PORTLAND, Ore. — Archbishop Alexander K. Sample of Portland has written a pastoral letter seeking to correct what he called “troublesome” misuse of Pope Francis’s recent apostolic exhortation on the family and family life.
Though Sample does not directly address the debate over whether the pontiff has opened a door to a return to Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, the clear thrust of his reflections suggests the answer is “no.”
The pastoral letter, released Oct. 7, is titled “A True and Living Icon: Reading of ‘Amoris Laetitia’ in Light of Church Teaching.” In it, Sample said that Pope Francis’s exhortation, issued in April, has rightly been lauded by Catholics and non-Catholics alike for its pastoral approach.
The image of the Church as a “field hospital,” the archbishop wrote, is a potent reminder of the services provided by priests, deacons and parish staffs, as well as the wounded that they care for.
But the archbishop went on to write that media in particular have drawn false conclusions from “Amoris Laetitia.”
“While the exhortation does not contain any change in Church teaching regarding marriage and family life, some have used ‘Amoris Laetitia’ in ways that do not correspond with the Church’s teaching tradition,” Sample wrote.
The archbishop highlighted what he sees as the three most common ways readers have gotten the original exhortation wrong.
First, he wrote, the media and others have used “Amoris Laetitia” to argue that conscience legitimizes actions that contravene divine commandments.
“Conscience is not a law unto itself, nor may conscience rightly disregard or supplant the commands of God as taught by the Church,” Sample wrote in response. While the Church won’t seek to replace a person’s conscience, he added, it is important to know that consciences can err and need to be formed.
“Encouraging or silently accepting an erroneous judgment of conscience is neither mercy nor charity,” the archbishop wrote.
Second, Sample rejected the notion that under certain conditions, there can be exceptions to absolute divine prohibitions. While the Church follows the example of Jesus and offers mercy and accompaniment to people in “irregular” situations and unions, the Church is not the arbiter of moral norms given by God, he wrote.
“The indissolubility of marriage is a precious and essential teaching of the Church, revealed by Jesus and cherished in our unbroken tradition,” Sample wrote, explaining that the teaching is not just a rule, but “a beautiful, sacramental and spiritual reality.”
Third, the archbishop said that human frailty does not exempt people from divine commands, an idea he said some have wrongly taken from “Amoris Laetitia.”
“While authentic pastoral care always accompanies people in their suffering and frailty, some have misused the exhortation’s rightful insistence on the logic of mercy to claim that objectively wrong acts can be accepted, even perhaps sanctified, if a person judges he or she cannot do differently,” Sample wrote.
To claim individuals can’t change is to deny the power of grace, he added.
The pastoral letter, addressed to the people of western Oregon, quotes Pope Francis, Pope Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II.
Sample has led the Archdiocese of Portland since 2013 and before that led the Diocese of Marquette, Michigan.
His pastoral letter will not be the last word on “Amoris Laetitia” in western Oregon, the archbishop said. He expects guidelines to emerge that will help the Church support families and married couples.
The archbishop cautioned against describing Church moral teaching on marriage as only policies and rules, when the teachings are always about salvation in Jesus Christ.
The title of the letter comes from the archbishop’s belief that the family is “an icon of God’s own communion and graciousness.”
Sample closed the letter by referring to the Gospel story of the woman caught in adultery. While Jesus does not condemn the woman, he does command her to turn away from her life of sin.
“Mercy opens the door to truth,” the archbishop concluded, “and the truth of a new life in Christ will set her free.”
Langlois is editor of the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland.