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.”