NEW YORK – In an address on Wednesday to the National Assembly of Filipino Priests USA in Houston, Texas, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia said the controversies over Amoris Laetitia have “obscured much of the good in the document.”
Titled “Amoris Laetitia and the Nature of Mercy,” Chaput’s remarks focused on three major areas: “the pastoral challenges Amoris Laetitia seeks to address; the pastoral challenges the text itself may seem to create; and how we as priests need to respond as ‘missionaries of mercy.’”
Amoris Laetitia, Francis’s landmark apostolic exhortation on marriage and family life, is the outcome document resulting from two Synods on the Family called by Francis in 2014 and 2015. Chaput’s remarks were delivered at the third annual gathering of Filipino priests, aimed to promote more effective pastoral leadership.
“Papal documents are always important,” said Chaput. “But — if we can be candid for a moment — some have the energy of a lead brick. Amoris Laetitia is very different. It has passages of great wisdom and beauty on marriage and on family life. And it has other passages that have caused some obvious controversy.”
The majority of the controversy surrounding Amoris has been over Francis’s cautious opening of communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. While Chaput did not directly address this in his speech, he did cite the guidelines for the implementation of Amoris released by the archdiocese of Philadelphia in which he maintained that communion for divorced and remarried Catholics should only be permitted if the couple agrees to live chastely.
“Ground Zero is this: For Christians, sexual intimacy outside a valid marriage can never be morally legitimate,” Chaput said on Wednesday. “And it’s the Church that determines what a valid sacramental marriage is.”
“Fidelity to the received and constant wisdom of Catholic teaching is paramount. So the spirit behind our Philadelphia guidelines, grounded in Amoris Laetitia, is the following. As a Church we need to meet people where they are. We need to listen to their sufferings and hopes. We need to accompany them along the path of their lives. That demands from us as priests a spirit of patience and mercy. We need to have a bias toward welcoming, and a resistance to seeing individual persons merely as parts of alien or alienated groups,” he continued.
“The divorced and civilly remarried are not exiles from Church life. They need to be invited back. The same applies to persons with same-sex attraction. Jesus Christ died for all of us, and we need to behave in a manner that embodies his love.”
Yet Chaput also cautioned that “‘accompanying’ people also means that we need to guide them in the right direction – gently but also honestly, speaking the truth with love…We can’t simply confirm people in their mistakes. Scripture is very clear about right and wrong sexual relationships and behavior.”
In recent weeks there has been a new wave of discussion over Amoris, following the publication of a letter by former USCCB doctrinal consultant Father Tom Weinandy in which he accused Francis of fostering “chronic confusion” in the Church, primarily as a result of Amoris. The U.S. bishops requested Weinandy’s resignation and issued a public affirmation of their support for Francis and called for a greater spirit of charity in dialogue.
Chaput also said that the heart of Amoris is a message of “tenderness.”
“Francis urges us again and again to deal lovingly with people and situations as they really are.”
He also went on to add that tenderness is the responsibility and mission of the priest.
“In my reading, that leads to one of the central ironies in communicating the message of Amoris Laetitia,” he said. “We live in an age of the laity. The text deals very heavily with marriage and the family, major features of Christian lay life. But to succeed, Amoris Laetitia depends profoundly on the zeal and sensitivity of the priest.”
Chaput said that many priests had expressed confusion or feeling hurt by certain words Francis has said about priests.
“These are good, solid men — not whiners or crazies — experienced in their parishes and committed to their people,” he added.
Chaput said part of that comes with the attacks on the priesthood following the clergy abuse crisis which “caused a lot of innocent priests to suffer.” As for Francis’s remarks, Chaput said they stem from “his own pastoral experiences in Latin America, which seem to have been very different from the realities in the United States.”
“In my own experience, cruel confessors and harsh ‘doctors of the law’ have been rare, and a very long way from the American norm,” he added.
Chaput concluded his remarks by observing that “the curse of our age is loneliness” and that it was the duty of the priest to respond to the challenges created by this in order to “be the presence of God’s love in the world.
“There’s no greater mission of mercy than that,” he said, “and no greater joy in the life of a priest.”