By Fr. Bud Grant
For The Catholic Messenger
With his Apostolic Exhortation “Amoris Laetetia” (The Joy of Love) Pope Francis continues to develop his theology of relationship. “God,” he says, “is not a series of abstract ideas but rather a source of comfort and companionship” (22). Right relationship transcends, contextualizes, informs and checks a juridical approach to the complex issues regarding “marriage and the family” (6). That’s really the heart of his instruction. Let’s unpack it.
First, there will be no dramatic, “press-popular,” changes to the rules of the church on issues relating to marriage, divorce and other “irregular relationships,” sexuality, and the family. More importantly, however, he calls for a course correction in the way those doctrinal, ethical, spiritual and pastoral teachings are to be applied to real people in real (meaning “complex”) situations.
“The Church must be particularly concerned to offer understanding, comfort and acceptance, rather than imposing straightaway a set of rules that only lead people to feel judged and abandoned by the very Mother called to show them God’s mercy” (49). This theme is repeated so often that it is assuredly the point of the whole text. Speaking to bishops and priests, the divorced, re-married, those in “irregular relationships,” gays, single people, children and families, he insists that we are “to avoid judgments which do not take into account the complexity of various situations” and “to be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience distress because of their condition” (296).
Upon this basis, Pope Francis makes several proposals which, if not new, are certainly fresh… and refreshing. His judgments include, in no particular order, the following:
One: don’t expect the Magisterium to solve every problem with a one-size-fits-all ruling. Rather, national and regional culture, traditions and local needs” (3) should be taken into consideration in answering such questions. The Holy Father is not going to apply a blunt tool across the wide diversity of global Catholicism. While this may cause some (legitimate) anxiety, we are to be at ease: pastoral application of the rules will not lead to the “subjective caprice” of situationalism because it will be grounded in the love-mercy of God and a profound confidence in “a person’s properly formed conscience” so that “the consequences of actions taken are not necessarily the same in all cases” (302).
Two: the church itself is partly responsible for the problem because we tend to refer to the laws without explaining the theology. “We need a healthy dose of self-criticism” (36). We have often been on the defensive, wasting pastoral energy on denouncing a decadent world without being proactive in proposing ways of finding true happiness (38). Instead of pastoral instruction (which means listening), the church tries to use “indoctrination” (49) to impose rules on people.
Three: the alternative approach is what St. John Paul II calls “the law of gradualness” (295). Instead of insisting that all relationships should, from the very beginning, reflect the perfect model of Christ and the church (122), families, parishes and pastors should always strive toward a “progressive integration,” a “process of growth” (264), a “never ending vocation” (325) to holiness. Authentic relationships, it can be noted, are not oriented toward some external goal but are constantly, organically and, yes, sloppily growing ever more rich, ever more intimate, ever more fruitful. What is a “perfect” relationship? One which is constantly tended to with great care, even in the midst of hardships and suffering, which are thus transformed into offerings of love (317).
Four: obedience to a rule is not the goal of the church’s teaching on marriage or anything else. Rather, the informed conscience is the most reliable and most fundamental source of judgments regarding one’s own situation. Pope Francis bemoans the fact that “we find it hard to make room for consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations.…” (37). Quoting Vatican II’s “Gaudium et Spes,” and in reference to family planning, he reminds that “The parents themselves and no one else should ultimately make this judgment in the sight of God.” With typical candor, Pope Francis insists that “we have been called to form consciences, not to replace them” (37).
Five: the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, are at the heart of a spirituality of family (71, 169, 186, 287). Indeed, even for families that “drop out” of the church after the wedding, certain sacraments to which they return (other weddings, baptisms, first Communion, funerals) can be considered catechetical or, dare I say, “sacraments for re-initiation” into the church, presuming, of course, that these families are made to feel welcome (230). Sacraments offer couples the means of dealing with the inevitable difficulties, sufferings and crises of their married lives (19, 119, 178, 253).
Six: family is the nucleus, the first expression of, the church. It is the “leaven of new life,” even if it does so “partially” or only “analogously” (292) It is the basis for the church’s commitment to social justice, a “vital cell for transforming the world” (324). “The Church is good for the family and the family is good for the Church” and to have concern for one is to have concern for the other (89).
Seven: for bishops, priests and deacons the charge is very blunt: do not treat the rules as a “dead stone to be hurled at others” (49). The reference here is clearly to the story of the woman caught by Pharisees in adultery. The implication, of course, is that this has been too common a part of a “juridic” interpretation of church teachings on the family. Instead, the Holy Father calls for “tenderness” (28) and to “take into account the complexity of various situations” (79) in a “pedagogy of love” (211). In reference to “irregular relationships” (294, 298), instead of insisting that the rule be followed, we are to apply “a law of gradualness” that takes into account the fact that people grow spiritually (295).
Eight: Human relationships are messy (126). They should not be judged against the standard of perfection, but supported with love and tenderness (68, 134, 218, 227). This is particularly the case for divorced and re-married Catholics who should not “feel discriminated against.” Such pastoral care is not a diminution of Catholic commitment to lifelong marriage, but “a particular expression of its charity” (243). In all cases, “the particular situation” must be taken into account, such as, for example, a non-Catholic receiving Eucharist at a wedding (247) or when a person in an irregular marriage wishes to be baptized (249).
Pope Francis repeats his central thesis over and over again: “I am not speaking only of the divorced and remarried, but of everyone, in whatever situation they find themselves the Church has the responsibility of helping them understand the divine pedagogy of grace in their lives and offering them assistance so they can reach the fullness of God’s plan for them” (296-7). Fidelity in marriage “would be spiritually meaningless were it simply a matter of following a law with obedient resignation. Rather it is a matter of the heart into which God alone sees” (319).
Finally, while the Holy Father himself acknowledges that different people will be drawn to different chapters of the rather lengthy exhortation (7) if I were to recommend one passage for reflection, it would be paragraphs 90-119, which is his commentary on that most famous of all wedding reading, I Cor. 13:4-7 which begins with the phrase: “Love is patient…” Perhaps the entire exhortation can be summed up in his reflection on the phrase “love forgives.” “If we accept that God’s love is unconditional, that the Father’s love cannot be bought or sold, then we will become capable of showing boundless love and forgiving others…” (108).
Read ‘The Joy of Love’
Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”) reflects on the 2014 and 2015 synods of bishops on the family. It contains no new rules or norms, as some secular media outlets have erroneously reported. The document addresses all aspects of family life, including divorced and remarried Catholics and their participation in the church. The Holy Father encourages careful review of the document, and for readers to pay greater attention to the language and attitude used when explaining church teaching and ministering to those who do not fully live that teaching.
“This is a very long and thoughtful document,” observed Bishop Martin Amos. “The pope himself said it is not a quick read. It will take all of us weeks, months to unwrap and reflect on this document.”