I’m going a bit off topic today to give you my thoughts on the recent apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. Some traditionalists are up in arms, some “liberals” are dancing with glee. What did Pope Francis really say, how important was it, and what does it mean for you and me?
No change in doctrine or discipline
The first and most important thing to understand is that AL (as it is being called for short) does not propose changes to Catholic discipline on who can receive the Eucharist, let alone a change in the doctrine behind this practice.
“I was happy to take up the request of the Fathers of the Synod to write this Exhortation. In so doing, I am reaping the rich fruits of the Synod’s labours. In addition, I have sought advice from a number of people and I intend to express my own concerns about this particular chapter of the Church’s work of evangelization. Countless issues involving evangelization today might be discussed here, but I have chosen not to explore these many questions which call for further reflection and study. Nor do I believe that the papal magisterium should be expected to offer a definitive or complete word on every question which affects the Church and the world. It is not advisable for the Pope to take the place of local Bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory. In this sense, I am conscious of the need to promote a sound ‘decentralization’.” (AL 16)
Let’s note a few things here.
1. This is the Pope’s private opinion.
“I intend to express my own concerns about this particular chapter…” He does not refer to his office or authority.
2. No new magisterial teaching is proposed.
In case you didn’t get point #1, he restates it. “Nor do I believe that the papal magisterium should be expected to offer a definitive or complete word on every question…” He wants local bishops to address problems particular to their areas of the world.
3. This isn’t the last word.
Many of the issues just touched on in this exhortation “call for further reflection and study.” No doubt we’ll be hearing much more in the future, but whether a document with greater authority will be issued at some point remains an open question.
So, how should we take this document? Cardinal Burke argues that we’re basically free to ignore it.
What’s the fuss about?
So, why is there some a hullabaloo about AL? These days, there is a hullabaloo about everything the Pope says or does. Dissenters and fear-mongers on both sides jump at every chance to prove their worldview right. They twist the Pope’s words or actions continually.
Setting aside all hype and hyperventilating, is there any reason AL should concern us?
Here are a few down sides to the document, according to canonist Edward Peters:
1. Pope Francis doesn’t think or write systematically.
I’d say Pope Francis is probably a sanguine-phlegmatic by temperament. He is a feeler, rather than a thinker. He likes people to feel welcomed, to get along, to go along, to know the love and mercy of God. He would never issue the type of document we saw from Pope Benedict, who has the opposite (melancholic) temperament.
Each temperament has its strengths and weaknesses. Francis’s lack of intellectual rigor makes the document vague and easily manipulated by those with an agenda.
2. Local bishops don’t all have the same view of the Faith.
When Pope Francis says that local bishops should be left to deal with problems specific to their geographic area, he certainly does not intend to open the door to false teaching on the Eucharist. But some prelates will engage in “regional manipulation” to fit their own preconceived views.
Some prelates, even in the US, have already stated publicly that they would not broadly exclude anyone in an irregular marriage form the Eucharist. This is a big problem. St. Paul said that receiving the Eucharist unworthily is itself a mortal sin. We don’t want to facilitate further sin, but bring people to repentance.
3. The idea of objectively mortal sin may have taken a hit.
“Hence it is can no longer simply be said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace.” (AL 301)
We can’t read others’ souls. Many people in an objectively immoral state (i.e., an irregular marriage or non-marital union) may have reduced culpability. They may be ignorant of the seriousness of their acts, may be doing the best they can in a difficult situation, may be struggling against temptation but failing, et cetera. We just don’t know. We can’t assume that all of them are equally guilty before God.
However, some people will read this exhortation as an appeal to conscience above objective truth. Others may think that irregular marriage is really no big deal “for me.”
Fr. James Schall reflects on this point further in this article for The Catholic Word Report.
Also, see Dr. Peter’s numbered points at the end of this post of his.
Naivete, not cowardice
One traditional-leaning writer at a secular newspaper called AL an act of cowardice. Yikes! Now we’re really trying to read consciences. Pope Francis is not avoiding doing what he knows is right, out of fear. He really believes that he is furthering the cause of mercy, of bringing the wayward back into the fold.
I would say rather that he seems naive regarding how the exhortation will be misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misapplied. Some will just be confused. Others will willfully misrepresent the Pope’s teaching. That’s the downside of his not being a systematic thinker.
Let’s not overlook the fact that Pope Francis says many good things in AL. Among them:
- wholesale rejection of same-sex “marriage”
- similar rejection of postmodern fluid gender theories
- a reminder for all of us to be more compassionate towards sinners
- pages of stuff I have not had a chance to read (I had to look at the controversial passages first, ha ha) that probably contain some very good material I will explore later
The upshot for you and me
So, be prepared to explain to your divorced and civilly remarried relatives that they are still in an objectively sinful state and can’t just cavalierly go up for Communion now. More positively, AL gives us an opening. The world is talking about the Church’s teaching on marriage. Maybe it’s time to encourage your loved ones to start exploring the way back to God.
Can you begin gently leading them back to the truth, not hitting them over the head with what they are doing wrong? Can you ask if they are interested in talking to a priest about their options?
Maybe we should start inviting (other) sinners with us when we go to Confession.
I think AL also reinforces the wisdom of trusting God in his care for the Church. Many people have feared the appearance of this document, as they did the Synod itself. The Pope has not and will not abandon the faith. On any matter. God leads his Church, and he leads her into all truth. The gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church. That’s Christ’s promise.
Instead of fearing and fretting over the misinterpretations of AL, let’s pray for sinners, parish priests, bishops, and the Pope. Let’s commit to trusting God, come what may. Let’s get out ahead of the chaos and confusion and evangelize! Let’s lead people to the merciful Lord!
7 thoughts on “Some thoughts on Amoris Laetitia”
This is very helpful and encouraging. Thank you. I have struggled with this pope. This has set me back on course.
Yesterday, I was waiting in a small room by myself for 3 hours for an outpatient procedure. I downloaded a sample of Saints Who Battled Satan on my KIndle app. First, a nurse came to check on me and asked me what I was reading. Honestly, I didn’t want to say. I know, not very evangelical. I’m glad that she did, but it’s just not something that I would ever ask a stranger. She didn’t respond impolitely, but also she wasn’t exactly agreeable.
Then, the anesthesiologist came in and doesn’t he ask me what I’m reading! I told him and he said, “Saints, huh? I’m Jewish.” I replied, “Yes, I’m reading about your people right now.” (I highly recommend the book, by the way.) He told me that his wife is a Christian that grew up Catholic, but doesn’t practice because she doesn’t agree with some of the teachings. Anyway, we got into a little kindly discussion on truth. Then he said, “What is truth?” I know, Pilot moment. Well, you know I had to speak it and I thank God that he gave me the courage and some words from my own experiences.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that God will give us the opportunities to evangelize if we are prayerful, open and willing.
I’m glad this helped you, Michelle. My first reaction on watching EWTN (I was giving a retreat out of town, so I just caught headlines at the hotel) was, “Oh, no! I want Pope Benedict back!” But I did lots of reading, thinking, and discussing this with others on Facebook and came to the conclusion that very little has changed by this document. Bravo for evangelizing at the doctors’ office!
Bravo! An excellent, well written article. I found myself numbered among the doubters without having read AL. Thank you.
Thanks, Loyd. It’s far from a perfect document, but I don’t think the sky is falling. The truth remains the truth.
My trouble with conservative Christian’s focus on homosexuality as a sin is not whether or not the doctrine is correct. I can’t help but think that the focus on homosexuality is because it is a sin of others. After all, it is very easy to be firm against a sin if you are in no danger of sinning.
I have a lot of respect for Christianity, but the disproportionate focus on homosexuality seems to me not to be motivated by love. And it is clearly in violation of the Biblical commandment, by Christ himself, “not to cast the first stone”. Undue focus on others’ sins is, in my view, a toxic Christianity that the world would be better without.
Conservative Catholics are certainly not the Westboro Baptist church — but I think you should check whether you speak from a heart filled with love or from your gut before deciding to have that conversation with your gay relative.
Thanks for your thoughts, Alyosha. I can’t speak for conservative Christians in general, but only from a Catholic perspective. I would say that the Church has only said a lot about homosexuality during the last thirty years or so because the culture has changed on this issue. When the culture generally agreed that homosexual acts were intrinsically disordered, there was little need for the Church to speak about them and She rarely did so. The Catholic understanding of homosexuality is different from most Protestants’. First, the Catechism says that people with same-sex attraction should be respected in their full dignity as human beings and should not encounter unjust discrimination. Second, the Catechism states that one is not usually culpable for this attraction, and that it’s a real burden that should bring out our compassion. Having said that, when a person acts on this attraction, he sins, and depending on how far that action goes, often sins mortally.
For Catholics, homosexual sins are only one type of sin against the conjugal act. Unlike some Protestants, we also rate contraception, abandoning one’s spouse, sex outside marriage, masturbation, pornography, and every other act that seeks sexual pleasure without the possibility (at least in the nature of the act itself) of the conception of children to be a mortal sin. This comes from our interpretation of Genesis 2, where God creates the male-female relationship for both companionship and procreation. I appreciate what you say about being firm against a sin you are not tempted to commit. But the fact is that most people will be tempted by one or more of these sexual sins in his lifetime. The Church consistently speaks against all of them. I don’t think not casting the first stone applies. We don’t condemn people, but we do state the truth about sin, as Jesus did Himself.
It is absolutely motivated by love for us. Homosexual sins are sins against our very nature as God made us. They cannot be fulfilling or bring lasting joy. Like all mortal sins they kill the relationship between the soul and God. No one wants to see people go to Hell, for homosexual sins or any other sin. Also, we are motivated by love for children, who are done a terrible injustice when they are purposefully and permanently deprived of either a mother or father with the new “rights”–adoption, surrogate motherhood, access to other reproductive technologies, etc.–that our culture tends to give homosexual couples once their relationships are normalized. Pope Benedict called this a serious form of child abuse.
As far as speaking to a “gay” relative, one must always discern such conversations with prayer. For many of us, our families know what we think without our having to say anything to them personally. We are called to admonish the sinner, but we do not have to point out every sin to every sinner all the time. In fact, Catholic moral teaching says that if we have good reason to believe that a sinner will not be open to the truth it may be better to remain silent so as not to increase his culpability. This is true of people in an invalid marriage, guilty of adultery, or any of the other sexual sins as well. Always discernment, always love. Sometimes it’s best just to pray and leave the rest up to God.
Thanks for explaining.