On Communion debate, Pope Francis opts for decentralisation

Towards the end of Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’ document on the family, the Pontiff writes that when priests have to make judgments in concrete cases such as pastoral care of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, they are to do so “according to the teaching of the Church and the guidelines of the bishop”.

One wonders if he knew at the time just what a conflicting welter of responses that injunction would elicit.

Since the document appeared in early April, various bishops and groups of bishops around the world have issued guidelines for its implementation, and surveying the landscape, it’s abundantly clear they’re not all saying the same thing.

Some have stipulated that although divorced and civilly remarried Catholics remain a part of the Church and should be welcomed into its life, the traditional bar on giving them Communion remains fully in force.

Others, with varying degrees of caution, have suggested that Amoris does in fact create the possibility of receiving Communion after a process of discernment in some cases.

Reacting to that spread of reaction, some may object that while bishops are free to decide how to implement a papal decision, they’re not free to interpret it away. Others will conclude that until and unless Francis changes Church law, bishops have every right to apply the current norms as they see fit.

Whatever one makes of the merits of the dispute, one conclusion seems ineluctable: Whether by design or not, what Pope Francis effectively has done is to opt for decentralisation on one of the most contentious issues in Catholic life today.


Barring some further clarification or decree from Rome, what we now have is individual bishops, or regional groupings of bishops, determining whether the answer is “yes” or “no” in the territory under their jurisdiction.

In July, Archbishop Charles Chaput issued a set of guidelines for implementing Amoris in Philadelphia which held that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, if they wish to receive Communion, are called to live as brother and sister and refrain from sexual intimacy.

Recently Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix penned an article for his diocesan newspaper saying that nothing about Amoris opens the door to Communion for the divorced and remarried.

Earlier this month, bishops from Alberta and the Northwest Territories in Canada put out guidelines that appeared to take a dim view of readmission to Communion, warning that it can’t be just a simple matter of having a quick chat with a priest, and that any serious rupture of one’s marriage vows “must be healed prior to the reception of Holy Communion”.

Yet when the bishops of Pope Francis’s own Buenos Aires region earlier this month issued a draft set of guidelines saying that in some cases, “Amoris Laetitia offers the possibility of having access to the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist” for the divorced and remarried, Francis swiftly wrote back to congratulate them and to say that “there are no further interpretations”.

In early July, Italian Cardinal Ennio Antonelli, former president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, said that Francis “is opening an outlet even for admission to sacramental reconciliation and Eucharistic Communion“, and Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Austria, a key papal ally, has said repeatedly that Amoris does indeed create the possibility of divorced and remarried believers returning to the sacraments in some cases.

So what does this mean? Are the rules now different in say, Buenos Aires and Vienna from Phoenix, Philadelphia and Alberta?

Experts can debate what the rules really are, or should be, until the cows come home, but certainly it would appear that the practice is likely to vary from place to place, depending on the disposition of the bishop or bishops who are in charge.

Alongside a furor over the content of Amoris, therefore, we’re entering a new one over its impact, pivoting on whether opting de facto for local control on something like this is really a wise move.

Many will argue that because the Communion debate touches on such critical topics as the Catholic theology of marriage and the Church’s understanding of the Eucharist, allowing a diversity of responses on the ground risks dissolving the unity of the faith.

When I asked retired Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria about the decentralisation option during the last Synod of Bishops on the family, for instance, he was distinctly critical.

“Are you going to tell me that we can have a national bishops’ conference in one country that would approve something which, in another conference, would be seen as sin? Is sin going to change according to national borders? We’d become national churches,” he said. “It looks dangerously like nationalising right and wrong,” Arinze said.

Others, however, will likely say that because cultural realities are different in various parts of the world, allowing pastors and bishops some latitude to make judgments is wise, not to mention in keeping with the emphasis on collegiality at the Second Vatican Council.

That seemed to be the gist of Cardinal Walter Kasper’s now-infamous remark to a reporter during the first Synod of Bishops in October 2014, when he said the African bishops “should not tell us too much what we have to do”. 

What he appeared to mean is that the situation in Germany is different from much of Africa, and one-size-fits-all solutions don’t always work in a global Church.

Since his election three and a half years ago, Pope Francis has said more than once that he sees the need for a “healthy decentralization” of the Catholic Church.

Whether it’s healthy or not may be in the eye of the beholder, but when it comes to Communion for the divorced and remarried, there’s little doubt that as things stand, decentralisation is in fact just what he’s delivered.


John L. Allen Jr is Editor of CruxNow.com