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The Pope's confused message undermines his own pastoral program

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Apr 08, 2016

Amoris Laetitia is not a revolutionary document. It is a subversive one.

Pope Francis has not overthrown the traditional teachings of the Church, as many Catholics had either hoped or feared that he would, in this post-Synod exhortation. Instead he has sought to carve out ample room for a flexible pastoral interpretation of those teachings, encouraging pastors to help couples apply general moral principles to their specific circumstances. Unfortunately, the net effect of the Pope’s approach will very likely be an acceleration of an already powerful trend to dismiss the Church’s perennial teaching, and therefore a decline in respect for the pastoral ministry he hopes to encourage.

There is a great deal of sound spiritual guidance in Amoris Laetitia. Particularly in the two central chapters that the Pope himself identifies as the core of his message, Francis shows his true character as a pastor: encouraging, guiding, questioning, cajoling, sympathizing, instructing, helping readers to gain a deeper appreciation for the Church’s understanding of sacramental marriage. He upholds the ideal of Christian marriage, recognizes that no fallen human lives up to that ideal, and offers the support of the Church to all those who are willing to continue the lifelong struggle to grow in love.

Moreover, the Pope recognizes, and clearly states, that the Christian understanding of marriage is the only reliable antidote to a host of ills that plague contemporary society, especially in the West. Particularly in the 2nd chapter of Amoris Laetitia, he rightly insists that at a time when marital breakdown has reached epidemic proportions, Catholics must not allow themselves to be deterred from delivering the message that our society needs to hear—even while he recognizes that the message is unpopular, and those who proclaim it may face mounting hostility. There are even a few echoes of the “culture wars” in this apostolic exhortation, as Pope Francis unequivocally confirms the Church’s stands on abortion, contraception, divorce, homosexuality, and same-sex marriage.

Unfortunately, those aspects of the papal document—its greatest strengths—are not the topics that will command public attention. As the early news coverage already illustrates, readers will focus primarily a single question: whether the Pope has opened the door for divorce-and-remarried Catholics to receive Communion. Although it is unfortunate that a rich and complex message is being reduced to a single issue, this single-minded coverage is not simply the fault of the mass media. Pope Francis has himself to blame.

First, because Amoris Laetitia is much, much too long. Not many readers will plow through the 250 pages, the nine chapters, the 325 paragraphs. By putting out such a prolix document, the Holy Father increased the power of the interpreters who will be boiling down the message for their readers—and who will, for the most part, focus on that single issue.

Second, because the discussion of Communion for divorced/remarried Catholics, which has commanded so much attention over the past two years, was explicitly encouraged by Pope Francis. It was the Pope who offered Cardinal Walter Kasper an opportunity to address a conclave of cardinals, introducing “the Kasper proposal,” and setting the stage for the exhaustive debate on that proposal during two meetings of the Synod of Bishops.

To this day we do not know exactly what “the Kasper proposal” entailed. The German cardinal proposed a “penitential path” by which divorced/remarried Catholics might be guided back to full communion, but he did not specify what that path would be. Similarly, even after the release of Amoris Laetitia, we do not know exactly what Pope Francis has in mind for couples in irregular unions, aside from a flexible and sympathetic pastoral approach.

The Pope argues that in providing spiritual care for couples in irregular unions, pastors should adapt the general principles of Church teaching to the couples’ particular circumstances. “It is,” he writes, “a matter of reaching out to everyone, of needing to help each person find his or her proper way of participating in the ecclesial community and thus to experience being touched by an ‘unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous’ mercy.” Thus far the argument is unassailable. But in what cases would the pastor be justified in telling a couple that they should not feel bound by the rules of the Church? What sort of concrete circumstances would justify a break from the rule—enunciated by Jesus Christ—that someone who leaves one spouse to live with another is engaged in an adulterous union?

There are, certainly, some circumstances in which the Church condones remarriage. If a first marriage is annulled, the parties are free to remarry; and Pope Francis has streamlined the procedures for annulment, making it less likely that anyone who should receive an annulment is denied. Or as St. John Paul II taught in Familiaris Consortio, a divorced/remarried couple may be admitted to Communion if they agree to live as brother and sister. It is revealing that in his lengthy apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis never mentions this possibility: that a couple could demonstrate their commitment to the faith by abstaining from sexual relations. [Correction: In footnote #329 this possibility is briefly mentioned, but the reader is left with the impression that it should be discouraged.] That particular “penitential path,” the suggestion traditionally offered to Catholic couples in irregular unions, seems no longer to be considered worth discussing.

It is no secret that in some parts of the Catholic world, priests and pastors have already quietly encouraged divorced/remarried couples to receive Communion, the Church’s clear rule to the contrary notwithstanding. Insofar as Amoris Laetitia tends to further this practice, the Pope’s vague guidance undercuts the universality of Catholic teaching and discipline. As Robert Royal points out, the German bishops have announced that they are ready to offer Communion to divorced/remarried couples, while the bishops of neighboring Poland are adamant that they will not. Royal remarks:

On one side of a border between two countries, Communion for the divorced and remarried would now become a sign of a new outpouring of God’s mercy and forgiveness. On the other side, giving Communion to someone in “irregular” circumstances remains infidelity to Christ’s words and, potentially, a sacrilege. In concrete terms, around the globe, what looms ahead is chaos and conflict, not Catholicity.

Pope Francis downplays the importance of such conflicts in his apostolic exhortation. He argues that “not all discussions of doctrinal, moral, or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium.” True enough. But when the magisterium does enter into the debate, it is vitally important that that intervention should be clear. The Pope is a pastor, to be sure. But he is also a teacher—particularly when he is issuing an apostolic exhortation—and a teacher should be clear on matters of principle.

Did the Pope even say that divorced/remarried Catholics could receive Communion? Remarkably, that question—THE question—remains in dispute. Buried in a footnote (#351) is the suggestion that the pastoral support offered to these couples “can include the help of the sacraments.” Yet Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, who had been sympathetic toward the Kasper proposal, told Vatican Radio that it was “very clear” that the Pope was speaking about the Sacrament of Reconciliation, not the reception of the Eucharist, in that much-discussed footnote.

Unfortunately, Cardinal Schönborn’s caveat, like much of the Pope’s own message, will be lost in the discussion of Amoris Laetitia. Inevitably, as it is received by ordinary Catholics in the pews, the Pope’s message will be understood only in a simplified form: as a green light for the divorced/remarried to receive Communion. Priests who are already all too willing to accommodate the wishes of divorced/remarried Catholics will be confirmed in their attitudes. Those who want to demand more—the conscientious pastors who would be most likely to help Christians grow in holiness-- will be isolated and undermined.



For readers looking for more analysis of the papal document, here are several early reactions, representing a variety of contrasting viewpoints. I do not agree with all of these commentators; I did find their analyses helpful as I developed my own thoughts.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 10 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: R. Spanier (Catholic Canadian) - Apr. 14, 2016 12:21 PM ET USA

    Is the Holy Father saying in par. 300 (& ref. footnote texts) that a divorced Catholic might not have committed adultery by re-marrying? "...the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches quite clearly: 'Imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors'" (Evangelii Gaudium, 44). (see also CCC 1857) Thus 'examination of conscience' and 'discernment'?

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Apr. 11, 2016 11:05 AM ET USA

    I cannot say that the Pope did not have good intentions in writing this exhortation. But it would be wise to remember what the road to Hell is paved with. Any wordy partial accommodation with Zeitgeist ends up being used as support for more accommodation. I wonder what has happened to the scriptural exhortation to let your yes be yes and no be no and anything else is from the devil? Pray for marriage and the Church leaders.

  • Posted by: alexanderh167577 - Apr. 11, 2016 12:41 AM ET USA

    Mr. Lawler, I respectfully disagree with your views. Francis has a much deeper understanding of both the Faith and the modern world than you do. You are consistently perplexed and bewildered by his actions because you do not understand them or the good that they are doing for the Church. But time will vindicate him, for wisdom is justified by her deeds. I implore you to rethink your perspective on this holy man and his vision for the future.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Apr. 10, 2016 4:08 PM ET USA

    Point of clarification: when a putative marriage is annulled, it is a marriage that never happened. A person in the circumstance of an annulled attempt at marriage does not "remarry" when he contracts a valid marriage; he marries.

  • Posted by: Reuben Slife - Apr. 09, 2016 11:14 AM ET USA

    The reception of this document faces challenges, true, but that doesn't mean it's doomed. This kind of defeatism--no matter how 'insightful'--seems to me opposed to hope. It's a rush to judgment. The end is not foregone. The pope says many, many things, even in the passages the progressives will latch on to, that must convince them, if they face them, that they interpret him too blithely. Why not focus on how we can help his (deeply Christian) pastoral program be implemented rightly and well?

  • Posted by: koinonia - Apr. 09, 2016 7:44 AM ET USA

    Subversive means to undermine, weaken. Pope Francis was herculean in seeing Cardinal Kasper's ideas through the synod. He has consistently questioned and even denounced the value of rules, set doctrine and precepts in favor of the practical and of "reality." He is keenly aware of his critics and concerns. But it continues. How can THIS man -this Holy Father- be unaware of the pastoral implications of his pontificate? Honestly. Phil Lawler called it "subversive." All else pales. Prayers.

  • Posted by: rjbennett1294 - Apr. 09, 2016 6:01 AM ET USA

    A friend e-mailed me: "I think God is, in a sense, punishing us by subjecting us to this confused and confusing Pope who makes many of us fear for the future of the Church. I think often, though, of the words in today's Gospel: "In the evening the disciples went down to the shore of the lake and got into a boat....It was getting dark....The wind was strong, and the sea was getting rough. They...saw Jesus walking on the lake and coming towards the boat....(H)e said, 'It is I. Do not be afraid'."

  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Apr. 09, 2016 12:38 AM ET USA

    It is a sad thing to have to commend this commentary for its insightfulness but insightful it is. In some ways, the basic flaw in Amoris Laetitia is the same one that continues to haunt Vatican II. In other ways, it has a disturbing character all its own the best example of which is the German-Polish difference. And, in the end, it is all too typical of this pope's pronouncements.

  • Posted by: pc0508262962 - Apr. 08, 2016 6:21 PM ET USA

    Yes, but the Brother-and-Sister option is mentioned in footnote 329 as Sandro Magister points out: "In such situations, many people, knowing and accepting the possibility of living 'as brothers and sisters' which the Church offers them, point out that if certain expressions of intimacy are lacking, 'it often happens that faithfulness is endangered and the good of the children suffers.'” The words are from Gaudium et Spes §51, but there refer to the periodic abstinence of the married!

  • Posted by: Minnesota Mary - Apr. 08, 2016 6:20 PM ET USA

    So while not being able to overturn long held Catholic teaching regarding marriage, divorce and remarriage outside of the Church, the Pope has undermined it with this "pastoral" and ambiguous verbosity. Once again, he disappoints.