
Some say the document allows those in irregular relationships to receive the sacraments after a period of discernment and if their consciences are clear; others have argued Amoris Laetitia changes nothing in the constant teaching and discipline of the Church.
At a pastoral day Feb. 15, the Ottawa archdiocese passed out a booklet containing the Alberta and NWT guidelines to its priests and pastoral workers.
“I endorse this document’s guidance on how to accompany families with compassion and care while also upholding the Church’s unchanging teaching on the sacrament of marriage and the Eucharist,” Archbishop Terrence Prendergast writes in an introductory letter included in the booklet.
“Our plan was to have a pastoral day devoted to the topic at which priests could reflect with me on the challenges posed by Amoris Laetitia,” Archbishop Prendergast said in an email interview. “I wanted them to have something in hand for their parish ministry, which is why we got permission to reprint the Western Bishops’ document.”
Archbishop Prendergast said his recommendation in the case of divorced Catholics who remarried civilly without having obtained an annulment was that “the couple in question first approach the tribunal for a judgment regarding the first marriage.”
He said, “The consensus was this was a good way of proceeding to accompany families with compassion and care while also upholding the Church’s unchanging teaching on the sacrament of marriage and the Eucharist.”
On Feb. 22, Bishop Scott McCaig of the Military Ordinariate of Canada published his guidelines on chapter eight to “clarify” its implementation but he urged people to read Amoris Laetitia in its entirety.
“It confirms the revealed truth about marriage and teaches us compassion for the broken,” Bishop McCaig writes. Like the Alberta and NWT bishops, Bishop McCaig stresses Pope Francis’ teaching on pastoral accompaniment.
“It means welcoming and loving people where they are at, no matter how sinful and disordered their lives might be,” Bishop McCaig writes. “We do this without judgment or condescension, knowing that we ourselves are sinners who have received mercy.” It means not being afraid to get “deeply involved in the messiness of peoples’ lives.”
But accompaniment has a goal: leading people to encounter Jesus Christ and helping them to live a fully Christian life, Bishop McCaig says.
“It is critically important to note that the integral teaching of the Catholic Church on the reception of Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried has not changed,” Bishop McCaig writes, noting Pope Francis did not intend to make a new set of rules.
Like the Alberta and NWT Bishops, Bishop McCaig outlines the ordinary discipline of the Church and the Code of Canon Law.
“It must also be observed that the discipline of the Church places an obligation not only upon those who are divorced and remarried, but also upon those who are responsible for the distribution of Holy Communion,” he writes. “Those who are divorced and civilly remarried should be privately and sensitively informed that they may not presently receive Holy Communion.
“More importantly, they are to be lovingly invited into a process whereby they may be reconciled to the Church,” he writes. “It should also be clear that one may not receive Holy Communion merely on the basis of personal conscience, for personal conscience may be in error. Consciences are to be formed in the light of the commandments of God.”
“This discipline of the Church is not an arbitrary rule,” he writes. “It is about fidelity to the Gospel and the good of souls.”
Like the Alberta and NWT Bishops, Bishop McCaig says the first step is the diocesan matrimonial tribunal, and for those who are deemed to be in valid first marriages, continence if they are unable to separate.
Though the normal discipline does not change, Bishop McCaig notes Amoris Laetitia “does deal with extraordinary situations,” which he discusses in greater detail than the Alberta and NWT guidelines do on how and when these might apply.
Bishop McCaig addresses mitigating circumstances, grave pastoral concerns, and extreme situations where continence is not possible.
“The positive consequences for hurting and struggling members of the faithful are very great,” he writes. “But, equally so, any mistaken application of these directives could cause great harm to both individuals and entire communities of faith.”
In these rare circumstances, Bishop McCaig asks priests to consult the vicar general or chancellor of the ordinariate to “respect the sacredness of the internal forum.”
On Jan. 17, Bishop Steven Lopes of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, a diocese for Catholics coming from the Anglican tradition, issued a pastoral letter on marriage that also weaves in Pope Francis’ teachings on accompaniment with the Church’s constant teaching.
Bishop Lopes, based in Houston, Texas, is a member of both the Canadian and U.S. bishops’ conferences. In his letter “A Pledged Troth: A pastoral letter on Amoris Laetitia”, Bishop Lopes also shows how elements of the traditional Anglican marriage liturgy now approved for use in the Catholic Church convey the timeless teachings on the indissolubility of marriage. Bishop Lopes served at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for 10 years prior to his episcopal consecration in 2016.