Updated Nov. 18, 8:30 a.m.: Comments from Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput added.
Vatican City -- Cardinal-designate Kevin Farrell believes the U.S. bishops as a whole should have discussed pastoral guidelines for implementing Pope Francis' exhortation on the family before individual bishops began issuing guidelines for their own dioceses.
Implementing the pope's exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, he said, "has to be done in communion with our bishops. I think that it would have been wiser to wait for the gathering of the conference of bishops where all the bishops of the United States or all the bishops of a country would sit down and discuss these things."
A conference-wide discussion, he told Catholic News Service Nov. 15, would ensure "an approach that would not cause as much division among bishops and dioceses, and misunderstandings."
The cardinal-designate was asked specifically about pastoral guidelines issued for the Philadelphia archdiocese by Archbishop Charles Chaput, who also is head of a U.S. bishops' ad hoc committee for implementing Amoris Laetitia. Among other things, the Philadelphia guidelines state that while divorced and civilly remarried couples should be welcome in parishes and accompanied by priests, they may not receive Communion unless they live as brother and sister.
Farrell was bishop of Dallas and a member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops until September when he became prefect of the new Vatican Dicastery for Laity, the Family and Life.
"I don't share the view of what Archbishop Chaput did, no," the cardinal-designate said. "I think there are all kinds of different circumstances and situations that we have to look at -- each case as it is presented to us."
"I think that is what our Holy Father is speaking about, is when we talk about accompanying, it is not a decision that is made irrespective of the couple," he said. "Obviously, there is an objective moral law," he said, but you will never find two couples who have the same reason for being divorced and remarried.
Archbishop Chaput responds
Contacted by Catholic News Service, Chaput said the guidelines he issued "have a clear emphasis on mercy and compassion. This makes sense because individual circumstances are often complex. Life is messy."
However, he told CNS, "mercy and compassion cannot be separated from truth and remain legitimate virtues. The church cannot contradict or circumvent Scripture and her own magisterium without invalidating her mission. This should be obvious. The words of Jesus himself are very direct and radical on the matter of divorce."
Chaput said the final synod document and Pope Francis in "Amoris Laetitia" encouraged local bishops to issue pastoral guidelines.
"Our guidelines were actually ready by June 1, after consulting our Priests' Council, Archdiocesan Pastoral Council, auxiliary bishops, seminary faculty, and a variety of liturgical, canonical and theological experts, both lay and clergy -- all of whom made excellent suggestions. We waited until July 1 to complete a final review," the archbishop said. "Other bishops have issued their own guidelines and responses consistent with the circumstances of their dioceses, which only they, as local bishops, know with real intimacy."
Francis' apostolic exhortation on the family was published in early April. The pope continually has insisted that the document is about the importance and beauty of marriage and family life and the church's obligation to support and strengthen it.
But much of the debate has focused on the document's eighth chapter that speaks of ministry to and access to the sacraments for couples in what the Catholic church traditionally defined as "irregular situations," particularly people who were divorced and civilly remarried without an annulment.
Farrell insisted Amoris Laetitia is "so important" because of the way it explains and affirms the church's vision of the joy and beauty of family life and the way it encourages better ways to share that teaching, especially in marriage preparation programs.
"The most important part of 'Amoris Laetitia' is not Chapter 8" on accompanying those in irregular situations, he said. "We need to explain marriage, we need to explain human love in a much better and more dynamic way. And we need laypeople to do that."
"We don't deny the difficulties" some couples experience or the fact that there are many divorced and remarried Catholics, who "go to our churches in the United States every weekend," he said. "We have to try to find ways to bring them into full communion."
Obviously, there are limits to what the church can do because of its firm faith that marriage is indissoluble, he said. "But it is better to say to the couple, 'Let's work together and let's walk together' -- as Pope Francis would say -- 'through this process and see how far we arrive.'"
The Catholic church cannot react by "closing the doors before we even listen to the circumstances and the people," the cardinal-designate said. "That's not the way to go."
While a few cardinals and bishops have disagreed with the general interpretation of Pope Francis' exhortation, "I think the bishops are unified," Farrell said.
"Each bishop in his diocese has to set certain rules and parameters, but at the same time, I think that they need to be open to listening to the Holy Spirit and open to what the bishops of the world" discussed at the synods on the family in 2014 and 2015.
[Contributing to this story were Carol Glatz and Robert Duncan.]