PHILADELPHIA >> Three months ago, Pope Francis released a church teaching about the family, a document that both empathized heavily with the challenges of modern life and left major questions unanswered, including whether he'd opened the door to a changed place for divorced and remarried Catholics.
Such people are barred from Communion — the highest sacrament of the church — and Francis uncorked decades of debate about whether this huge pool of people were about to be let back in.
Tiny clues are starting to come in the United States, where at least two bishops — including one with a key leadership role on the topic — issued quite different reactions.
Last week, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia quietly issued guidelines "for implementing Amoris Laetitia," which did not make any changes to existing practice in the prominent, historic archdiocese. The guidelines remind that people who live outside of the church's explicit teachings — primarily people who divorce and remarry outside the church, but Chaput also included people who live together unmarried and same-sex couples — are eligible for Communion only if they don't have sex.
Chaput's guidelines emphasized the parts of Francis' document that essentially told clergy not to give up on people whose lives don't adhere strictly to Catholic teaching, and he calls for a "sensitive accompaniment of those with an imperfect grasp of Christian teaching ... and yet desire to be more fully integrated into Church life."
However, that integration has major limits. Even if people are chaste, Chaput's guidelines say, pastors must "judge prudently how best to address the situation" for the good of the people and the congregation.
In June, Chaput was named by the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to run a working group aimed at implementing Amoris Laetitia. The group of five is an informal body that will make recommendations to the U.S. church. Each bishop controls the practice in their region, but USCCB guidelines are hugely influential.
In May, San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy took a very different approach, calling for a special meeting in his diocese in the fall to discuss the papal document. Every parish will have a representative there, he said.
In the diocese's May paper, McElroy wrote that Francis' document "unceasingly points to the reality that the beauty of married love is not confined to an ideal world or exceptional relationships, but is realistic and attainable for most men and women. ... The declining number of Catholics who marry in the church is an enormous pastoral problem in the Diocese of San Diego and throughout the nation. Thus it is essential for our parishes to reflect a deep culture of invitation and hospitality toward all couples who have not yet celebrated Catholic marriage."
There are 195 dioceses and archdioceses in the United States, and most don't appear to have issued new guidelines — and aren't required to. However, the teaching document was the product of two years of high-level meetings that Francis called, and resulted in the expectation that something would change or be discussed in a new way. There was and is a great deal of speculation about what Francis's aim was in calling the synods and where his teaching document points.
As with many Francis documents, experts across the church read Amoris Laetitia and saw different things. Many acknowledged he had changed no doctrine, but had given in particular divorced and remarried people a hugely warm welcome and hope that he was urging priests to be as lenient and forgiving and merciful as possible.
Many debated a footnote which talked about ministry to divorced and civilly remarried people:
"In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, 'I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord's mercy' ... I would also point out that the Eucharist 'is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak'"
Patrick Hornbeck, chairman of the theology department at Fordham University, a Catholic school, said Chaput and McElroy show that different bishops will carry out the pope's words differently.
"McElroy is a good example of a bishop choosing to take the pope up on his invitation that this doesn't go on a shelf, but is to be a starting point," he said. Chaput, on the other hand, "wants to get ahead of liberal priests who look at Amoris Laetitia and say, 'Oh, I can do this or that.' "
A Bishops Conference spokesman said this week that the USCCB hasn't tracked how many bishops put out guidelines, but that Chaput's committee — when it begins — will be a clearing house for such efforts.
In a column for the Philadelphia archdiocese in the spring, Chaput wrote that "it would be a mistake to misread the compassionate spirit of Amoris Laetitia as a license to ignore Christian truth."
Lisa Cahill, a Boston College theologian, said in an e-mail that "a lot of bishops around the world are not comfortable (to say the least) with increasing flexibility around divorce, gay couples, nontraditional family structures, and the many other contentious items that were on the table at the synods. What Francis has done in effect is give local bishops permission and space to try innovations that are more flexible, merciful, and pastoral — but he is not mandating this. Hence individual bishops or dioceses can come up with their own policies. This is not enough according to many progressives — but is preferable to not advancing flexibility at all."