Amoris Laetitia: expect a protracted and perhaps bitter debate

The document will ignite further debate (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Back in March, I read Cardinal Kasper’s claim that Pope Francis’ coming Apostolic Exhortation would be the first step in a reform process which would constitute a turning of a page in the Church’s history “after 1,700 years”.

This must be a reference to the Council of Nicaea, recognised by historians and theologians as a turning point for the early Church. In what way would the much expected document be a revolutionary innovation, closing the long post-Nicene period of the Church’s history?

The question of Christ’s divinity was surely not to be reopened. But the famous council of 325 also laid down canonical norms which form the basis of church discipline, including on marriage, up to our own day. Might the Cardinal envisage the document as a foundational event comparable to that which marked the Church’s first organisation of herself as she emerged from persecution?

A first reading, Amoris Laetitia leaves me feeling that such claims seem exaggerated. Nothing in the document reads like a manifesto for revolution; there are no departures from those principles of Catholic teaching which the secular word so ardently awaits.

Indeed, on issues like contraception and abortion, and the refusal to recognise homosexual unions as in any way analogous to marriage, there are explicit reaffirmations of those doctrines.

Of course, what everyone was waiting for was a decision on the access of the divorced and remarried to Holy Communion. On that point, the document has, strictly speaking, nothing new to say.

The letter stresses the necessity for pastoral discernment, of helping people in imperfect situations to grow, of not putting obstacles in their path by a rigid legalism which tries to assimilate different situations under a one-size-fits-all application of general principles whose validity is not called into doubt.

There is nothing new in this. Catholic moralists have for centuries cultivated the art of adapting general principles and rules to concrete situations. This art is called casuistry, and the Jesuits have long been famous for their skill in it.

The term casuistry has come to be used pejoratively – and the Pope, a faithful son of St Ignatius, warns against the kind of abuse which turns it into mere moral sophistry – but in fact the word itself simple comes from the word “case”, and it is a skill which any confessor or spiritual director needs to master.

However, on the question about which everybody was waiting for a decision, the only concrete answer is a twice repeated reference (although it is slipped into footnotes) to two paragraphs from Evangelii Gaudium in which the Pope had reminded us that priests should not behave like torturers in the confessional, and that Holy Communion “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak”.

We must now expect continued, protracted, and perhaps acrimonious debate about how this principle is to be applied in the cases under consideration.

So if there are no concretely revolutionary principles or decisions, are we to believe that it is the manner in which Pope Francis teaches which makes this the end of the post-Nicene and pre-Amoris-Laetitia epoch in Church history?

Like his other documents so far, this one certainly breathes a new style: direct (sometimes to the point of being colloquially chatty) and – to use the word the Vatican has been stressing – pastoral. Often it reads like the way a priest talks in a parish homily or talk, or even in one to one counselling.

So where is the revolution Cardinal Kasper has been promising (or threatening)?

Essentially it all depends on what happens next. Those who wanted the most contentious issue settled so they can get on with life peacefully are likely to be disappointed.

Liberals like Kasper will exploit the openings they will spot, notably on implications of the relation of individual consciences to universal norms. Other weighty voices will continue to oppose them energetically. Rather than settling a contentious issue Francis has chosen, if not to throw it open, then at least to ease it gingerly ajar.

And perhaps that is precisely where the document marks a turning point. In the past, popes have intervened with authoritative documents to settle issues causing division or confusion within the Church.

This time, the Pope is using a document of lesser authority (an Apostolic Exhortation is not an infallible statement, and is assumed to carry lesser weight than an Encyclical, for example) to give increased scope for discussion.

He must know that this will cause upsets (which he might describe as lio) in the short term. But he seems confident that eventually polemic will give way to dialogue and a sharper perception of the truth will prevail. This is what he appears to mean by his oft-repeated, though puzzling assertion that “time is superior to space”.

This is certainly an innovation in the exercise of the Petrine office. Will it turn out to be the kind of revolution Cardinal Kasper is hoping for? Or will this revolution too devour its children?