Document brings together teaching and reality

By Christopher Lamb
Sunday, April 17, 2016

VATICAN CITY — Now that the dust is settling on Pope Francis’ document on the family, it is becoming clear that the text opens up significant developments in the pastoral strategy of the church.

Following a two-year synod process, including a world-wide consultation of Catholic laity, on April 8 the pope published his eagerly awaited official response — an apostolic exhortation titled “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”).

There are three big shifts that can be pulled out from the 256-page document. The first is that doctrine needs to be applied to individual situations through a discernment of an individual’s conscience. The second is the pope has given a green light for local churches to interpret teaching and form pastoral strategies that best suit their needs. The third is the need for a merciful understanding and language to those in situations that fall short of Catholic ideals.

Francis has not changed doctrine — that was never expected to happen — but instead he has found a different use for it.

Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, a confidant and adviser to the pope, explains that doctrine is being made “radically pastoral” and ensuring it serves the church’s bottom line, which is “the salvation of souls.”

This principle of applying doctrine is crucial in opening up the possibility of giving Communion to some divorced and remarried Catholics, one of the synod’s hotly debated issues. In his exhortation the pope explains that for each person an individual discernment is necessary and then, in a footnote, says that in “certain cases” this will include access to the sacraments.

Francis is treading a fine line between, on the one hand not changing doctrine, and on the other allowing for an understanding of real life. Underlying this is the notion that the rules, while important, cannot give all the answers.

“I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion,” the pope writes. “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 the pope “reality is greater than ideas” and his method is to work from the ground up. The truth is that for many years, parish priests have often applied the teaching of the church in a pastoral way. They have been aware that sometimes the rules clash with people’s circumstances. With this apostolic exhortation the church sees a pope giving papal approval for this more pastoral, flexible approach.

It is his respect for what happens “on the ground” that allows for the second big development in the document.

“I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium,” Francis writes. “Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs.”

This is part of what Francis sees as the need for a “sound decentralization” in the church. For 21st-century Catholicism, truly global in nature, family life in Chicago is going to be radically different from that in West Africa. The pope is humbly admitting he doesn’t have all the answers and it is up to local bishops to develop their own pastoral strategies.

This is important as the synod of bishops process was just as much about process as it was about the ideas. Francis wanted a collective discernment of bishops and people and has called for a listening church, which is “synodal” at every level. This, the pope believes, will give it greater credibility when it comes to talking about the family.

This credibility also hinges on how the church talks about and approaches the complex reality of contemporary family life, and brings us to the third major shift. “From the time of the Council of Jerusalem,” Francis writes, the way of the church has been “the way of mercy and reinstatement.” In other words no one, no matter what their situation in life, should be excluded.

This starts with language. Francis says that those who are divorced and remarried should no longer be described as being automatically in a “state of mortal sin.” The pope goes on to say that many individuals are in a situation “which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin.”

What appears to be breaking down here is the old distinction between those in “regular” and “irregular” situations. When he presented “Amoris Laetitia” at a news conference in the Vatican last week, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, described this division as “artificial.” It is an implicit recognition that all Catholics, even if they appear outwardly to be living an ideal, are in need the mercy of God. Cardinal Schönborn, who is the son and grandson of divorced parents, understands this at a personal level. He is also someone with impeccable theological credentials, having edited the Catechism of the Catholic Church while collaborating theologically with Benedict XVI.

The apostolic exhortation is not simply an examination of what the church should do with the hard cases. A large part of it is devoted to presenting the ideals of marriage and family life; of helping people to live out the sacrament. Shot through it is a compassionate understanding of the struggles people face. There is a long treatment examining different stages of married life and an emphasis on the need for engaged couples to undergo a rigorous preparation before exchanging vows.

It is a text written by an experienced pastor who has spent a long time listening to families, someone who holds on to the ideals but is aware of the reality. “By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth,” Francis writes.

Perhaps this is the big achievement of the exhortation. It is a bold attempt to bring church teaching and reality closer together, to remind Catholics that Christ can work through our weakness and that God can draw straight with crooked lines.


  • marriage
  • family life
  • amoris laetitia

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