The Maltese Bishops on Divorce and Remarriage

Maltese Clergy: Archbishop Charles Scicluno and Bishop Mario Grech; “Criteria for the Application of Chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia“; the Maltese Cathedral of the Assumption at Gozo.

The ongoing fallout from the ambiguous norms of Amoris Laetitia (AL) continues, the most recent being a letter to clergy, “Criteria for the Application of Chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia,” issued January 8 by the Archbishop of Malta and the Bishop of Gozo.

Promulgated on the Feast of the Epiphany, the bishops wax poetic, telling us that, like the star which guided the Magi, Amoris Laetitia “enlightens our families in their journey towards Jesus.” It also assures us that, after that encounter with Christ, divorced and “remarried” persons might find “a different route back home.”

The bishops adopt an “accompaniment” motif to help people pastorally “discern” what they should do in light of the situation. Priests are encouraged to “commit ourselves to enter in dialogue with them” and warned not to “substitute [for] their conscience. Our role is patiently to help them to form and enlighten their own conscience, in order that they themselves may make an honest decision before God and act according to the greatest good possible.”

Admittedly, all of the above can be read in a completely orthodox way. Pastors need to encounter people where they are and engage them in discussion about it. Priests are not vicarious consciences, but should help the faithful form their consciences.

But we also know, particularly in the moral theology of the 1960s and 1970s, that a very subjective notion of conscience prevailed in various quarters of Catholic theology, and it still prevails in much of American Catholic academe. We know that many moral theologians told Catholics that they should “form” their conscience in a way that takes Church teaching into account. Some even mentioned Humanae vitae. Then, with tacit agreement they would never mention those two words again, with a wink and a nod, they were ready to accept a “conscience” that in practice agreed with the use of artificial contraception as sufficiently formed. The prevailing notion of conscience embodied its own, ecclesiastical version of “don’t ask, don’t tell”: we won’t ask you about contraception, and you don’t tell us that your “conscience” is OK with it.

The focus of the Maltese bishops’ criteria is marriages gone wrong. They start with a discussion of non-marriage: civil marriage or just plain cohabitation. Quoting Amoris Laetitia (something the bishops do 29 times), they recognize that both situations should elicit a pastoral response “’seeking to transform them into opportunities that can lead to the full reality of marriage’” (§3, quoting AL § 293). Yes, pastors should get Catholics out of “civil marriage” since there can be no such thing for a Catholic. Yes, pastors should extract Catholics from concubinage, since premarital relationships have a dismal track record when it comes to material for solid marriages. Neither of those two facts is mentioned. Instead, we get a gauzy quotation from AL (§ 294) that civil marriage or cohabitation is “often not motivated by prejudice or resistance to a sacramental union, but by cultural or contingent situations.” Again, rehearsing the debate among some American moral theologians from the 1970s and 1980s, it isn’t that people were in principle against getting married but that some “cultural or contingent situation” (like they couldn’t afford to get married or were still in school) stood in the way. Well, if you can’t afford to get married, you can hardly afford to be doing things that can turn your two-some into a family, which means you ought to give up the fornication in the first place. Since, however, the motto of revisionist Catholic theologians from that period seemed to be that “bad sex is better than no sex,” and since we had already agreed not to talk about contraception, we just winked and nodded to adding contraception to the fornicators’ repertoire until we found “opportunities that can lead to the full reality of marriage.”

Moving on to the divorced “who have entered a new union,” the Maltese bishops say that, amidst the “discernment process” if the validity of the first marriage or its consummation is in doubt, “we should propose that these people make a request for a declaration of … nullity …” (§ 4).

They then propose a “distinction” between a second union that has acquired a certain temporal stability, perhaps with children, where “a man and woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate” (§ 5, quoting AL § 298) and “a recent divorce” or situation where one party is derelict vis-à-vis familial obligations. In the former situation, perhaps, one spouse was abandoned. Perhaps, they are “subjectively certain in conscience that their previous … marriage had never been valid” (ibid).

Here the “guidance” becomes really murky. Pastors are advised to use the “process of discernment” to examine one’s conscience, and determine how the party behaved towards their children, was open to spousal reconciliation, how they are living now, and what example they are setting for the future (§ 6). We are also told to “weigh the moral responsibility in particular situations” (§ 7), taking account of factors like fear, force, habit, “affective immaturity,” etc., to determine whether what may be “an objective situation of sin—which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such …” (§ 7, quoting AL § 305). Since there may not be subjective culpability, “discernment … can include the help of the sacraments” (§ 7, quoting AL, note 351). If, at the end of “discernment, …a separate or divorced person who is living in a new relationship manages, with an informed and enlightened conscience, to acknowledge and believe that he or she are [sic] at peace with God, he or she cannot be precluded from participating in the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist” (§ 10, referencing AL, notes 336, 351).

The process here is complete, as is the split between the internal and external fora. We “propose” seeking an annulment but, in the end, if the person’s conscience tells them they are “at peace,” there is no barrier to their full participation in the Eucharist.

Why bother, then, with an annulment? Presumably because it evidences good faith engagement with Church teaching. But if that process fails, never fear: it is clearly not the last word. And why are we exploring how well people are living now? Their current behavior proves nothing about their state of mind at the relevant moment of when they entered into their first marriage. It may make sense for the Orthodox Church, which tolerates second marriages, but it makes no sense according to Catholic sacramental theology. Furthermore, is this “discernment” of “moral responsibility” somewhat schizophrenic? “I am nice to my kids, I respect my new wife (even though I can’t maintain chastity for “humanly impossible” reasons, § 9), I am socially responsible, I help out in my parish, I live in adultery … ” Hey, for revisionist moral theology, 4 out of 5 ain’t bad.

The coup de grace is in the last paragraph (§ 14) which is concerned about “scandal or confusion among the faithful.” There we are urged not to refrain from splitting the internal and external fora apart but, rather, to “studying and promoting the teachings of Amoris Laetitia.” Some rigorists might balk, but we need “pastoral conversion” so that, “understand[ing] those who would prefer a ‘more rigorous pastoral care’” (quoting AL, § 308), we yield to this apparently less rigorous path. We should not fear “getting soiled by the mud in the street” (quoting AL, § 308).

Malta has a long Catholic history: it was probably the place where St. Paul was shipwrecked on his way to Rome and martyrdom. In 1800, it passed under British rule, and remained a British protectorate until 1964. Too bad it wasn’t British 300 years earlier, and that its current bishops were alive back then. Under their norms, it’s hard not to believe that Henry VIII, after having argued that his marriage to Catherine was invalid, and unsuccessfully sought its annulment, could not have been “accompanied” in a “discernment” process that would have eventually recognized it was “humanly impossible” for him to remain continent, and not live in a “new relationship” with Anne Boelyn. We could have avoided the troubles of the Protestant Reformation. We would have been them.

Dr. John M. Grondelski About Dr. John M. Grondelski

John M. Grondelski is an independent scholar from Perth Amboy, New Jersey. He holds a Ph.D. in moral theology from Fordham, and served as associate dean of the School of Theology at Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He has written for Angelicum, Antonianum, Irish Theological Studies, and Homiletic and Pastoral Review.


  1. Very good and honest reflection on the current situation on the Pastoral interpretation of (AL). This rigorous and forthright response is like a breath of fresh air and makes a refreshing change to the often muddled and neutral response to this fundamental question about the respect for the Sacrament of Marriage in the Catholic Church

  2. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    I guess some moral theologians would have a real hard time with Jesus when he stopped the stoning of the woman caught in adultery. He did not follow proper procedures for sure. His main concern was conversion, not following the proper procedure. Sad we cannot follow Jesus.

    • Avatar Dave Jamieson says:

      Jesus, the greatest moral theologian, said to the woman “Go and sin no more”. Thus, he condemned the sins though not the woman. Would that this current pope would condemn sins with such clarity and force.

  3. Fr.. Regis Scannlon O.F.M. Cap. Fr.. Regis Scannlon O.F.M. Cap. says:

    This is one of the best articles that I have seen written on the subject of the application of Amoris Laetitia and how many bishops are making use of this document to escape the hard aspects of the truth about marriage. God bless you John for your excellent work.

  4. Avatar Ted Heywood says:

    It sure sounds like the beginning of a ‘New Reformation’ led this time by none other than the Pope himself. Maybe we are witnessing the beginning of the final ‘winnowing’ that will result in the ‘Faithfull Remnant’. All in the name of ‘Mercy’.

  5. Avatar JOHN M. GRONDELSKI says:

    In case anybody thinks I exaggerated, see the other shoe drop: now, maybe a little bit of contraception in marriage is OK, too? Malta could not only be congenial to Henry VIII, but it may replay Lambeth, too….

  6. Avatar Bernard M Collins says:

    It seems to me that the Maltese Bishops actually open the door and waffle on abortion in their latest directive. If that is so, they have completed the circle of issues we confront in marriage : permanence, fidelity, common life and now children in the most definitive way. Frankly, I am personally aghast at what is happening. In matters of Faith, one infidelity is sure to follow another. As to the Orthodox and Greeks (hopefully not the Uniates) they have presented a wall of separation in the matter of marriage that seems insurmountable, humanly speaking

  7. Avatar JOHN M. GRONDELSKI says:

    I hope the bishops can deal with some “snarky” criticisms, given the intellectual flab that masquerades as theology in this statement. There is little here that has not been heard before in the 1970s–even Kasper’s marriage theology was originally written in 1978–it’s just that there’s now been an opportunity for this silliness to get promulgated.


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