Pope Francis, with his papal exhortation from the Synod on the Family, “Amoris Laetitia,” has created a mess, just the way he likes it.
In his long-awaited commentary from the Synods of the last two years, the Holy Father has reinforced the teaching of the Church – what else could he do? – but suggested that it be applied in a more merciful way.
In other words, instead of chastising people who are divorced and remarried and categorically barring them from Communion, Pope Francis says the Church should apply those tenets with a healthy amount of mercy and understanding.
This is going to annoy some people. Some are going to feel that the pope didn’t go far enough by changing some of the rules. Others are gong to say that he should have stated Church teaching in a more definitive way.
In other words, the pope has stirred the pot and created a stew of debate. It’s going to be a mess for a while until we all get used to this new pastoral style.
Then again, this may be a case of the official Church catching up to what already is the practice of many local churches.
The exhortation gives a healthy dose of recognition to the individual conscience. But the Church has always given preference to conscience as we all struggle to know what is right and wrong. It’s just that the emphasis may have been more of living up to the rules rather than struggling to understand them. The pope is not denying the rules, but he is saying that those who do not understand them cannot be cut off and allowed to drift away.
The exhortation also recognizes the different cultural situations around the world. “Different communities will have to devise more practical and effective initiatives that respect both the Church’s teaching and local problems and needs,” writes Pope Francis.
This Holy Father is a master at pastoral theology, i.e. how the Church should apply its teachings to individual people in individual circumstances. He draws from his many years of serving the people of Buenos Aires, where he was known to favor ministry to the outcasts and marginalized. He realizes that life is not as black and white as we would like it to be, but rather he recognizes lots of gray. Things are not always cut and dry but they’re a lot more ambiguous than we realize.
“We should not however confuse different levels: there is no need to lay upon two limited persons the tremendous burden of having to reproduce perfectly the union existing between Christ and His Church, for marriage as a sign entails ‘a dynamic process… one which advances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God,’” says Pope Francis.
With the writings of Pope Francis, the effects of Vatican II are beginning to be felt in a deeper way. It has taken a while for the Council to penetrate the skin of the Church. But now with the first pope to have been ordained a priest after the Second Vatican Council, we have a man who is fully immersed in the Spirit of the Council and lives it as second nature.
He also urges Christians to be mature and to think for themselves. “Since ‘time is greater than space,’ I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium,” writes Pope Francis. That’s a remarkable statement coming from a pope.
This is also a practical document, as the pope explains the meaning of St. Paul’s great description of love. “Love is gentle. Love is kind…”
He extols the value of kind looks, a kiss, a caress and always urges us to be forgiving and not intransigent.
True that this document is not an encyclical, which would have carried more authoritative weight. But it is the writing and the mindset of the Holy Father and it shape the Church’s pastoral practice for a long, long time. Make no mistake about it; it is a game changer.
As Pope Francis urges right at the outset of the document, “Amoris Laetitia” is not to be scanned or rushed through. We should take our time, pray over it, and study it so that we can enter into the thinking of Pope Francis and move with the Spirit as discerned by the successor of Peter.