Cardinal Blase J. Cupich

‘The Joy of Love’

Sunday, April 17, 2016

This morning Pope Francis released “Amoris Laetitia” (The Joy of Love), following the two recent synods of bishops on marriage and family life. I welcome this document, having attended the 2015 synod where the issues the pope addresses here were discussed. The title comes from the first sentence: “The Joy of Love experienced by families is also the joy of the Church.” The message is clear: family life is a gift, and the more we treasure and support it, the truer we are to ourselves as believers.

The Holy Father says some things that might surprise you — he is complimentary of the women’s movement and tells us we can learn from Eastern Rite married priests. His language is sometimes colorful and highly expressive — he warns us not to “simply apply moral laws to those living in ‘irregular’ situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives.”

Aside from this, my first impression is that this very readable text reveals a true pastor, someone who has honed a pastoral sensitivity as a priest for more than half a century. His writing style is crisp and fresh, making the text easily accessible. He holds the reader’s attention through the use of imaginative references that range from the Danish film, “Babette’s Feast” to a sermon by Martin Luther King that urges us to see a good in every person, even those who hate us. At the same time, he demonstrates his closeness to the real lives of people, that he is someone who knows the smell of the sheep, as he takes up a wide spectrum of the complexity that defines families living in our time. Virtually no challenge is ignored, marriage preparation, proper training of future priests, adoption, family prayer, children’s rights, sex education, the dignity of women, you name it.

Indeed, it is his candor and honesty that I find so very engaging. For instance, he says that a “healthy dose of self-criticism” is in order for us pastors in the way we treat people and the way we present church teaching. Too often, he says, we speak in a way that is “far too abstract,” presenting an “almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families.”

Two words are worth emphasizing as important to this text.

The first is discernment and the other is integration.

Describing marriage as a journey, “a dynamic path to personal development and fulfillment,” Pope Francis speaks of the importance of discernment in “those situations in which we fall short of what the Lord asks of us.” With profound respect for people, the Church has “to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called, Pope Francis reminds pastors, “to form consciences, not to replace them.” There are no “easy recipes” and it is impossible to “provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases.” Rather, he urges “a responsible, personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases,” by priests, who have the duty to “accompany (the divorced and remarried) in helping them to understand their situation according to the teaching of the church and the guidelines of the bishop.” Regardless, “it can no longer simply be said,” according to Pope Francis, “that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace.” “The church’s pastors, in proposing to the faithful the full ideal of the Gospel and the church’s teaching, must also help them to treat the weak with compassion, avoiding aggravation or unduly harsh or hasty judgments. The Gospel itself tells us not to judge or condemn (cf. Mt 7:1; Lk 6:37).” On the contrary, discernment also has to be about identifying and upholding those many positive elements that are part of a person’s life even if they are falling short of the ideal. It is in the struggle, in the imperfect, in the in-betweens in life that God calls and graces us. We as pastors must meet people there for “Jesus ‘expects us to stop looking for those personal or communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune, and instead to enter into the reality of other people’s lives and to know the power of tenderness. Whenever we do so, our lives become wonderfully complicated.’”

And yet, as pastors accompany people who because of their lives fall short of the ideal, the goal has to be their integration into church life. “No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel!” the pope insists. The goal of accompanying people is 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.” He is not speaking here only of “the divorced and remarried, but of everyone, in whatever situation they find themselves.”

There are no changes in doctrine in this document, and in fact the pope urges the church not to step away from proposing the full ideal of marriage. At the same time he makes clear that doctrines are at the service of the pastoral mission. He also knows that this call for a more compassionate pastoral outreach of accompaniment, discernment and integration, one marked by tenderness, will leave some perplexed.

“I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion,” he notes. “But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, a Mother who, while clearly expressing her objective teaching, always does what good she can, even if in the process, her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street.”