Catholics have been at odds over the doctrinal letter since the pope published "Amoris laetitia". Washington Archbishop Cardinal Donald Wuerl has now found a way to implement the guidelines without public discord.
Cardinal Wuerl is not one of the hotheads among Catholic leaders in the U.S. The archbishop of Washington is considered a level-headed man. At 77, he has the experience and authority to tackle controversial ies that younger bishops prefer to avoid. Now Wuerl has published a pastoral plan dealing with "Amoris laetitia".
The 2016 papal letter on marriage and the family is still the subject of controversy in the universal Catholic Church.
Divorced people who remarry are a point of contention
The most important point of contention is the treatment of remarried divorcees. According to church teaching, these were previously excluded from receiving communion. Francis advocates allowing civilly remarried people to receive the sacraments in individual cases after a thorough pastoral examination, even if their previous marriage continues to exist under church law. Time and again, there is criticism – some harsh – of this change.
In the USA, too, the interpretations of "Amoris laetitia" are quite different. In the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, conservative Archbishop Charles Chaput recommends sexual abstinence for remarried divorcees. They should live as "brother and sister" in order to receive reconciliation in the sacrament of penance. Archbishop Blase J appointed by Pope Francis in Chicago. Cupich, meanwhile, considered the mouthpiece of the liberal wing in the U.S. bishops' conference, takes a different stance. Cardinal makes "radical shift" in Pope's letter on how Church should deal with difficult family relationships.
Position of balance
In this delicate mix, Wuerl strives for a position of balance: "No, church teaching has not changed," he stresses in his 58-page pastoral plan for his archdiocese's 139 parishes. The "objective truth" remains untouched, he said. No one can abrogate the moral teaching by a decision, albeit a considered one, about one's own life situation.
At the same time, the cardinal is committed to those who, from the church's point of view, live in "irregular situations". The church must not exclude anyone, he urges. Neither divorced people nor people attracted to the same sex. And on the role of conscience, he writes: "Priests are called to respect the decisions of conscience of individuals acting in good faith. For no one can enter the soul of another and judge that vicariously for the other."
Wuerl acknowledges that family life in the U.S. is different than it was in the 1950s: "Conditions have changed."It is difficult to accuse the many former Catholics or non-practicing Catholics of deviating from doctrine if it has never been properly taught to them. A welcoming church, however, has the potential to bring people together again. With regard to "Amoris laetitia," the archbishop avoids an inner-church confrontation, choosing instead to use placating words: "Neither the Apostolic Exhortation nor this pastoral plan offer a list of answers to all human life situations."
The director of the Center for Liturgy at the University of Notre Dame, Timothy O'Malley, considers the cardinal's document noteworthy.
Wuerl not only focused on explaining rules, he said. It puts people at the center. The church loses believers because they often no longer have family support in religious matters, according to the expert. Wuerl has correctly recognized this problem.
Opportunity for change
In fact, for years there have been fewer and fewer Catholic marriages and infant baptisms in the U.S. Several dioceses see "Amoris laetitia" as an opportunity for change and plead for a rapid implementation of the doctrinal letter. In doing so, they follow the example of many European dioceses, which would like to see more flexibility, not least in dealing with remarried divorcees.
What is striking about Wuerl's interpretation of the Pope's letter is the restrained criticism of most traditionalists and the praise of some conservatives. For example, the National Catholic Register magazine writes of Wuerl's successful balancing act: "After so much polarization, we finally have a local implementation of 'Amoris laetitia' that does justice to the larger context of Pope Francis' challenge and vision."