One of the standard talks I’ve given on the Catholic lecture circuit for years now focuses on the cultural gap between the Vatican and Main Street USA. Only semi-jokingly, I sometimes title it “Rome is from Mars, America from Venus,” because it does often seem they’re on two different planets.
One area where the cultural gap is especially apparent is contrasting attitudes towards law.
For Americans, and perhaps Anglo-Saxons generally, law is a lowest common denominator of civic morality. It’s what we expect everyone to do all the time, and if a law is being widely disobeyed, for us that’s a crisis – we either want to repeal the law or launch a crackdown, but we can’t have people making exceptions on the fly.
For Mediterranean cultures, which still shape the thought-world of the Vatican to a significant degree, law is instead more akin to an ideal. It describes a moral aspiration, but realistically it’s understood that many people much of the time will fall short. (If you don’t believe it, come to Italy sometime and watch how the locals approach traffic laws!)
A frustration I’ve long experienced as an American journalist covering the Vatican is that when the pope or some Vatican department issues a new law, it often comes off as terribly draconian and harsh in media coverage and public discussion. It’s difficult to explain that always encoded into the legislation is the common-sense expectation that bishops and pastors will use good judgment in applying it in ways that reflect their local circumstances.
It’s difficult, that is, primarily because the Vatican never says that second part explicitly – perhaps out of fear that it will come off as encouraging hypocrisy, rather than presuming a good-faith effort to live up to the value the law expresses.
They don’t usually say it, that is, until now.
One striking point about Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’ sweeping new apostolic exhortation on the family, which was released in a Vatican news conference on Friday, is that it lifts up this long-standing Catholic capacity for flexibility and nuance in pastoral practice, and sets it squarely alongside the law in full public view.
Although the 264-page text treats a staggering variety of topics, public interest initially will focus on what Francis says in chapter eight about Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried, since that was the lighting rod issue in two contentious Synods of Bishops in 2014 and again in 2015.
In a nutshell, the pope neither creates any new law on the issue nor abrogates any existing one.
What he does do, however, is place great stress on the pastoral practice of applying the law, insisting that pastors must engage in a careful process of “discernment” with regard to individual cases, which are not all alike, and help people reach decisions in conscience about the fashion in which the law applies to their circumstances.
The “money quote” on this score comes in one of Francis’ footnotes (number 336, to be exact), in which the pontiff says, “This is also the case with regard to sacramental discipline.”
In effect, what he’s saying is that there may be cases in which a given divorced and remarried Catholic, after talking things out with a priest, could be justified in reaching the decision that they don’t carry the guilt that should exclude them from the sacraments, including Holy Communion.
In truth, that may not change very much in terms of in-the-trenches experience in the Church.
For one thing, that sort of pastoral adaptation, sometimes referred to as an “internal forum” solution, is already happening. In many parishes, you can find divorced and remarried Catholics who come forward for communion, and many pastors have either quietly encouraged them to do so or, at least, never discouraged them, choosing to respect whatever decision they’ve made in conscience.
For another, the language in Amoris Laetitia on the Communion question is sufficiently elastic that both sides in the debate can take consolation, meaning that those pastors and bishops inclined to a stricter reading of Church law probably won’t feel compelled to revise their thinking, and neither will those given to a more flexible stance.
In another sense, however, Amoris Laetitia represents a breakthrough of no small consequence, because for once in a Vatican text, what got enunciated wasn’t simply the law but also the space for pastoral practice – which is where the Church’s long-underappreciated capacity for subtlety and compassion usually enters the picture.
In other words, what Pope Francis has done is let the rest of the world in on one of the best-kept secrets about the Catholic Church: Yes, the Church has laws, and it takes them very seriously. But even more than law it has flesh-and-blood people, and it takes their circumstances and struggles seriously too.
At one stage, Francis writes that the divorced and remarried can find themselves in situations “which should not be pigeonholed or fit into overly rigid classifications, leaving no room for a suitable personal and pastoral discernment.”
In reality, that’s been the spirit of things in the Church forever, to greater and lesser degrees depending on time and place. Still, it somehow feels new, and important, to hear a pope saying it out loud.