Two very unlikely bishops have issued the most permissive guidelines yet on Amoris Laetitia. No wonder many Catholics are up in arms

The Apostle Paul brought the Gospel to Malta, and the Maltese today arguably remain the most Catholic people on the planet, despite plunging Mass attendances in recent years. The strategic position of the Maltese islands made it inevitable that their history would be full of invasions and wars.

Conflict of another sort, however, erupted from Malta earlier this month and spread worldwide with the publication of a document by the nation’s bishops. The text, “Criteria for the Application of Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia”, offered a set of guidelines intended to help interpret and apply the most disputed section of Pope Francis’s much discussed document.

Anybody who has been following the discussions surrounding Amoris Laetitia should know by now that to venture an opinion on its somewhat ambiguous provisions concerning Communion for the divorced and remarried it is to enter a war zone. The issue goes beyond discipline to touch long-held Church teaching, with vocal disagreements being aired on whether and to what extent a change in discipline is compatible with maintaining doctrine.

The Maltese document comes down firmly on the side of a relaxation of the discipline. It speaks of a process of discernment and examination of conscience under the pastoral guidance of clergy, quoting Pope Francis, who says that not all people in irregular situations are subjectively in grave sin. The crucial passage affirms that if the person “manages, with an informed and enlightened conscience, to acknowledge and believe that he or she are at peace with God, he or she cannot be precluded from participating in the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist.”

Reactions to the Maltese document were rapid and vociferous. Conservatives denounced it as a disastrous compromise of essential doctrine. Those who are apparently relaxed about the issue of doctrinal continuity and open to liberalising Church law leapt to its defence. The publication of the document by the Vatican’s house journal L’Osservatore Romano seemed to bestow the seal of official approval, suggesting that the Pope himself was backing it, albeit at arm’s length.

Who are the intrepid (or foolhardy) prelates who have ventured into this minefield, offering a clear – and contentious – interpretation of a document of renowned ambiguity? Malta has only two dioceses: the Archdiocese of Malta, and just one suffragan see, Gozo. The Archbishop of Malta, Charles Scicluna, 57, was first auxiliary to Archbishop Paul Cremona then succeeded in 2015, a year after Cremona’s surprise resignation. Mario Grech, 60 next month, has been Gozo’s bishop since 2005.

Several things are surprising about these two bishops having committed themselves so publicly and firmly to a controversial interpretation of a hotly disputed text. Malta has been traditionally a bastion of Catholic life and culture relatively immune from the secularising influences which have rocked Church life elsewhere. Nothing in the history of Archbishop Scicluna or Bishop Grech suggested that they might be found suddenly in the vanguard of the movement to bring the Church into line with contemporary mores. At least, nothing until the advent of Pope Francis caused ecclesiastical tectonic plates to shift.

Bishop Grech in particular seemed to perform a very rapid volte-face when the Roman winds changed direction. He was known for combative orthodoxy under Benedict XVI. His unyielding stance during Malta’s 2011 referendum on divorce earned him the opprobrium of Malta’s liberal press. They were particularly shocked by his homily on the eve of the referendum, in which he warned Catholics darkly about “doors that lead to destruction”. He told the congregation: “If you are not in communion with Christ’s teachings, you are not in communion with the Church and you cannot receive Communion.”

But under Francis, Bishop Grech rapidly changed tone. This earned him some recognition, and frequent invitations to write for L’Osservatore Romano. Bishop Grech is known to be close to Mgr Pio Vito Pinto, the Dean of the Roman Rota who has strongly criticised the four cardinals who have called on the Pope publicly to clarify Amoris Laetitia.

Archbishop Scicluna’s apparent switch is even harder to account for. He worked for many years in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Benedict XVI. He was Promoter of Justice, admired for his energetic and principled action against the scourge of clerical paedophilia as well as resolute defence of doctrine. He showed no sign of changing tack under Francis, and many of his admirers are stupefied by what they perceive as a sudden and inexplicable defection.

I think we do not need to guess at hidden motives and machinations in order to explain the surprising fact that this tiny and apparently conservative Catholic outpost in a secularised Europe has found itself suddenly at the centre of a storm over alleged innovations in Catholic doctrine.

The moral issues at stake – the possibility of keeping the moral law and the danger of putting limits on the actions of grace; the supremacy of conscience and the role of the Church in guiding and forming it – are well known and there is not space to treat of them here. But the most fundamental issue remains the nature and limits of papal authority.

The tendency we call ultramontanism, which puts an exaggerated weight on the will of individual popes and minimises the limits which divine law puts on their prerogatives, has been influential for centuries. The truths of our faith were revealed by God through the Apostles and the Pope’s task is not to preside over new revelations but to preserve and teach what has been handed down.

He does not discharge this responsibility alone, but in symphony with the whole Church, especially his brother bishops.

At Vatican II, progressives correctly sought to rebalance the exercise of papal authority and remind us that the Pope is the servant of the Church and not its master. The Council took this on board in its documents. The irony is that now there are progressives who see in Francis’s papacy an opportunity to pursue objectives they all but despaired of under previous popes, and who are apparently willing to forget, if only temporarily, their scruples about overweening use of papal prerogative to impose them on a Church where there is no consensus in their favour.

These are anxious times for Maltese priests who are grieved by their bishops’ guidelines. Bishop Grech has had to deny that recalcitrant clergy were threatened with suspension. I am relieved that authoritarian procedures will not be used in an ecclesial context where the frank dialogue called for by the Pope is more necessary than ever.

We can have no insight into the hidden motives of the Maltese bishops, nor have we any right to cast aspersions on their sincerity. In fact, it is neither necessary nor useful to do so.

Bishop Grech has made it clear that it is the authority of the Pope which has emboldened him and his colleague to make these ground-breaking rules. Defending the document in an interview with a Maltese radio station last weekend, he said that “to be in communion with the Pope has always been, and remains, a criterion which offers a guarantee that a teaching is authentic.”

These are loyal words from a Catholic prelate. Unfortunately, they are, theologically speaking, a misleading shortcut at best. Being in conscious communion with the Pope is a guarantee of belonging to the visible unity of the Church. But it does not guarantee that one has correctly interpreted his teaching, nor even, taking into account the different degrees of authority of different forms of papal teaching, that a given document is free from all possibility of error.

The Maltese bishops have not morphed from traditionalists to progressives, whether out of expediency or through persuasion. They have persisted in a particular form of pre-Vatican II authoritarianism which they have carried over inappropriately into a new ecclesial context. It is hardly surprising that the ultramontane mentality has persevered in a deeply traditional Catholic country. It is possible, though no one can be sure, that Malta was chosen to fly a theological trial balloon for this very reason.

But I fear that this balloon will not fly. Plenty of priests, in Malta and elsewhere, are perplexed and looking for guidance, and they will not find this document helpful. They want someone to explain why the more lax interpretations of Amoris Laetitia do not contradict the teachings of St John Paul II and other popes, or at least why this apparent contradiction does not undermine papal authority as they were taught to understand it. They are still waiting.

This article first appeared in the January 27 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here