Managing Expectations for the Exhortation

Cardinal Kasper and others think a revolution is on the way in the form of Pope Francis’ much anticipate post-synodal text. Are they right?

Recently, I was thinking back to the spring of 2007 and the growing sense of expectation about Pope Benedict XVI’s post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation “Sacramentum Caritatis”, which was on the topic of the Eucharist as the “Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church”. Would Benedict loosen guidelines for the reception of the Eucharist? Might he provide an opening for those Catholics who don’t believe, for whatever reason, in the Real Presence? Could he possibly hint at allowing Protestants of good will to receive Holy Communion?

Do you remember all of that?

I hope not, because those questions were never considered. There was no growing sense of expectation, at least not beyond those who follow such matters as part of their regular work. And I suspect that 99% of Catholics didn’t read the Exhortation, which is too bad, as it was a tremendous work of theological and spiritual reflection. And, as I noted in commenting on the text, “this apostolic exhortation is both theologically rich and pastorally wise.” I further noted that when Benedict’s first encyclical—Deus Caritas Est—”was presented, some commentators were surprised by its straightforward and accessible nature. But this marked an obvious continuation of the style and approach found in his writings as a priest, archbishop, and cardinal: nuanced, but never esoteric; deliberate, but never ponderous; exhaustive, but never exhausting.”

But, that said, the text hardly caused a ripple outside of certain Church circles.

Things are a bit different for Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation “Amoris Laetitia”. Just a bit. People who wouldn’t know a papal bull from an encyclical are curious about what the Holy Father is going to say. Many of them, of course, are curious about what Francis might change or revise. Is he going to change doctrine regarding who can receive Holy Communion? Is he going to allow a more open approach to homosexuals and “gay marriage”? Or transgenderism? Is he going to “update” the Church’s teachings about sexuality and related matters?

The interest and the questions tell us a lot about our times. In previous eras, revolutions were launched because certain people rejected the Church’s teachings about the Eucharist, the meaning of baptism, and the relationship between faith and works. Today, in general, most people don’t care about such things. For many, those are questions that have little to do with them or how they live their lives; for others, they are simply matters of personal opinion.

Whereas the man of the late medieval era was often deeply concerned with his place in the Church and his relationship with God, the man of the post-modern world is quite often fixated on trying to assert his identity and hold on to his sense of “self” in a “strange land” (to borrow from Walker Percy). As the outside world has apparently shrunk, the inner world has also shrunk. Meaning is not so much found in a search for transcendent truth and eternal relationships, but in an individualistic appeal to subjective experiences and transitory relationships. Having rejected the possibilty of Truth, some of have cannibalized their own humanity, having “exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator…” (Rom 1:25). Rather than believing that man is made in the likeness of He who is Truth, far too many believe that truth is made in the likeness of man—although the word “man” is now considered an insult. 

My point, in part, is that many people want Francis to change doctrine and practices based on the latter understanding of the world. Some expect he will, or at least wonder if it’s possible. Even many in the Church would rather cater to transitory fads rather than adhere to foundational truths. Cardinal Kasper, who has experienced a career encore of sorts with his angle on mercy, has insisted, “This will be the first step of a reform that will make the Church turn a page after 1700 years.” And: “We must not repeat formulas of the past and barricade ourselves behind the wall of exclusivism and clericalism, the Church must live (in) our times and understand how to interpret them.” The best I can say for the German prelate is that he knows how to mix equal measures of bombast and banality. But it’s an empty drink. And I suspect that he might be surprised. 

Here’s the thing: I don’t think Francis is going to try to change doctrine. Even if he wanted to—and I know there is evidence he has been open to a range of possible changes in some way or another—the Final Report of last October’s Synod effectively put all of that to rest. I could be wrong. Perhaps the Apostolic Exhortation really is going to be filled with wide-ranging and revolutionary calls for X, Y, and Z. But, again, I think any hopes of that were effectively ended at the Synod. (And I still think that Francis’ closing address, which was one of the strangest papal speeches ever given, was an indication of that fact.) Kasper is no fool, but desperation usually leads to further desperation, and his remarks sound like the wishful utterances of a man watching his revolutionary dreams fade away.

Yes, Francis clearly wants to see changes in pastoral approaches, but he and others have surely seen there are limits to all such approaches. Yes, God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son—but he cannot and will not force us to love, obey, and worship him. Men are still free to sin and to reject the confessional. While all pastoral approaches must flow from the radical and self-giving love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, they cannot change truth or go contrary to what Truth has said and done. Although Francis has often expressed his frustration with what he perceives to be dogmatic or rigid views, it’s not evident to me that he fully appreciates at times the fact of real limits, or the ways in which his approach is often subverted or skewed by those who would like nothing more than to undermine or even destroy the Church.

If I am right, and Francis does not make any changes or indicate they are coming eventually, what then? Will some of those who support him for the wrong reasons reveal their true colors? (Yes, Elton John, I’m looking at you. But not because you’re going to Mass now.) That will be interesting, to say the least.

And if Francis does, in fact, uphold the Church’s perennial teaching about family, marriage, and related matters, will it have been worth the storms of the past two years? Not a few Catholics have been unnerved, frustrated, bewildered, and otherwise shaken by words and events from the past couple of years. Some, without doubt, have reacted in uncharitable and childish ways. But I understand some of the frustration. Here’s hoping the Exhortation will clarify some points and calm some of the rough waters.

Note: On Friday, Catholic World Report will be posting reactions to the Exhortation by a number of our regular contributors, along with a new face or two. 

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About Carl E. Olson 1197 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.