Almost from the start of his 263-page landmark document on the family, Pope Francis makes two things clear: Read it carefully, and don’t look for hard-and-fast answers, neither in this document nor in the messiness of real life.
In fact, two similar-sounding words come to mind in reading his “Amoris Laetitia” or “Joy of Love,” which was released Friday as an “apostolic exhortation,” a papal call to action.
One of the words is “grace,” a term that appears dozens of times in the text as Francis emphasizes the ability of God to work in all kinds of circumstances.
The other is “gray,” which he doesn’t use at all, but which pervades his take on the complexities of divorce, remarriage, same-sex relationships, and other realities that defy traditional church ideals about marriage.
Time and again, he exhorts pastors and other church leaders to get their nose out of the rule books, without actually changing the rules, and to focus on the people they’re supposed to serve.
“By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth, and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God,” he says at one point.
At times, “we put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance.”
Such are the appeals Francis has been making from the start of his groundbreaking papacy in 2013, and he even quotes himself from an earlier document to that effect.
“I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion,” he writes.
“But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, ... ‘even if in the process, her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street.’ ”
The wide-ranging document includes everything from tributes to the ideal of love, quoting from biblical and other passages down through the ages, to acknowledgments of the ravages taking their toll on family life, such as poverty, abuse, and migration crises.
He cites the paradox in many cultures of great loneliness alongside a fear of commitment to relationships, and he acknowledges that many couples are living together outside of marriage and other relationships that don’t conform to church teachings.
That said, Francis provides no hard-and-fast rules for Catholics on one issue where at least some change was up for debate — those who are divorced and remarried without their previous marriage being annulled by the church, in which case they are technically barred by church law from sacraments such as the Eucharist.
A minority of bishops had been open to a path similar to that used in Orthodox churches, in which a person could remain after a penitential act rather than annulling the first marriage.
Instead of instituting a new procedure, Francis essentially says, “Talk among yourselves.”
Recalling his own words that the sacraments are medicine for the needy and not a prize for good behavior, he suggests that in some cases, pastors can discern whether someone might not be fully culpable for a broken family situation.
He notes that the church Catechism itself says people’s culpability for their actions can be diminished if they were influenced by anything from duress to psychological factors.
Ministering to such people in “certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments,” Francis wrote in a key footnote, without saying how that might work out. “The confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy.”
Catholics who fit the categories of 1.) being divorced and remarried, 2.) not having their previous marriage annulled, and 3.) actually caring enough about the sacraments to want them may be relatively small.
When annulments are sought, they’re often granted, and Pope Francis last year streamlined the process to make them easier and less costly, with some dioceses waiving fees for the process.
Statistics show far fewer U.S. Catholics are seeking annulments than a generation ago.
Yet the issue has had symbolic freight in the debate between those wanting the church to uphold the sanctity of marriage and those wanting a more merciful church.
Moreover, a Pew Research Center report last year showed the trouble Catholic leaders have had in convincing their flock of church teachings.
Fewer than half of U.S. Catholics think it’s a sin to have gay sex, use artificial birth control, live with a partner outside of marriage, or remarry after a divorce without an annulment, and they’re evenly split on whether the church should recognize gay marriages.
The gulf between teaching and practice showed up in surveys around the world leading up to high-level bishops’ synods at the Vatican in 2014 and 2015, each devoted to the topic of the family and ultimately leading up to Friday’s papal document.
The final synod report last year left little wiggle room for sacraments for the divorced-and-remarried and none for same-sex marriage.
Many of the survey responses spoke of the widespread skepticism people had of church teachings and also cited challenges of poverty and other hardships on families.
Toledo Bishop Daniel E. Thomas issued a response to the Pope’s document:
“Pope Francis calls all in the Church to a culture of encounter and accompaniment. The Holy Father desires all of us to rediscover the beauty of living the teachings of Jesus that show us the path to true love and true joy.
“He calls us neither to condemn nor condone, but instead to meet people where they are, no matter the situation, and draw them into the transforming love of Christ.
“This document is all the more significant when read through the lens of this Jubilee Year of Mercy, a year which proclaims not anything goes, but anything forgiven.
“I hope and pray that anyone who feels estranged or confused by the Church’s teaching will seek the care and assistance of our local pastors, and encounter the mercy and healing of Jesus.”
Pope Francis endorsed the 2015 synod’s recommendation of the use of an “internal forum” for the divorced-and-remarried.
This refers to a consultation between a person and priest in which they carefully review their individual circumstance and, while showing faithfulness to church law on marriage, may make allowances for how the person can be involved in the church.
Again, the specifics of how that gets worked out are not prescribed.
Advocates for same-sex marriage, however, will be as disappointed in the papal document as they were in the synods.
Francis made headlines in 2013 for saying “Who am I to judge?” in an interview when asked about gays seeking to live a holy life.
Here, he approvingly quotes from the concluding document of the 2015 synod saying “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.”
His concession that same-sex unions “can offer a certain stability” was of little consolation to groups such as New Ways Ministry, an American group advocating for full inclusion of openly gay and lesbian members in the Catholic Church.
“Pope’s ‘Joy of Love’ not very joyful for LGBT Catholics,” the group tweeted early Friday.
Some may question the insights of a male-led church on the role of women as much as those of a celibate pope on the needs of the family. But Francis has a conciliatory take on the women’s movement.
“There are those who believe that many of today’s problems have arisen because of feminine emancipation,” he writes. “This argument, however, is not valid” and even reflects “male chauvinism.”
He adds: “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.”
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Peter Smith is the religion editor at the Post-Gazette. Contact Peter Smith at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416;Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.
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