Priests should offer assistance to couples whose marriage has broken down, the Maltese bishops are urging, issuing a set of guidelines which some observers have described as going even beyond the Pope's teachings.

The bishops did not exclude that separated and divorced couples could be allowed to participate in the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist.

Church teaching holds that unless divorced Catholics receive an annulment, or a church decree that their first marriage was invalid, they are committing adultery and cannot receive Communion.

In the new guidelines, Archbishop Charles Scicluna and Gozo bishop Mario Grech said: “If, as a result of the process of discernment, undertaken with “humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching, in a sincere search for God’s will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it”, a separated 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 is at peace with God, he or she cannot be precluded from participating in the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist”.

If they are at peace with God, we cannot preclude them from participating in the Eucharist

The bishops made 14 recommendations, based on Amoris Laetitia, a post-synodal apostolic exhortation by Pope Francis, outlining the approach they should take with those who have experience a marriage breakdown. The Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, published the guidelines in full, seen by many as an endorsement of the Maltese bishops' decision.

In his 2016 document The Joy of Love, Pope Francis said pastors should help individual Catholics ascertain what God is asking of them. Using vague language and footnotes, he linked such discussions of conscience with access to the sacraments.

The Maltese bishops go further and say flat out that if certain conditions are met, these Catholics cannot be excluded from the sacraments.

In another footnote, the Pope argued that abstaining from sex can endanger fidelity and the good of the children in the new union. 

The Maltese bishops went further saying it may actually be “humanly impossible” to live as brother and sister.

They called on priests to exercise the “art of accompaniment” and to become a source of trust, hope, and inclusion for those who request to continue following the Church’s teachings.

This was especially true for those persons who are most vulnerable, the bishops added.

Encouraging priests to engage in dialogue with those who might be in “irregular” situations, they called on them to do so in a spirit of authentic charity.

“The priests should also take into consideration the different situation of each couple, as not every family situation is the same.

The bishops also urged priests to not think that everything is black and white, as in this way, they could discourage people from seeking their guidance.

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