Category Archives: Papal Documents

Top ten takeaways from “Amoris Laetitia”

amorisPope Francis’s groundbreaking new document “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”) asks the church to meet people where they are, to consider the complexities of people’s lives and to respect people’s consciences when it comes to moral decisions. The apostolic exhortation is mainly a document that reflects on family life and encourages families.

Using insights from the Synod of Bishops on the Family and from bishops’ conferences from around the world, Pope Francis affirms church teaching on family life and marriage, but strongly emphasizes the role of personal conscience and pastoral discernment. He urges the church to appreciate the context of people’s lives when helping them make good decisions. The goal is to help families—in fact, everyone—experience God’s love and know that they are welcome members of the church. All this may require what the pope calls “new pastoral methods” (199).

Here are ten things to know about the pope’s groundbreaking new document.

  1. The church needs to understand families and individuals in all their complexity. The church needs to meet people where they are. So pastors are to “avoid judgements which do not take into account the complexity of various situations” (296). People should not be “pigeonholed or fit into overly rigid classifications leaving no room for personal and pastoral discernment” (298). In other words, one size does not fit all. People are encouraged to live by the Gospel, but should also be welcomed into a church that appreciates their particular struggles and treats them with mercy. “Thinking that everything is black and white” is to be avoided (305). And the church cannot apply moral laws as if they were “stones to throw at people’s lives” (305). Overall, he calls for an approach of understanding, compassion and accompaniment.
  2. The role of conscience is paramount in moral decision making. “Individual conscience needs to be better incorporated into the church’s practice in certain situations which do not objectively embody our understanding of marriage” (303). That is, the traditional belief that individual conscience is the final arbiter of the moral life has been forgotten here. The church has been “called to form consciences, not to replace them” (37). Yes, it is true, the Pope says, that a conscience needs to be formed by church teaching. But conscience does more than to judge what does or does not agree with church teaching. Conscience can also recognize with “a certain moral security” what God is asking (303). Pastors, therefore, need to help people not simply follow rules, but to practice “discernment,” a word that implies prayerful decision making (304).
  3. Divorced and remarried Catholics need to be more fully integrated into the church. How? By looking at the specifics of their situation, by remembering “mitigating factors,” by counseling them in the “internal forum,” (that is, in private conversations between the priest and person or couple), and by respecting that the final decision about the degree of participation in the church is left to a person’s conscience (305, 300). (The reception of Communion is not spelled out here.) Divorced and remarried couples should be made to feel part of the church. “They are not excommunicated and should not be treated as such, since they remain part” of the church (243).
  4. All members of the family need to be encouraged to live good Christian lives. Much of “Amoris Laetitia” consists of reflections on the Gospels and church teaching on love, the family and children. Pope Francis reminds married couples that a good marriage is a “dynamic process” and that each side has to put up with imperfections. “Love does not have to be perfect for us to value it” (122, 113). The pope, speaking as a pastor, encourages not only married couples, but also engaged couples, expectant mothers, adoptive parents, widows, as well as aunts, uncles and grandparents. He is especially attentive that no one feels unimportant or excluded from God’s love.
  5. We should no longer talk about people “living in sin.” In a sentence that reflects a new approach, the pope says clearly, “It can no longer simply be said that all those living in any ‘irregular situation’ are living in a state of mortal sin” (301). Other people in “irregular situations,” or non-traditional families, like single mothers, need to be offered “understanding, comfort and acceptance” (49). When it comes to these people, indeed everyone, the church need to stop applying moral laws, as if they were, in the pope’s vivid phrase, “stones to throw at a person’s life” (305).
  6. What might work in one place may not work in another. The pope is not only speaking in terms of individuals, but geographically as well. “Each country or region…can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs” (3). What makes sense pastorally in one country may even seem out of place in another. For this reason and others, as the pope says at the beginning of the document that for this reason, not every question can be settled by the magisterium, that is, the church’s teaching office (3).
  7. Traditional teachings on marriage are affirmed, but the church should not burden people with unrealistic expectations. Marriage is between one man and one woman and is indissoluble; and same-sex marriage is not considered marriage. The church continues to hold out an invitation to healthy marriages. At the same time, the church has often foisted upon people an “artificial theological ideal of marriage” removed from people’s everyday lives (36). At times these ideals have been a “tremendous burden” (122). To that end, seminarians and priests need to be better trained to understand the complexities of people’s married lives. “Ordained ministers often lack the training needed to deal with the complex problems currently facing families” (202).
  8. Children must be educated in sex and sexuality. In a culture that often commodifies and cheapens sexual expression, children need to understand sex within the “broader framework of an education for love and mutual self-giving” (280). Sadly, the body is often seen as simply “an object to be used” (153).
  9. Gay men and women should be respected. While same-sex marriage is not permitted, the pope says that he wants to reaffirm “before all else” that the homosexual person needs to be “respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration, and ‘every sign of unjust discrimination’ is to be carefully avoided, particularly any form of aggression or violence.” Families with LGBT members need “respectful pastoral guidance” from the church and its pastors so that gays and lesbians can fully carry out God’s will in their lives (250).
  10. All are welcome. The church must help families of every sort, and people in every state of life, know that, even in their imperfections, they are loved by God and can help others experience that love. Likewise, pastors must work to make people feel welcome in the church. “Amoris Laetitia” offers the vision of a pastoral and merciful church that encourages people to experience the “joy of love.” The family is an absolutely essential part of the church, because after all, the church is a “family of families” (80). – America

What Some Critics of ‘Amoris Laetitia’ Are Missing

Amoris-Laetitia-cover-Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” has been accepted by most Catholics as a breath of fresh air. Its warm encouragement to families to place love at the center of their lives, its clear invitation to pastors to accompany Catholics in the “complexity” of their situations and its strong reminder that the church needs to recover an appreciation of the role of conscience have been welcomed by millions of Catholics as a sign that the church wants to meet them where they are.

But not by all Catholics. In a few quarters of the church it has not been received warmly at all. In fact, it was greeted with a vituperation that seemed to approach apoplexy.

Many critics were frustrated, alarmed and angered by the same thing. They claimed that Francis had muddied the clear moral waters of the church by elevating a concept that had landed St Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order to which the pope belongs, in jail: the notion that God can deal with people directly.

The way that this notion is framed in the document is primarily through the lens of “conscience.”

The role and primacy of conscience is an ancient Catholic tradition. St Thomas Aquinas famously said that he would rather go against church teaching than against his conscience. “Absolutely speaking” every variance with conscience, “whether right or erring, is always evil (Summa Theologiae). The Second Vatican Council wrote, “Conscience is man’s most secret core, and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths” (“Gaudium et Spes,” No 16).

But as most Catholics know, this must be a “formed conscience,” that is, one that knows and accepts the Gospels and church teaching, and is ready to put them into practice.

In that case, why was Pope Francis’ emphasis on conscience so alarming to critics? Why would a traditional teaching alarm so-called traditionalists?

Well, for the past few decades, the Catholic discourse on conscience has gone something like this: A person can make a good moral choice only with a formed conscience. (So far, so good.) But the sole test of a formed conscience is that it agrees with everything stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, with no exceptions, no questions asked and no need to discern how to apply those rules to one’s life. If one didn’t accept everything in the Catechism without question, then one did not have a formed conscience.

Thus church teaching was often presented as a black-and-white, one-size-fits-all, set of rules. As a result, the space for allowing God to help people apply church teaching to their lives, or the room for discernment according to the “complexities” of one’s situation, was essentially removed.

In essence, you didn’t need conscience any longer. You needed only the Catechism.

In one of the most important passages in the exhortation Francis reminds us that this is not the Catholic tradition:

Yet conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a cer­tain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal (No. 303).

That is, conscience doesn’t simply say, “This is the rule.” Conscience helps us say, “This is what the rule means in my situation, and this is how it is to be applied.”

Now, this presumes something that may be even harder for some critics to appreciate, and something that got St Ignatius into hot water with the Inquisition: the idea, simply stated in the Spiritual Exercises, his manual for prayer, that the Creator can “deal immediately with the creature.”

That means that God deals with us directly, not only through the church, but one-on-one. God consoles us. God uplifts us. God invites us. God moves people’s hearts. And particularly in the decision-making process, God helps people.

Thus, it is not as simple as following a set of rules. Jesuit spirituality, in fact Christian spirituality, presumes that God will aid a person in making a good decision.

This idea landed St Ignatius in jail several times, mainly because those leading the Inquisition were terrified that this insight might mean a lessening of the influence of the Catholic Church. So Ignatius was forced to explain, many times, that the church, to which he had committed his life, was in no way sidelined. After all, he asked his Jesuits to bind themselves to the pope by a special vow of obedience, “with regard to mission.”

By the same token, he was resolute: God could deal with people directly. And people could deal with God directly. For he had seen it—in his own life and in the lives of others.

In many critiques of “Amoris Laetitia” I hear a dismissal or denigration of that idea. And some critiques strike me as dismissive indeed. As if God couldn’t possibly be active in that person’s life. As if the People of God couldn’t be counted on to appreciate, much less understand, what this meant. Thus, some of these critiques seem not only a dismissal of grace but a denigration of the faith lives of adult Catholics.

The key, then, to “Amoris Laetitia” is the belief that God is at work in people’s lives. This is what some critics of the document are either missing, downplaying or ignoring. Or they simply don’t believe it.

But I do.

In over 25 years as a Jesuit I have seen God powerfully at work in the lives of countless people—men and women, young and old, rich and poor. In fact, being a spiritual director (someone who talks to people about their prayer and their experience of God in their spiritual lives) is an enormous aid to faith, because you see God actively at work. You see God dealing “immediately” with people.

How does this manifest itself?

In a myriad of beautiful, surprising and profound ways—all depending on the person. In some people, God’s activity manifests as a sharp goad to one’s conscience, reminding them that what they are doing is wrong. In others, it is an irresistible invitation to a new way of life. In another it is a comforting feeling of consolation that follows making a good decision. In others it is a vivid feeling of closeness to to the divine that comes in the midst of a powerful prayer experience. These experiences are hard to sum up, for they are so many, and so varied. Emotions, desires, insights, memories, feelings—all these are the ways of God’s working through our hearts.

Each of these experiences I have learned to reverence. There is an old saying among retreat directors. Often when a retreat begins they’ll say, “I’m not the real spiritual director. The Holy Spirit is.” It is a sign of the importance that we place on the supreme holiness of God’s activity, whose voice “echoes” in the hearts of people.

So what many critics of “Amoris Laetitia” are missing is this: God deals with people directly. God moves them, consoles them, urges them. God helps them to understand the Gospels and church teaching as they relate to their lives. God helps them to make good decisions.

This truth needs not to be denigrated or mocked.

It needs to be reverenced. – James Martin sj, americanmagazine.org

Pope’s post-Synod document emphasises flexibility

Amoris-Laetitia-cover-VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis upholds the traditional teachings of the Catholic Church, but calls for great flexibility in applying those teachings, in Amoris Laetitia, his apostolic exhortation concluding the work of the Synod on the Family.

Amoris Laetitia (Joy of Love) is a lengthy document, spanning over 250 pages and examining marriage and family life from a wide variety of pastoral perspectives. But most readers looked immediately for an answer to the question that had been posed by Vatican-watchers for months: whether the Pope would open the door for divorce-and-remarried Catholics to receive Communion. The contradictory headlines on secular news accounts of the papal document indicate that the answer to that question is not entirely clear.

In fact Pope Francis deliberately avoids a categorical answer to the question, arguing that “not all discussion of doctrinal, moral, or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium.” Instead he urges pastors to guide couples through a discernment of their situation, helping them to “grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.” In a footnote the Pontiff adds: “In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments.”

”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,” the Pope continues. Later he adds: “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…”

Amoris Laetitia provides little guidance as to how pastors should apply this guidance. As he emphasises flexibility, the Pope writes: “Different communities will have to devise more practical and effective initiatives that respect both the Church’s teaching and local problems and needs.”

Central focus on marital love

Objectively speaking, the Pope’s discussion of Communion for divorced/remarried Catholics occupies only a small portion of the post-Synod document. Although he emphasises pastoral flexibility throughout the apostolic exhortation, the Pontiff does not delve into that controversy in earnest until paragraph #291, in a document that includes 325 paragraphs—page 221, in the copy distributed through the Vatican press office.

Pope Francis himself indicates that in his mind, the most important theme of the apostolic exhortation is his discussion of the beauty of marital love, in the “central chapters” of his message: chapters 4 and 5, of 9. In a long and deep meditation on St Paul’s ode to love (“Love is patient…” from 1 Cor 13), the Pope offers the sort of spiritual wisdom and practical advice that he encourages priests to provide for their people. He follows up by explaining how the family, based on marriage and nourished by the sacraments, should provide both material and moral support—not only for family members, but for neighbours and for society at large.

To support families in that effort, the Pope calls for a strong and consistent pastoral focus on family life, beginning with—but definitely not limited to– better preparation for sacramental marriage. The Church should help married couples to grow in love and holiness after their weddings, especially in the early years of marriage, he says. He urges pastors to enlist the help of older married couples in helping the young, working to build up “a pedagogy of love.”

Traditional teachings affirmed

At the outset of Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis explains that he has felt obligated to write a lengthy document because of the “rich fruits of the two-year Synod process,” which addressed a wide variety of topics. “Consequently, I do not recommend a rushed reading of the text,” the Pope remarks (in a caution that has been ignored by hundreds of commentators).

The papal document is heavily documented, with nearly 400 footnotes; along with saints, theologians, and Church fathers, the Pope also cites poets, novelists, psychologists, and political figures—including Jorge Luis Borges, Octavio Paz, Erich Fromm, and Martin Luther King. Critical reviews of the final statement released by the Synod of Bishops last October had observed that the bishops virtually ignored Familiaris Consortio and the “theology of the body” developed by St John Paul II; those insights are frequently cited in Amoris Laetitia.

Pope Francis also confirms the message of Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae, writing in the new document that every act of marital love should be open to the transmission of life. “Hence no genital act of husband and wife can refuse this meaning, even when for various reasons it may not always in fact beget a new life,” he insists.

Naturally the Pope also strongly condemns abortion:

Here I feel it urgent to state that, if the family is the sanctuary of life, the place where life is conceived and cared for, it is a horrendous contradiction when it becomes a place where life is rejected and destroyed.

And while he insists that homosexual persons must never be the objects of unjust discrimination—let alone aggression or violence—Pope Francis unequivocally upholds the understanding that marriage is a union of a man and a woman, and sexual activity outside marriage is immoral.

Pope Francis teaches that a proper understanding of marriage and human sexuality is crucial to restoring health to our troubled society. He recognises that in the Western world especially, secular society has often shown hostility toward the Christian ideal of marriage, and he insists that the Church must uphold that ideal even against public pressure. Yet once again he emphasises the need for flexibility in delivering the Gospel message:

As Christians, we can hardly stop advocating marriage simply to avoid countering contemporary sensibilities, or out of a desire to be fashionable or a sense of helplessness in the face of human and moral failings. We would be depriving the world of values that we can and must offer. It is true that there is no sense in simply decrying present-day evils, as if this could change things. Nor it is helpful to try to impose rules by sheer authority. What we need is a more responsible and generous effort to present the reasons and motivations for choosing marriage and the family, and in this way to help men and women better to respond to the grace that God offers them.

“Something has changed…”

Nevertheless, despite its strong reaffirmation of traditional Catholic teaching, Amoris Laetitia will be remembered as a harbinger of significant change in the Church’s pastoral ministry. “Something has changed in ecclesial discourse,” said Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, at a Vatican press conference introducing the papal document on 8 April 2016. The Austrian cardinal emphasised the Pope’s call for pastoral flexibility.

The focus of public attention on the Church’s handling of “irregular” marital unions has itself been a sign of the need for a different approach, Cardinal Schönborn argued; he said that the division of couples into “regular” and “irregular” overlooks the reality that all Christians should be striving for daily conversion and growth in holiness.

Interestingly, however, Cardinal Schönborn—who had been counted as a supporter of efforts to allow Communion for divorced/remarried Catholics—did not read the papal document as an endorsement of that position. He told Vatican Radio that in the critical footnote #351, in which the Pontiff says that pastoral care for such couples “can include the help of the sacraments,” the Pope was referring primarily to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. “I think it is very clear,” he said, “there are circumstances in which people in irregular situations may really need sacramental absolution, even if their general situation cannot be clarified.”

Indeed, while he urges pastoral flexibility in dealing with “irregular” situations, Pope Francis stipulates that “if someone flaunts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal,” he cannot be admitted to Communion. Moreover he cautions against the “grave danger of misunderstandings, such as the notion that any priest can quickly grant ‘exceptions….’”

Thus the final message of the papal document, on the issue that has been most heavily debated, remains imprecise. Evidently Pope Francis wishes it so, as he explains that “what is part of a practical discernment in particular circumstances cannot be elevated to the level of a rule. That would not only lead to an intolerable casuistry, but would endanger the very values which must be preserved with special care.” – CWN

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