ROME— Now that Pope Francis’ keenly anticipated document on the family is finally out, one of Europe’s most respected Catholic prelates, speaking at a Vatican news conference, said Friday it represents a “development” in Catholic teaching but no rupture.
“There are true innovations, but no break,” said Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Austria, who had been among the protagonists in two summits of bishops in 2014 and 2015 that laid the basis for the pope’s new text.
Schönborn said “there’s no change [in doctrine]” in Francis’s 264-page treatise, called Amoris Laetitia, but there’s “development, just like there was with John Paul II.”
As an example under St. John Paul II, Schönborn said that until the Polish pope, the Church never had referred explicitly to a married couple, man and woman together, as an “image of God”.
This too, he said, was part of an “organic development of doctrine,” which implies both “innovation and continuity.”
In his document, Francis writes at length about what he called couples in “irregular situations,” a label used mostly for divorced and civilly re-married Catholics, although not exclusively, since it also applies to couples “cohabitating,” meaning living together outside marriage.
Reflecting on these situations – including the fact that neither divorced and remarried Catholics nor those cohabitating, are supposed to receive Communion – Francis writes that a proper, case-by-case discernment is needed.
In one of the footnotes, he says that access to the sacraments can be a part of the solution.
Discernment, Schönborn said Friday, is nothing new. However, he added, it has to be done responsibly, because “you cannot play with the sacraments, you cannot play with the conscience.”
That footnote to Amoris Laetita, number 336, came up several times throughout the press conference, and Schönborn said he found that focus disconcerting. He insisted that Francis offered a broad overview of the situation facing families, not a concentration on one particular issue.
He described the debate over Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics as “an important, but particular issue nonetheless.”
In his prepared remarks, Schönborn, whose parents divorced when he was young, said that he had read the document “with joy, gratitude and always with strong emotion.”
He said that, perhaps unconsciously, the Church has the tendency of speaking about two types of families: “regular,” which are those that meet the standard of a man and a woman, in a lasting union, open to having children; and “irregular” families that “represent a problem.”
“I am personally aware of how difficult that is for those who come from a ‘patchwork’ family, due to the situation of my own family,” Schönborn said. “The discourse of the Church in this regard may cause harm and can give the sensation of exclusion.”
He applauded Francis’ document saying that “no one must feel condemned, no one scorned,” because in the pope’s welcoming tone, the Christian vision of marriage and family becomes “an invitation, an encouragement, to the joy of love in which we can believe and which excludes no-one, truly and sincerely no-one.”
Also present at the news conference was Italian Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary of the Synod of Bishops who likewise praised the document, saying that “the pope does not overlook the fragility of families, and even their failure.”
Baldisseri gave an overview of the document, and shared some advice on how to read it: the “suitable key” to do so, he said, is the “logic of pastoral mercy.”
“The Holy Father clearly affirms the doctrine of marriage and the family, especially in the third chapter, and he proposes it as an indispensable ideal,” he said.
However, Baldisseri added, Francis doesn’t overlook the fragility of families and their future: “Without detracting from the evangelical ideal, there is a need to accompany with mercy and patience the eventual stages of personal growth as these progressively appear.”
During a Q&A period, when asked what advice he would offer to bishops from around the world when talking about the document with the faithful, he joked, “Read it.”
To the same question, Schönborn said the couples should go to the bishops, who should in turn “listen to the couples.”