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Pope's post-Synod document emphasizes flexibility

April 08, 2016

Pope Francis upholds the traditional teachings of the Catholic Church, but calls for great flexibility in applying those teachings, in Amoris Laetitia, his apostolic exhortation concluding the work of the Synod on the Family.

Amoris Laetitia is a lengthy document, spanning over 250 pages and examining marriage and family life from a wide variety of pastoral perspectives. But most readers looked immediately for an answer to the question that had been posed by Vatican-watchers for months: whether the Pope would open the door for divorce-and-remarried Catholics to receive Communion. The contradictory headlines on secular news accounts of the papal document indicate that the answer to that question is not entirely clear.

In fact Pope Francis deliberately avoids a categorical answer to the question, arguing that “not all discussion of doctrinal, moral, or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium.” Instead he urges pastors to guide couples through a discernment of their situation, helping them to “grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.” In a footnote the Pontiff adds: “In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments.”

”By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth, and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God,” the Pope continues. Later he adds: “I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion. But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness…”

[For more extended commentary on the papal document, see Phil Lawler's analysis.]

Amoris Laetitia provides little guidance as to how pastors should apply this guidance. As he emphasizes flexibility, the Pope writes: “Different communities will have to devise more practical and effective initiatives that respect both the Church’s teaching and local problems and needs.

Central focus on marital love

Objectively speaking, the Pope’s discussion of Communion for divorced/remarried Catholics occupies only a small portion of the post-Synod document. Although he emphasizes pastoral flexibility throughout the apostolic exhortation, the Pontiff does not delve into that controversy in earnest until paragraph #291, in a document that includes 325 paragraphs—page 221, in the copy distributed through the Vatican press office.

Pope Francis himself indicates that in his mind, the most important theme of the apostolic exhortation is his discussion of the beauty of marital love, in the “central chapters” of his message: chapters 4 and 5, of 9. In a long and deep meditation on St. Paul’s ode to love (“Love is patient…” from 1 Cor 13), the Pope offers the sort of spiritual wisdom and practical advice that he encourages priests to provide for their people. He follows up by explaining how the family, based on marriage and nourished by the sacraments, should provide both material and moral support—not only for family members, but for neighbors and for society at large.

To support families in that effort, the Pope calls for a strong and consistent pastoral focus on family life, beginning with—but definitely not limited to-- better preparation for sacramental marriage. The Church should help married couples to grow in love and holiness after their weddings, especially in the early years of marriage, he says. He urges pastors to enlist the help of older married couples in helping the young, working to build up “a pedagogy of love.”

Traditional teachings affirmed

At the outset of Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis explains that he has felt obligated to write a lengthy document because of the “rich fruits of the two-year Synod process,” which addressed a wide variety of topics. “Consequently, I do not recommend a rushed reading of the text,” the Pope remarks (in a caution that has been ignored by hundreds of commentators).

The papal document is heavily documented, with nearly 400 footnotes; along with saints, theologians, and Church fathers, the Pope also cites poets, novelists, psychologists, and political figures—including Jorge Luis Borges, Octavio Paz, Erich Fromm, and Martin Luther King. Critical reviews of the final statement released by the Synod of Bishops last October had observed that the bishops virtually ignored Familiaris Consortio and the “theology of the body” developed by St. John Paul II; those insights are frequently cited in Amoris Laetitia.

Pope Francis also confirms the message of Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae, writing in the new document that every act of marital love should be open to the transmission of life. “Hence no genital act of husband and wife can refuse this meaning, even when for various reasons it may not always in fact beget a new life,” he insists.

Naturally the Pope also strongly condemns abortion:

Here I feel it urgent to state that, if the family is the sanctuary of life, the place where life is conceived and cared for, it is a horrendous contradiction when it becomes a place where life is rejected and destroyed.

And while he insists that homosexual persons must never be the objects of unjust discrimination—let alone aggression or violence—Pope Francis unequivocally upholds the understanding that marriage is a union of a man and a woman, and sexual activity outside marriage is immoral.

Pope Francis teaches that a proper understanding of marriage and human sexuality is crucial to restoring health to our troubled society. He recognizes that in the Western world especially, secular society has often shown hostility toward the Christian ideal of marriage, and he insists that the Church must uphold that ideal even against public pressure. Yet once again he emphasizes the need for flexibility in delivering the Gospel message:

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.

“Something has changed…”

Nevertheless, despite its strong reaffirmation of traditional Catholic teaching, Amoris Laetitia will be remembered as a harbinger of significant change in the Church’s pastoral ministry. “Something has changed in ecclesial discourse,” said Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, at a Vatican press conference introducing the papal document. The Austrian cardinal emphasized the Pope’s call for pastoral flexibility.

The focus of public attention on the Church’s handling of “irregular” marital unions has itself been a sign of the need for a different approach, Cardinal Schönborn argued; he said that the division of couples into “regular” and “irregular” overlooks the reality that all Christians should be striving for daily conversion and growth in holiness

Interestingly, however, Cardinal Schönborn—who had been counted as a supporter of efforts to allow Communion for divorced/remarried Catholics—did not read the papal document as an endorsement of that position. He told Vatican Radio that in the critical footnote #351, in which the Pontiff says that pastoral care for such couples “can include the help of the sacraments,” the Pope was referring primarily to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. “I think it is very clear,” he said, “there are circumstances in which people in irregular situations may really need sacramental absolution, even if their general situation cannot be clarified.”

Indeed, while he urges pastoral flexibility in dealing with “irregular” situations, Pope Francis stipulates that “if someone flaunts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal,” he cannot be admitted to Communion. Moreover he cautions against the “grave danger of misunderstandings, such as the notion that any priest can quickly grant ‘exceptions….’”

Thus the final message of the papal document, on the issue that has been most heavily debated, remains imprecise. Evidently Pope Francis wishes it so, as he explains that “what is part of a practical discernment in particular circumstances cannot be elevated to the level of a rule. That would not only lead to an intolerable casuistry, but would endanger the very values which must be preserved with special care.”


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  • Posted by: ILM - Apr. 09, 2016 5:43 PM ET USA

    the Episcopal Church use to have a concept whereby, when you divorced and remarried, you had to wait a while before being readmitted to Communion. Is this where we are headed? Very troubling. There is no stopping the slide.

  • Posted by: msorensen71798 - Apr. 09, 2016 10:33 AM ET USA

    John 8:11 "Neither do I condemn you." While Jesus confirmed that adultery is a mortal sin, he still had compassion and mercy for the sinner. In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis takes the same approach. Like Our Lord, he clearly states the Church's unchanged teachings. Then, in the face of real people and their real situations, he gives pastors permission to be merciful, even as Our Blessed Lord was. Will it be abused? Very likely, it will. But will it help people grow in holiness? I think so.

  • Posted by: unum - Apr. 09, 2016 10:10 AM ET USA

    I think the Holy Father would respond to aclune, "It depends on the meaning of "unless the marriage is unlawful". aclune seems to be thinking in terms of "black and white", while Pope Francis sees shades of grey.

  • Posted by: aclune9083 - Apr. 08, 2016 6:52 PM ET USA

    Matthew 19:9. "I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery." Adultery is a mortal sin. Ergo, one must not present for Communion. This is a hard saying, but it is very clear; nothing in the Pope's remarks should be construed to contradict directly the Deposit of Faith as recorded in the Gospels.