The Church is “called to form consciences, not to replace them”. This is the key phrase for understanding Pope Francis’ post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the family. In many places, the text laments the defensive approach that has been taken so far in addressing the issue.
First of all it should be said that the text is complex, clear and well structured. It doesn’t resort to catchphrases or inappropriate summaries. The Pope himself is aware of this. He acknowledges the that the Exhortation treats a “wide variety of questions” in “different ways” and advises against a rushed reading of the text but encourages people to “read” “each part” “patiently and carefully”.
The document starts as such: “The joy of love experienced by families is also the joy of the Church. As the Synod Fathers noted, for all the many signs of crisis in the institution of marriage, ‘the desire to marry and form a family remains vibrant, especially among young people, and this is an inspiration to the Church’. As a response to that desire, ‘the Christian proclamation on the family is good news indeed’.” In the introduction, Francis explains that the “complexity” of the issues “revealed the need for continued open discussion of a number of doctrinal, moral, spiritual, and pastoral questions”. It recalls the intense “debates in the media” and even among the Church’s ministers, that “range from an immoderate desire for total change without sufficient reflection or grounding, to an attitude that would solve everything by applying general rules”.
Not everything must be resolved according to the positions adopted by the magisterium. Although “unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary,” Francis observes, “this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it” and “every general principle… needs to be inculturated”.
It is striking that on more than one occasion, the Pope points out that “there is no sense in simply decrying present-day evils”, rather what we need is an effort “to present the reasons and motivations” for choosing marriage and the family, “acknowledging that at times the way we present our Christian beliefs and treat other people has helped contribute to today’s problematic situation. We need a healthy dose of self-criticism.”
“Then too, we often present marriage in such a way that its unitive meaning, its call to grow in love and its ideal of mutual assistance are overshadowed by an almost exclusive insistence on the duty of procreation. Nor have we always provided solid guidance to young married couples, understanding their timetables, their way of thinking and their concrete concerns. At times,” Francis writes, “we have also proposed a far too abstract and al¬most artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families. This excessive idealization, especially when we have failed to inspire trust in God’s grace, has not helped to make marriage more desirable and attractive, but quite the opposite.
“We have long thought,” Francis adds, “that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were provid¬ing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life. We find it difficult to present marriage more as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfilment than as a lifelong burden. We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful.”
“Yet we have often been on the defensive … without being proactive in proposing ways of finding true happiness.” Hence, “many people feel that the Church’s message on marriage and the family does not clearly reflect the preaching and attitudes of Jesus, who set forth a demanding ideal yet never failed to show compassion and closeness to the frailty of individuals like the Samaritan woman or the woman caught in adultery.” “We put so many conditions on mercy,” the Pope observes, “that we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance. That is the worst way of watering down the Gospel.” “Marital love is not defended primarily by presenting indissolubility as a duty, or by repeating doctrine, but by helping it to grow ever stronger under the impulse of grace.”