The inclusion of the Argentinian bishops’ guidelines on Communion for civilly remarried Catholic divorcees in “Acta Apostolicae Sedis”, the official record of Vatican documents and acts may clarify chapter 8 of Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia but it will not end the controversy surrounding it.
Peruvian theologian Dr Rocio Figueroa, systematic theology lecturer at Good Shepherd College in Ponsonby, said while this might shed light on some issues raised against the exhortation, she does not think it will not silence the critics.
Dr Figueroa lectured in spiritual theology for five years at the Giovanni Paolo II seminary in Salerno, Italy and Universidad Popular Autónoma in Mexico. She also worked for the former Pontifical Council for the Laity, networking with various international Catholic organisations to promote the dignity of women.
“I don’t know if the controversy will have an end,” Dr Figueroa said. “Usually the ones who are against (Amoris Laetitia)… they have a mindset. They have to process a new pastoral approach.”
In the first week in December, Pope Francis ordered the official publication of his letter to a group of Argentine bishops and the Argentinian bishops’ guidelines for the interpretation of Amoris Laetitia. He described both the guidelines and his letter as “authentic magisterium”.
“It clarifies his posture,” Dr Figueroa said. “But he already published that letter. And all the people read the guidelines of the Argentinians.”
She said those, mostly theologians, who have a very rigid interpretation of Church teachings will struggle with the fact that there are exceptions to the rule.
“They will have to accept (the Pope’s decision),” she said. “But they need time to assimilate the truth.”
The controversy that has surrounded Amoris Laetitia may be taken as a sign of a lively Church, Dr Figueroa said.
Speaking on the papal post-synodal apostolic exhortation in Auckland on November 23 and in Wellington on December 3, she marvelled at how it generated so much discussion within the Church. (The talks were sponsored by The Catholic Institute and Good Shepherd College).
She said these Amoris Laetitia discussions and controversies provide the Church with “new opportunities to retrieve certain truths that have become dormant”, she said, quoting Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts.
Dr Figueroa said she considers it necessary to have a wider vision of Amoris Laetitia and to understand its content.
“I don’t think that the Pope has touched or changed the essence of our doctrines but he has changed the approach,” she explained.
“When some people say ‘it’s not clear’, ‘it’s confusing’, for me, it is most clear!” said the Peruvian theologian.
She said to understand the document, one must understand its context and literary genre.
Dr Figueroa pointed out that Amoris Laetitia, which the Pope issued following two synods on the family, is a pastoral reflection, not a dogmatic text.
“The Pope did not want to present a new dogma. He didn’t want to give solutions to all the problems. But he wanted to initiate the reflection of different issues regarding family,” said Dr Figueroa.
She said Pope Francis did not want to present the faithful with an order that they have to obey. Rather, he would like to walk with bishops, priests, religious people as well as the laity on the path to truth.
“The Pope is enacting the principle of synodality, inviting pastors to be co-responsible, but at the same time, inviting us lay people to think and discuss,” she explained.
She also noted that the Jesuit Pope is Latin American and his theological method is based on Latin American theology.
Dr Figueroa said the starting point of Latin American theology is experience, which is one of the sources of theology.
She said in Latin American theology, discipleship comes first, theology second.
“First, you live as a disciple with the people who live and experience the faith and you get there the knowledge for understanding better how to help share the Gospel,” she said.
Known as the “Bishop of the Slums” during his time in Argentina, Pope Francis lived with the poor.
“After living the experience with the People of God, Pope Francis tries to reflect in a theoretical way and then goes back to the pastoral practice with a new vision. It is the famous method that the bishops have used in all the meetings of the episcopal conferences of Latin America: see, judge and act. So, if we don’t try to understand Latin American theology, we will miss the point,” she said.
The text was also written in the Jubilee Year of Mercy and “seeks to encourage everyone to be a sign of mercy and closeness wherever family life remains imperfect or lacks peace and joy.” (AL#5)
“I think this is the most important invitation that we have received. It is in the context of mercy. Let’s try to see the family with compassion, with mercy. We are called to be a sign of mercy wherever the family life remains imperfect,” Dr Figueroa said.
“Francis is conscious that so many families are living in precarious situations and we must show our closeness. It is a change of perspective.”
Dr Figueroa cited several situations she had encountered where people wanted to follow Church teachings, but their situation won’t allow them.
She cited the case of her nanny in Peru who couldn’t get married because the cost of a wedding was too prohibitive. She also spoke of her cousin who was abandoned by her (cousin’s) husband, now living and having additional children with a partner.
“It seems that the Pope is searching for a new approach. An approach that is less authoritarian, less focused on rules. The old style of evangelisation decrying evil in all its guises does not help the modern world,” she said.
How should the Church deal with irregular situations? There are three principles that we could use, she said: the law of graduality, conscience and need for discernment.
Dr Figueroa said what Pope Francis wants is for us to stop judging people, see the good in them and help them progress step by step to the truth.
She said it is law of graduality, not the graduality of the law.
One does not tell a 16-year-old pregnant girl, she is a sinner and should have married before she found herself with a baby.
“First, support her and her baby. Then, educate her on the value of marriage and celibacy,” she said. “It is a process. That is why this document is pastoral.”
Dr Figueroa said Pope Francis also wants to educate the conscience so that each person will see the beauty of love.
“Our faith has been based on norms, on obedience and imposition. That’s why young people don’t want to follow,” she said. “So, the Pope is just changing the way, saying hey, different pastoral approach. Work the conscience.”
She reiterates that conscience is not one’s psychological psyche, but “the sacred place in our hearts where God´s presence dwells”.
Does Amoris Laetitia open the floodgates for the remarried divorcees to receive communion? No, said Dr Figueroa.
Does it close the possibility for civilly remarried divorcees to receive communion? No, she said.
There is a process of discernment, not just by the person in the sinful situation but also the person’s priest. If the person’s sin is discerned as not having one of the three conditions for it to be mortal sin (grave matter, full knowledge and deliberate consent), then he can receive the Eucharist.
In conclusion, Dr Figueroa said a Māori proverb synthesises the spirit of Amoris Laetitia: He aha te mea nui o te ao. What is the most important thing in the world? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata. It is the people, it is the people, it is the people.
“That’s why Pope Francis is saying what he is saying,” she reflected. “He wants to save all the people of God.”