Pope Francis’ document on the family avoids issuing directives or a “final word” on debatable questions. Instead, it argues for pastoral flexibility and recognition of the complex relationship between the human conscience, sin and the state of grace.
That alone makes this text remarkable. Rather than announcing new practices or decisions from Rome, the pope is opening a discussion that involves bishops, priests, theologians and lay Catholics.
Titled “Amoris Laetitia, on Love and the Family,” the 260-page document reflects on the results of the Synod of Bishops, convened in two sessions in 2014 and 2015.
I won’t attempt to summarize its contents here. In large part, it expands on points that were made in the synod’s final relatio last fall.
The synod saw unusually sharp debate on a number of issues, including the thorny question of how the church treats people in “irregular” unions. Whether divorced Catholics should be allowed to receive Communion was a particularly divisive matter.
Pope Francis opened his post-synodal document by stating clearly that he was not going to pronounce a verdict on all these issues. In fact, he added, “not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium.” He suggested that different ways of interpreting church teaching can co-exist in the church, with allowances for local needs and traditions in various countries or regions.
That appears to reverse an approach that’s dominated at the Vatican for the past forty years or so: that any pastoral innovation needs to be run through Rome.
When addressing the various problems faced by modern families, the pope pretty much adopted the synod’s laundry list of challenges, from excessive individualism to economic burdens on young couples.
But in a typical “Francis touch,” he added strong words of self-criticism, saying that the church has “helped contribute to today’s problematic situation.” Church leaders, he said, have “often been on the defensive, wasting pastoral energy on denouncing a decadent world without being proactive in proposing ways of finding true happiness.”
We often present marriage in such a way that its unitive meaning, its call to grow in love and its ideal of mutual assistance are overshadowed by an almost exclusive insistence on the duty of procreation. Nor have we always provided solid guidance to young married couples, understanding their timetables, their way of thinking and their concrete concerns. At times we have also proposed a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families. This excessive idealization, especially when we have failed to inspire trust in God’s grace, has not helped to make marriage more desirable and attractive, but quite the opposite.
The pope added:
We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.
The pope expanded on that last point in a chapter intriguingly titled: “Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness.”
He argued that when dealing with people in “irregular” unions, pastors need to show careful discernment, and not simply impose a set of rules, recognizing that the degree of individual responsibility varies with circumstances and that “no easy recipes exist.”
“The divorced who have entered a new union, for example, can find themselves in a variety of situations, which should not be pigeonholed or fit into overly rigid classifications,” he said:
One thing is a second union consolidated over time, with new children, proven fidelity, generous self giving, Christian commitment, a consciousness of its irregularity and of the great difficulty of going back without feeling in conscience that one would fall into new sins. The Church acknowledges situations “where, for serious reasons, such as the children’s upbringing, a man and woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate.” There are also the cases of those who made every effort to save their first marriage and were unjustly abandoned, or of “those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children’s upbringing, and are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably broken marriage had never been valid.”
The pope made it clear that he did not intend to lay down new general rules that would allow Catholics who have divorced and remarried without an annulment to receive Communion. But he appeared to open the door to such a possibility when he said that pastoral accompaniment should include an “examination of conscience through moments of reflection and repentance,” recognizing 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.”
Significantly, he footnoted that passage and added: “This is also the case with regard to sacramental discipline, since discernment can recognize that in a particular situation no grave fault exists.”
The pope’s framework for all this, of course, is mercy.
“No one can be condemned forever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel! Here I am not speaking only of the divorced and remarried, but of everyone, in whatever situation they find themselves,” he said.
There is much, much more in this document, including praise for the women's movement and feminism, a call to include women and families in the seminary experience, and a long and fascinating chapter on love in marriage.