From a communications point of view, 'Amoris Laetitia' is a shipwreck

From a communications point of view, ‘Amoris Laetitia’ is a shipwreck

From a communications point of view, ‘Amoris Laetitia’ is a shipwreck

A couple gets married in this 2013 file photo. (Credit: CNS photo/Fredrik Sandberg via EPA.)

Good communicators not only deal with facts, they also deal with appearances. They predict confusing or negative perceptions and navigate around them. This hasn't been the case with 'Amoris Laetitia,' the document by Pope Francis on marriage and the family. The debate over a footnote means the rest of the positive and affirming message on Christian love and the sacrament of matrimony has been lost in the controversy.

Commentary

I am not a moral theologian or a canon lawyer, so I do not feel qualified to comment on the content of Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’s controversial document on the family that includes a cautious opening to Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried.

Being caught up in busy parish life, I also don’t have the time (or inclination) to read all the commentary and debate on the document. I read the whole thing, thought it was good, and commented on it briefly.

I don’t have any problems with Pope Francis’s teaching, and when it comes to dealing with the divorced and remarried, obviously something needs to be done, so I’m glad the powers that be are trying to sort things out. I’m also glad that those who are more qualified than I am, and who have the stomach for that sort of thing, are willing to do some nit-picking, put on their gloves and get involved in theological slug-fests if need be. It is often through conflict and dialogue that clarity is achieved.

However, although I am not a moral theologian, I do have some experience and training in communications. So, while I leave it to others to quarrel about the pope’s teaching, it does seem that, from a communications point of view, the document and its subsequent handling has been a shipwreck.

The problem can be traced to a seemingly innocuous footnote in chapter eight, in which the pope seems to open the door for some divorced and re-married Catholics to receive Communion. It might seem a tiny problem, but the tiniest hole in the hull of a ship can bring the whole thing down. The pope’s critics have picked at the footnote. The leak got worse, and his supporters still haven’t plugged it.

After pointing out that some people might objectively be in a state of mortal sin, the pope observes that because of their circumstances and intentions they may not be very culpable. He says pastors should accompany the faithful who are in difficult and irregular relationships. In the footnote he adds, “In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, “I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy.” … I would also point out that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”

The first communications problem is that the pope dealt with what was bound to be a controversial topic not with clear teaching, but with sentimental platitudes. It was the ambiguity of the footnote that made people squirm.  What does “help of the sacraments mean”? Does the pope mean that confession is the sacrament such people need? But then he mentions the Eucharist. Does he mean they may receive Communion, or that they should receive strength by participating in Mass and Eucharistic adoration but without receiving communion?

Various commentators offered clarity. A good example is Scott Eric Alt’s explanation here, but further confusion followed. Progressives hailed the footnote as an open door for the divorced and remarried to receive Communion, while conservatives insisted that the footnote did not mean that at all. Bishops around the world issued contradictory guidelines, from the open approach of the bishops of Malta and Argentina to the more restricted interpretation of the Archbishop of Philadelphia and others.

Francis’s own attempts at clarification were awkward. In a Q&A session aboard the papal plane, he said the divorced and remarried should come to Mass but not receive Communion, but in a letter to the bishops of Argentina he signaled that their more open approach was the “only interpretation.” In another plane interview, he said he “did not remember” the footnote and seemed to dismiss people’s concerns about it, directing them to Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn’s explanation when the document was presented.

Pope Francis and his supporters are pleading for a recognition of the complexity of the problem for pastors and their people. The pastoral problems certainly are perplexing. However, the acknowledgement of complexity comes across as ambiguous and relativistic to those who demand clarity as well as charity.

Unfortunately, the pope’s response to his critics has sometimes come across as dismissive and patronizing. When he defers to Schönborn, it looks like he is sidestepping, and when he appears to demote those who are firmly against giving Communion to the divorced and remarried, such as American Cardinal Raymond Burke and German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, those who have stopped giving him the benefit of the doubt only give him the doubt.

Argentine Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández, the rector of the Catholic University of Buenos Aires, and a close colleague of the pope, has stepped into the ring and launched a vigorous defense of Amoris Laetitia, as reported by Austen Ivereigh.

Again, just from a communications point of view, there’s a good case that he only made matters worse.

First, Fernández comes across as a papal surrogate. While the pope continues to deflect dialogue with those who disagree, it looks like he is using others to fight his battles. Rather than addressing the concerns himself, or taking the high ground and rising above the fray, he seems to be ducking for cover and sending out his lieutenants to take shots at the enemy.

Unfortunately, Fernández, who is known as the pope’s adviser, seems to resort to derogatory remarks. Fernández says some of the critics deploy a kind of logic that amounts to a “death trap,” subjecting the gospel and papal teaching to “intellectual Pelagianism … administered by an oligarchic group of ethicists.”

This highbrow theological derision is reminiscent of the pope’s own memorable slap down calling his critics “self-absorbed Promethean neo-Pelagians.”

Of course, it’s a pope’s job to point out error, and sometimes that requires strong language. There’s a fine line, however, between correction and snark. Doesn’t the archbishop know that this is just the sort of inflammatory language which the conflict hungry media are going to pick up on and headline?

The archbishop says the pope knew the footnote in chapter eight could be explosive, and deliberately put his idea in that form so that it would be “discreet.” There are two problems with this explanation.

First, coming so long after the publication of the document and the controversy it has caused, it looks like one of those weak explanations politicians issue to take the heat off a controversial decision.

Secondly, because his critics already have suspicions, when the archbishop says “discreet” they will hear him say “sneaky.” They will conclude that the pope, not having got his way at the Synod of the Family, sneaked his loophole about the divorced and remarried into the exhortation by use of a footnote.

When it comes to good communications, this just adds fuel to the fire. Although Fernández says Francis dealt with the Communion issue in such a way in an effort to keep the main focus of the document on married love, others will see that as the pope, rather than teaching openly, honestly and clearly, intentionally tucking a controversial teaching into a footnote.

Critics will conclude, “He used fuzzy sentimental language because he knew if he spoke clearly, his proposal would be rejected.”

Whether this is true or not doesn’t really matter. The problem is that this is what it looks and feels like, and good communicators not only deal with facts, they also deal with appearances. They predict confusing or negative perceptions and navigate around them.

Worst of all, the fuss has detracted from the main message of Amoris Laetitia, which was a positive and powerful re-affirmation of Catholic teaching on love and marriage—a message the church and the world desperately needs to hear.

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