Charles Chaput, the Philadelphia archbishop, is known as one of the staunchest conservative leaders in the US Catholic church. Photograph: Matt Rourke/AP
Catholics in Philadelphia who are divorced and civilly remarried will be welcome to accept Holy Communion – as long as they abstain from sex and live out their relationships like “brother and sister”.
New guidelines published by the conservative archbishop of Philadelphia this month also called on priests within the archdiocese to help Catholics who are attracted to people of the same sex and “find chastity very difficult”, saying such individuals should be advised to frequently seek penance. Because same-sex attraction takes “diverse forms”, the archdiocese also said that some people can still live out a vocation of heterosexual marriage with children, notwithstanding “some degree of same-sex attraction”.
The guidelines, which took effect on 1 July, come three months after Pope Francis urged bishops to be more accepting of Catholics who lived outside of the church’s social teaching and doctrine, including people who have divorced and remarried, and people in same-sex relationships. The pope’s views were published in April in a document titled Amoris Laetitia (Joy of Love),which was hailed as potentially groundbreaking. Because the document called on bishops to show greater mercy and flexibility to bring Catholics back to the church, while also calling on bishops not to veer from church doctrine, it was seen as giving both traditional and more progressively minded bishops the chance to interpret the document as they saw fit.
The Philadelphia archbishop, Charles Chaput, is known as one of the staunchest conservative leaders in the US Catholic church, a view that is reflected in the rules the archdiocese published.
John Allen, a veteran Vatican journalist, said he believed Philadelphia was among the first archdiocese to publish such rules based on its interpretation of Amoris Laetitia.
“My suspicion is that those who are inclined to a more progressive reading [of Amoris Laetitia] are not going to put out documents to say so. It will quietly be made clear to priests that it is OK under certain circumstances, for example, to allow some people to quietly come back to communion,” Allen said. “My suspicion is that the more traditional line [adopted by some bishops] will be more public.”
Allen said that he did not think Pope Francis would be surprised by Chaput’s reading of the papal document, since he is likely aware of traditional interpretations of his document.
In its examination of homosexuality, the Philadelphia guidelines state that two people in an “active, public same-sex relationship, no matter how sincere, offer a serious counter-witness to Catholic belief, which can only produce moral confusion in the community.
“Those with predominant same-sex attractions are therefore called to struggle to live chastely for the kingdom of God. In this endeavor they have need of support, friendship and understanding if they fail,” the rules state.
But the greatest attention in the guidelines is focused on couples who are divorced and civilly remarried who have not obtained an annulment of their first marriage.
While divorced and remarried couples should be welcomed by the Catholic community, and not be seen as outside the church, the archdiocese said they are required by church teaching to refrain from all sexual intimacy.
“This applies even if they must (for the care of their children) continue to live under one roof. Undertaking to live as brother and sister is necessary for the divorced and civilly remarried to receive reconciliation in the Sacrament of Penance, which could then open the way to the Eucharist,” the archdiocese said.
Priests are also directed to consider Catholic couples who are living together but are not married, including whether the couple have had children born in these “irregular unions”. If a priest senses that one person in the couple is reluctant to take the plunge, the archdiocese recommended trying to break up the pair.
“Often cohabiting couples refrain from making final commitments because one or both persons is seriously lacking in maturity or has other significant obstacles to entering a valid union. Here, prudence plays a vital role. Where one or another person is not capable of, or is not willing to commit to, a marriage, the pastor should urge them to separate,” the guidelines state.
If the cohabitating couple seems ready to tie the knot but is just a bit slow, the priest should encourage them to practice chastity.
“They will find this challenging, but again, with the help of grace, mastering the self is possible – and this fasting from physical intimacy is a strong element of spiritual preparation for an enduring life together,” it said.