The decision by the German bishops’ conference comes on the heels of a similar announcement made by the bishops of Malta.
While the German bishops emphasized that access to the sacraments is a question of each individual case, the new guidelines do allow the “possibility of receiving the sacraments in these situations.”
Titled “The joy of Love, which is lived in Families, is also the Joy of the Church,” the guidelines issed by the permanent council of the German bishops’ conference were released Feb. 1 and bear the subtitle “An invitation to a Renewed Marriage and Family Pastoral Care in Light of Amoris laetitia.”
The German bishops’ conference’s permanent council meets five or six times a year, and “each [German] diocesan bishop has seat [sic] and vote in the permanent council and can send an auxiliary bishop as his representative to the meetings.
In the document, the German bishops said that accompanying couples in crisis, divorce, and remarriage is “a great challenge and an opportunity to bring the Church and her understanding of marriage.”
“For the question of the reception of the sacraments, the bishops do not see in Amoris laetitia a general rule or an automatism, but rather, they are convinced that discerned solutions which do justice to the individual case are required,” they said.
In regards to Amoris laetitia, the bishops said they will proceed “from a process of discernment, accompanied by a pastoral worker.”
However, they also clarified that “not all faithful whose marriage is broken and who are divorced and civilly remarried, can receive the sacraments without distinction.”
In a statement released alongside the guidelines, the bishops praised Amoris laetitia for its “pastoral and theological benefits” and for introducing what they called four pillars “of a pastoral approach to marriage and family pastoral care.”
These pillars are: marriage preparation; marriage accompaniment; strengthening the family as a place of learning the faith; and dealing with fragility through accompaniment, discernment, and integration.
While the first three pillars are covered in just one or a few graphs, the fourth is the core of the new guidelines.
The bishops acknowledge that marriage is indissoluble, but at the same time argue that specific attention should be given to persons’ individual situations and that judgements “which do not take into account the complexity of the various situations” should be avoided.
Referencing sections 296 and 297 of Amoris laetitia, the German bishops said that “with the guiding concepts” of accompaniment, discernment, and integration, those affected “must be helped.”
While accompaniment requires “encouraging people on the way of life and the Gospel,” they said discernment should not stop at what the objective moral situation of those affected is.
On this point, they referenced footnote 351 of Amoris laetitia, in which Pope Francis wrote: “In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, ‘I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy’. I would also point out that the Eucharist ‘is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak’.”
The German bishops’ conference commented: “At the end of such a spiritual process, which is always concerned with integration, not in every case will there be a reception of the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist.”
The bishops stressed that “the individual decision of whether one, under the respective circumstances, is able to receive the sacraments, deserve respect and recognition. However, the decision to receive the sacraments must also be respected.”
At the conclusion of the document the bishops encouraged those who want to pursue marriage and family life in the Church “to personally acquaint themselves with the groundbreaking text that is Amoris laetitia.”
A divided stance
Bishops from Germany who had already advocated admitting the divorced-and-remarried to Communion included Cardinal Walter Kasper; Cardinal Reinhard Marx; Bishop Franz-Josef Bode; and Archbishop Heiner Koch.
However, despite the factions of bishops who seem to be opening the door to a path to admitting divorced-and-remarried Catholics to Communion, many are still resistant to the idea, including some heavy-hitters who are themselves German.
Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, president emeritus of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences, was one of four signatories of a letter containing five “dubia” submitted to the Pope in September asking him to clarify ambiguous parts of Amoris laetitia, and which was later published.
Other prelates with German roots who have been outspoken against the proposal to admit the divorced-and-remarried to Communion include Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI; Cardinal Paul Cordes; Bishop Stefan Oster; Bishop Konrad Zdarsa; Bishop Gregor Hanke; Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer; Bishop Friedhelm Hofmann; Bishop Wolfgang Ipolt; Archbishop Ludwig Schick; and Cardinal Joachim Meisner.
In addition, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has on multiple occasions maintained that Amoris laetitia is in continuity with Church teaching.
In an interview with Italian monthly Il Timone published the same day the German bishops’ guidelines were released, the cardinal stressed that “it is not right that so many bishops are interpreting Amoris laetitia according to their way of understanding the pope’s teaching.”
“This does not keep to the line of Catholic doctrine,” he said, stressing that Amoris laetitia “must clearly be interpreted in the light of the whole doctrine of the Church.”
Having so many bishops split off with their own interpretations “does not keep to the line of Catholic doctrine,” he said, adding that the Pope’s magisterium is able to be interpreted only by him or by the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation.
“The Pope interprets the bishops, it is not the bishops who interpret the Pope; this would constitute an inversion of the structure of the Catholic Church,” he said, telling the bishops “who are talking too much” to first “study the doctrine (of the councils) on the papacy and the episcopate.”
As someone who teaches the Word of God to others, a bishop must himself “be the first to be well-formed so as not to fall into the risk of the blind leading the blind.”
Cardinal Müller pointed to Familiaris consortio, St. John Paul II’s 1981 exhortation on the Christian family in the modern world, in which the Polish Pope stipulated that the divorced-and-remarried who for serious reasons cannot separate, in order to receive absolution in confession which would open the way to receiving Communion, must take on the duty to live in complete continence.
This aspect of the text, Cardinal Müller said, “it is not dispensable, because it is not only a positive law of John Paul II, but he expressed an essential element of Christian moral theology and the theology of the sacraments.”
Confusion on this point, he said, stems from a failure to accept St. John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical Veritatis splendor, which taught that there are intrinsically evil acts, that absolute truths exist across various cultures, and urged sharp caution against moral relativism and the misuse of conscience to justify false or subjective morals.
For Christians, “marriage is the expression of participation in the unity between Christ the bridegroom and the Church his bride,” he said, adding that “this is not, as some said during thesynod, a simple vague analogy. No! This is the substance of the sacrament, and no power in heaven or on earth, neither an angel, nor the Pope, nor a council, nor a law of the bishops, has the faculty to change it.”
The prelate then suggested that in order to quell the confusion generated by the differing interpretations of Amoris laetitia, everyone ought to study the Church’s doctrine, beginning with Scripture, “which is very clear on marriage.”
He advised against “entering into any casuistry that can easily generate misunderstandings, above all that according to which if love dies, then the marriage bond is dead.”
“These are sophistries: the Word of God is very clear and the Church does not accept the secularization of marriage,” he said. The task of priests and bishops, then, “is not that of creating confusion, but of bringing clarity.”
Cardinal Müller stressed that amid the ongoing debate, “one cannot refer only to little passages” present in Amoris laetitia, but must read the document “as a whole, with the purpose of making the Gospel of marriage and the family more attractive for persons.”
“All of us must understand and accept the doctrine of Christ and of his Church, and at the same time be ready to help others to understand it and put it into practice even in difficult situations.”
Anian Christoph Wimmer contributed to this report.