The first thing to realize about the new Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia from Pope Francis is that it is long —more than 260 pages. The pope acknowledges, “Given the rich fruits of the two-year synod process, this Exhortation will treat, in different ways, a wide variety of questions. This explains its inevitable length. Consequently, I do not recommend a rushed reading of the text” (AL 7).
After my own initial examination of the entire text, I think it is possible to offer a few preliminary reflections. Nonetheless, I encourage everyone to read the full text as soon as possible. Pope Francis offers some powerful words of insight, comfort and challenge for all people, and his presentation must be kept in balance and in context. I would like to suggest three major contextual considerations as we approach the text.
“Time Is Greater Than Space”
Pope Francis uses this expression twice in the Exhortation, first in AL 3 and then in AL 261, where he explains, “In other words, it is more important to start processes than to dominate spaces.”
Back in AL 3, he writes,
Since “time is greater than space,” I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium. Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it. This will always be the case as the Spirit guides us toward the entire truth (cf. John 16:13), until he leads us fully into the mystery of Christ and enables us to see all things as he does.
In short, we hear an echo of St. John XXIII, who famously stated in his opening address to the bishops of the Second Vatican Council:
What is needed is that this certain and unchangeable doctrine, to which loyal submission is due, be investigated and presented in the way demanded by our times. For the deposit of faith, the truths contained in our venerable doctrine, are one thing; the fashion in which they are expressed, but with the same meaning and the same judgment, is another thing. This way of speaking will require a great deal of work and, it may be, much patience. (John XXIII, Address Opening the Second Council of the Vatican, October 11, 1962)
This is a recurring theme in the Exhortation. The teaching of the Church on marriage and family is a constant, but the ways in which that teaching is expressed and lived in practical, pastoral ways is another. Just as St. John declared, Francis agrees that such an approach will demand a lot of work and much patience! A substantial portion of the Exhortation presents and affirms the Church’s teaching on marriage and family, grounded in scripture and tradition. It is a beautiful and often poetic presentation, building on a variety of sources.
However, the pope also states, “We also need to be humble and realistic, 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. … We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families.”
We find it difficult to present marriage more as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfillment than as a lifelong burden. We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them. (AL 36-37)
This emphasis on the role of conscience recurs several times within the document, and the pope offers an extensive presentation on the formation of conscience along with long established conditions of mitigation which might permit a variety of pastoral judgments.
“Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs. For ‘cultures are in fact quite diverse and every general principle … needs to be inculturated, if it is to be respected and applied’” (AL 3, citing his closing address to the 2015 Ordinary Synod).
This becomes a constant theme of the Exhortation: that the experiences, challenges, expectations and insights of various cultures and regions will suggest differing strategies for addressing the needs of family life. Throughout the document, the pope highlights the experiences of various parts of the world, clearly demonstrating that there is no one-size-fits-all approach that can or should be taken in meeting challenges that families face.
Since the challenges faced by today’s families are so diverse and varied around the world, it is important the Church’s responses to them be tailored appropriately and accordingly. “Different communities will have to devise more practical and effective initiatives that respect both the Church’s teaching and local problems and needs” (AL 199). The pope also recalls the recommendation of the Synod fathers that there is “the need for ‘a more adequate formation … of priests, deacons, men and women religious, catechists and other pastoral workers’ because during the worldwide consultation which took place surrounding the Synods, “it became clear that ordained ministers often lack the training needed to deal with the complex problems currently facing families. The experience of the broad oriental tradition [i.e., the Eastern Catholic Churches] of a married clergy could also be drawn upon.
“If we consider the immense variety of concrete situations such as those I have mentioned, it is understandable that neither the Synod nor this Exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable in all cases.”
Specifically regarding the question of divorce and civil remarriage, the Holy Father highlights the responsibility of local pastors to approach each case in its own context, and that such persons “need to be more fully integrated into Christian communities in the variety of ways possible, while avoiding any occasion of scandal.”
“The logic of integration is the key to their pastoral care, a care that would allow them not only to realize that they belong to the Church as the body of Christ but also to know that they can have a joyful and fruitful experience in it. They are baptized, they are brothers and sisters; the Holy Spirit pours into their hearts gifts and talents for the good of all. … Such persons need to feel not as excommunicated members of the Church but instead as living members, able to live and grow in the Church and experience her as a mother who welcomes them always, who takes care of them with affection and encourages them along the path of life and the Gospel” (AL 299).
Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness
This is actually the title of chapter 8 of the Exhortation, a chapter the pope says should challenge everyone (cf. AL 7). While there is a longstanding ideal for marriage and family which must be upheld, there can be many reasons why this ideal is not achievable. The Church must serve as a “field hospital” (AL 291), in which we also discern the conditions affecting our brothers and sisters who cannot or are not living that ideal. “In this pastoral discernment there is a need ‘to identify elements that can foster evangelization and human and spiritual growth’” (AL 293).
Pope Francis references St. John Paul II’s teaching on “law of gradualness” as part of this discernment process. This does not lessen the law but refers instead to “a gradualness in the prudential exercise of free acts on the part of subjects who are not in a position to understand, appreciate or fully carry out the objective demands of the law. Again citing John Paul II, the pope writes that while the law itself is a gift, “it can be followed with the help of grace, even though each human being ‘advances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God and the demands of God’s definitive and absolute love in his or her entire personal and social life’” (AL 295, citing John Paul II Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio 123).
Pope Francis stresses “something I sought to make clear to the whole Church, lest we take the wrong path” (AL 296). Citing his own Catechesis of June 24, 2015, he states:
There are two ways of thinking that recur throughout the Church’s history: casting off and reinstating. The Church’s way, from the time of the Council of Jerusalem, has always been the way of Jesus, the way of mercy and reinstatement. … The way of the Church is not to condemn anyone forever, it is to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart. … For true charity is always unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous.
The pope stresses that it is the role of the Church to reach out to everyone, “of needing to help each person find his or her proper way of participating in the ecclesial community and thus to experience being touched by an ‘unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous’ mercy. No one can be condemned forever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel! Here I am not speaking only of the divorced and remarried, but of everyone, in whatever situation they find themselves (AL 297).” This “logic of the Gospel” is also called the “logic of integration” (which the pope describes as the “key to pastoral care”) and the “logic of pastoral mercy.”
The pope makes it clear that “in no way must the Church desist from propose the full ideal of marriage, God’s plan in all its grandeur” (AL 307). “At the same time … without detracting from the evangelical ideal, there is a need to accompany with mercy and patience the eventual stages of personal growth” (AL 308).
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 the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, a Mother who, while clearly expressing her objective teaching, “always does what good she can, even if in the process, her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street” [Evangelii Gaudium 45]. The Church’s pastors, in proposing to the faithful the full ideal of the Gospel and the Church’s teaching, must also help them treat the weak with compassion, avoiding aggravation or unduly harsh or hasty judgments. The Gospel itself tells us not to judge or condemn. Jesus “expects us to stop looking for those personal or communal niches that shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune, and instead to enter into the reality of other people’s lives and to know the power of tenderness. Whenever we do so, our lives become wonderfully complicated” [Evangelii Gaudium 270].
This is a document of balance, pastoral insight and, not surprisingly, mercy. This brief reflection does not and cannot adequately reflect its beauty, but merely suggests in broad strokes some of the areas — and so much more — that people will find as they break open this text in the days to come.
Deacon Bill Ditewig, PhD, is executive professor of theology at Santa Clara University, former executive director of the Secretariat for the Diaconate at the USCCB and a retired commander, U.S. Navy.