ROME— In a highly anticipated document released Friday, Pope Francis touches on every issue concerning what he calls the “Christian proclamation on the family:” From immigration to gender ideology, to the challenge of dialogue within families and the need for stronger marriage preparation and greater support for couples just starting out.
On the hot-button question of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, Francis does not create any new Church law, but he does appear to encourage priests and bishops to be open to allowing at least some people in that situation to return to the sacrament after a period of discernment.
Francis calls for “a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases, one which would recognize that, since ‘the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases,’ the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same.”
In a key footnote, he adds, “This is also the case with regard to sacramental discipline.”
“Amoris Laetitia, on love in the family,” intended as a reflection on two summits of Catholic bishops from around the world to discuss family issues in 2014 and 2015, is 256 pages long and is divided into nine chapters.
However, despite the length of the document and the variety of issues explored, for Pope Francis this is only a way to kick-start further study and reflection.
In the second paragraph, the pope says: “The complexity of the issues that arose revealed the need for continued open discussion of a number of doctrinal, moral, spiritual, and pastoral questions.”
He goes on to say that continued exploration, if it’s “faithful … honest, realistic and creative,” will shine light into complex issues which include the “culture of the provisional,” an “anti-birth mentality,” lack of housing and work, pornography and sexual abuse of minors, persons with disabilities, the elderly, teenage moms, lack of respect for the elderly, euthanasia, assisted suicide, violence against women, genital mutilation, and female lack of access to dignified work and roles of decision-making.
Francis says that the debates that have taken place during the process surrounding the two Synods of Bishops, in the media and among Church leaders, range from “an immoderate desire for total change without sufficient reflection or grounding, to an attitude that would solve everything by applying general rules or deriving undue conclusions from particular theological considerations.”
The pontiff calls on people to resist the temptation of a “rushed reading” of the text.
While “firmly grounded in [the] reality” of family experiences, in Amoris Laetitia Francis constantly quotes documents written by his predecessors, including 1981’s Familiaris Consortio, from St. John Paul II, the last apostolic exhortation dedicated to the family.
He also uses many passages from the final reports of the two Synods of Bishops, in October 2014 and 2015, which paved the way for this document, and also from documents of various bishops’ conferences around the world.
The nine chapters are divided in an opening one inspired by the Bible, with subsequent chapters exploring the situation of families, the Church’s teaching on marriage and family, two chapters dedicated to love, one to pastoral approaches to “building sound and fruitful homes in accordance to God’s plan,” and a full chapter devoted to children.
Chapter eight, which deals with marital situations that fall short of the Church’s ideal, is likely to be the most scrutinized, since that’s where the pontiff deals with the divorced and civilly remarried. The final chapter sketches a brief spirituality of the family.
Overall, the thrust of the document seems to be upholding Church teaching on marriage while exuding great mercy to all those people in situations which, in one way or another, fall short of the ideal.
“No family drops down from heaven perfectly formed,” the pope writes. “Families need constantly to grow and mature in the ability to love.”
One key word that came up often during the synod, both in the media and from the synod fathers, but which is missing from the document, is “decentralization.” In Catholic parlance, this means giving local churches more power to resolve certain issues.
Even so, however, the concept is certainly present, and right out of the gate. In the third paragraph Francis says that while unity of teaching and practice is necessary in the Church, “this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it.”
“Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs,” he writes, without specifying to which aspects of family life and Church teaching this idea might apply.
A healthy dose of self-criticism
In the second chapter, Francis explores the “experiences and challenges of families,” where he begins by saying that the welfare of the family is “decisive” for the future of both the Church and the world.
Quoting the closing documents from the two synods, he denounces an “extreme individualism” and an “overly individualistic culture” that have led to intolerance and hostility in families. He also writes of fear of commitment, self-centeredness, arrogance, and decrease in the number of marriages.
“The fear of loneliness and the desire for stability and fidelity exist side by side with a growing fear of entrapment in a relationship that could hamper the achievement of one’s personal goals,” he writes.
However, Francis also says that the Church needs to be “humble and realistic, acknowledging that at times the way we present our Christian beliefs and treat other people has helped contribute to today’s problematic situation.”
He says that Catholics need a “healthy dose of self-criticism,” because at times marriage has been presented with an almost exclusive “insistence on procreation,” overshadowing other aspects such as its call to “grow in love.”
Francis acknowledges that the Church is often too focused on couples having children, without understanding that young married couples can have their own timetables and concrete concerns.
“We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life,” he says.
He also admits to an often failure to give room for the “consciences of the faithful,” who respond to the Gospel “as best as they can” amid their limitations.
“We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them,” he said.
Divorced and civilly remarried Catholics
On the question of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, who currently can’t access Communion, the pope writes at length, reflecting the time spent outside and inside the synod hall discussing this issue, both by the bishops and by those following it.
The pontiff skirts away from a “one-size-fits-all” response, saying that he’s “in agreement with the many synod fathers” who in the final report of the 2015 summit said that the baptized who are in a second union need to be more fully integrated into Christian communities, “while avoiding any occasion of scandal.”
Here he speaks of integration, discernment, and participation in different ecclesial services, because divorced and civilly remarried Catholics “need to feel not as excommunicated members of the Church, but instead as living members.”
The divorced who have entered a new union, Francis says, shouldn’t be pigeonholed into “overly rigid classifications” leaving no room “for a suitable personal and pastoral discernment.”
He lists several circumstances which might lead a person to enter a second union, such as being “unjustly abandoned,” doing so for the sake of the children’s upbringing, and those who are “subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably broken marriage had never been valid.”
Francis distinguishes these situations from those unions which arise from a recent divorce, or the case of someone who has “consistently failed in his obligations to the family.”
“It must remain clear that this is not the ideal which the Gospel proposes for marriage and the family,” he writes.
Considering the “immense variety of concrete situations,” Francis argues that “it is understandable that neither the synod nor this exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases.”
However, he then goes on to say that it is possible to “undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases, one which would recognize that, since ‘the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases,’ the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same.”
Quoting an address made by his predecessor Benedict XVI, he says that when it comes to pastoral care of the divorced and remarried, “We know that no ‘easy recipes’ exist.”
Francis also says that “conversation with a priest, in the internal forum,” contributes to a better understanding to why a fuller participation in the life of the Church isn’t possible. He says that those in this situation are called to “discern” their reality, something for which they should be humble, discrete, and love both the Church and its teachings.
“These attitudes are essential for avoiding the grave danger of misunderstandings, such as the notion that any priest can quickly grant ‘exceptions’.”
But when it comes to access to Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried, the devil is in the footnotes.
The pontiff writes that a “personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases” would recognize that there are different degrees of responsibility.
In comes footnote number 336, where Francis cautiously, if not surreptitiously, opens the door to Communion, saying that “this is also the case with regard to sacramental discipline, since discernment can recognize that in a particular situation no grave fault exists.”
He goes even further in the footnote 351.
In the body of the text Francis writes about “mitigating factors” which make it possible that “in an objective situation of sin- which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such- a person can be living God’s grace, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.”
In the footnote he says that in certain cases, that grace can include the help of the sacraments.
“I would also point out that the Eucharist ‘is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak’,” he writes.
Knowing that not everyone agrees with this view, in Amoris Laetitia Francis also says that he understands those who “prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion.”
However, he adds, “I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, a Mother who, while clearly expressing her objective teaching, ‘always does what good she can, even if in the process, her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street’.”
During the two synods, there seemed to be broad acceptance of welcoming gays and lesbians into the life of the Church, but there’s little on the issue in Amoris Laetitia.
The pope says that “The Church makes her own the attitude of the Lord Jesus, who offers his boundless love to each person without exception.”
However, in point 52 Francis argues that there’s a need “to acknowledge the great variety of family situations that can offer a certain stability, but de facto or same-sex unions, for example, may not simply be equated with marriage.”
Tying this to the Catholic concept of family as being between a man and a woman, indissoluble, and open to life, he adds that “No union that is temporary or closed to the transmission of life can ensure the future of society.”
Further into the document, when talking about “certain complex situations,” a section that includes marriages between Catholics and non-Catholics and single-parent families, gay marriage appears again, with Francis writing that “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family”.
The pope also described as “unacceptable” the possibility that local Churches should “be subjected to pressure in this matter,” and that international bodies would push for the “the introduction of laws to establish ‘marriage’ between persons of the same sex” in exchange for financial aid.
Often at odds with feminist groups who accuse him of using old rhetoric when talking about women, in Amoris Laetitia Francis delivers some of his strongest pro-female remarks to date. He denounces that women don’t have equal access to dignified work and roles of decision-making, things he’s spoken about before.
However, the pope also speaks of equal dignity of men and women, and of a growing reciprocity within families.
“If certain forms of feminism have arisen which we must consider inadequate, we must nonetheless see in the women’s movement the working of the Spirit for a clearer recognition of the dignity and rights of women,” Francis says.
Always on point 54, the pope also writes that in many countries much remains to be done to promote women’s rights, and calls for the elimination of “unacceptable customs,” such as genital mutilation.
He then goes on to list forms of “shameful ill-treatment” to which women are sometimes subjected: domestic violence and various forms of enslavement, and verbal, physical, and sexual violence.
Francis also denounces surrogacy and the “exploitation and commercialization” of the female body, comparing them to patriarchal cultures that through history considered women inferior.
The pope also writes that it’s “false, untrue, a form of male chauvinism” to say many of today’s problems are a consequence of female emancipation.
“There are those who believe that many of today’s problems have arisen because of feminine emancipation,” he writes, adding that this argument is “false, untrue, a form of male chauvinism.”
As presented by Francis, the pastoral challenges the Church faces regarding the family seem almost endless. Throughout Amoris Laetitia the pontiff makes several appeals in favor of “integration,” “inclusion,” and “accompaniment.”
However, he says in point 307, at the beginning of a section called “The Logic of Pastoral Mercy,” that “To show understanding in the face of exceptional situations never implies dimming the light of the fuller ideal, or proposing less than what Jesus offers to the human being.”
“Today, more important than the pastoral care of failures is the pastoral effort to strengthen marriages and thus to prevent their breakdown,” he says.
“Families are not a problem,” Francis writes. “They are first and foremost an opportunity.”