Divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, as well as cohabitating unmarried couples, must "refrain from sexual intimacy" to receive Holy Communion in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput has asserted in a new set of pastoral guidelines.
Released Friday, the guidelines instruct clergy and other archdiocesan leaders on implementing Amoris Laetitia, a major document on family that Pope Francis issued in April.
His six-page instruction, which appears on the archdiocesan website, may be the first of its kind issued by the bishop of any American diocese in response to Amoris Laetitia, Latin for "the joy of love."
Acknowledging that it is a "hard teaching," Chaput goes on to say that Catholics in same-sex partnerships, those remarried without a church annulment, and cohabitating persons may not serve on parish councils, instruct the faithful, serve as lectors, or dispense Communion.
Allowing persons in such "irregular" relationships, "no matter how sincere," to hold positions of responsibility would "offer a serious counter-witness to Catholic belief, which can only produce moral confusion in the community," according to Chaput.
Known as an apostolic exhortation, it does not carry the weight of an encyclical but is viewed as a major teaching of the church.
Chaput served on the synod, or gathering of bishops, that advised Francis in 2015 on the creation of Amoris, and was elected by those bishops to advise Francis after the synod. In June, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops named him chairman of a five-bishop committee to help promote the teachings of Amoris Laetitia in this country.
The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University estimates that there are 4.5 million Catholics in this country who are divorced and remarried without an annulment.
In his pastoral guidelines, Chaput praises Amoris for its "sections of exceptional beauty," and notes that it will serve as "key resources in revising and upgrading our [archdiocesan] marriage preparation program."
Chaput was not available to discuss the guidelines, but the Rev. Dennis Gill, director of the archdiocesan Office for Liturgy, described them Tuesday as "much larger than Communion and irregular relationships."
It was issued, Gill said, "as a way of applying all of Amoris Laetitia," which he said urges pastors to "accompany married couples in every type of situation" and also to be "companions" to those who fall short of the church's teachings and to guide them toward holiness.
Just what message Pope Francis intended to send to his pastors in Amoris has been a topic of some dispute, however.
In an oft-cited line, Francis wrote that the church and clergy have wasted "pastoral energy on denouncing a decadent world without proactively proposing ways to finding true happiness."
He also wrote that "it can no longer simply be said that all those in any 'irregular' situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace."
But Gill was emphatic that the latter sentence does not permit Catholic clergy to decide on their own that an unmarried couple may receive Communion.
"There are people challenging the wisdom of that statement," said Gill, a professor at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary. "A lot of teachers and theologians feel it may not have been as well expressed as it should have been."
Chaput also noted that in spite of Francis' exhortation that clergy be sympathetic to those whose sexual relationships seem to marginalize them, the pope "states clearly that neither Church teaching nor the canonical discipline concerning marriage has changed."
The Rev. Thomas Reese, former editor of the Jesuit magazine America and a columnist for the weekly National Catholic Reporter, said that in Amoris Laetitia, "Francis is clearly open to the possibility of divorced and remarried Catholics receiving Holy Communion.
"But I think he'd also leave this to the discretion of the local bishop," Reese said, "which means that Chaput can do what he wants in his diocese, but a neighboring bishop may take a much more open position."
What Francis did in Amoris, Reese said, "was articulate certain principles and allow local churches to interpret and implement them in the way they see best."
The Diocese of Camden did not return a request for comment.
Michael Rocks, president of the Philadelphia chapter of Dignity, a group for homosexual Catholics who believe it is permissible to be sexually active, said Tuesday he was not aware of Chaput's guidelines but that "they will not affect us, because we have a non-relationship with the archdiocese."
Pope John Paul II barred Dignity from meeting on any church property.
"But I wonder how they tell if straight people are following the sexual rules of the church," Rocks said. "How do they tell if the president of the parish council isn't into child pornography or having a sexual relationship?"
He said he was "not surprised" that Chaput would bar persons in unsanctioned relationships from holding positions of responsibility. "I can't imagine him saying anything else," Rocks said.
The Rev. Philip Bochanski, associate director for Courage International, a chaplaincy for homosexual Catholics striving to abide by church teachings on chastity, found "nothing new in the teachings that the archbishop formulated in those guidelines. The notion that a person needs to be in a state of grace to receive [Communion] goes back to Paul's letter to the Corinthians.
"The gospel demands chastity," Bochanski said, "for everybody in their state in life."