Pope Francis greets newly married couples during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican in this Sept. 30, 2015, file photo. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)
In anticipating the publication of the Holy Father’s
reflections on the synods, I was prepared for the worst, something that might
well have touched the infallibility issues. As I finished a first, not overly careful
reading, I thought that the papal presentation was in fact generally quite good,
even profound in many places. I was, of course, amused by the titleAmoris Laetitiaas it seemed like a
title more likely to have come from Ovid or Catullus than even from a Borgia
pope. Then there was the same title in the light of C.S. Lewis’ Four Loves and a similar consideration
found in Benedict’s Deus Caritas Est
on the different meanings of “love”agape,
phila, eros, and storge. But most
of these important distinctions found their way into the present document, not
just the eros (amor) one, though that was there too in a very careful manner.
The Pope’s reflections take some 262 pages. They obviously
cover a lot of matter, but almost everything presented does revolve around the
family and its realityfrom conception to death and beyond. Some concern was
expressed that a document of this length would inevitably lead to myriads of
“interpretations” and controversies. How many people will read such a “book”?
But John Paul II’s encyclical on the missions was 124 pages long and Deus Caritas Est is 102 pages.
Evidently, Pope Francis was determined to present a clear and complete overview
of the various two-year discussions in the synod. No one’s contribution was
going to be left out.
All aspects of family life, in one way or another, are
covered in an orderly, systematic, and scholarly fashion. This presentation is
not meant to be a “definitive work,” but it is one that is quite insightful and
complete. It obviously contains input from many sources from around the world,
particularly conferences of bishops. It is both homey and scholarly. The work
of previous popes on the familyPius XI, Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict, as
well as Aquinasis clearly evident. The refrain recurs: the settled tradition
of the Church on marriage cannot and will not be changed.
One can quibble about differing points. In #25, the Pope
talks about unemployment and its effect on the family, a theme that comes up
later. One always has the impression that the Pope thinks that employment is
caused by the government, which is, more often than not, a generator of
unemployment. In the next section, the issue of sin comes up. It seems that the
main “sin” has to do with environment, as if, say, digging coal, or something
like that, were the big moral problem. But this document really does not go
into these things. I do not recall the word “periphery” even being mentioned.
The emphasis is on the familywhat it is, what makes it
work or not work, how it is related to Christ. It has many tender and moving
reflections on family and marital life. We might have hoped for a shorter
document with more succinct points, but, as I read it, we would, in a shorter
document, miss something that obviously came out of the synod about the real
issues of family life. The document bears leisurely reading wherein each point
can be appreciated and reflected upon.
One thing is quite clear. There is no room for a definition
of “marriage” that includes same-sex “couples.” This arrangement is, happily,
simply rejected out of hand, as if its disorder is too obvious to need detailed
discussion. What will undoubtedly be emphasized in the public media will be the
issues of divorce, remarriage, and common-law marriages. I may be wrong, but I
do not think this document will need the usual “explanations” of what the Pope “really”
meant by this or that comment. These more controversial issues are not broached
until late in the letter after all the central issues of good marriages have
been treated. The Pope takes care to insist that his concern for the people in
what used to be called “bad” marriages does not obviate the importance of the
way marriages ought to be. This same concern holds also for discussions about
issues contained in Humanae Vitae.
The point was not to find a way around them but to teach and know ways to
practice them that make sense. John Paul II, more than anyone, had shown how
this can be done.
The burden of the Pope’s final discussion on marital
problemssuch as divorce, living together, and unfaithfulnessis to picture the
Church, not as a judge or bureaucratic organization, but as a compassionate
mother willing to listen and to stay with someone through his trials. It would
be difficult to know what else to call this section but an exercise in
sophisticated casuistry. Every effort is made to excuse or understand how one
who is in such a situation is not really responsible for it. There was
ignorance, or passion, or confusion. We are admonished not to judge anyone. And
we are to welcome anyone and make every effort to make him feel at home in
Church and as a neighbor. Attention is paid to victims of divorce who are
treated unfairly, and especially children. But the prime interest is in mercy
and compassion. God already forgives everything and so should we. The
intellectual precision that the Holy Father uses to excuse or lessen guilt is
cause for some reflection. The law cannot change but the “gradual” leading up
to understanding this failure to observe the law takes time and patience.
But when we add it all up, it often seems that the effect
of this approach is to lead us to conclude that no “sin” has ever occurred. Everything
has an excusing cause. If this conclusion is correct, we really have no need
for mercy, which has no meaning apart from actual sin and its free recognition.
One goes away from this approach not being sorry for his sins but relieved in
realizing that he has never really sinned at all. Therefore, there is no
pressing need to concern oneself too much with these situations.
One wonders sometimes, in reflecting on this innovative
approach, whether Christ himself or Paul really meant anything by their often
blunt judgments and admonitions on our deeds. If love and mercy are so
understood as to make us see that nothing really wrong occurred, how are we to
read a passage like the following: “God did not send his son into the world to
condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes
in him avoids condemnation, but whoever does not believe is already condemned for
not believing in the name of God’s only son” (John 3:17-18). We can find many
such frank passages in the Scripture.
1 Thessalonians, we read: “We beg you, brothers, to respect those whose task it
is to exercise authority in the Lord and admonish you…” (5:12). The principal
question that one is left with in reading this wide-ranging document is: who is
admonishing whom and for what?
Further reading - Amoris Laetitia: A CWR Symposium