Amoris Laetitia is an epic bid to convert the Church worldwide to a mission to rescue the family, not by finger-wagging or table-thumping nor even by persuasion, but by a concrete strategy of rebuilding from the ground up.
It will shape the Church’s actions and attitudes for generations to come.
Unconvincingly self-effacing, Pope Francis claims in the introduction that he wants merely to highlight “some pastoral approaches that can guide us in building sound and fruitful homes in accordance with God’s plan”, and in chapter six even denies presenting a “pastoral plan for the family.”
But that is what the document’s 325 paragraphs and nine chapters add up to — a roadmap to the reinvigoration of marriage and family. At its heart is what Francis calls a pastoral or missionary conversion, a new approach that involves both teaching people a demanding ideal while being compassionate and close to them in their frailty.
The key to the document is the mercy of God, a response that enters into human realities, avoiding the Pharaisaical temptation — which Francis believes the Church has succumbed to — of standing far-off, with crossed arms and rolling eyes.
Amoris Laetitia is, in many respects, a long polemic against rigorism.
Chapter 8 — concerned with people in “irregular” situations such as cohabitation and remarriage — is the heart of that polemic. On the vexed question of access to the sacraments for the civilly remarried, Francis makes no new law that would be applicable in all cases; he does not establish any kind of ‘pathway’ back to the sacraments, of even the ‘discernment’ kind mentioned in the synod final report.
But nor does he apply what Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, recently described as “always valid Catholic teaching”, namely paragraph 84 in St John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio that requires spouses to refrain from sex if they wish to receive Communion.
In effect, Francis has cleared the ground for maximum pastoral flexibility, refusing to treat civilly remarried divorces as a category, and urging the Church “to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases, one which would recognize” — here he quotes St Thomas Aquinas and the final synod document — 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’.”
The footnote spells out that the same is true with regard to the sacraments, for “discernment can recognize that in a particular situation no grave fault exists”.
The following paragraphs in effect lay out the conditions for that discernment, which Francis sees as a practical application of God’s mercy.
“I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion,” he says.
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