Cardinal Blase J. Cupich

A church that teaches and learns

Sunday, August 7, 2016

In my previous column I began a series of reflections on Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “The Joy of Love,” which he issued after the two synods on the family and married life. As I noted, the pope begins by drawing attention to how the Bible repeatedly testifies to the fact that God has chosen to reveal himself through the experiences of families. In fact, the Holy Father reminds us, the Bible is replete with examples of how the family is the privileged place where salvation history takes place and is revealed. As a result, married couples and families should find in the text a fresh understanding and a deeper appreciation of their dignity and importance to the work and plan of God in the world.

Similarly, this insight also has consequences for those involved in the church’s pastoral outreach, namely to respect the experiences of families and married couples, taking those experiences as the starting point for ministry to them. This means that pastors and other ministers must not only teach but also learn from married couples and families, who on a daily basis offer us a lesson on the meaning of sacrificial love as they care for children, elderly parents and ailing spouses.

Pope Francis made this very point in one of his addresses during last October’s synod on the family. He told the bishops that we need to be both a teaching church and a learning, or a discerning church — an “ecclesia docens” and an “ecclesia discens.” Pastors must approach their ministry with an openness and willingness to develop a capacity to learn, so that they in turn can help families discern God’s call and God’s grace in their lives.

In chapters 2 and 3, Francis unpacks this insight by reminding us that marriage is a vocation. Marriage, therefore, is best understood “more as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfilment than as a lifelong burden.” To the extent that the church’s support of families and married couples simply stresses “doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace,” it falls short. In other words, if we are a teaching church but not a learning church, then we are failing our families.

The pope acknowledges that this change in approach will be demanding if we see ourselves only as teachers who give pat answers to complex questions: “We … find it hard 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.” Then, he adds quite pointedly, “We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.”

Just as the pope recalls the church’s longstanding tradition of the inviolability of conscience, he is just as emphatic in emphasizing that God’s grace is active in the concrete situations of families and married couples. It is God’s grace that makes real conversion possible. The church’s ministry, then, should aim at helping people recognize God’s grace in their lives.

When we pastors fail to help people see those graced moments and situations, we end up proposing “a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families.” We have to set our sights higher and work with married couples and families in a way that inspires trust in God’s grace, thus making marriage “more desirable and attractive.”

At the same time, married couples are encouraged to see that by making a commitment, by saying “I do,” they are taking responsibility for one another. Practically, this means assuming “an active and creative role in a lifelong project.” As such, “neither spouse can expect the other to be perfect. Each must set aside all illusions and accept the other as he or she actually is: an unfinished product, needing to grow, a work in progress. … By saying ‘I do,’ they embark on a journey that requires them to overcome all obstacles standing in the way of their reaching the goal.”

Couples take up this journey armed with mercy and forgiveness, two prominent themes in the exhortation. Sin can and does distort God’s gift of married love. Only mercy and forgiveness, the true graces of the sacrament of matrimony, can restore it.

The Holy Father’s trust in God’s grace, his respect for a person’s conscience and his call to learn from the experiences of the faithful have opened up a fresh way for the church, for married couples and for those who minister to them and their families. He is calling couples to take responsibility for their own growth and maturing. He is calling those who minister to families to assist them in discerning God’s grace working in their lives, fully respectful of their experiences and their consciences. Of course, all of this involves a major shift both for couples and pastoral leaders.

Professor Rocco Buttiglione — a scholar who earned the admiration of Pope Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II — recently wrote about the difficulty some are having with understanding and accepting what Pope Francis is proposing. In the official Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, Buttiglione argued that the Christian people, through their appreciation of the faith, or “sensus fidei,” “immediately embraced and followed” the pope as he advocates this new approach.

Yet “some of the learned class seem to have trouble understanding him,” he continued. Their criticism focuses on a section of the exhortation “where the pope says that, in certain conditions and in certain circumstances, some divorced and remarried people may receive the Eucharist.” They seem not to understand, Buttiglione observes, that this possibility entails an honest and demanding process of discernment. It is hardly a carte blanche or “easy pass” to do anything we please.

During last fall’s Synod on the Family, I spoke to journalists about the inviolability of conscience and the importance of the formation of conscience. I will expand on this theme — essential as it is to understanding “The Joy of Love” — in the next issue of the Catholic New World, with a focus on Buttiglione’s commentary as it relates to Pope Francis’ emphasis on respecting the consciences of men and women.

For now I encourage you to read Buttiglione’s important article, which can be found at


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