Beautiful, Moving, and Divisive
First, the positives. As there were in the Final Report of the 2015 Synod, there are many beautiful passages in the pope’s new Apostolic Exhortation on the Family, Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”) testifying to: God’s original plan for man and woman; love and marriage; children, siblings, parents, grandparents; the bond between the generations; and the crucial importance of all this to the future – and the sheer survival – of the Church and society. Oh, and not least, the “tenderness” of God, which should be reproduced in our homes.
There are also quite a few unambiguous affirmations of Catholic principles related to the subject:
openness to life (i.e., no contraception) in every marital act;
the right to life, and the right – and duty – of healthcare workers not to participate in abortion, euthanasia, and other anti-life medical procedures;
denial that “homosexual unions [are] in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family” (though persons with same-sex attraction should be ministered to);
the need of children for both a mother and a father, and to be born of their own parents (even if sometimes with special needs), not via reproductive technologies that dominate human life or make children mere players in their parent’s life plans;
the right of parents to control the education of their children and to receive assistance from the community in doing so.
And much more, even extensive quotations from St. John Paul (notably absent from the Synod text) and Benedict XVI.
Also, like the Synod Report, but at much greater length, Pope Francis lays out the many ways in which people need to be “accompanied” – one of his favored terms – during courtship, the wedding, and the first years of marriage, indeed, throughout their married lives. During the Synod, some of the most interesting presentations came from lay people involved in precisely these sorts of things.
Francis points to their necessity in our time, as never before, because young people around the world often come to marriage now with false or unrealistic expectations created by modern media. And given the poor to non-existent formation they get at home or in parishes these days, he urges parents, teachers, catechists, pastors to recognize how much they need to do before young people get anywhere near the altar in a culture like ours, which puts enormous economic, moral, and social obstacles in their way.
This leads to some lengthy and, at times, quite moving pages on how married persons have to learn to live in true love with partners who are imperfect, and maybe even deeply flawed, as we all are, by sin and our personal histories. There is, he says, a kind of dynamic growth all during married life. It’s unusual to find this kind of advice-to-the-lovelorn material and even a kind of folksy pastoral shrewdness in an official document by a pope. But it’s clear that Francis intends readers to linger over these pages and seriously contemplate how they may reduce tensions within families and the incidence – still rising around the globe – of marital breakdowns.
However, in a first, necessarily quick reading (we’ll have to return to it when time permits calmer reflection), problems begin to crop up amidst all these efforts at understanding and reconciliation. To begin with, what used to be the quite ordinary process of getting married and raising a family, often – very often – is presented in the text as an “ideal,” or some “perfect” arrangement that people will, inevitably, fall short of.
The falling short, it’s true, is very common now. You get the impression that it’s because it’s so common that Pope Francis has been seeking Communion for divorced/remarrieds in some circumstances (ever since he invited Cardinal Kasper to present the case).
This is not driven primarily by Scriptural and theological reasons. Indeed, the pope seems almost to think that mercy short circuits what have been regarded as the grounds for Catholic teaching on marriage: “a pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in ‘irregular’ situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives.” The image here is clearly intended to suggest that dutifully following traditional teaching is akin to stoning the woman taken in adultery. As if our Lord’s own words on indissolubility – and his warnings that divorce/remarriage is adultery (not mere “imperfection” or “irregularity”), were somehow nullified by mercy. (Lk. 16:18; Mt. 19:9; Mk 10:11, 1 Cor. 7:10, etc.)
Amoris Laetitia hopes to resolve the situations of many in the modern world, but is far more likely only to add further fuel to the holocaust. It doesn’t take a crystal ball to predict that once Communion can be taken by the divorced/remarried in some circumstances, it will soon be assumed licit by all. And – why not? – by people in gay relationships, who probably have an equally good claim to mitigating circumstances.
The pope spends many pages explaining how culpability and circumstances may qualify absolute moral principles without compromising the fullness of truth. (No thoughtful person has ever denied this, of course.) He even quotes Aquinas in this context – who is not exactly a poster boy for the kind of “pastoral” change the pope is suggesting. Expect protests from the Thomists.
But despite much candid talk on many matters, he seems hesitant to put the “pastoral” change too clearly. The only place where sacramental change is mentioned as such is in a footnote. And even then the formulation is odd:
351. 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” (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium [24 November 2013], 44: AAS 105 , 1038). I would also point out that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”
Which makes you want to ask: where, exactly, is the confessional currently being used as a torture chamber? And where is it taught that the Eucharist is only for the perfect? When you set up straw men like this, it’s usually because it’s easier than making a real argument.
It’s impossible to know for sure, but many priests in the developed world have probably been using the “internal forum” in the Confessional for a long time, precisely in the way Francis is suggesting, to allow people in “irregular” circumstances to receive Communion. It doesn’t seem to have done much for marriage and family, or the Church. And making it a public practice now would surely bring something besides mercy and tenderness.
Here’s a hypothetical that may soon be a test case: suppose that, taking cues from the overall tendency of Amoris Laetitia, the German bishops follow their avowed inclinations and allow Communion for the divorced and remarried. The Polish bishops, adamantly orthodox and finding nothing in the text that explicitly requires changing millennia-old teaching, choose instead to read it as only encouraging greater pastoral counseling with the ultimate goal of leading people to change their lives and follow Christ’s words on marriage.
Both readings may be possible, but the consequences, in this instance and others, are impossible. On one side of a border between two countries, Communion for the divorced and remarried would now become a sign of a new outpouring of God’s mercy and forgiveness. On the other side, giving Communion to someone in “irregular” circumstances remains infidelity to Christ’s words and, potentially, a sacrilege. In concrete terms, around the globe, what looms ahead is chaos and conflict, not Catholicity. A new Iron Curtain may descend between Western Catholicism and the Church in the rest of the world – to say nothing of civil wars within “developed” countries.
When he was embroiled in controversies that eventually led him to the Catholic Church, the great Cardinal Newman warned his Anglican brothers and sisters about mere verbal solutions to concrete differences in faith and morals: “There are no two opinions so contrary to each other, but some form of words may be found vague enough to comprehend them both.” And added: “If the Church is to be vigorous and influential, it must be decided and plain-spoken in its doctrine. . . .To attempt comprehensions of opinion. . .is to mistake arrangements of words, which have no existence except on paper for. . .realities.” We know where that led for Anglicans.
For all his claims to the contrary in these many pages, Francis seems more interested in bringing people comfort than full conversion to what Christ clearly taught on marriage. Newman had seen that too: “Those who make comfort the great subject of their preaching seem to mistake the end of their ministry. Holiness is the great end. There must be a struggle and a trial here. Comfort is a cordial, but no one drinks cordials from morning to night.”