The ambiguity of the pontifical exhortation Amoris Laetitia is not heresy. In writing the letter, Pope Francis was only looking for an avenue to relax the traditional discipline that was so strongly affirmed by St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI concerning those who are divorced and living in an irregular marriage.
Catholics are divided following the acrimonious debate initiated by the four cardinals who asked for clarification, and especially when one episcopal conference decreed in favour of the application of Chapter VIII of the exhortation.
The bishops of Malta wrote to their faithful: “When we meet or come to know of persons who find themselves in so called ‘irregular’ situation, we need to commit ourselves to enter in dialogue with them and to come to know them in a spirit of authentic charity.” The pastoral letter continues: “They should be made to feel part of the Church. They are not excommunicated and should not be treated as such,” (see Criteria for the Application, n.2).
The Pope consciously used this approach perhaps to discover the reaction of cardinals, bishops, priests, and faithful in general. We are very far away from the condemnation and anathemas that described the heresies during the ecumenical councils. The Pope will never use the ecclesiastic censure “Let him be anathema” to the dissident who does not admit the suggestions of his exhortation.
Francis never imposed, but only suggested these persons undertake the process of discernment and examine their conscience under the guidance of a priest in order to be reassured “they are in peace with God.” After these conditions are fulfilled, they can receive the sacraments.
This document could destroy the universal Church’s secular tradition that a person can not receive Communion if he is not in a state of grace, since objectively to live with somebody who is not the legal spouse is adultery, a mortal sin.
The controversy exploded among traditionalist and liberal theologians. The conservatives are struggling and fighting that it is unacceptable to admit to the sacraments those who have remarried without the previous marriage(s) being declared null and void, while the liberals want admittance to Communion for those living in an adulterous state, as did the episcopal conference of Malta according to the directives of Amoris Laetitia.
Conservative clergy and faithful, sharing the views of the four cardinals, maintain the Pope cannot change Catholic doctrine, while liberals joyfully admit the permissive concession of the Pope, maintaining the possibility of living “as brother and sister” is humanly impossible.
It was not only the episcopal conference of Malta that approved the exhortation, but also the bishops of Argentina who settled the argument decisively in favour of those who believe the exhortation liberates the practice and widens the possibility of access to the sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist.
Father Mark Drew wrote in the Catholic Herald, “We all know that the indissolubility of marriage is a dogma which Francis has no wish to set aside. But its practical consequences are the inadmissibility of subsequent unions while a first spouse still lives. The prohibition on receiving the Eucharist in a state of grave sin, and the necessity of a purpose amendment for absolution, are equally firm articles of the Catholic Faith,” (Catholic Herald, September 23, 2016, p.20).
We Catholics believe the Pope is divinely preserved from error – that he is infallible – only in very specific circumstances. He must, whether presiding over an ecumenical council, or acting on his own authority, make it clear he intends to deliver a teaching that will bind the conscience of the faithful and is irrevocable. It is called ex cathedra (speaking from his chair).
This solemn declaration only happens rarely. In the past two centuries, the definitions of the Immaculate Conception in 1854 and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1950 were proclaimed. The rest of the time the Pope exercises what we call ordinary magisterium, protected and preserved from error by the Holy Spirit, but only when he defines a doctrine concerning a matter of faith and morals.
The Holy Father is trying to open the door to all who feel they are far away from God, especially those remarried and living in adultery. This is just as the merciful father did for the prodigal son who, “after he had spent everything, was in dire need and coming to his senses said: ‘how many hired hands at my father’s place have more than enough to eat, while here I am starving!”
People living in “irregular unions” also exclaim, “We will return to our father and say to him ‘Father we have sinned against you!’” It is in this way Francis is trying to find a solution for those stained with the sin of adultery to be reconciled with God.
But we also have the elder son who grew angry and reproached the father for forgiving his brother, saying, “For years I have slaved for you,” and the conservatives, in very much the same way, hold that the exhortation is dangerously heretical.
No, in making his suggestion, Pope Francis is not a heretic. Dear readers, pray for him!