OTTAWA (CCN) — Pastoral guidelines issued by the bishops of Alberta and Northwest Territories have affirmed church teaching that precludes divorced and remarried Catholics from receiving communion unless their previous marriage has been formally annulled.
The guidelines were issued following Pope Francis’ post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, which the bishops suggested may have led some Catholics to believe church doctrine had been amended.
“It may happen that, through media, friends or family, couples have been led to understand that there has been a change in practice by the church, such that now the reception of holy communion at mass by persons who are divorced and civilly remarried is possible if they simply have a conversation with a priest,” the document, signed by six bishops, says. “This view is erroneous.”
Instead, the bishops urge pastors to take every step to reach out to divorced and remarried Catholics, to encourage them to grow in their faith and “toward full reconciliation with the church.” A necessary step toward reconciliation is to participate in a marriage tribunal which can make an “official declaration” regarding the validity or nullity of a marriage.
If a decree of nullity is obtained, the couple “will understand the need to proceed toward the celebration of the sacrament of matrimony,” the bishops write.
In cases where the tribunal upholds the validity of the first union, couples “are bound to live with the consequences of that truth as part of their witness to Christ and his teaching on marriage,” the bishops write.
“This may be difficult. If, for example, they are unable to separate for the sake of the care of children, they will need to refrain from sexual intimacy and live in chastity ‘as brother and sister’ (cf. Familiaris Consortio, 84),” the bishops write.
This would permit the couple to receive the sacrament of penance, and allow for their receiving holy communion.
“The situation may arise where a tribunal is unable fully to examine the circumstances of a prior union,” they write. “This may be due to the absence of any witnesses to the first marriage, or to the impossibility of obtaining documentary evidence. Such cases are to be referred to the diocesan bishop.”
The document contrasts with more liberal guidelines put forward by Argentine bishops which, according to reports, were endorsed in a private letter from Pope Francis that was leaked to the news media. But Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast does not see that as a problem.
“I hope Pope Francis would have praise and admiration for these guidelines, as he strongly believes that local bishops’ conferences and assemblies know how to address their local pastoral circumstances,” Prendergast said in an email. “Groups of bishops in the Philippines, Italy, Ireland and Argentina have produced reflections, too many for me to keep up with except to note they are being enacted.”
Prendergast called the Alberta and NWT bishops’ guidelines “profoundly pastoral while adhering to the teachings of the Word of God and the church’s tradition.”
“They are realistic in describing the circumstances of married life in Canada today and the pastoral issues at work,” he said.
He said he plans to share the Alberta and NWT bishops’ guidelines with clergy and those engaged in marriage preparation.
As for whether the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops should consider adopting the document, Prendergast pointed out Canada’s two cardinals would be leading a reflection on Amoris Laetitia when the bishops gather for their annual plenary Sept. 26 - 30.
“I would prefer to await the outcome of their presentations before addressing these matters,” the archbishop said.