German canon lawyer wants pope to clarify guidelines for divorced, remarried Catholics

This article appears in the Amoris Laetitia feature series. View the full series.

A German canon lawyer has appealed to Pope Francis for clearer guidelines on whether or not divorced and remarried Catholics may receive the Eucharist. The pope's lack of clarity on the issue in his apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, has opened the door for theological controversy according to Dr. Georg Bier, a professor of Catholic theology at the University of Freiburg in southwestern Germany.

"I would like to know what the actual ruling is but up to now Pope Francis has chosen a singular way of working," Bier told German Catholic News Agency KNA. "He neither quotes nor rescinds present church teaching. This lack of clarity is not helpful as each side can quote the pope to underline their own position.

A lot indicated that Francis wanted to moderate strict bans, Bier said, "but the pope does not say this in binding, canonical terms and so individual bishops can either adopt new ways or not at their own discretion."

The German bishops are divided on the issue.

For Archbishop Stephan Burger of Freiburg, Pope Francis wants to enable divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion and that is one of the core messages of Amoris Laetitia.

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"This is possible in individual cases after a profound examination of conscience and under pastoral guidance by a priest," he told the archdiocesan paper Konradsblatt Oct. 6. "It is not possible to have a clear and unambiguous solution for everyone and everything at hand at all times."

For Burger, Amoris Laetitia was an encouragement to accompany and support marriages and families. Pope Francis made it clear how important it was to discuss the key role that marriages and families play not only in the church but in society as a whole, he said.

He said that the German bishops' conference would follow Pope Francis' lead on issues in Amoris Laetitia and would be issuing guidelines on how the changes proposed by the pope are to be put into practice in German dioceses. Burger is eagerly awaiting the guidelines, he said.

In 2013, under then Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, the Freiburg archdiocese published a 14-page handout on how to conduct "a pastorally and theologically profound discussion process" with divorced and remarried Catholics with a view to allowing them to receive the sacraments. Several priests in the archdiocese have been using this handbook to enable divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the Eucharist in individual cases since.

Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau already issued guidelines for priests in his diocese in July. In his theological introduction to the guidelines, Oster emphasises that couples in "irregular situations" may not receive the sacraments under present church law.

He states that in Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis also underlined the church's "precious tradition" of so-called spiritual communion, that is celebrating the Eucharist without actually parting of it, for those who according to church law were not allowed to receive communion.

While Oster underlines the need for priests to be merciful in their judgement of divorced and remarried Catholics, he calls on all those concerned in each individual case to be as discreet as possible about the discernment procedure and should it end positively, i.e. the priest concerned came to the conclusion that the couple could receive communion, to keep this decision quiet.

"What we certainly do not need are ostentatious displays of exceptions to the rule," he stated.

After intensive discussion of Amoris Laetitia at their plenary in September, the German bishops' conference concluded that Pope Francis had called for a different pastoral approach to divorced and remarried Catholics.

"We exchanged views and information on the response to Amoris Laetitia in the German dioceses and will be working out how the exhortation can be put into practice in the German church. Detailed guidelines will follow in the coming weeks," the bishops said.

[Christa Pongratz-Lippitt is the Austrian correspondent for the London-based weekly Catholic magazine The Tablet.]

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