Francis has given us a poetic, eloquent, moving hymn to love in Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”), issued April 8.
This text is really for families: one part of this letter, the marvelous Chapter 4 on the true nature of love, should be printed out and read at the family dinner table — one little section at a time for the family to hear and discuss.
In this text, Francis defines what love is, what the role of each person in the family should be, how the family should be in the world and in the Church.
Francis is like a wise grandfather telling the entire Church family how to live with more and truer love in their families. It is in this sense an astonishing text, unlike any other from the Vatican, or from a Pope.
In a time — our time — when the family seems under attack in so many ways, when there are such temptations to break up families, this text is like a powerful medicine, a heartfelt appeal from Pope Francis to each of us, to keep going, to keep together, to keep loving.
Within hours of the document’s release, reactions and analyses began to pour in from sources of all ideological stripes, and they were just as varied.
What emerged amidst the differing interpretations of some of the document’s elements, however, was a basic consensus that Pope Francis did not propose any kind of doctrinal change — and neither should any have been expected.
The Pope’s job is not to come up with new doctrines, but to defend the deposit of faith received from the Apostles and Fathers while developing that doctrine through a ever-deeper understanding of it.
In fact, despite two years of considerable turmoil, with many sensationalized reports suggesting that Pope Francis would “change Church doctrine” on marriage, divorce, remarriage and access to Communion, and perhaps in other matters of sexual morality, like contraception — and so (these reports suggested) “modernize” the Church’s teaching, there is nothing approaching such a change in this lengthy, 9-chapter, 325-paragraph document.
On all the major themes touching marriage, sexuality and family life, Francis points to the beautiful way of love exemplified by Christ and made manifest in the perennial teachings of His Church.
He defends marriage, as traditionally understood between one man and one woman, against a gender ideology that “denies the difference and reciprocity in nature of a man and a woman and envisages a society without sexual differences, thereby eliminating the anthropological basis of the family.”
Abortion is treated as a grave evil. “So great is the value of a human life, and so inalienable the right to life of an innocent child growing in the mother’s womb, that no alleged right to one’s own body can justify a decision to terminate that life.”
And Francis cites three times Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, in which his predecessor explicated the Church’s condemnation of all forms of artificial contraception.
With regard to the indissolubility of marriage, Pope Francis is no less emphatic that the marriage bond is a sacred and permanent one, and that its character is essential for the continuation of society at large: “No union that is temporary or closed to the transmission of life can ensure the future of society,” he says.
Nevertheless, there is an element of controversy that is widely acknowledged, sparked by the pastoral principles and practices that Pope Francis recommends.
With regard to the pastoral care of divorced and remarried Catholics — and there are millions of these — the document recommends that pastors be more “welcoming.” However, the text offers no specifics on how to do this.
The Pope says that priests and bishops around the world should meet with people in these situations and “walk with them,” as they “discern” their spiritual condition in order to “integrate” them into the life of the Church.
Therefore, this document does not settle the question of divorced and remarried Catholics receiving Communion. Rather, the question is left open, to be addressed on a case-by-case basis.
Pope Francis explains his decision not to give clear guidelines on this point in this way: “Not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium.” He adds: “Each country or region… can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs. For ‘cultures are in fact quite diverse and every general principle… needs to be inculturated, if it is to be respected and applied’” (AL 3).
And he writes, in a footnote: “I would also point out that the Eucharist ‘is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.’”
This, of course, is a matter for theologians to discuss.
Some are concerned that this will lead to different practices in different places, and they are already faulting the Pope for not being clearer and more decisive about exactly what to do in each case. Edward Pentin of the National Catholic Register, who wrote the book The Rigging of the Synod, writes: “Some are disconcerted and disturbed about what the long document leaves out, and about its theology and ambiguity, especially concerning some moral issues on which the Church has previously always had crystal-clear teaching…”
Catholic philosopher Antonio Livi described Amoris Laetitia as an “ambiguous text” and he rejected the notion that fundamental pastoral practice can change while Catholic doctrine on the sacraments cannot. “This really is the theological error of the document,” he said, “because pastoral practice cannot be anything other than a prudent but rigorous application of the doctrine.”
Bishop Robert Barron, famous for his Catholicism series, points out that “the Pope observes that many people in civil marriages following upon a divorce find themselves in a nearly impossible bind. If their second marriage has proven faithful, life-giving, and fruitful, how can they simply walk out on it without in fact incurring more sin and producing more sadness? This is, of course, not to insinuate that their second marriage is not objectively disordered, but it is to say that the pressures, difficulties, and dilemmas might mitigate their culpability.”
Pope Francis clearly intended to write the document just as he has written it. He intends it to be the opening of a door for people in difficult situations to seek guidance from their local priests and bishops, and it is a clear request to local priests and bishops to open their doors for this purpose.
Rather than being problematic from a doctrinal standpoint, as some are suggesting, the call for pastoral flexibility is in keeping with the mission and example of Christ and of the Church Fathers, others are saying. This reflects the love and concern Pope Francis has for all, including those who have fallen into difficult moral situations — perhaps especially for such people.
An Unfinished Journey
The document is in some ways unfinished, in the sense that it leaves open for future reflection the precise ways in which the Church can “walk alongside” families and couples to give them spiritual, moral, and sacramental support.
So this document will leave unsatisfied those hoping to have a final, black-and-white answer on what the Church is teaching about how to deal with broken marriages and broken families.
Yet, says Pope Francis, it is a subject that must be embraced by the Church: “As Christians, we can hardly stop advocating marriage simply to avoid countering contemporary sensibilities, or out of a desire to be fashionable or a sense of helplessness in the face of human and moral failings. We would be depriving the world of values that we can and must offer.
“It is true that there is no sense in simply decrying present-day evils, as if this could change things. Nor it is helpful to try to impose rules by sheer authority.
“What we need is a more responsible and generous effort to present the reasons and motivations for choosing marriage and the family, and in this way to help men and women better to respond to the grace that God offers them.”
Amoris Laetitia can be read in its entirety on the Vatican’s website at http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20160319_amoris-laetitia.html