The battle between Pope Francis and conservative Catholics over Communion for the divorced and remarried has escalated after five bishops reaffirmed traditional Church teaching on the issue and the Pope was reported to have said they will 'regret it bitterly'.
The controversial statement was originally issued by three Kazakhstan bishops on December 31 which, as they noted, was the Feast of the Holy Family. They were Tomash Peta, Archbishop of Saint Mary in Astana, Jan Pawel Lenga, Archbishop-Bishop of Karaganda, and Athanasius Schneider, Auxiliary Bishop of Saint Mary in Astana.
Now, according to the website Corrispodenza Romana, two Italian prelates – Archbishop Carlo Vigano, the former papal nuncio to the United States, and Archbishop Emeritus Luigi Negri – have added their signatures.
The statement is aimed at rejecting liberal interpretations of Pope Francis's landmark encyclical from March 2016, Amoris Laetitia ('The Joy of Love') which, it says, have 'caused significant and ever greater confusion among both the faithful and the clergy, confusion that touches the heart of the life of the Church'.
It notes that some countries' bishops' conferences have said divorced-and-remarried Catholics may receive Communion, even if still living in a sexual relationship with their new partner, while the traditional teaching of the Church, reaffirmed by the Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, is that the remarried can only receive Communion if they resolve to refrain from sexual relations.
Pope Francis is reported to have endorsed a statement from Maltese bishops claiming that avoiding sex may be impossible and that those who decided they were 'at peace with God' could receive Communion, as well as an ambiguous document from the Buenos Aires bishops.
In their new statement, the five bishops said that some documents supporting Communion for the remarried had 'received approval even from the supreme authority of the Church' and place in bold type the following: 'It is not licit (non licet) to justify, approve, or legitimize either directly or indirectly divorce and a non-conjugal stable sexual relationship through the sacramental discipline of the admission of so-called "divorced and remarried" to Holy Communion, in this case a discipline alien to the entire Tradition of the Catholic and Apostolic faith.'
They go on to quote the Second Vatican Council as teaching that 'The sacraments not only presuppose faith, but by words and objects they also nourish, strengthen, and express it; that is why they are called "sacraments of faith".'
The bishops say they have made the statement 'before our conscience and before God who will judge us'.
Meanwhile, the website Church Militant reported an lay insider blog, Anonimi Della Croce ('Anonymous of the Cross'), in a post titled 'The Quiet Before the Storm,' as claiming: 'My source in the Vatican told me that last night [Pope Francis] stayed in Santa Marta with several Vatican "press officers" and various "advisers" for a meeting on how to deal with this new and "unexpected" Correction from the Bishops of Astana. The source told me that [the Pope] was furious. He went on a rampage — because he cannot stand any opposition. They heard him scream: "They will regret it! They will regret it bitterly!"'
The claims were unverified and regarded as unlikely to be accurate.
Nonetheless, the row inside the Catholic Church over interpretations of Amoris Laetitia has been brewing for months. In September, a Catholic bishop and several dozen priests, scholars and writers published what they described as a 'filial correction' of some of Francis's teachings about marriage, especially about access to the sacraments for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics – or 'unrepentent adulterers', to use the incendiary language of conservative Catholics.
The letter accused Pope Francis of 'the propagation of heresies effected by the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia and by other words, deeds and omissions of Your Holiness.'
That letter followed a set of critical questions signed in September 2016 by the US Cardinal Raymond L Burke, and the German Cardinal Walter Brandmuller. Along with two other cardinals who are now deceased, they publicly released the set of questions, known as 'dubia' that they had sent to Pope Francis about the same subject area.
In August, Cardinal Burke spoke in an interview about issuing a 'formal correction' of Pope Francis if he refused to respond to the 'dubia', taking the form of a declaration of church teaching. Pope Francis has not responded.
In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis asked pastors to 'accompany' those who have remarried civilly; to check whether their sacramental marriage was valid or if they could receive a decree of nullity; and to lead them in a process of discernment about their responsibility for the breakup and about their current situation in the light of church teaching. The document reflected discussions and conclusions from meetings in 2014 and 2015 of the Church's Synod of Bishops on the family.