The cardinal should be asked whether his book violates ancient Church teaching

Vatican City

Readers, like us writers, are perhaps getting weary from the dizzying twists and turns on divorce, remarriage and the sacraments. Alas, the latest whirl on the Amoris Laetitia carousel, provided by Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, cannot be ignored. In his enthusiasm to back what he thinks Pope Francis believes, despite no public evidence of same, the cardinal advises granting absolution and administering Holy Communion even to couples who can get married but choose simply to live together.

“The divorced and remarried, de facto couples, those cohabitating, are certainly not models of unions in sync with Catholic doctrine, but the Church cannot look the other way,” Coccopalmerio writes in his recent booklet on the correct interpretation of Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia. “Therefore, the sacraments of Reconciliation and Communion should be given even to those so-called wounded families and to however many who, despite living in situations not in line with traditional matrimonial canons, express the sincere desire to approach the sacraments after an appropriate period of discernment.”

The bit about the “traditional matrimonial canons” is a nice touch because Cardinal Coccopalmerio is in fact the president of the council for the interpretation of legislative texts. That’s the Vatican department entrusted with providing authoritative interpretations of canon law when difficult matters arise.

Given that Cardinal Coccopalmerio is willing to offer his counsel, but missed his own press conference to present his reflections, four questions ought to be put to him when journalists have the chance.

First, the very council of which he is the head issued a declaration in 2000 “concerning the admission to Holy Communion of faithful who are divorced and remarried”. The council explains why canons 915 and 916 prevent the admission of such couples to Holy Communion and makes the point, in legal language, that it can’t be changed because Jesus said so: “The prohibition found in the cited canon, by its nature, is derived from divine law and transcends the domain of positive ecclesiastical laws: the latter cannot introduce legislative changes which would oppose the doctrine of the Church.”

The declaration continues: “Any interpretation of canon 915 that would set itself against the canon’s substantial content, as declared uninterruptedly by the Magisterium and by the discipline of the Church throughout the centuries, is clearly misleading. One cannot confuse respect for the wording of the law with the improper use of the very same wording as an instrument for relativising the precepts or emptying them of their substance.”

Therefore, if the head of the council publishes in his private capacity advice that is judged erroneous by the extant declaration of his own council, why does he does not declare the declaration no longer in force? If the declaration is still in force, how does he advise parish priests who might seek his guidance? Do X if he replies on his office stationery, but not-X if he responds by way of a personal letter?

Second, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, a leading defender of Amoris Laetitia, recently told his seminarians: “When we begin our reflections on the pastoral implications of Amoris Laetitia, we need to start with the understanding that none of the teaching of the Church has been changed. This includes the teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, the directives you find in the Code of Canon Law, and also the role of individual conscience in the determination of personal culpability.”

Does Cardinal Coccopalmerio thus think Cardinal Wuerl is incorrect when he says that the canonical directives are unchanged?

Third, Cardinal Coccopalmerio employs the example of a woman who has been living with a divorced father for 10 years and would like to leave the situation, but concludes that if she does the man will fall into greater sin, and the children will suffer. Therefore she decides to remain and continue their sexual relationship even though she is fully aware that it is sinful and she would otherwise prefer not to commit that sin. There is no coercion here. The woman judges that it is better to continue the sinful behaviour to avoid some potential suffering or sinful behaviour in the future.

How does this not violate the ancient moral principle, stated explicitly in St Paul and reflected in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, that it is never permissible to deliberately do evil (sin) in order that good might come from it?

Fourth, cohabiting couples presumably can get married. If they choose not to and live in a sexual relationship which they have no intention of ceasing, on what possible principle can they be granted absolution and Holy Communion? To which the cardinal should be asked: does your inclusion of cohabiting couples mean that you think Amoris Laetitia can be employed to advance a capitulation to the sexual revolution, tout court?

There is much discussion of dubia in Rome these days. Cardinal Coccopalmerio’s intervention has raised more.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of Convivium magazine

This article first appeared in the February 24 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here