The first several chapters of the post-synodal exhortation Amoris Laetitia (On Love in the Family) from Pope Francis show a remarkable understanding of the human condition, an understanding held by the synod bishops, understood and summarized by the Holy Father. The Church has a long history of dealing with human problems, human tendencies, and human failures.
Amoris Laetitia is the culmination of the synodal process. It presents background, information, and direction to clergy and laity on the subject of family. It is an effort to strengthen the family life of couples, married or not, by the Church on a worldwide basis. It is a written extension of our current Pope’s obvious commitment to the strong compassion he has for people in need and people struggling.
What Affects Doctrine?
My first reaction to this exhortation was apprehension that the Pope might make major changes to doctrine. Our times are full of changes, mostly political, which have not been shown to improve human life, especially spiritual life. The Church has the immense power of being more consistent in her beliefs and teachings than the secular world. Consistency promotes confidence that current beliefs will not be outmoded by the next go-round of changes. Constant change teaches that what is true is merely what is considered true for the moment–not objective, but relative. Pope Francis has not outwardly refuted the words of doctrine, but is he telling us to change the way we satisfy those words?
There is a strange claim at paragraph 297. He writes, “No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel!” Is he really telling us that those who are relegated to hell by God are only there temporarily? Forever on the earth we now see, does not exist. The meaning of this sentence is not clear.
If Doctrine is Not Changed, What Is New?
We know from the text that Pope Francis featured family and marriage. He was asked this question on his flight back to Rome from Greece: ” … the discipline that regulates access to the sacraments for the divorced and remarried… For a Catholic who wants to know: are there new, concrete possibilities that didn’t exist before the publication of the exhortation or not?”
He answered “Yes, I can say yes, period…. I recommend that you read the presentation of Cardinal Schonborn… In that presentation, your question will find an answer.”
No-one must feel condemned, no-one is scorned. In this climate of welcome, the discourse on the Christian vision of marriage and the 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. For me Amoris Laetitia is, first and foremost, a “linguistic event”, as was Evangelii gaudium. Something has changed in ecclesial discourse. This change of language was already perceptible during the Synod process. Between the two Synods of October 2014 and October 2015, it may clearly be seen how the tone became richer in esteem, as if the different situations in life had simply been accepted, without being immediately judged or condemned. In Amoris Laetitia this tone of language continues. Before this there is obviously not only a linguistic choice, but rather a profound respect when faced with every person who is never firstly a “problematic case” in a “category”, but rather a unique person, with his story and his journey with and towards God…Those, therefore, who find themselves on the side of the “irregular” families, must live with the fact that the “regular” families are on the other side. 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. The discourse of the Church in this regard may cause harm and can give the sensation of exclusion. (emphasis mine)
Language is Important, But Is It an Event?
I am not significantly bothered with this exhortation up until Chapter Eight, Accompanying, Discerning And Integrating Weakness. Previous to that chapter, paragraph 218 has this emphatic statement speaking of marriage: “Their union is real, an irrevocable, confirmed and consecrated by the sacrament of matrimony.” Paragraph 251 also states emphatically, “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.” These statement and others make it very clear that their is no intent to change the words of major established doctrine.
Do those statements necessarily guarantee strong fidelity and honor to that doctrine?
I have seen in my lifetime titles and descriptions change. “Associate” replaces “sales clerk.” A person who probably does not associate with the 20 million dollars-a-year top associate. “Human Resources” replacing “Employment Office.” Your fellow associates may, but do you really consider yourself a resource? A resource sounds so impersonal and material, like oil or copper, a library or the internet. This tendency to change language in order to alter perceptions has reasons that are not always necessary or even understandable. Language is increasingly being condemned and modified for the motive we know as political correctness: a need to not offend anyone. Language that enlightens is valuable, language that confuses is not. To “feel condemned” with no way out has never been a regular teaching. We have Confession.
What is the Promised Concrete Change Here?
In Amoris Laetitia the Pope writes of “irregular situations” in quotes. Not the first time this phrase has been used. It was also used by Saint Pope John Paul II, without the quotes, in his Apostolic Exhortation, Familiaris Consortio, of 1981. He described several families’ situations which he called difficult or irregular situations. Situations “which are irregular in a religious sense and often in the civil sense too.” The question that the word irregular invites and he answered is: what exactly are the irregularities? The obvious answer in the religious sense is, whatever differs from religious teaching.
In this “linguistic event,” as Cardinal Schonborn calls it, because there is an apparent desire to eliminate the distinction between those who have been faithful to God’s word regarding marriage, and those who have not, “irregular” is quoted. It is as if the meaning of irregular, “contrary to the rules or to that which is normal or established,” should not be understood as something different. More of an illogical event than a linguistic one.
Cardinal Schonborn is quoted as saying, “My great joy as a result of this document resides in the fact that it coherently overcomes that artificial, superficial, clear division between ‘regular’ and ‘irregular.'”
Those two words have a built-in clear division by definition, as do the words married and unmarried. A desire to eliminate any difference implies a desire to regularize the irregular. But that would be a departure from the tradition of the Church. This position, based upon Sacred Scripture, has already been clearly explained by Saint Pope John Paul II in his Apostolic Exhortation, Familiaris Consortio, which is a result of another synod, “The Synod of 1980 in Continuity with Preceding Synods”. In paragraph 84 he writes:
However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.
Reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage. This means, in practice, that when, for serious reasons, such as for example the children’s upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they “take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.”
What Is Pope Francis Telling Us?
Pope Francis continues in Chapter Eight writing several pages explaining why a parishioner must be thought of with love. I must assume because of this major emphasis on love, he believes that love has been lacking from pastoral care in the present and historical church. A monumental condemnation.
He writes in paragraph 301 :
Hence it is can no longer simply be said that all those in any “irregular” situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace. More is involved here than mere ignorance of the rule. A subject may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding “its inherent values,” or be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin.
This seems to contradict the long-time understanding that the departure from the married state as outlined by Saint Pope John Paul II, this objective state, precludes Eucharistic Communion. We are now to accept that the subjective rejection of the indissolubility of marriage by an individual, even though that individual understands that God forbids it, is enough to be excused from the consequences of mortal sin; therefore Communion is possible.
Can we now extend this thinking to include all of God’s commandments? Can we be exempt from earthly consequence and correction if we do not accept the “inherent value” of a particular commandment? Is the Pope reducing adultery to venial sin, or worse, no sin at all? Must we now react as if mortal sin is not serious because a person does not agree that it is? Is he telling us that we do not love enough if we restrain our children? I do not read in this any limits on the authority of an individual pastor over the determination of sin or it’s earthly consequences. Why is it necessary then to go through the annulment process, if a judgement by a pastor of a state of mind will suffice?
What Every Parent Knows
This call to unconditional love by the Pope is something parents already know. Since homosexuality has become much more public, time after time we read and hear from a parent whose son or daughter has grown to embrace this attraction. In some parents there is a total rejection of the child. More parents express their anguish about the “irregular situation,” but express even greater a love for the child. There is no need for a suppression of truth in order for love to exist, or the need to accept an irregularity for love to exist.
Parents are also familiar with the cry of “That’s not fair!” When children trust, then the bad consequence will be averted. We, as children of God, often use that plea to our Father when we disagree with Him. Is the Divine Mercy Devotion being denied here? Did not Christ say to Sister Faustina, “Souls perish in spite of My bitter Passion”?
I hope I have misread this exhortation and do not see in it the desire to create a legitimate denial of obedience to God’s laws, imitating the secular call to inclusiveness. That would be privilege given to a select group defined for us, yet illogically, the group deemed undefinable.
I believe that Pope Francis is genuinely a very compassionate man. Compassionate to a fault. He exhibits an attitude of identifying so closely with the suffering and those that sin, that he appears to be willing to give himself over completely to the need to try and alleviate that suffering. One cannot legitimately share in the free will of another. We have our own souls to nurture. To identify this closely with rebellion, weakness, or indifference, puts one in danger of legitimizing the attitudes that brought on those problems.
To complicate our relationship with God, to make it something other than a father and son or daughter relationship that must involve trust in what the father is telling us, is to complicate it into chaos. It is detaching our relationship from God, and giving that trusted connection over to the judgement of imperfect pastors and laity. I do not see love in this approach, I see a failing love, and a permissiveness that unknowingly overrules God.
For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith. (1 John 5)