Accompanying, Discerning, and Integrating—in the Way of the Master

Pope Francis is often esteemed as an optimistic pope, but in places “Amoris Laetitia” indicates a surprising and deep pessimism about the power of grace.

Chapters one through seven and chapter nine of Amoris Laetitia are largely a joy to read. Filled with poignant observations from the participants at the two previous Synods on the Family, they contain largely accurate and strong statements on behalf of the Church’s teaching on issues of marriage, same-sex relationships, gender ideology, contraception, and other hot-button issues. Occasionally there is a lack of clarity such as when Francis mentions the Church’s opposition to abortion and euthanasia (intrinsic evils) and capital punishment (a legitimate penalty which the Church opposes prudentially) without distinction. But the reflections on the Trinitarian nature of the family, pastoral material examining St. Paul’s treatise on love in I Corinthians 13, as well as suggestions for preparing couples for marriage, Christian family life, and the necessity of the family’s missionary nature are all excellent. The problem is that in a 264-page document, it’s unlikely that any of this will get much of a hearing. The size and scope of Francis’s documents virtually guarantee that few will read them and that only the controversial material will be read. That means Chapter 8 on “Accompanying, Discerning, and Integrating Weakness.”

While Francis still upholds the teaching that sacramental marriages are indissoluble and while he has not explicitly said that communion is possible for those in second unions even if one or both members of the couple have not had their first attempts at marriage declared null, it seems from many passages that this is not precluded. I don’t know how else to read paragraphs 300, 305, and footnote 351 but as implicitly holding out this possibility, as do the passages on the supremacy of conscience.

It’s clear that Francis has hopes that this teaching will renew the Church by bringing back Catholics who have left the Church, but if the interpretation of it as the official amen to a “truce” in which doctrine and pastoral practice are separated and priests simply welcome those formally barred from reception of communion, there are very serious reasons to doubt that the document will do good and reasons to think it will likely do much harm.

Catholic priests in Western countries have been either inviting or winking at the reception of communion for years by people whom they knew were not in a position to receive it—not just for those in irregular unions but also for CEO (Christmas Easter Only) Catholics, for non-Catholics married to Catholics, and—in some parishes—for anybody who comes forward. The results have not been the return of many Catholics to the pews but a continued decline in the number of marriages, baptisms, and conversions.

Pope Francis is undoubtedly right that the Church needs to accompany, help with discernment, and integrate the large numbers of Catholics who are in irregular unions or hovering on the edges of the Church for many reasons. He rightly calls for “new forms of missionary creativity” (#57). But there are a number of things that need to be said about how this mission must be thought about and accomplished.

First, while Pope Francis’s reporting on the state of the world in the first seven chapters is actually quite sophisticated, in his many statements about the contemporary Church he seems to be talking about a different era in which callous talk was the rule. Pastors who talk about the Church’s more controversial topics today are attentive to the need to not give offense or throw stones at others. But the reality is that most Catholics never hear about these teachings at all from the pulpit. Ours is not an age of excessive clarity in theological or moral matters on the Catholic side. Nor is it an age of excessive following of the rules with regard to communion, as noted above.

In an age where it is lacking, the statement of truth and the enforcement of rules will no doubt sound harsh, bureaucratic, and legalistic to many, but that is both a challenge to learn to speak the truth in love ever better and a feature of discipleship. Jesus’ words themselves struck his generation and ours in the same way as harsh and unrealistic. One can fail to be offensive in speaking the truth and still meet offended people. While it is dangerous to tie heavy burdens to people not required by God, it is equally dangerous to try to untie burdens from people connected with the will of God.

Pope Francis is often esteemed as an optimistic pope in contrast with his dogmatic German and Polish predecessors. But is there not a deep pessimism about the power of grace in #298 where the Pope proposes pastorally recognizing second unions where “Christian commitment” is accompanied by “consciousness of its [the second union’s] irregularity” because of “the great difficulty in conscience that one would fall into new sins”? But the call to “discern” with such couples is a call to figure out whether the union is not just “irregular” but actually sinful. If the regula or rule which is being violated is simply a positive or prudential law of the Church, then the Supreme Legislator can change it, but if the rule is about an intrinsic evil, then the obligation of pastors is to say that: first, this rule must stay, and second, that the Church’s accompaniment is going to involve working with the couple to end the sinful situation in which they are tangled and help them to not “fall into new sins.”

Our age needs the cockeyed optimism (or perhaps “sure hope”) of St. Paul: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (I Cor. 10:13).

No doubt some couples will not actually seek declarations of nullity from their first unions, separate, or live as brother and sister right away, but the answer is that the Church will have to be patient. Francis is no doubt correct to say that the Church can never give up on people nor reject them. But the question is what to do when people want to leave. Our Lord himself experienced rejection over his hard teachings, including his teaching on the Eucharist (see John 6). And in very particular cases, such as the rich young ruler to whom Christ issued a special call to give away his goods and follow, we are told that the young man went away, “sorrowful, for he had many goods.” Even in such a case not involving a serious sin, Our Lord did not go chasing after the young man, promising to make a “pastoral exception.” It’s perhaps not a coincidence that this latter story appears in Matthew 19, the same chapter in which Christ gives his hard teachings on marriage and divorce (conspicuously absent from the Exhortation). If the disciples are not greater than their Master, then the duty of the Church is to discern and accompany, but only to integrate people fully on the terms of the Master.

The Second Vatican Council highlighted the particular nature of the Church as a pilgrim people whose destination is beyond this life. For some people, full reconciliation will take till the end of their lives. We need to emphasize that this is the case with everyone in the Church. In earlier ages of the Church there was an understanding of the Church as having degrees of communion—that people could be at different places on the pilgrimage route but be included in the Church even if they were not able to present themselves at the altar. Francis understands this, encouraging Catholics who are not capable of receiving communion to participate in prayer and various forms of ecclesial service to the Church (243, 299).

The way forward will involve creative thinking about precisely how these pilgrims can be accompanied without cutting off their ability to, as the Synod Fathers relate “reach the fullness of God’s plan for them” (297). Perhaps a part of this will be a new asceticism of the altar, a tightening of the conditions for reception of communion for all, such that the non-reception of communion would not be so odd and isolating an experience for those who are on the edge of the Church. And it would have the added benefits of making those who are not in such situations realize better the thirst for fullness that others in the Church experience perpetually and their own need to grow in communion with Christ.


·         Further reading – Amoris Laetitia: A CWR Symposium 

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About David Paul Deavel 35 Articles
David Paul Deavel is Associate Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, TX, and Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. The paperback edition of Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul in the West, edited with Jessica Hooten Wilson, is now available in paperback.