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.”
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!