Is it confusion or different approaches?

Pope Francis prays in front of an image of the Holy Family during a prayer vigil for the Synod of Bishops on the family in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Oct. 3. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis prays in front of an image of the Holy Family during a prayer vigil for the Synod of Bishops on the family in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican Oct. 3. (CNS/Paul Haring)

A very small number of people, whose voices have been amplified by some of the Catholic media, have challenged the integrity of Pope Francis’ post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia.

Yet, what seems to be at the heart of the issue is not a misstatement of doctrine in the exhortation but rather its invitation that we affirm the teaching of the Church on the indissolubility of marriage, the consequences of divorce and remarriage without benefit of annulment, and the place of pastoral accompaniment of those who do not fully follow the teaching, as well as the determining role of individual conscience when assessing personal culpability before God and therefore before his Church.

For some, the issues are very clear.  The teaching is lucid, the canon law is exact and therefore the priest’s responsibility is to apply the law.  For others, the teaching of the Church is broader.  The ancient and received teaching of the Church includes the recognition of the condition of the person, the ability of the individual to even understand the regulations of the law, the necessity of pastoral outreach and engagement, and the inviolability of individual conscience, even when it is erroneous.

Pope Francis is asking us to be aware of all these elements, the teaching on marriage and on conscience, as well as the example of Jesus’ mercy, compassion and forgiveness.

At a recent meeting with a number of priests, when the topic of the pastoral implications of Amoris Laetitia and its pastoral application came up, most were explicit that they recognized an affirmation of their own pastoral concern and accompaniment in the apostolic exhortation.

It seems that what is at issue is not what the exhortation says but rather where one chooses to place the emphasis.  Some seem much more comfortable emphasizing the teaching and the obligations of canon law.  While so many more, the  majority of bishops, including those who were a part of both synods on marriage, accept the canon law, but also see the Gospel value of accompaniment and the Church’s recognition of the state of an individual’s conscience in the whole process of judgment making.

In the story related in Saint John’s Gospel of the woman caught in adultery, Jesus is confronted with the obligation, strict and clear, of the law, and he provides what the Church for 20 centuries has seen as the merciful response of the Lord.

Jesus is called upon by the scribes and the Pharisees who point out the obligations of the law to answer their question.  “What do you have to say about the case?”  It seems fair enough.  A simple yes or no should suffice.  The Gospel goes on to point out that “They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him” (John 8:6).  The woman has been caught in adultery, the law says she should be stoned, therefore the conclusion is clear and simple – stone her!

What does Jesus do?  He does not abolish the law.  He does not annul the application of the law in this case.  He does not deny that there is an expected response invoking the full rigor of the law.  Nor does he apply the law in the way that is anticipated.

What he does is recognize the sinful human condition of the woman, avoids condemning her, and then tells her to go and sin no more.

We should see in this Gospel narrative more than just a recounting of the mercy of God at work but also an application of the lesson to ourselves.  We are all caught up in the human condition.  No one can claim to be perfect as is our heavenly Father. There must be space for that mercy and compassion that we all constantly need in order to be helped back up so that we can continue on our way trying to sin no more.

In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis puts it this way: “I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion. But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, a Mother who, while clearly expressing her objective teaching, ‘always does what good she can, even if in the process, her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street’” (308).  The internal quotation is taken from one of the Synod on Marriage and Family documents approved by the Synodal Fathers.

Yes, this approach involves what some would say are apparent contradictions.  But if we begin with the recognition that Jesus came for our redemption, that the Son of Man has come “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28), and that it is not the righteous but sinners that the Son of Man has come to heal (cf. Mark 2:17), and if we take as our inspiration the image of Jesus, the one showing him to be the Good Shepherd with the lost sheep around his shoulders, we can begin to recognize what it is Pope Francis is telling us.  The wider context for reading any particular sentence in Amoris Laetitia involves the two realities: the Fall/the human condition and the gratuitous redeeming mercy of God.

My experience with so many priests is that they are already living out their priesthood in the way envisioned by the Pope – with generosity and fidelity, striving to make present the merciful face of the Father to their people.  Amoris Laetitia is an affirmation to every priest endeavoring to imitate the Good Shepherd, and a warm encouragement to continue this good work with the people entrusted to his care.

But it strikes me that there is even more of an undercurrent to the present position taken by a very small number of clergy and their media supporters.  It seems that a part of the distress evident in what has been described as a “tempest in a teapot” is the fact that Pope Francis is challenging all of us to move into a far more Gospel-identified mode of living and being Church than we may have been comfortable with.  We need to ask ourselves if perhaps the Church has not become too identified in the minds and hearts of many people with the politics and power struggles of the moment.  Have we failed to persuade others of the significance of the Gospel message, so that they create the culture that reflects those values?  Have we become too comfortable with announcing aspects of the Gospel but not necessarily witnessing its full demands?

The great charge that Jesus gave to us is to be his witnesses (cf. Acts 1:8).  Years ago, Pope Paul VI reminded us in Evangelii Nuntiandi, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listens to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” (41).

Pope Francis gives us a model of bearing witness in word and deed, not just word, to the simplicity of life to which we are called in the Gospel.

Perhaps it might be very hard to let go of the symbols, medieval ornaments, and the ecclesial style and privileges that are marks of the Church of another era.  It may also be difficult for all of us in leadership positions to recognize that decrees, declarations and statements are not the best way today in which we reach people, touch people, engage people, and strengthen their adherence to Christ or even bring them to Christ in the first place.

At the opening of the first synod on the family, there were those few voices that asked why we were even discussing the pastoral implications of the Church’s teaching since we already have the answers.  The overriding majority of bishops from around the world at the synod recognized that what is needed today is not just a repetition of Church discipline, but an evangelizing outreach that would go out, encounter, engage and accompany those who should be with us and are not.

Once we start with the recognition that the teaching of the Church has not changed, nor has the call to compassionate accompaniment, nor has the Church’s understanding of the role of human conscience, and the acceptance that this is what Amoris Laetitia is presenting, then any real doubts or concerns should find their response.


27 Responses to “Is it confusion or different approaches?”

  1. Dan says:

    I think it’s both unfair and tellingly defensive to present the group worried by AL as a “very small group.” This kind of “silent majority” rhetoric was out of place when the religious right tried it, and it’s out of place now.

  2. Joan D Wanner says:

    Don’t forget the ladies!! Women’s voices need to be heard.
    And it will cut down, most of the “Confusion” Thank You, Pope Frances

  3. Silvia says:

    The Lord said “Go and sin no more”… but according your Eminency, what are the special circumstances that allow her “Go and sin more”?

  4. Kevin says:

    Thank you for the clarity.

  5. Aloysius Beckett says:

    The number of those who have challenged Amoris Laetitia is not small. It is myriad. The challenges come not from the ignorant but from some of the most educated among the faithful and the clergy. It comes even from Cardinals who have held some of the highest positions in the Church. For the Cardinal Archbishop of Washington D.C. to minimize the concern and confusion of so many in the Church shows how out of touch he is with the rank and file Catholic. It hows how aloof he is. He lives in his high castle, comfortable in his high position, protected by a progressive, modernist Pope separated from ordinary Catholics who just want to know and live the truth revealed by Christ and the constant teaching of the Church. Amoris Laetitia does nothing but muddy the waters. If the Cardinal Archbishop of Washington wanted to be a good shepherd, he would join the four Cardinals in calling for clarification. What he has written here only adds more mud to the already muddy waters. Cardinal Wuerl, I call on you to stand up for clarity and truth! Call upon Pope Francis to clarify what is not clear! Stand up for those who are confused! Don’t leave your flock to be ravaged by the wolves! Do your duty!

  6. Bernard Waters says:

    Your Eminence, thank you for this wonderful homily.

  7. Dennis J. Reidy says:

    If what the cardinal says is correct, what is the reason the pope refuses to answer the dubia? What are Cardinal Wuerl’s answers to the dubia?

  8. Yours is a most pastoral response to the exhortation published by Pope Francis. I fully agree with your counsel. Oh, that others would similarly see the situation.

  9. Ann Malley says:

    While the person can follow their conscience, even if malformed, the priest who affirms that malformation by allowing what should not be allowed is no help but a hindrance.

    This is also true in rearing children. Children believe a great many things or are incapable of understanding a great many things. It is incumbent upon the parent to teach. The child, if left alone, must, by all means do as best as he/she can in accordance with what is known and understood.

    A parent, however, should never play an accomplice to anything that they know is evil and dangerous to a child. Why? Because to do so will reinforce the idea that the dangerous behavior or condition is somehow good when it is not.

    If one engages the mentality that the child is too young to understand said evil, well, then if Providence allows for the situation, the danger must be outlined in terms the child will understand. Again, the parent does not enable the evil or danger.

    If one does raise children – changing the rules of what is evil, dangerous, sinful etc – one courts the reality that upon growing up, the parent will be looked at as not someone to trust, but someone to be wary of. A person who taught, not what is good, but how to get around what is good and evil so as to get what one wants.

    That is not the lesson we need. That is not the shepherding we need. Not at all.

  10. Thomas McFadden says:

    If Francis believes in the teachings of the Church why not end the confusion and answer the dubia. Francis may be pope but he is NOT God. He has no authority to change defined Church teaching. God said you shall not commit adultery and Francis can’t change it. That synod REJECTED the notion of allowing unrepentant adulterers to receive Holy Commumion. Francis demanded it be included in the final report and everyone knows it. Why all the subterfuge. Why the public continual humiliation of Cardinal Burke. Cardinal Burke who arguably the greatest intellect in the Church today. Confusion is not of God. The duty of a validly elected pope is to preserve Catholic teaching not invent it. Allowing unrepentant people in a state of mortal sin to receive communion and pennance without amendment and sorrow is EVIL. You don’t need a theology degree to see what you and Kasper and Francis and Daneels etc are doing. You are promoting sacraligeous behaviour. And one day all of you will die and stand alone before the God who made you and get the reward you deserve. And all of you promoting this garbage are responsible for all the sacralige that results from your false teaching.

  11. The article spoke to my soul. It put into words what I believe and what the Holy Father is attempting to teach us.


  12. Caroline says:

    Thank you for this beautiful blog, Cardinal Wuerle. I am not Catholic, but I’ve found such wisdom and comfort from reading your entries. You open my eyes to my faith in a way that inspires me! You are a gifted teacher, and your thoughts and reflections are especially appreciated in such a political and socially charged time. My prayers are with you as you continue to minister to so many.

  13. Deacon Philip Fernandez says:

    Thank you for bearing witness to the good news. We the ‘church’ must strive to accompany individual persons as they live their lives, as Christ is revealed to us in the gospel passage referenced. In this blog you reach out, identify the inconsistency between Christ’s life and some of our own ‘CLERICALISM’, reminding us the ‘people of God’ to follow Christ.

  14. Steve Lavery says:

    I am based in Scotland and have been dismayed by all that I read coming from the Church in the USA. So, thank you for this balanced article which is obviously written by one with the heart of a pastor.

  15. Robert Brown STB STL STD says:

    1. Congrats to Pope Francis for acknowledging what is a serious problem–divorce among fairly loyal Catholics. Unfortunately, I don’t see anything in AL that proposes a solution for the problem. A reading of SC 10 might be enlightening.

    2. The pope has made multiple references to rigorists without seeming to wonder whether he has adopted the contrary exteme of laxism. Both rigorism and laxism are relativism, the former considering the lesser good is an evil, the latter whether the lesser evil is a good.

    3. The theology behind AL is just a version of Fundamental Option. It does a good job of acknowledging the end of the moral act (known in AL as the ideal of marriage), but stops there. I am reminded of Abelard’s reduction of the morality of human acts to Intention.

    4. Given hundreds of years of interpreting 1 Cor 11:27 as receiving Holy Communion in mortal sin and the possiblity that those divorced, civilly remarried persons are living in adultery, the question consequently arises whether admitting them to Communion is doing them harm

  16. Benedict Oliver, FSC says:

    Thank you, Cardinal Wuerl, for this succinct yet accurate appraisal of the AL controversy and those who initiated and are attempting to prolong it.
    Your pastoral insights, like the Holy Father’s, address the needs of individual Catholics most affected by a failed marriage and a continuing desire to remain close to Jesus and His Church.

  17. Eileen says:

    If the church would practice this in all aspects, it might become a church that people believe in re to mercy. To deny the diaconate simply because someone has had an annulment leads people to believe the Church will not allow actual forgiveness. They don’t show people who make mistakes and allow them to take active roles in the Church, even if the mistakes were long ago.

  18. Patti Jo Crockett MGL says:

    Thank you so much Cardinal Wuerl for this clear, easy to read explanation. It is very helpful and reassuring to those who may be feeling confused about what is going on. We are blessed in Pope Francis. He is witnessing to us just the way Jesus related to people in the Gospels.
    Patti Jo MGL

  19. Chau T. Phan says:

    Dear Cardinal Wuerl,
    My wife and I were married at St. Mathhew’s Cathedral on April 8, 1967.
    I am in full agreement with Pope Francis and Cardinal Wuerl on this merciful and compassionate application of The Joy of Love. Only by the grace of God that my wife and I are observing our fiftieth faithful married life anniversary this year, but that does not make us superior to those who are not as lucky as us in their married life. I have no right to feel sanctimonious and to make judgment on others who are not as fortunate in love as we have been, just so very grateful to God.
    Thank you for your leadership in this difficult pastoral application of law and mercy.

  20. Deacon Thomas Dwyer says:

    Dear Cardinal Wuerl, I encounter many new mothers in my ministry of bringing Holy Communion to Catholics in the hospital who are living with their partners without the benefit of marriage. What can we as local Church do to evangelize marriage, particularly among our Hispanic brothers and sisters, other than personally encourage them to speak with a priest?

  21. Jane Grzegorczyk says:

    Definitely a different approach that has caused some confusion. It has not what we have done, but how we have done it. Holy Spirit, Come. Enlighten the hearts of the faithful and enkindle in us the fire of your love. Let us speak the truth in love.

  22. Michael J Giedraitis says:

    I note that you make no mention of the Eucharist in your comments above. I find this strange given fhat reception of the Eucharist by Catholics, in valid Sacramental marriages who have civilly remarried and are having sex with their second, civil spouse while they remain married to their first Sacramental and true spouse is the cause of what you refer to above as a “tempest in a teapot”. I learned in second grade, when I was preparing for my first Holy Communion, that people in a state of mortal sin cannot receive Holy Communion. The Catholics I described in my preceding sentence are in a state of mortal sin. Period. Regardless of what their, perhaps, faulty consciences may tell them. It is the job of their priest to tell them the truth, with the goal of saving their souls. That is do follow the example of our Lord and say “go, and sin no more.”

  23. marguerite geier says:

    The words above seem to reflect the Gospel of Jesus.

  24. Terry says:

    Thank you for this clarifying and compassionate explanation of the Holy Father’s apostolic exhortation, Your Eminence.

    I’m divorced, now civilly remarried–and very happy in many, many ways. But there always remains the bereavement of loss, including the loss of a sacramental life. You’ve encouraged me here to remain close to the Gospels and the Church, and see where that walk might lead.

    Thanks again.

  25. Carole Ann Hoppe, osf says:

    Thank you and God bless you, Cardinal Wuerl, for such a clear and readable explanation of the whole situation re: Amoris Laetitia. My 99 year old father and I read Amoris Laetitia last year (a bit every day for about a month!). He had been married to my mother for 76 years. His comments throughout the reading were: “Pope Francis really gets it! He understands people and knows the troubles they face. He really cares, doesn’t he?”
    And I think that you do too! I pray that God continues to bless you and your ministry!

  26. Eileen Malloy says:

    The entire Synod on the Family is distilled into this one issue? As a parent it’s a joke to see this. AL will increase divorce and make it hard for parents to teach the Gospel faithfully. I disagree with the Cardinal. You’re treating symptoms. Maybe teach the Faith and you won’t have so many “wounded” families in screwed up anti-Catholic positions.

  27. Jack Strayer says:

    Thank you for your comments, Your Eminence. As one of the very few people quite confused and disheartened by the Holy Father’s teaching, I feel pretty caricatured and put down by what you’ve written, but I will take it to prayer. Please pray for those of us feeling so discouraged by Pope Francis, and we will pray for you too. God bless, Your Eminence!