Most of us have probably read a great deal of commentary on Amoris Laetitia (AL). Some commentaries are laudatory, some condemnatory, some nod to its weaknesses but strive hard to extol its virtues, some ignore its virtues and seek to expose an alleged wolf in sheep’s clothing. When the dust settles what will we find?
Some things are surely clear. No doctrine has been changed but only reaffirmed, especially with regard to same-sex attraction and gender ideology and identity. Some excellent ideas for practical effect have been suggested, such as enhanced marriage preparation and the desirability of adoption for childless couples. There is some serious teaching on the nature of love, attempting to combat the cheapening of the word in modern society and highlighting it as something that is done more than something that is felt.
But some things are less than ideal, opportunities missed perhaps, unnecessary ambiguities included, and straw men raised up to be knocked down. There is the soon-to-be infamous footnote #351 which implies that both confession and Eucharistic communion are sacramental “helps” for those who have attained civil divorce and subsequently contracted adulterous unions. Yet these situations are regularly euphemistically referred to as “irregular unions” in AL. In fact the only times (3) the document uses the word “adultery” is in reference to the gospel narrative of the woman caught in adultery (according to the word search in Acrobat) and never with regard to those in “irregular unions”. Indeed beyond this marked refusal to name adultery as such is the marked aversion even to equating it with sin. Mortal sin is nowhere mentioned.
That footnote also quote Pope Francis’ previous encyclical Evangelii Gaudium with its reminder to priests that they must not make the confessional a “torture chamber”. This mystifies me. Where does this happen? I have never heard of a truly penitent person receiving anything but compassion and good counsel in confession.
It would perhaps have been nice if AL had exhorted priests to preach more often on the sanctity of marriage, the inviolability of the marital bond, the duty to enter into marriage with a clear mind as well as a full heart, and the role of the family in the Church and society. Clergy could also have been encouraged to preach compassion for those whose marriages have encountered seriously difficulty, and exhorted those who have separated and even civilly divorced to continue in fidelity to the sacramental bond that still endures as a sharing in the Cross and a witness to the Church, that joins St Paul in helping to make up what is lacking in Christ’s sufferings for the sake of his Body the Church (Col 1:24).
This is one serious opportunity missed, one that really needed to be seized, was to have re-articulated the Christian understanding of the supernatural significance of the marriage bond. The New Testament is clear that the union of man and woman in marriage is an iconic embodying within the Church of its union with Christ. In that sense every marriage builds up the Body of Christ, the Church. When we begin to disregard the sanctity of marriage, and cut its corners, we are making statements about and inflicting wounds upon Christ’s Body and its union with him, its head. It undermines the Church, no less than clerical sexual abuse undermines the Church.
And here we come to the other serious underlying problem with AL. It reduces Christian marriage, which it has been lyrically extolling, to an “ideal” that cannot be reasonably expected of all who undertake marriage. Christ acknowledged that Moses had allowed for divorce, but this was for man’s hardness of heart. But now, after Christ and the redemption and the new covenant with its super-abundant and super-effective grace, Christ removes this concession and commands that what God has joined no human hand can divide. The ideal has become the norm. We cannot put it asunder just as no man, or demon, can divide Christ from his Bride the Church.
So how do we accommodate the fact that marital relationships do in fact break down? The same answer for this as for every moment humankind faces its weakness, and concupiscence. The Cross. How seriously do we take our Lord when he commands that anyone and everyone who would be his disciple must take up his cross (which is in reality Christ’s cross uniquely and individually experienced)? The attempt to remove the cross from disciples when it is not for us to do, is really to deny Christians the full truth and experience of discipleship and their baptismal identity.
Commandments are not ideals. They are commandments. When we fail in heeding them, as we shall, then we repent and attempt to sin no more. We can and should expect the Church to help us in this, to encourage us and exhort us to do what is right. We should not expect the Church to make excuses for us if it encourages us to continue in disobedience to God.
The Church has always had a sensitive pastoral practice. At its best, a wise pastor invested with the Church’s authority, discerns with an individual that while objectively his or her situation is sinful, subjectively this particular situation is mitigated by factors that the Church itself has identified previously. But the public witness must be maintained so that the faithful are not scandalised, seeing the subversion of the commandments they themselves are trying, with courage and trials, to obey. Pastoral practice cannot really be legislated for from on high; it requires wisdom and discretion, and a love of the Church as much as the individual sinner.
An example springs to mind. Australia’s first canonised saint, Mary Mackillop, was a pioneering foundress nun in 19th-century colonial Australia. Not all the clergy and bishops, by then mostly Irish, were exemplary. She suspected a priest in South Australia of sexual impropriety with children, and reported this to a priest. The suspect priest was disciplined and sent back to Ireland but a clerical friend of his soon came to be vicar general and engineered a conflict between the bishop and Mother Mary. The bishop was not well, and he was led to believe that Mother Mary was disobedient to him. So he excommunicated her. She was devastated and deeply hurt by the injustice but submitted. It is said that the local Jesuits continued to give her Holy Communion despite her excommunication and her own reservations.
That seems shocking at first glance. But those Jesuits were not fools, nor ignorant with er of canon law, moral theology or the situation prevailing the colonial Church, especially among its clergy. They determined the excommunication was invalid because based on falsehood. However they had to respect the excommunication in the public forum, as it would have been scandalous indeed to give Holy Communion publicly to an excommunicate, however much sympathy she had among the people. So the Jesuits gave her Communion privately, knowing that in reality she could not be cut off from the Body of Christ yet knowing that in the public forum she was accounted as such.
In time of course the bishop repented bitterly of his action and reconciled with St Mary. For the Jesuits this was clearly the logical, and expected, outcome. They had helped St Mary yet publicly respected the authority of the bishop.
It is a fine line to draw. Hypocrisy is always just around the corner. Pastoral exceptions are not lightly to be entered into, nor can they be legislated. In St Mary’s case, the Jesuits determined that under the Church’s own provisions St Mary was innocent of sin, and worked towards the day when this could be publicly demonstrated and resolved. Until then, they helped her discreetly in order to ensure her spiritual welfare.
The Holy Father has written a document that does in fact reflect the divisions at the Synod, and in that sense it is faithful to the Synod from which it derives. Yet holding divisions in tension in the sight of all is not really what is expected of a pope. He is not a consensus politician; he is a shepherd, teacher and leader, divinely tasked with guiding Christ’s Church into an ever richer and stronger union with Christ. While he (and the Church at large) can meet sinners where they are, he cannot accommodate their sin, and he (and the Church) “accompanies” them not to make them feel better but to lead them to the right way and to the promised land, along the way of the Cross. It is an irony that having masterfully shown that love abides in action not in feeling, AL seeks to succour those in objectively sinful situations by exhorting us not to let them “feel” excluded.
I guess the document tries to have too many things both ways, to be all things to all, and ends up being little to anyone. The attempt to be inclusive can only work if the truth is openly acknowledged first. The “liberals” are unhappy, and the “conservatives” too. So the only thing to do is to read the document in the only possible way, in the light of theological tradition and the established teaching of the Church’s magisterium.
It might be wished that we had done the same with the documents of Vatican II. But that is another story.