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.