Francis’ sprawling Exhortation a marriage of profound and muddled

The much anticipated 255-page long post-synodal reflection is surprisingly dogmatic in places and morally incoherent in others

In recently musing about what Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’ much anticipated post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation, might (or might not) contain, I wrote: 

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. … Yes, Francis clearly wants to see changes in pastoral approaches, but he and others have surely seen there are limits to all such approaches.

Having now read the document, I think I was about 95% correct. Francis reaffirms (very strongly, in fact) many of the basic tenets of Catholic teaching about marriage: it is between a man and a woman, it is ordered toward procreation, it is an “icon” of the Triune nature of God, it is indissoluble, it must be open to life. There is a strong denunciation of gender ideology: “It is one thing to be understanding of human weakness and the complexities of life, and another to accept ideologies that attempt to sunder what are inseparable aspects of reality. Let us not fall into the sin of trying to replace the Creator. We are creatures, and not omnipotent. Creation is prior to us and must be received as a gift” (#56). 

The dogmatic underpinnings
The opening chapters, which provide a Scriptural and theological reflection on the nature of marriage and family, is often powerful and poetic in equal measure. Francis draws often upon John Paul II, as when he states that the “couple that loves and begets life is a true, living icon – not an idol like those of stone or gold prohibited by the Decalogue – capable of revealing God the Creator and Saviour” (#11). There is a repeated emphasis on the Trinitarian foundations of reality in general and of marriage in particular, as when the Holy Father states “the couple’s fruitful relationship becomes an image for understanding and describing the mystery of God himself, for in the Christian vision of the Trinity, God is contemplated as Father, Son and Spirit of love” (#11).

This is taken up again as Francis situates marriage within the drama of salvation history: “Marriage and the family have been redeemed by Christ (cf. Eph 5:21-32) and restored in the image of the Holy Trinity, the mystery from which all true love flows. … The Gospel of the family spans the history of the world, from the creation of man and woman in the image and likeness of God (cf. Gen 1:26-27), to the fulfilment of the mystery of the covenant in Christ at the end of time with the marriage of the Lamb (cf. Rev 19:9)” (#63). Near the end of the document, Francis writes: “Today we can add that the Trinity is present in the temple of marital communion. Just as God dwells in the praises of his people (cf. Ps 22:3), so he dwells deep within the marital love that gives him glory” (#314).

This is not merely theological shop talk; it is foundational truth. It is, it should be emphasized, dogmatic. Because dogmas, as the Catechism notes, are not merely laws and rules, but revealed truth about God, man, and the many relationships that exist in the world: “There is an organic connection between our spiritual life and the dogmas. Dogmas are lights along the path of faith; they illuminate it and make it secure. Conversely, if our life is upright, our intellect and heart will be open to welcome the light shed by the dogmas of faith” (par 89). 

However, the word “dogma” does not appear in the document, and I see that already some secular sophists are penning misleading headlines such as “On Divorce, Contraception, Pope Calls For More Grace, Less Dogma” (NPR). Of course, such folks don’t know what dogma is, nor do they really care. For them it is all about changing the Church and her teachings. Which is why the opening line of the NPR piece states: “In a major document released Friday, Pope Francis addressed divisive elements of Catholic doctrine — including how to treat couples who remarry after a divorce that wasn’t annulled by the church, and the church’s stance on contraception.” Funny that the Church’s divisive doctrine on the Trinity and the uniqueness of Jesus Christ are not also mentioned; after all, I have it on good account that many Muslims, Hindus, atheists, Buddhists, Jews, and freethinkers reject those particular doctrines. While Francis, NPR opines, has not issued “any new top-down doctrine …. [he says] that priests should focus on providing pastoral care for Catholic couples, rather than sitting in judgment of them, and that individual conscience should be emphasized, rather than dogmatic rules.”

Because, you see, dogma is supposedly about rules, and usually have little or nothing to do with reality. Sad, but predictable. “Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas,” quipped Chesterton in Heretics, “Trees have no dogmas.” And, as Dorothy Sayers pointed out many decades ago, dogma is the drama. In Creed or Chaos, she wrote:

Let us, in heaven’s name, drag out the divine drama from under the dreadful accumulation of slipshod thinking and trashy sentiment heaped upon it, and set it on an open stage to startle the world into some sort of vigorous reaction. If the pious are the first to be shocked, so much the worse for the pious––others will enter the kingdom of heaven before them. If all men are offended because of Christ, let them be offended; but where is the sense of their being offended at something that is not Christ and is nothing like him? We do him singularly little honor by watering down till it could not offend a fly. Surely it is not the business of the Church to adapt Christ to men, but to adapt men to Christ.

The fact is, objective truth does exist, and there are real limits to what man can do, or can be. For example, as Francis reiterates, we cannot say that a “union” between two men is a “marriage” (#251). That, of course, is offensive to the world, which is so intent on ushering in the Reign of Gay. But I shouldn’t be too hard on NPR, because the two times that the word “doctrine” is used by Francis, it is in a negative context: “Our teaching on marriage and the family cannot fail to be inspired and transformed by this message of love and tenderness; otherwise, it becomes nothing more than the defence of a dry and lifeless doctrine” (#59), and, “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” (#134).

Some problems
Now, I completely agree with those statements, but the impression, again, is that doctrine is hindering at times. Or, worse, it can be a weapon to use against good but flawed people. It’s hardly a newsflash to point out that Francis has often given the impression that doctrine is a necessary burden, but a burden nonetheless. And so Francis doubles down on the hyperbolic rhetoric used in his final address at the Synod: 

For this reason, a pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in “irregular” situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives. This would bespeak the closed heart of one used to hiding behind the Church’s teachings, “sitting on the chair of Moses and judging at times with superiority and superficiality difficult cases and wounded families”. (#305)

Is this really a significant problem? Further, is the confessional actually used as “a torture chamber”, as Francis apparently thinks (footnote #351)? As Robert Royal notes, “When you set up straw men like this, it’s usually because it’s easier than making a real argument.” And, to put it rather bluntly, whole sections of chapters 6 through 8 employ various straw men in seeking to delve into the many mitigating factors that have led to many Catholics abandoning their marriages, getting divorces, and entering into second unions. These, we find, are referred throughout as “‘irregular’ situations”–that is, with “irregular” in scare quotes–as if to indicate they are not really irregular at all, but mostly situations in which people are caught up in troubles and difficulties that are only loosely connected to their free choices. 

So, for instance, Francis states:

For an adequate understanding of the possibility and need of special discernment in certain “irregular” situations, one thing must always be taken into account, lest anyone think that the demands of the Gospel are in any way being compromised. The Church possesses a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations. Hence it is [sic] can no longer simply be said that all those in any “irregular” situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace. (#301)

Here the distinction between objective nature of a situation is apparently collapsed into the various subjective aspects pertaining to responsibility and culpability. Objectively, those who have left a sacramental marriage and have entered into a “second” marriage are indeed in a state of mortal sin. There are, of course, mitigating factors; no one denies this. Quite the contrary! As Royal points out: 

It’s impossible to know for sure, but many priests in the developed world have probably been using the “internal forum” in the Confessional for a long time, precisely in the way Francis is suggesting, to allow people in “irregular” circumstances to receive Communion. It doesn’t seem to have done much for marriage and family, or the Church. And making it a public practice now would surely bring something besides mercy and tenderness. 

Exactly right. For whatever reason, Francis seems to think that the past few decades have been marked by a dogmatic rigidity that is as merciless as it is obsessed with the fine details of law, causing countless innocent or near innocent Catholics to flee a Church that they perceive to be cold and heartless. That perspective is, to put it nicely, dubious and problematic. The impression often given, unfortunately, is that any emphasis on objective moral standards regarding actions and relationships is bound to quickly degenerate into a harsh and uncharitable condemnation.

It doesn’t help matters that Francis apparently plays a bit fast and loose with some of his arguments and sources. For example, many of those divorced and in “a new union,” says Francis, have “proven fidelity, generous self giving, Christian commitment, a consciousness of its irregularity and of the great difficulty of going back without feeling in conscience that one would fall into new sins” (#298). This statement is followed up by a footnote (#329) stating:

In such situations, many people, knowing and accepting the possibility of living “as brothers and sisters” which the Church offers them, point out that if certain expressions of intimacy are lacking, “it often happens that faithfulness is endangered and the good of the children suffers” (Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 51).

The problem is that the passage from Gaudium et Spes is not addressed to those who have been divorced and entered a new “union”, but to those in marriages (pars 47-52); specifically, the passage used is referring to those married couples who are abstaining from marital relations so that “at least temporarily the size of their families should not be increased.” Using it as an argument for divorced and “remarried” couples to have sexual relations is misleading and troubling. 

Lest you think I overstate the impression that Francis thinks there are mitigating circumstances for nearly everything, consider this remark:

No one can be condemned for ever, 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. Naturally, if someone flaunts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal, or wants to impose something other than what the Church teaches, he or she can in no way presume to teach or preach to others; this is a case of something which separates from the community (cf. Mt 18:17). Such a person needs to listen once more to the Gospel message and its call to conversion. Yet even for that person there can be some way of taking part in the life of community… (#297)

Yet common sense and experience say otherwise. In other words, there are some people who, from what we can see, simply refuse to repent and convert. And we know there is a most real possibility of condemnation, not only in this life, but in the life to come. Damnation is real, even if it is not up to us to judge the souls of those alive or dead. Francis’ desire that everyone be touched by and accept the grace of God is not only commendable, it is completely correct. But an essential part of human nature is free will. If no can really ever be condemned forever, then what, really, is at stake? In truth, it would mean that dogma is just about rules and regulations that are actually about personal and temporal power, not about eternal truths and eternal destinations. 

My reading, then, is that Francis has not only pushed as far as he can push, he has not solved many of the serious problems facing the family. But, then, the real problem is the same problem that has afflicted all of mankind from the beginning: the refusal to fully love God, to obey God, and to worship God. In its best moments, Amoris Laetitia presents the bracing vocation and beautiful vision of marriage and family life, situating it in the panorama of salvation history. It is in the pastoral details that matters become muddled at times, regardless of good intentions. In short, this is a text that has something for everyone, and a text that will likely frustrate everyone as well. 


·         Further reading – Amoris Laetitia: A CWR Symposium 

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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.