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Vatican responds to to Cardinal Duka’s dubia on divorced and remarried Catholics

Czech Cardinal Dominik Duka speaks at the International Eucharistic Congress in Budapest, Hungary, Sept. 10, 2021. / Credit: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA

Rome Newsroom, Oct 2, 2023 / 19:48 pm (CNA).

On a day dominated by news of five cardinals publishing a set of “dubia” to Pope Francis and the Vatican in turn releasing the pope’s responses, another significant set of “responda” (“responses”) to a leading prelate’s request for clarification on a controversial moral doctrine was also published by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The Vatican on Monday publicly released responses to 10 dubia submitted by Czech Cardinal Dominik Duka regarding “the administration of the Eucharist to divorced couples living in a new union.” 

Originally submitted by the archbishop emeritus of Prague on July 13 on behalf of the Czech Bishops’ Conference, the DDF’s response — signed both by Pope Francis and new prefect Cardinal Victor Fernández — had been issued to the Czech cardinal on Sept. 25.

At the heart of Duka’s dubia and the Vatican’s response was the practical application of Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”), Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation issued after the 2015 Synod on the Family, and in particular, its pastoral guidance for the reception of Communion by those sacramentally married but “divorced and remarried” to another person other than their spouse.

The presumptive ghostwriter of the pope’s 2015 exhortation and now head of Francis’ doctrine office, Fernández did not hesitate from weighing in authoritatively on the questions posed to him by the Czech prelate — a noticeable shift from the DDF’s previous engagement with questions on Amoris Laetitia, which included not answering previously submitted dubia.

On the question of admittance to the Eucharist for a Catholic divorced from his/her sacramentally married spouse but civilly remarried to another, Fernández wrote that while priests should provide pastoral accompaniment to the individual, “it is each person, individually, who is called to put himself before God and expose his conscience to him, with both its possibilities and its limits,” and evaluate their disposition to receive.

“This conscience, accompanied by a priest and enlightened by the guidelines of the Church, is called to be formed to evaluate and give a sufficient judgment to discern the possibility of accessing the sacraments.”

Amoris Laetitia’s guidance on this subject caused controversy upon its promulgation. Five dubia submitted in 2016 by four cardinals — including two of the five cardinals who sent the pope dubia earlier this summer, the American Cardinal Raymond Burke and the German Cardinal Walter Brandmüller — asked the pope to clarify if St. John Paul II’s teaching in Veritatis Splendor (“The Splendor of Truth”) “on the existence of absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts and that are binding without exceptions” was still valid in the wake of Amoris Laetitia, and other related questions on conscience and circumstances. Pope Francis never responded.

Now in the present, Fernández wrote that, as the pope’s response to back-to-back synods on the family in 2014 and 2015, Amoris Laetitia “was the result of the work and prayer of the whole Church.” 

Its guidance on Communion for the divorced and remarried was also based on the magisterium of Pope Francis’ two predecessors, the DDF prefect wrote, though whereas those two popes recognized that divorced-and-remarried Catholics could partake in the Eucharist if they were “committed … to abstain from the acts proper to spouses” (St. John Paul II) or if they were “to commit [themselves] to living their relationship … as friends” (Benedict XVI), Francis “admits that there may be difficulties in practicing [continence] and therefore allows in certain cases, after adequate discernment, the administration of the sacrament of reconciliation even when it is not possible in being faithful to the continence proposed by the Church.” 

Amoris Laetitia also “opens the possibility of accessing the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist when, in a particular case, there are limitations that attenuate responsibility and culpability (guilt)” — though Fernández notes that “this process of accompaniment does not necessarily end with the sacraments” but could point to other, nonsacramental forms of communion and inclusion. 

Drawing directly from Amoris Laetitia, the DDF’s response states that in the necessary process of discernment, “remarried divorcees should ask themselves how they behaved towards their children when the marital union entered into crisis; whether there have been attempts at reconciliation; how the partner’s situation is abandoned; what consequences the new relationship has on the rest of the family and the community of the faithful; what example it offers to young people who must prepare for marriage. A sincere reflection can strengthen trust in the mercy of God, which is not denied to anyone.”

“A sincere reflection can strengthen trust in the mercy of God, which is not denied anyone,” reads that Vatican response, quoting Amoris Laetitia.

The responda also affirmed that bishops should develop Amoris Laetitia-based criteria in their dioceses that “can help priests in the accompaniment and discernment of divorced people living in a new union,” and that bishops of the Buenos Aires’ pastoral region’s application of Amoris, which Francis called “the only interpretation,” should be taken as “authentic magisterium” and that no other comprehensive explanation would be forthcoming.

The responses avoided responding directly to whether acts committed in the sexual life of the couple consisting of at least one divorced and remarried Catholic should “be mentioned in the sacrament of reconciliation,” but the DDF prefect wrote that the couple’s sexual life should be “subject to an examination of conscience to confirm that it is a true expression of love and that it helps growth in love.”

“All aspects of life must be placed before God,” it stated.

Finally, in response to Duka’s question of how the Czech bishops could “proceed to establish internal unity” on the issue of pastoral guidance for the divorced and remarried, “but also to avoid disturbing the ordinary magisterium of the Church,” Fernández wrote that the bishops’ conference should “agree on some minimum criteria to implement the proposals of Amoris Laetitia” to help priests “in the process of accompaniment and discernment regarding the possible access to the sacraments of divorces in a new union, without prejudice to the legitimate authority that each bishop has in his own diocese.”

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