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“Nourishment for the Journey, not a Prize for the Perfect”: Reflecting with Amoris Laetitia on Eucharistic Sharing in Interchurch Marriages

Corinne Bernhard-Bitaud & Thomas Knieps-Port le Roi

This paper was originally published in A Point of No Return? Amoris Laetitia on Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage, Thomas Knieps-Port le Roi (ed.), (Munster: LIT-Verlag, 2017), p. 215-232.  Permission to publish here kindly granted by the publisher and editor.

In his letter to the bishops of the Buenos Aires pastoral region of September 2016, Pope Francis explicitly confirmed an interpretation of Amoris laetitia according to which the church opens a path of personal and pastoral discernment offering divorced and remarried Catholics the possibility of having access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist.[i] The pope has thus unmistakably changed the church’s discipline with regard to the divorced and remarried and revised the theological vision that had undergirded the previous practice.[ii] While this is certainly good news for Catholics in second marriages and their families, others who are also living in what the Catholic Church regards as “irregular or complex marital situations” may not be equally pleased with the Post-Synodal Exhortation. Interchurch families,[iii] for instance, had asked the 2015 Bishops’ Synod for an explicit statement that spouses “who express a real need and desire for Eucharistic sharing, and who fulfil the criteria for admission, can be allowed to receive communion alongside their Catholic partners on an on-going basis, whenever they are at mass together.”[iv] Amoris laetitia, however, which dedicates only one paragraph to interchurch families,[v] simply refers to the 1993 Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, stipulating that admission to Eucharistic communion for the non-Catholic spouse can only be granted in exceptional cases.[vi]

In this paper we will explore whether or not Amoris laetitia also has a positive message for interchurch families. In a first step, Corinne Bernhard-Bitaud reads the document from the perspective of an interchurch family that experiences the pain of being united in the domestic church of the family day by day and yet separated at the Lord’s Table on Sunday. She regrets that Amoris laetitia does not recognize more explicitly the existential need of these families to be offered Eucharistic hospitality. Sharing her concerns, Thomas Knieps-Port le Roi pushes the reading of Amoris laetitia a step further beyond what it explicitly states. Looking at how the exhortation deals with the admission to communion of remarried divorcees, he argues that, seen in its entire theological and pastoral orientation, Pope Francis implicitly entitles and encourages interchurch couples to embark on a path of personal and pastoral discernment which may include Eucharistic sharing not only for exceptional occasions but on an ongoing basis.

1 Reading Amoris Laetitia from the Lived Experience of Interchurch Families

The apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia offers general concerns about Christian families (AL 292) which do not specifically focus on interchurch families but do not exclude them either (AL 297): “Here I am speaking not only of the divorced and remarried, but of everyone, in whatever situation they find themselves.”) In the title itself, this exhortation is addressed to “Christian married couples”, and not only to Catholic married couples. I am the Protestant spouse in an interchurch family, and I was myself a child in an interchurch family, so that I have been living daily ecumenism for almost 50 years. That is the reason why, from this specific point of view, I want to give an account of of how I received the elements of this text related to the admission of Christian spouses to the Eucharist and its spiritual function for couples.

1.1 The Domestic Church – Disunited at the Lord’s Table

Pope Francis recalls that Christian marriage is a “domestic church” (AL 292) in reference to St John Chrysostom: “Make your house a church. Indeed, you are also responsible for the salvation of your sons and your servants.”[vii] The Second Vatican Council had taken up and developed this term, stating that it means that the family should be a place where the baptized live their Christian vocation: “For where Christianity pervades the entire mode of family life, and gradually transforms it, one will find there both the practice and an excellent school of the lay apostolate.

In such a home husbands and wives find their proper vocation in being witnesses of the faith and love of Christ to one another and to their children.”[viii] Interchurch families from all countries recognize themselves completely in this formulation, which they used themselves during their Second World Gathering in Rome in 2003: “Like every other Christian family, an interchurch family represents the Body of Christ in the home, and can, therefore, be described as a domestic church.”[ix]

What we want to bear witness to on this subject has already been described in theological research:[x] we are a domestic church, we are experiencing, in our couples, a united church, in full communion, even if we are not in the classical ecclesiological patterns of unity. Indeed, as is highlighted by the papal document:

“If a family is centred on Christ, He will unify and illumine its entire life” (AL 317). So we are living witnesses, and we will not remain silent that the most complete unity is really possible even while respecting our diversity. If this is possible for the “cellular” level that the family is, why should it not be possible at higher levels?

Nevertheless, referring to the Ecumenical Directory, the pope reminds us that the Roman Catholic Church’s general rule for the Protestant spouse in an interchurch family is “Eucharistic inhospitality”. Restricting admission to the Eucharist to exceptional circumstances (AL 247) and forbidding Catholic believers  from participating in the Protestant Last Supper (formally restated in 2003[xi]) leads interchurch couples to have to disunite themselves each Sunday before the Lord’s Table. It is really necessary to underline here that this is not just a question of experiencing the scandal of division once a year, during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, or from time to time during ecumenical assemblies, as is for example the case for most of our ministers, but of experiencing this scandal each week. Month after month. For our whole lives. We are united domestic churches during the whole week, except on Sunday before the Lord’s Table.

Along with the Synod Fathers, Pope Francis underlines that remarried divorcees “are baptized; they are brothers and sisters; the Holy Spirit pours into their hearts gifts and talents for the good of all” (AL 299). The Protestant spouses in interchurch families would be delighted to be described in the same manner.

For the moment, in the current state of the Roman Catholic Church’s practice, I no longer feel fully accepted as a baptized sister, even though I grew up in this church almost as much as in the one I chose.

The real pain that results does not give testimony to God’s unconditional love. Yet, the apostolic exhortation tells us that this unconditional love is related to “the highest and most central values of the Gospel”, and suggests that these values could be superior to the (Catholic) church’s moral teaching (AL 311). All Christians can feel the pain coming from division. As families, this division hurts us in our flesh because it concerns not only our life partner, our spouse, but also our children. Academic theological debate is not within the expertise of interchurch families, even though we make efforts to understand it and to benefit from it. But in contrast, we can recount what is perhaps the main contribution from interchurch families to ecumenical debates: the testimony of what we live, of what happens inside our domestic church.

When, years ago, one of my sons asked to receive his First Communion in the Catholic Church, as a Protestant mother, I welcomed this request and I thanked the Lord for it, without the shadow of a partisan ulterior motive, because this is not at all the issue. I met the priest who was accompanying the children, I explained our family situation, and I asked permission to receive the Eucharist with my son on this day of celebration. As a matter of fact, even if I do not share the ecclesiological reasons for stipulating discriminative conditions for the admission to the Lord’s Table, I respect the Catholic Church’s rule. The priest (I have to say that he had reached a certain age) gave me the authorisation with a big smile and a most fraternal “yes, of course”. Two years later, another of my sons made the same request.

I asked the same question to the new parish priest – he was younger – but he answered that it was not possible at all. He added, as an explanation, that Catholic and Orthodox Churches had needed eight centuries to become reconciled, and Protestants and Catholics have “only” been divided for five centuries. And, after that, he ended our discussion. Not a fraternal word. No questions about my Eucharistic faith. No opportunity for dialogue. So, I did not receive the Eucharist with my little boy on the day on which he received this sacrament for the first time. During the entire celebration, I have to say that I was really angry. A painful anger, deep inside of me, obviously unable to consider any ecclesiological reason.

An anger which totally prevented me from giving thanks on this day. Of course I did it later; interchurch families are resilient, and they move forward. But this division felt in the flesh was for me an existential experience of the spiritual violence of our separation. What can justify forbidding a baptized mother, believer, and activist for Christ, from receiving the Eucharist with her own children?

It is probably true that this priest was clumsy; it is certainly true that all priests do not react like he did. But the Catholic Church, for the moment, agrees with him on this issue, even if not on the form of his answer. Moreover, interchurch families testify that they are more and more often facing such refusals, even in “exceptional circumstances”, in particular from priests who didn’t experience the ecumenical momentum of the Second Vatican Council. And these priests are, of course, more and more numerous in the church. All the possible sociological thoughts on this situation cannot take away the reality that it induces and that we live in.

The Eucharistic fast can be a solution, or even a powerful act from ministers of our churches on the occasional situations of ecumenical celebrations. But I want to emphasize that it is inconceivable to fast each Sunday throughout our life as an interchurch couple. We would starve. So, let’s listen again to the pope: “At times we find it hard to make room for God’s unconditional love in our pastoral activity.

We put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance. That is the worst way of watering down the Gospel.” (AL 311) We can ask ourselves if this could not be true for ecclesiological considerations as it is for moral considerations.

1.2 What Kind of Example for our Children?

Concerning the children of divorced couples, the apostolic exhortation quotes a question from the pope’s catechesis of August 5th 2015: “How can we encourage those parents to do everything possible to raise their children in the Christian life, to give them an example of committed and practical faith, if we keep them at arm’s length from the life of the community, as if they were somehow excommunicated?” (AL 246) This question can also be asked concerning interchurch families. We make efforts to give a Christian education to our children; we teach them the words of our Lord: “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift” (Mt 5,23-24). Unfortunately, they can observe, Sunday after Sunday, that we have now believed for five centuries that we are not reconciled enough to share together the bread of our Lord. What can be their thoughts when they observe the gap between announcing the primacy of God’s powerful love and the fruits of sorrow that arise from the practical rule of the church? Moreover, when they ask to be confirmed, if they want to bear witness to their dual background – which is entirely different from a supposed third church –, they are told that it is impossible, and they can feel themselves condemned for what they are.

This unity that they have lived inside of the domestic church of their family is to be shattered when they become adult persons in faith. What kind of example do we give with such a rule?

My personal experience is that at the beginning of our life as an interchurch couple, we alternated going to both churches. But for some years now, because of explicit refusals from ministers or magisterial messages unfavourable to Eucharistic hospitality, we have anchored our spiritual life in a Protestant harbour.  So our children grew up as teenagers more in Protestantism than in Catholicism, although this was not our initial choice. It was not our life project. We really wanted to offer them the wealth of our spiritual diversity. But the attitude of the Roman Catholic Church, despite the work of some of its theologians,[xii] has made this project so difficult that we eventually gave it up.

The paper adopted by the Second World Gathering of Interchurch Families, Rome 2003, quoted interchurch teenagers as declaring: “It is not we who are confused in refusing to choose one Church or the other. It is you of former generations who have been confused in accepting and perpetuating the divisions of the churches. Christ willed only one church.” “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Lk 18,16).

1.3 A Reading of John 6

Facing all these questions, here is my reading of John 6. Five thousand men are there, and the women and the children. All are going to share, without any discrimination, the bread and fish. Judas Iscariot is there, too! All these people are the guests of our Lord. No entry ticket. Many of them are there simply out of curiosity, expecting a miracle. John is clear on that point: “a great crowd of people Jesus himself says, later: “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.” This is not even linked to curiosity, even less an issue of understanding what happens or what is the meaning of these signs. If those people are there, it is only because of the call of their bellies. They are here like beggars standing outside the door of a church. Even so, Jesus welcomes all of them, and he feeds them, himself.

He does not say that their curiosity, or appetite, are not enough in order to be able to receive a part of this bread of life, or that it is necessary to fully understand everything, or have a pure doctrine before being able to ask and receive. He simply acts. He shares the bread and gives it to all these men, women, and children.

Without any consideration of social background, age, intellect, moral value, or religious purity. It is enough to be there, to have followed the Master on this road, on this day. He does not ask for any baptismal certificate, nor promise of a commitment. Only later, will they understand. And, even then, they will not understand quickly. Even the apostles will become aware of the real signification of that sign only after the Resurrection. And probably some of those people will not understand at all. John tells us that many disciples will not accept Jesus’s explanation of this sign, and will leave the community. But this was their choice, nobody had excluded them from the sharing of the bread and the Word. Jesus gave them first, without any condition, this possibility to understand the Eucharistic sharing by living (or experiencing) it.

I believe in a God who became human, who really experienced our lives, and whose Body was given for us, for all of us, without any discrimination, without any conditions for access. I do not believe that He rejoices when we stand divided when we are to remember or to make present the sacrifice, never mind in reality how we name it. An eminent educator of the beginning of the 20th century promoted the basic principle of “learning by doing” (Lord Robert Baden-Powell).

I believe that this is what is at stake in Eucharistic hospitality. I believe that the strength given by the sacrament of unity is the ability to walk towards unity. This means learning unity by living it, by being confident in our God’s power, by letting go of our intellectual – and so very human – certainties.

As interchurch families, we want to testify that each time we can receive the Eucharist together, we do not live this transgression of the rule as a transgression of the divine commandment (Lk 22,19; 1 Cor 11,25-26). On the contrary, it produces in our family life many spiritual fruits of joy, revival, encouragement, and strength, exactly the same as for other Christian families. Hence we share with the pope the belief that “[t]he family’s communal journey of prayer culminates by sharing together in the Eucharist, especially in the context of the Sunday rest. . . For the food of the Eucharist offers the spouses the strength and incentive needed to live the marriage covenant each day as a ‘domestic church”’ (AL 318). Then, why should we be eternally deprived of a “regular” access to this divine grace – “regular” having the dual meaning of “constant” and “in line with the rules” (see AL 316, 296)?

2 Reading Amoris Laetitia from the Perspective of a Theology of Interchurch Families

When interchurch families show themselves disappointed with the outcome of the 2014/2015 bishops’ synods and the Post-Synodal Exhortation, their reaction may be understandable on a human level. But it is also perfectly justifiable from a theological point of view. I will first briefly summarize in what way contemporary church teaching and theological scholarship deal with interchurch marriage and the question of Eucharistic sharing. It will become clear that calling for the admission to communion of the entire interchurch family on a regular basis is not an exaggerated claim by those concerned but theologically sound and legitimate.

I will then analyse what Amoris laetitia explicitly has to say about interchurch families and Eucharistic communion. In a third and final move I will try to infer what implications the overall theological and pastoral orientation of Pope Francis’s exhortation may have for spouses and families who share their lives across denominational borders. The pope’s message for them may then in the end be more hopeful than first thought.

2.1 Contemporary Church Teaching and Theology on Interchurch Families and Eucharist Sharing

Catholic teaching and theology refer to the Eucharist as “the fount and apex of the whole Christian life” (LG 11) by which the Christian faithful share in the life of the Triune God and the unity of the People of God is brought about. The Second Vatican Council regards the Eucharist as both sign and source of ecclesial unity. The Decree on Ecumenism states that Christ instituted “the wonderful sacrament of the Eucharist by which the unity of His Church is both signified and made a reality”.[xiii] It goes on to say that common worship, including sharing the Eucharist, should bear witness to the unity of the church and provide a sharing in the means of grace to further perfect such ecclesial union. Where such unity is lacking or is imperfect, the Eucharist should as a rule not be shared unless it can serve in special circumstances as a means of grace to help restore lost or deficient ecclesial unity (see UR, 8). Seen from an ecclesiological point of view, there is thus not much to recommend Eucharistic sharing in the interchurch family on a regular basis. But ecclesiology is only one aspect to be considered here; another and complementary one is the theology of marriage.

In the very same article of the Constitution on the Church mentioned above, the council refers to the sacrament of matrimony by which Christian spouses are said to “signify and partake of the mystery of that unity and fruitful love which exists between Christ and His Church” (LG 11).  By virtue of the marital sacrament they not only “help each other to attain to holiness in their married life and in the rearing and education of their children” but have a special position and role within the church. The marriage of Christians gives rise to the family “in which new citizens of human society are born, who by the grace of the Holy Spirit received in baptism are made children of God, thus perpetuating the people of God through the centuries”. It is here that the council refers to the family as a “domestic church”, a realization of the church in its smallest unit.[xiv] This has massive implications for interchurch couples whose marriages the Catholic Church regards as sacramental[xv] and whose families can then truly be called domestic churches as well.[xvi] Moreover, signifying and sharing the mystery of Christ’s union with the church in their interpersonal conjugal union, interchurch spouses, just like Catholic same-church couples, bring about that ecclesial unity which finds its expression in and through the Eucharist. The close link between marriage and the Eucharist, which post-conciliar teaching consistently emphasizes, must therefore also be asserted for interchurch marriages and their families. There is no reason at all why interchurch families should not feel equally addressed when Pope Francis writes in Amoris laetitia that the family, which is entitled to “become a communion of persons in the image of the union of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit”, is called “to join in daily prayer, to read the word of God and to share in Eucharistic communion, and thus to grow in love and become ever more fully a temple in which the Spirit dwells” (AL 29). It may then be that ecclesiological considerations advise against Eucharistic sharing in the domestic churches that are interchurch families as long as the church communities to which they belong are not in communion with one another – the theology of marriage in any case commends it despite the lack of full ecclesial unity. And that is why interchurch families cannot and should not turn a deaf ear to Pope Francis when he proclaims that “the family’s communal journey of prayer culminates by sharing together in the Eucharist, especially in the context of the Sunday rest”, and that “the food of the Eucharist offers the spouses the strength and incentive needed to live the marriage covenant each day as a ‘domestic church”’ (AL 318).

Contemporary theology has further developed these lines set out in Vatican II ecclesiology, sacramentology, and theology of marriage, arguing that the interchurch family is an ecclesial community which, on the basis of baptism and sacramental marriage, is entitled to share Eucharistic communion together.[xvii] Also, post-conciliar church teaching and discipline have come to acknowledge that interchurch spouses find themselves in a particular situation which differs from that of any other ecumenical grouping because of “the reception of the sacrament of Christian marriage by two baptized Christians”.[xviii] The Ecumenical Directory thus admits the non-Catholic spouse in an interchurch marriage to Eucharistic communion but further stipulates that this admission “can only be exceptional” and that “in each case” the ecclesial norms concerning intercommunion must be observed.[xix] What justifies such exceptional admission – in the case of interchurch marriages but also more broadly – are, according to the 1983 Code of Canon Law and the 1993 Ecumenical Directory, “situations of grave and pressing need”.[xx]

Various bishops and bishops’ conferences have since then specified that interchurch couples may indeed experience a “serious spiritual need” for sharing the Eucharist together which springs from the very nature of their marital commitment.[xxi] To accommodate this spiritual need, the concrete regulations in the respective pastoral guidelines of the local churches vary. Some restrict the admission of the non-Catholic spouse to a one-off event at unique occasions such as the nuptial mass or the funeral of the Catholic partner, others extend it to occasions of ecclesial or familial significance (such as ecclesial feast days or the celebration of first communion, confirmation, or the wedding of a child), while still others see a spiritual need arise every time an interchurch couple attends mass together. If indeed one follows the central theological argument that in the Eucharist “Christian spouses encounter the source from which their own marriage covenant flows, is interiorly structured, and continuously renewed”,[xxii] it seems perfectly plausible to situate the spiritual need of interchurch spouses in the uniqueness of their situation as such rather than restricting it to unique occasions. For if marriage requires a continuous commitment of the spouses to realize conjugal and ecclesial unity in the domestic church, it also needs to be sustained on an ongoing basis.[xxiii]

The Interchurch Families International Network (IFIN) has therefore pointed out in its “Response to the 2015 Synod on the Family” that “Christian marriage is not a series of special occasions, but an on-going daily commitment to becoming ever more fully an intimate community of life and love, a domestic church. Exceptional Eucharistic sharing is needed throughout an interchurch marriage to sustain this communion in Christ, to express and to deepen it.” Hence, it made the request to the Synod “that interchurch spouses who express a real need and desire for Eucharistic sharing, and who fulfil the criteria for admission, can be allowed to receive communion alongside their Catholic partners on an on-going basis, whenever they are at mass together.”[xxiv] Neither the Final Report of the 2015 synod nor the pope’s Post-Synodal Exhortation, however, responded positively to this request.

2.2 What Amoris Laetitia Says on Interchurch Marriage and Eucharistic Sharing[xxv]

We have already indicated that Amoris laetitia as a whole does not pay excessive attention to interchurch families and their particular situation. The only paragraph dedicated to this issue (AL 247) simply repeats what the Relatio synodi of the 2015 synod had to say in its no. 72.[xxvi] It states first that “marriages between Catholics and other baptized persons” have an intrinsic value and can make a contribution to the ecumenical movement. With a quotation from Familiaris consortio (no. 78), it is then urged that “an effort should be made to establish cordial cooperation between the Catholic and the non-Catholic ministers from the time that preparations begin for the marriage and the wedding ceremony”. The remaining half of the paragraph is finally dedicated to Eucharistic sharing but it simply quotes what is said in nos. 159-160 of the Ecumenical Directory: a decision as to whether the non-Catholic party may be admitted to communion is to be made in keeping with the general norms, taking into account the particular situation of the reception of the sacrament of matrimony by two baptized Christians; although the spouses share the sacraments of baptism and matrimony, Eucharistic sharing can only be exceptional and in each case according to the stated norms.

Ruth Reardon has argued that although interchurch families had hoped for more, the exhortation’s reference to the Ecumenical Directory has to be welcomed nonetheless. This is because the Directory’s specific regulations with regard to interchurch marriages are not well known among many priests and even bishops who still tell non-Catholic spouses that they may not receive the Eucharist. “The general norms on Eucharistic sharing (Directory 129-131) are often quoted as though there were no specific reference to the particular situation of those who ‘share the sacraments of baptism and marriage’ later in the document”, namely in its nos. 159-160.[xxvii] In this way, the Relatio synodi 2015, and the Post-Synodal Exhortation which quotes from that final report, have corrected the false impression still given by the Instrumentum laboris 2015 which suggested that the non- Catholic spouse in an interchurch marriage may receive the Eucharist only if his or her pastor is not available, without referring to any spiritual need.[xxviii] By quoting nos. 159-160 of the Directory, Pope Francis clearly confirms the special needs interchurch couples may have with regard to Eucharistic communion and, according to Reardon, implicitly warrants the pastoral option of exceptional Eucharistic sharing on an ongoing basis for those who wish to adopt it.

When the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, Ireland, and Scotland issued One Bread, One Body: A Teaching Document on the Eucharist in the Life of the Church, and the Establishment of General Norms on Sacramental Sharing in 1998, Reardon had compellingly shown in her “Commentary from an Interchurch Family Point of View” that the bishops’ had opted for a restrictive interpretation of the Ecumenical Directory when they read “exceptional” in the sense of “occasional” admission and finally reduced the possibility of Eucharistic sharing to “unique occasions”. She continues that  [t]he Directory itself never refers to occasions, nor to occasional Eucharistic sharing.

It speaks of admission to Eucharistic communion as being permitted, or even commended, “in certain circumstances, by way of exception, and under certain conditions” (129). It is at the very least a legitimate reading of the text in n. 160 to refer the “exceptional” to the “cases” which follow, when it would mean that Eucharistic sharing for spouses in a mixed marriage is possible in exceptional cases where the conditions for admission are fulfilled. Here “cases” is taken to refer to couples, that is, to persons and not to “occasions”.[xxix]

One could find a late proof that Reardon’s reading is indeed legitimate when crosschecking it with a sequence in Amoris laetitia which deals with the admission to the Eucharist of divorced and remarried spouses. In AL 305 Francis maintains that “it is possible that in an objective situation of sin. . . a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end”, and then adds in footnote 351 that “[i]n certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments”. This is a rather convoluted way of saying that in particular cases and under certain conditions divorced and remarried Catholics can be admitted to the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist.

But nobody would ever doubt that the wording “in certain cases” (in Italian: in certi casi) does indeed directly refer to a category of persons being exceptionally admitted to the sacraments rather than to specific or unique occasions in the life of these persons. What the pope wants to express here is that they may receive the communion whenever they wish to do so, supposing that the conditions for ad mission are fulfilled. Analogously, when the Directory stipulates that Eucharistic sharing of the non-Catholic spouse in an interchurch marriage “can only be exceptional” and that “in each case” the existing norms have to be observed (no. 160), this can be taken to mean that in particular cases an interchurch couple may be allowed to receive communion whenever they attend Mass together and desire to do so.

We do not have to prove here, however, whether or not ongoing Eucharistic sharing in interchurch marriages is possible on the basis of the stipulations of the Ecumenical Directory. It seems in any case very likely that it is, since some local bishops and bishops’ conferences have interpreted the Directory precisely in this way.[xxx] Likewise, there is no indication whatsoever that Pope Francis would want to negate this possibility. But has Amoris laetitia then no other message for interchurch families than that everything remains as it was before?

2.3 The Implicit Logic of Eucharistic Sharing in Amoris Laetitia

It is obvious that Pope Francis does not see the need to change doctrine or canon law. “. . . not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium”, he writes in the introduction to Amoris laetitia (3), and later explains that because of the “immense variety of situations” families are living in today, “neither the Synod nor this Exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases” (AL 300). When it comes to marriage and family, his aversion to doctrinal and canonical “one-size-fits-all” solutions has a self-critical note: “We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical, and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond, and giving meaning to marital life.” (AL 37) A mainly normative discourse, Francis seems to argue, has obscured the church’s primary task of helping couples and families “better to respond to the grace that God offers them” (AL 35). The theme of God’s grace being present in the lives of families and waiting to be discovered and responded to is indeed a frequently recurring, and probably the most central, concern of the pope in Amoris laetitia. He is also aware of the fact that many “appreciate the Church’s efforts to offer guidance and counselling in areas related to growth in love, overcoming conflict and raising children” and are therefore “touched by the power of grace experienced in sacramental Reconciliation and in the Eucharist, grace that helps them face the challenges of marriage and the family” (AL 38). That this powerful source of support may flow more abundantly and reach families in their concrete living conditions is Francis’s strongest desire, which finally makes him put all norms and rules, whether moral or ecclesiastical, in their place as the two by now famous footnotes 340 and 351 clearly demonstrate. Even a person who lives in an objective situation of sin “can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end” which, as the footnote explains, “can include the help of the sacraments” (AL 305, footnote 351). Likewise, “the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same” which, as footnote 336 expounds, “is also the case with regard to sacramental discipline” (AL 300), if only the degree of responsibility of a person is taken into account. Both are clear indications that the power of divine grace and, even more so, a person’s need of such grace, can definitely trump laws and rules, in this case ecclesiastical rules governing the dispensation of the sacraments.

It is not always so clear whether the pope refers to moral or ecclesiastical laws which both may be imposed to curtail the working of God’s grace. When referring to divorced and remarried persons, his focus is primarily on the moral law, since living in a second union while the previous marriage is still valid is regarded by the church as living in adultery. But because, as we have already seen, “it is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace” (AL 305), it would be “reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being” (AL 304). It can therefore be that a person who has good reasons to stay in the second union[xxxi] can recognize in his/her conscience “with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal” (AL 303). The moral law which prohibits adultery does thus not necessarily allow a judgment on the behavior of a person which objectively contradicts the law but may subjectively be justified.

To substantiate his claim, Francis recalls both a classical moral insight which says that general moral principles fail when it comes to matters of detail[xxxii] and the understanding of the natural law which should not be regarded “as an already established set of rules that impose themselves a priori on the moral subject” but rather as “a source of objective inspiration for the deeply personal process of making decisions”[xxxiii] . Moral decisions have thus to be taken in a personal process of prudent discernment for which general moral principles serve as sources of orientation and inspiration but as such do not determine a person’s moral responsibility once the decision has been made nor do they give any indication of the state of grace this person at this point is in.[xxxiv]

If moral laws ought not cut off people from the inexhaustible source of divine grace, ecclesiastical rules should do so still less. This is the pope’s second concern with regard to the discipline of the sacraments, which makes him call for the possibility of divorced and remarried persons to receive the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist. He thereby recalls what he had expressed already in Evangelii gaudium,[xxxv] namely that “the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy” (EG 44) and the Eucharist be “not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (EG 47).[xxxvi] In fact, the same conditions that are applicable to personal moral decisionmaking also apply here to canonical decisions with regard to the admission to the sacraments: “general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation [. . . ] cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations” (AL 304); and “the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same” (AL 300). The only additional requirement here is that the process of personal discernment has to be accompanied and supported by a pastoral discernment, i.e. a “[c]onversation with the priest, in the internal forum, [which] contributes to the formation of a correct judgment on what hinders the possibility of a fuller participation in the life of the Church and on what steps can foster it and make it grow” (AL 300).

If we try to draw any conclusions from the perspectives Amoris laetitia opens for the admission to communion of remarried divorcees for the Eucharistic practice in interchurch families, we should start from the pope’s genuine concern that God’s grace may not be hindered to help couples face the challenges of married and family life. Having unmistakably pointed out that the grace of God works in their lives as well [i.e. of those who participate in the Church’s life in an incomplete manner] by giving them the courage to do good, to care for one another in love and to be of service to the community in which they live and work” (AL 291), Francis has broken new ground in theology which finally makes him demand that the flow of grace should not be hindered by any moral or church law. But it is here already that interchurch families would reject, and rightly so, any attempt to put their situation on equal footing with what Amoris laetitia, although respectfully, refers to as “irregular marital situations”.[xxxvii] When falling into love with and marrying someone from a different church or church community, interchurch spouses do not go against any moral ideal of the Catholic Church.

We have shown above how contemporary church teaching and theology recognize the value of interchurch marriage on the basis of common baptism and the shared sacrament of marriage. And also Amoris laetitia talks about the “intrinsic value” of interchurch marriage (247). The exclusion of the non-Catholic spouse from sharing the Eucharist is thus not caused by any moral failure as in the case of divorced and remarried spouses whose state and condition of life, at least in previous church teaching, was said to “objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist” (FC 84).What impedes the union between Christ and the church to be symbolized in the Eucharistic sharing of the interchurch marriage is the lack of full “unity in faith, worship and community life” between the churches to which the spouses (and their families) belong[xxxviii] – a fact that the spouses are not responsible for nor can do anything about. If one follows the logic of Amoris laetitia, it is unthinkable that interchurch families should remain deprived of “the food of the Eucharist [which] offers the spouses the strength and incentive needed to live the marriage covenant each day as a ‘domestic church”’ (AL 318), only because official church bodies refuse – or do not succeed in realizing – the full unity of and in the Body of Christ.[xxxix] When visiting the Lutheran church in Rome in November 2015 and being asked by the Lutheran wife married to a Roman-Catholic about Eucharistic communion in the interchurch family, Pope Francis gave an answer completely in line with this theological logic:

 I respond to your question only with a question: how can I participate with my husband, so that the Lord’s Supper may accompany me on my path? It is a problem to which each person must respond. A pastor friend of mine said to me: “We believe that the Lord is present there. He is present. You believe that the Lord is present. So what is the difference?” – “Well, there are explanations, interpretations . . . ”. Life is greater than explanations and interpretations. Always refer to Baptism: “One faith, one baptism, one Lord”, as Paul tells us, and take the outcome from there. I would never dare give permission to do this because I do not have the authority. One Baptism, one Lord, one faith. Speak with the Lord and go forward. I do not dare say more.[xl]

One may indeed complain – and some have done so with regard to the somewhat cryptic admission of divorced and remarried spouses to the sacraments contained in the two footnotes[xli] – that Amoris laetitia does not draw out more explicitly the implications of its theology for the issue of Eucharistic sharing in interchurch families. Pope Francis, however, seems convinced that a change of attitude is more important than, and must be prior to, changing the rules and regulations. Reardon has therefore well captured what might be the answer to the question of so many interchurch families: “Does this leave interchurch families where we were before? Does Amoris Laetitia leave the Church where we were before? There has been no change in legislation. But the entirely new insistence on discernment by couples and families and their pastoral accompaniment by parishes, priests, and bishops may in time create an entirely new climate of pastoral understanding that will lead to a new flourishing of the domestic churches that contribute to as well as receive from the life of the Church.”[xlii]42 It is this new climate of pastoral understanding, supported by a renewed theology of marriage, grace and Eucharistic unity, that interchurch families may put their hope in.

Corinne Bernhard-Bitaud & Thomas Knieps-Port le Roi, ‘”Nourishment for the Journey, not a Prize for the Perfect”: Reflecting with Amoris Laetitia on Eucharistic Sharing in Interchurch Marriages’, in A Point of No Return? Amoris Laetitia on Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage, Thomas Knieps-Port le Roi (ed.), (Munster: LIT-Verlag, 2017), p. 215-232


[i]  For an English translation of the guidelines issued by the bishops of the Buenos Aires pastoral region for implementation of chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia, and Pope Francis’s response to those guidelines, see; accessed 15.01.2017.

[ii] For a detailed analysis of the theological and practical shift from previous church teaching to Amoris laetitia, see E.-M. FABER/M.M. LINTNER: “Theologische Entwicklungen in Amoris laetitia hinsichtlich der Frage der wiederverheirateten Geschiedenen”, in: S. GOERTZ/C.WITTING (eds.): Amoris laetitia – Wendepunkt für die Moraltheologie? (Katholizismus im Umbruch; 4), Freiburg-Basel-Wien: Herder, 2016, 279-320; also B. PETRÀ: “From Familiaris Consortio to Amoris Laetitia: Continuity of the Pastoral Attitude and a Step Forward”, in: INTAMS Review 22/2 (2016), 202-2016.

[iii] We refer in this paper to “interchurch family” in terms of a family that “includes a husband and wife who come from two different church traditions (often a Roman Catholic married to a Christian of another communion). Both of them retain their original church membership, but so far as they are able they are committed to live, worship, and participate in their spouse’s church also. If they have children, as parents they exercise a joint responsibility under God for their religious and spiritual upbringing, and they teach them by word and example to appreciate both their Christian traditions”, a definition given in: Interchurch Families and Christian Unity, Rome, 2003, available from roma2003_en.pdf; accessed 15.01.2017.

[iv] Response to the 2015 Synod on the Family from the Interchurch Families International Network, 6 April 2015, 12, available from 2015.pdf; accessed 15.01.2017.

[v] 5 FRANCIS: Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, 2016, 247 (henceforward abbreviated as AL), available from tations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20160319_amoris-laetitia_en.pdf; accessed 15.01.2017.

[vi] See PONTIFICAL COUNCIL FOR PROMOTING CHRISTIAN UNITY: Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, 160, available from i_doc_25031993_principles-and-norms-on-ecumenism_en.html; accessed 15.01.2017, hereafter referred to by its common short name, the Ecumenical Directory.

[vii] JOHN CHRYSOSTOM: In Genesim, Sermo 7 (PG 54, 607).

[viii] Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, 35 (henceforward abbreviated as LG).

[ix] Interchurch Families and Christian Unity, 3.

[x] See e.g. T. KNIEPS-PORT LE ROI/R. TEMMERMAN (eds.): Being One at Home: Interchurch Families as Domestic Churches, Münster: LIT-Verlag, 2015.

[xi] See JOHN PAUL II: Encyclical Letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 2003, 30. PDF-

[xii] See e.g. CENTRE D’ETUDES OECUMÉNIQUES (STRASBOURG)/INSTITUT DE RECHERCHES OECUMÉNIQUES (TÜBINGEN)/INSTITUT DE RECHERCHES CONFESSIONNELLES (BENSHEIM): Le partage eucharistique entre les Eglises est possible: Thèses sur l’hospitalité eucharistique, Strasbourg: Academic Press, 2005.

[xiii] Decree on Ecumenism Unitatis Redintegratio, 2 (henceforward abbreviated as UR).

[xiv] On the concept of domestic church see T. KNIEPS-PORT LE ROI/G. MANNION/P. DE MEY (eds.):The Household of God and Local Households: Revisiting the Domestic Church (BETL; 254), Leuven: Peeters Publishers, 2013.

[xv] CIC 1983, can. 1055 §1 stipulates that every marriage between the baptized “has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament”.

[xvi] The idea of interchurch families being domestic churches is developed in detail in T. KNIEPS PORT LE ROI/R. TEMMERMAN (eds.): Being One at Home.

[xvii] See e.g. P. NEUNER: Geeint im Leben – getrennt im Bekenntnis? Die konfessionsverschiedene Ehe: Lehre – Probleme – Chancen, Düsseldorf: Patmos, 1989, 110f.; ID.: “Ein katholischer Vorschlag zur Eucharistiegemeinschaft”, in: Stimmen der Zeit 211 (1993), 443-450; G. HINTZEN/P. NEUNER: “Eucharistiegemeinschaft für konfessionsverschiedene Ehen?”, in: Stimmen der Zeit 211 (1993), 831-840; E. FALARDEAU: “The Church, the Eucharist and the Family”, in: One in Christ 33 (1997), 20-30; B. PRUSAK: “The Ecumenical Household as Domestic Church: Ecclesial Threat of Pastoral Challenge and Even Resource?”, in: T. KNIEPS PORT LE ROI/R. TEMMERMAN (eds.): Being One at Home, 155-173; E. FALARDEAU: “Eucharistic Hunger in the Domestic Church: A View from Interchurch Families”, in: T. KNIEPS PORT LE ROI/R. TEMMERMAN (eds.): Being One at Home, 175-187.

[xviii] PONTIFICAL COUNCIL FOR PROMOTING CHRISTIAN UNITY: Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, 159.

[xix] “Although the spouses in a mixed marriage share the sacraments of baptism and marriage, Eucharistic sharing can only be exceptional and in each case the norms stated above concerning the admission of a non-Catholic Christian to Eucharistic communion, [ . . . ] as well as those concerning the participation of a Catholic in Eucharistic communion in another Church, [ . . . ] must be observed.” (Ibid. 160)

[xx] See ibid. 130. The CIC 1983 in its can. 844 §4 stipulates the case and conditions of exceptional admission to the sacraments (of Penance, Eucharist and Anointing of the Sick) in the following way: “If the danger of death is present or if, in the judgment of the diocesan bishop or conference of bishops, some other grave necessity urges it, Catholic ministers administer these same sacraments licitly also to other Christians not having full communion with the Catholic Church, who cannot approach a minister of their own community and who seek such on their own accord, provided that they manifest Catholic faith in respect to these sacraments and are properly disposed” (emphasis added). It is obvious that while the Code primarily refers to objective circumstances (the absence of the non-Catholic minister and similar cases of “grave necessity”) which may justify the admission of non-Catholics to the Eucharist, the Ecumenical Directory also reckons with subjective “needs” on the part of the persons involved.

[xxi] For an overview of such pastoral guidelines see B. PRUSAK: “The Ecumenical Household as Domestic Church”, 161-171.

[xxii] JOHN PAUL II: Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, 1981, 57 (henceforward abbreviated as FC.

[xxiii] See R. REARDON: “One Bread One Body: A Commentary from an Interchurch Family Point of View”, in: One in Christ 35 (1999), 109-130.

[xxiv] See Response to the 2015 Synod on the Family from the Interchurch Families International Network, 12.

[xxv] This section draws on R. REARDON: “Amoris Laetitia: Comments from an Interchurch Family Perspective”, in: One in Christ 50 (2016), 66-86.

[xxvi] See The Final Report of the Synod of Bishops to the Holy Father, Pope Francis, 24 October 2015, available from; accessed 15.01.2017.

[xxvii] R. REARDON: “Amoris Laetitia: Comments from an Interchurch Family Perspective”, 67.

[xxviii] The Instrumentum laboris 2015 had formulated in its no. 128: “Some suggest that mixed marriages might be considered as cases of ‘grave necessity,’ in which it is possible that a baptized person who is not in full communion with the Catholic Church, yet shares the Church’s faith in the Eucharist, be allowed to receive the Eucharist, when their pastors are not available and taking into account the criteria of the ecclesial community to which they belong (cf. [Ecclesia de Eucharistia], 45-46; Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, 25 March 1993, 122-128).”

[xxix] See R. REARDON: “One Bread One Body: A Commentary from an Interchurch Family Point of View”.

[xxx] See ibid. 118f.

[xxxi] Some of these reason are listed in AL 298.

[xxxii] See AL 304.While referring to Thomas Aquinas, the pope in fact recalls the principle of epikeia which goes back to Plato and Aristotle. See G. VIRT: “Moral Norms and the Forgotten Virtue of Epikeia in the Pastoral Care of the Divorced and Remarried”, in: Melita theologica 63/1 (2013), 17-35.

[xxxiii] AL 305 quotes here from a document of the INTERNATIONAL THEOLOGICAL COMMISSION: In Search of a Universal Ethic: A New Look at Natural Law, 2009, 59, available from h_doc_20090520_legge-naturale_en.html; accessed 15.01.2017.

[xxxiv] AL 301 expresses clearly that “it is can no longer simply be said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace”.

[xxxv] FRANCIS: Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, 2013 (henceforward abbreviated as EG).

[xxxvi] AL 305, footnote 351. With regard to the Eucharist, Francis clearly opts here for the second of two principles which the Decree on Ecumenism of Vatican II had formulated for practicing common worship with separated churches: “first, the bearing witness to the unity of the Church, and second, the sharing in the means of grace. Witness to the unity of the Church very generally forbids common worship to Christians, but the grace to be had from it sometimes commends this practice.” (UR 8)

[xxxvii] Amoris laetitia puts “irregular situations” continuously in inverted commas. – In the Relatio synodi of 2014, interchurch or, in ecclesiastical parlance, “mixed marriages” were still dealt with under the heading of “Caring for Wounded Families”; see Relatio synodi, 2014, 54, available from; accessed 15.01.2017. AL 247 lists them in a section entitled “Certain complex situations”.

[xxxviii] See Ecumenical Directory, 129.

[xxxix] It is true that Pope Francis knows of situations in which, following St Paul’s admonition in 1 Cor 11,17-34, the unity of the Body of Christ is indeed wounded and the Eucharist should not be received (see AL 185-186). This is the case when “scandalous distinctions and divisions among its members” are being created (AL 186). Francis reads the Pauline text as “a serious warning to those families who withdraw into their own comfort zone and close themselves off, in particular, however, for families who remain indifferent vis-à-vis the suffering of poor and most needy families” (AL 186; the English translation leaves out this sentence which in the Italian original runs as follows: “Questo testo biblico è un serio avvertimento per le famiglie che si richiudono nella loro propria comodità e si isolano, ma più specificamente per le famiglie che restano indifferenti davanti alle sofferenze delle famiglie povere e più bisognose”). This warning, however, includes interchurch as much as same-church families.

[xl] Quoted in R. REARDON: “Amoris Laetitia: Comments from an Interchurch Family Perspective”, 86.

[xli] See e.g. N. LÜDECKE: Déjà vu 2.0, 18 July 2016, available from; accessed 15.01.2017.

[xlii] R. REARDON: “Amoris Laetitia: Comments from an Interchurch Family Perspective”, 86.



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