Pope Francis’ comments to Argentine bishops last year on allowing Holy Communion for some civilly remarried divorcees was the blueprint for the Maltese bishops own controversial guidelines on interpreting Amoris Laetitia, Archbishop Charles Scicluna has said.
The archbishop of Malta made the remarks in his first full interview (see transcript below) since he and Bishop Mario Grech of Gozo published their guidelines on the apostolic exhortation on Jan. 13.
The two bishops came in for strong criticism for asserting the primacy of conscience over the objective moral truth in the document, stating that remarried divorcees can receive Holy Communion after a period of discernment, with an informed and enlightened conscience, and if they are “at peace with God.”
Theologians, canon lawyers, and some Vatican officials drew attention to apparent and, some argued, obvious contradiction to the Church’s established teaching. Until now, the Church has taught, based on Sacred Scripture and Tradition, that such divorced and remarried Catholics without an annulment could only receive Holy Communion if they did not engage in sexual relations with their civilly married spouse.
Some priests in Malta have also expressed their “deep discomfort” about their bishops' directives which they call confusing. Several priests outside Malta have said they would be unable to follow the guidelines if their own bishops imposed them.
But in his lengthy exchange Jan. 24 with Tonio Bonello of Malta’s RTK Church radio, Archbishop Scicluna sought to defend the document, saying the Pope’s comment to the Argentine bishops — that there is “no other interpretation” of his apostolic exhortation on the family — gave an “indication of how we bishops must proceed.”
He said they looked at the whole document and “all the questions which are causing most problems,” adding they didn’t just look at the most controversial chapter the document, Chapter 8, “but also at the interpretation approved by the Pope.”
“To be honest, I was very surprised because after the Pope wrote to the bishops of Buenos Aires, I felt that when the Pope tells you ‘there are no other interpretations’, one has to accept the interpretation that the Pope gives of his own documents,” he said. “We adhered to Amoris Laetitia. We also followed the interpretation that the Pope approved, but evidently what we did was not liked everywhere. One can’t please everyone.”
Nobody is excluded
The archbishop judged that the “fundamental criterium” of the Pope’s document is that “nobody, nobody, in whatever circumstances they are, should feel themselves excluded from, or outside of, the Church, no matter what happened to them, or no matter what they did.”
He added he was not arguing for “distributing tickets for Holy Communion to whoever comes in front of me”, but that a “process of discernment” must be begun. “What does this mean? It means, I examine myself and my conscience. What is conscience? Conscience is where you find yourself, alone with God. When you find yourself alone with God, you can neither fool yourself nor God.”
But he maintained that “many” people who, being true and sincere with themselves, will say if they do not know how they stand before God, they will not receive Holy Communion.
Conscience, he went on, must be formed and enlightened, it is “not how I feel.” To recognise and believe oneself “to be at peace with God” is “not a question of sentiments” he said. It is the product of accompaniment which is needed as it is “easy to deceive ourselves. I need someone to guide me, even on how to form my own conscience.” He continued that discernment does not mean there’s an “automatic recipe” that inevitably leads to receiving Holy Communion.
Asked about priests who take a “conservative, or ‘rigid’” view by always following the Commandments, the archbishop seemed unclear in his answer, saying: “Whoever finds themselves in difficulty has a right to say, listen, I’m… as for instance when you go to a doctor and he says, look, this is not my area, you’d better go to a consultant.”
Archbishop Scicluna, who mentioned having his canon law thesis supervised by Cardinal Raymond Burke, the former prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, pointed out that the sin of adultery no longer leads to excommunication.
“In the Church’s law, this is not so any longer. However there still remains that feeling: that if you’ve something done really bad, well, ‘please don’t come near the Church, we don’t want you,’” the archbishop explained. “The Pope is saying this talk must stop, even the way we tend to label people, as it were, putting a label on the back of their jumper or jacket, pointing them out. The Pope is saying: ‘Let us stop throwing stones at each other.’”
“The Pope is saying to these brethren of ours, ‘Come in’. It may be that in these circumstances they cannot approach the sacraments, but let us not compel them to feel like outcasts, in the peripheries, as if we’ve cast them aside,” the archbishop said.
No to cheap grace
He also claimed the Pope is not offering “discounts from the Gospel of love and marriage” or cheap grace. “We are not saying that sin has now become non-sin,” he said. “We are saying, there are circumstances – this is the teaching of the Pope – where there is no fault. Where there is no fault, there is no sin.”
He also drew attention to the Pope’s words in Evangelii Gaudium in which Francis calls for “pastoral conversion.” The term means that, “from a judgemental culture, we choose to have a culture where we welcome anyone, and wherever they happen to be on their own road towards Jesus,” the Maltese prelate said.
Archbishop Scicluna also addressed what he called the “scandal” of the “hard heart” and “laxness where you open the door to everyone without evaluation or discernment.”
Too much laxity is a scandal “because you are cheapening grace and also being a stumbling-block to who is making an effort to be faithful,” he said. “But then there is, too, the scandal of who is either black or white. The world is far more complicated than this.”
Referring to Francis’ streamlining of annulments, he said he was “trying to make them speedier for whoever is seeking the truth,” not inventing a nullity “where it doesn’t exist.” In the former process, he said “you sweated blood” by possibly having to go through three sentences, whereas now only one is required.
Archbishop Scicluna said he plans on meeting with priests to have “frank discussions” about Amoris Laetitia.
“What I insist upon is that we have followed the Pope’s directives,” he said at the end of the interview. “Who doesn’t agree can write to the Pope.”
Ask Pope Francis, not other popes
Observers have noted that the archbishop left out a number of key points, including references to previous papal teachings, most notably the condition of remarried divorcees living in continence if they are to receive Holy Communion. According to multiple and informed sources in Malta, the archbishop wanted a number of questions taken out from the interview. These included references to the Catechism, and any references to the bishops’ strong opposition to a divorce referendum in 2011. The interview also had to be recorded rather than broadcast live.
Archbishop Scicluna’s wish to avoid addressing previous papal teaching was further witnessed the next day. In a homily on the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul in Birkirkara, Malta, Jan. 25, he said: "Whoever wishes to discover what the true will of Christ is for him, the true heart of Jesus, he should ask the Church, not blogs.”
“He must ask the Pope and the bishops who are in communion with the Pope,” he added. “Whoever wishes to discover what Jesus wants from him, he must ask the Pope, this Pope, not the one who came before him, or the one who came before that. This present Pope. "
Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna interview with Tonio Bonello, Church Radio RTK, on the Maltese Guidelines on Amoris Laetitia (24 January 2017)
Why did you (the bishops) feel the need to issue these Guidelines?
The Pope himself, Pope Francis, in his document Amoris Laetitia asks the bishops to help priests to accompany couples and persons in complex situations by the bishops giving guidelines to their priests. We, the bishops of Malta & Gozo, are not the first group of bishops to issues these directives. A very important case – because it had the direct approval of the Pope himself – was the group of bishops of the region of Buenos Aires, Argentina to which Pope Francis belonged when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires. These bishops who know the Pope very well – not just personally, but his mind and heart – published directives in September last, and sent these to the Pope. The Pope sent a letter, signed by himself, saying ‘I welcome and thank you for the interpretation you offered…there is no other interpretation’. And with this letter, the Pope wanted to give an indication of how we bishops must proceed when we too prepare our own guidelines. So we bishops, myself and Bishop Mario, did not just read chap 8 of Amoris Laetitia – and who reads our criteria will realise that more than half the words themselves are taken verbatim from the Pope’s document, because…we’re not the Pope! We’re just trying to help our priests welcome the Pope’s indications – but we also looked at the document issued by the Argentinian bishops which had that direct approval of the Pope with a personal letter from him. So on all the questions which are causing most problems, we didn’t just look at chap 8 of Amoris Laetitia but also at the interpretation approved by the Pope. What are we doing, we bishops? We are providing our priests with an instrument by which they may understand what the Pope desires and at the same time help our people. We are saying, who can’t understand, who can’t even, accept, almost, these criteria….may they engage in dialogue with us. We’re not going to beat each other with sticks or throw stones at each other! We simply need to dialogue. A very beautiful thing the Pope said recently, ‘We just need to dialogue…… there is a need to dialogue, not to throw a stone and hide; whoever throws a stone and hides his hand is a delinquent’
We need to understand, as the Pope says, that not every person who finds themselves in these situations is because of wickedness.
In Amoris Laetitia, the Pope also talks about difficult situations. In this chapter, chapter 8, where the Pope talks about situations in marriages which are complex, or irregular, he gives us certain criteria on how we help people. The fundamental criterium is: that nobody, nobody, in whatever circumstances they are, should feel themselves excluded from, or outside of, the Church; no matter what happened to them, or no matter what they did. I’m not saying that I’ll be distributing tickets for Holy Communion to whoever comes in front of me. We’re going to start a process of discernment. What does this mean? It means, I examine myself and my conscience. What is conscience? Conscience is; where you find yourself, alone with God. When you find yourself alone with God, you can neither fool yourself nor God. You can fool the bishop or even the Pope or even the priest… but if you want to be true and sincere with yourself – and there are many people who will tell you, myself, if I don’t know how I stand before God, I won’t take that step [of receiving Communion].
Conscience, to be truly conscience, must listen to the Word of God, and the Law of that Word, and be enlightened by these. We ourselves, the bishops, felt that we needed to say this. That conscience needs to be formed and enlightened. What does formed mean? Not what I, myself, feel! Because conscience is not lettuce! Who walks on lettuce, slips! [This is a pun on the word ‘feeling’, since ‘felt’ is the same word as ‘lettuce’. The Archbishop wants to make the point, which he learnt in seminary, that conscience is not formed by personal/subjective feeling, as that will certainly cause a fall]. Conscience is not how I feel. True, we say, ‘you feel…’, but in fact we say ‘you recognise and you believe’ we don’t even say ‘you feel’; ‘to recognise and to believe oneself to be at peace with God’ not ‘feel’, it’s not a question of sentiments….No, conscience needs to be formed and enlightened. Why then do we need to be accompanied? Because we find it easy to deceive ourselves. I need someone to guide me, even on how to form my own conscience. And a true conscience is enlightened by God’s Law. So, whatever we do, even if the priest should say, ‘Friend, I am leaving things to you because you are responsible, but your situation is not according with God’s Law’….
Regarding discernment, this could even take two years… could this mean that even after two years a person can be told they still can’t go to Communion?
And how, of course, because discernment is not a foregone conclusion. It is not an automatic recipe. And we say the same, we bishops, that this is not a method, as it were, to say, look we’ll start moving and I will inevitably bring you to that point [of receiving Communion]; because you might then tell me, look in my present circumstances, I’m still not at the point where I may be in a fit state to receive the sacraments.
Paragraph II says it is important to show them that they are part of the Church, that they are not excommunicated. The words ‘they are not excommunicated’. Up to now, this is how they were understood to be, because they couldn’t receive the sacraments…
No, no you don’t need to tell me more, because I was always obviously researching, reading something I didn’t know, because when I studied Canon Law, it being the new Law of the Church [i.e. the revised Codex 1983] which we are using… the old one [inaudible]…I worked on my thesis [on Canon Law] with Cardinal [Raymond] Burke too, well not studied as such, I studied with Cardinal Navarrete, but he was my supervisor. But before, in the olden days, whoever was guilty of adultery was excommunicated. It was a proper excommunication. But now, in the Church’s law this is not so any longer; however there still remains that feeling: that if you’ve something done really bad, well, “please don’t come near the Church, we don’t want you.” The Pope is saying this talk must stop, even the way we tend to label people, as it were, putting a label on the back of their jumper or jacket, pointing them out. The Pope is saying: “Let us stop throwing stones at each other.” A ‘stone’ can be a hard word, or a label, or a judgement, or anger, or lack of respect. The Pope is saying to these brethren of ours, “Come in”. It may be that in these circumstances they cannot approach the sacraments, but let us not compel them to feel like outcasts, in the peripheries, as if we’ve cast them aside.
No, not only forgiveness, because there are also requirements of justice which must be respected. Whoever makes a decision will also have to face the subsequent consequences. In other words, this isn’t, as it were, a cheap street. Grace doesn’t come cheap. And also, forgiveness means that the evil I committed, I must do my best to amend it.
Everyone has their cross. It could be, too, that this [hypothetical] couple [where one or both come from a previous, failed marriage] never expected that they might have a case for annulment. So when the process begins, and there is this question: ‘but are your [respective] marriages valid?’, one must have the courage to ask this question, because we identify two different possibilities: either the marriage is null, or it was never consummated.
The Pope, when the marriage is not consummated, can dissolve the marriage.
Where an annulment was sought and not given, what happens? Can the case be reopened?
The Archbishop insists that it’s not that things will become easier; It’s not that Pope Francis has given a medal to present in Church and you receive Communion immediately. Pope Francis is a true shepherd who doesn’t give discounts from the Gospel of love and marriage as taught by Jesus Christ. But, what did Pope Francis do? He changed the procedures of nullity to make them speedier for whoever is seeking the truth. Not so as to invent a nullity where it doesn’t exist. But for instance, he said, one verdict is enough. Before you had to have two verdicts; you sweated blood! Then if one sentence was ‘yes’ , the other ‘no’, you had to have a third. Whereas the Pope said that one sentence is enough for one to be free to marry.
Is it the case that a previously negative verdict might now be changed to a positive? Is there this idea?
You will be appearing in front of different judges. The judges of this world are not infallible! One can see things in one way, and one in another. But then, however, whatever the judge decides, the Church will approve. And then we all believe and we trust that the judges who have been well-trained will give their best possible service. Apart from this, today psychology has made great advances; also studies on difficulties that used to exist in marriage…. For example the Pope, two days ago spoke to the judges of the Roman Rota, the Pope’s Marriage Tribunal. He said, ‘we want to avoid that people go in for the sacrament of marriage but do not believe. Because if one isn’t a believer, then a doubt arises on whether that sacrament is valid. There must be the conviction of ‘I want to celebrate the sacrament’ not, ‘I couldn’t care a fig about what I’m doing’.’
So, to prepare for marriage there is almost nothing done, and then in order to have my marriage annulled one sends for psychiatrists.
Oh, one has to sweat blood.
Yes, so in order to get tied there is nothing, and then to loosen the tie.
I agree with you completely that there is a disproportion.
But, when you read Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia, how he talks about the preparation of the young for marriage, you realise that we still have a lot of work to do.
It is not an unjust discrimination, but there is a distinction, it’s true. We’re saying there’s a situation and a [different] situation. In other words, the journey of discernment, you must begin it where the person is situated. I mean, that it doesn’t follow that just because someone has recently been divorced or has just separated, you don’t listen to them. But it’s different to the person who has been brought up in faithfulness, in generous giving, Christian living, bringing up the children properly even as regards marriage, a person who has carried the cross of life, even in the second union. This is a different situation from one who is newly-separated, the wounds are raw, the pain is still fresh… you have to accompany them in a different way. We are saying this to the priest: you have to open your eyes to each situation, one has more steps to take then the other.
These guidelines throw responsibility on the priest. There are those who will follow them enthusiastically, whereas others who are perhaps a bit conservative, or ‘rigid’, who have always followed the Commandments and who prefer not to give an opinion.
Yes, well, whoever finds themselves in difficulty has a right to say, listen, I’m… as for instance when you go to a doctor and he says, look, this is not my area, you’d better go to a consultant.
What about the new priests, those just out of seminary, are you going to prepare them for this?
First of all, this is the duty of us bishops. That we ourselves – well it’s not simply just about publishing the document. The document is published, yes, and it goes around the world, as it has. But then you must meet with your priests, and this is something the Pope tells the Argentinian bishops, his colleagues, in that letter when he said ‘I approve of your letter…’ ; he said: ‘Take care of the priests!’ Because for a bishop, charity is first of all to take care of his neighbour, and the bishop’s first neighbour is the priest. We shall draw up a schedule of meetings with priests, not large groups, so that we can have frank discussions. And myself, as bishop, I will explain the Criteria and I will strengthen my priests to understand that ourselves, as Church, we need to walk in the steps that Pope Francis is indicating to us.
After the couple has made this discernment, they can approach the sacraments of Penance and Holy Communion. They can even be God-parents. The Church has always taught that...forgiveness of sins, firm purpose of amendment…Even Christ, told the adulterous woman, ‘go and sin no more’. So is Christ’s word going to change?
No, it is not. And it remains for us, as it were, the Star that leads us. And in fact, that’s why we repeat, in No. 7 [of the Criteria] what the Pope teaches: that there are circumstances where culpability is either decreased or is absent. And sin is not what is seen on the surface. Sin means that I’m at fault and I persist in it. If I am not at fault, then I have no sin. You could tell me: “Yes but on the surface there seems to be sin.” But sin is not what’s seen on the surface, it’s what’s inside. And that is discernment. This is the teaching of the Pope, when he says: “I don’t think it’s difficult to understand.” And this is why we also say, as the Pope says, that we must change our way of thinking. Not like before, in medieval times, when they would paint the doors of thieves, or brand them. We are saying, this is not the Christian way…
We [the bishops] are saying that in order to go to Communion, you mustn’t be in a state of sin. We are not saying that sin has now become non-sin. We are saying, there are circumstances – this is the teaching of the Pope – where there is no fault. Where there is no fault, there is no sin. And therefore, we are not cheapening grace, we’re not saying every case is the same. On the contrary, we’re also saying that our people, we must teach and help our people to change their attitude which is traditional, which many times moves only by what is seen. And this is what the Pope in Evangelii Gaudium calls ‘the pastoral conversion’. It’s not an easy term, because this doesn’t happen with a click of the fingers either. This needs time. Which is why it’s very important that we work together so as to have this pastoral conversion which will bring us to the Heart of Jesus.
What does ‘pastoral conversion’ mean? ‘Pastoral conversion’ means that, from a judgemental culture, we choose to have a culture where we welcome anyone, and wherever they happen to be on their own road towards Jesus.
So the Church’s doctrine is not going to change, no. What is changing is the attitude of the Church, or of the priests isn’t that right?
Of the priests but also of the Faithful, you know.
So, paragraph 14 says we must avoid all occasion of scandal. How?
First of all there is the scandal of the Hard Heart; but also that of laxness where you open the door to everyone without evaluation or discernment. This too is a scandal because you are cheapening grace and also being a stumbling-block to who is making an effort to be faithful. But then there is too the scandal of who is either black or white. The world is far more complicated than this. To be honest, I was very surprised because after the Pope wrote to the Bishops of Buenos Aires, I felt that when the Pope tells you ‘there are no other interpretations’, one has to accept the interpretation that the Pope gives of his own documents. We adhered to Amoris Laetitia, we also followed the interpretation that the Pope approved, but evidently what we did was not liked everywhere. One can’t please everyone.
But what I insist upon is that we have followed the Pope’s directives. Who doesn’t agree can write to the Pope.
Translation by Marie-Claire Kaminski