FELDKIRCH, Austria (ChurchMilitant.com) - A bishop in Austria is saying that reception of Holy Communion by divorced Catholics who are "remarried" outside the Church is now an irreversible practice, and that the use of contraception is a matter of conscience.
Bishop Benno Elbs of Feldkirch, Austria, told the Austrian newspaper Die Presse that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics have been receiving the Eucharist prior to the papal exhortation Amoris Laetitia (AL), and the custom is not going away. "This is irreversible. It has been a pastoral practice for a long time."
In a wideranging interview published December 23 in the German press, Bp. Elbs claims that it's nothing new for civilly remarried Catholics who remain sexually active to receive the Eucharist. What is new, he claims, is that Pope Francis is seemingly on board with it.
"The doctrine is changed inasmuch as the door is now open," he claimed. "People have done this before, but now with the Pope's blessing, they can, so to speak, make this decision with their conscience."
Cardinal Paul Cordes of Germany noted last month that the Pope wouldn't use a mere footnote in AL to change the Church's teaching. Referring to AL's problematic footnote 351, Cdl. Cordes remarked, "And now, suddenly, there has been supposedly found, after all, a magisterial solution! ... in a footnote of the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia." Rejecting the footnoate as having any magisterial weight, Cdl. Cordes adds, "[T]he theological foundation of such a permission is not at all compelling. Its formal obligatoriness (a footnote) certainly does not have the status and rank of a Dogma."
Bishops Elbs sees it another way. Asked in the interview if he thought footnote 351 of AL was adequate for opening the reception of the sacraments to sexually active divorcees, he responded, "If it's in a footnote or not isn't significant to me. The entire document breathes the spirit that the individual finds in his own conscience a way to deal with life's situations."
The paper then brought up the fact that Vienna's auxiliary bishop Helmut Krätzl rejected this possibility of changing Church doctrine to meet individual cases. Bishop Elbs brushed this off. "I reluctantly disagree with Bishop Krätzl," he replied.
He went on to emphasize that people who've been doing this for a long time now allegedly have the Pope's blessing to follow their conscience and that "this is a major development."
There was no mention by Bp. Elbs of such terms as affected ignorance or vincible ignorance, whereby a person is morally responsible for not forming their own conscience owing to willful ignorance. The bishop also failed to mention that each Catholic is responsible for first informing his own conscience according to Catholic teaching and is further culpable for deforming his conscience by sinning repeatedly.
The illicit practice of giving Holy Communion to civilly remarried Catholics has plagued the Church in Germany for many years. Back in 2013, the former archbishop of Freiburg, Robert Zollitsch, circulated a 14-page handout to priests outlining how priests could allow such people to receive the sacraments without the Church's requirement of abstaining from all conjugal acts.
As early as 1993, Cdl. Walter Kasper and two other cardinals petitioned the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) for permission to grant the sacraments to civilly remarried Catholics without the the requisite chastity. The CDF in 1994, with Cdl. Jospeh Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) as prefect, issued the following authoritative response:
Members of the faithful who live together as husband and wife with persons other than their legitimate spouses may not receive Holy Communion. Should they judge it possible to do so, pastors and confessors, given the gravity of the matter and the spiritual good of these persons as well as the common good of the Church, have the serious duty to admonish them that such a judgment of conscience openly contradicts the Church's teaching.
But Bp. Elbs also believes that the practice of dissenting in conscience from Church teaching has been well established by Catholics who use artificial contraception. The interviewer asked why the bishops at the last Synod on the Family didn't authorize this illicit practice and wondered if the prevailing use of birth control by so many Catholics made the Church's teaching on this practice obsolete. Bishop Elbs thought the Synod actually did authorize contraception by letting the person decide.
"The Synod recommended natural contraception," he claimed. "Recommended. Birth control is thus left up to the person's conscience."
During a talk in November in London, Cdl. George Pell — a member of the Pope's "Gang of Nine — emphasized that a hardened conscience results from repeated sin and willful ignorance. The Australian prelate said this condition of having a blinded conscience can lead to a faulty discernment of morality and is therefore "not the last word in a number of ways."
He went on to say that "when a priest and penitent are trying to discern the best way forward in what is known as the internal forum," they must do so under objective moral law. He recommended Catholics read St. John Paul II's "two great encyclicals": Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae, which teach that intrinsic moral evils must be rejected regardless of a person's conscience.