Francis has delivered an eloquent defence of the Catholic vision of marriage

Pope Francis (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Amoris Laetitia offers a compressive and eloquent, to the point of being lyrical at times, defence of the Catholic vision of marriage, Humanae Vitae and all.

While doctrinally packed, the pastoral concern of the document is no less intense. At times, the tone is so personal as to read like a letter from one individual to another, and the concern of the Pope for married couples and families is palpable and most especially for young people being denied a formation in the true Christian understanding of marriage.

But, as good as it is, the real expectation surrounding this exhortation was not about what it would say about married couples but rather divorced and remarried couples, discussion of whom dominated the media coverage of both sessions of the Synod on the Family.

What we all wanted to know, really, was where the Pope would come down on the so-called Kasper proposal of allowing those in second, sacramentally invalid, marriages to receive Communion, even though their second unions are technically adulterous.

It was suggested that a “penitential path” could be found, whereby couples in this situation would, through personal reflection and internal forum conversations with their priest, progress towards the reception of Communion.

In fact, Amoris Laetitia shamelessly adopts the Kasper methodology of intimate and intense pastoral guidance but the goal is no longer their eventual reception of Communion, but instead a deeper and more mature understanding by the couple of their situation in the light of the Church’s teaching.

In the eighth chapter, entitled Accompanying, Discerning, and Integrating Weakness, Pope Francis revisits the important distinction between the “law of gradualness” and “gradualness of the law” and, like St John Paul II before him, makes clear that while individual circumstances, understanding, and intentions can mitigate the culpability of a person, it cannot detract from the objective seriousness of a situation of sin, still less render it good.

The key to Amoris Laetitia’s treatment of the divorced and civilly remarried is the recognition that every marriage, and certainly every broken marriage, is unique. In line with his own image of the Church as a hospital, the intimate process of pastoral discernment outlined by the document represents a profound period of diagnosis, where the individual’s reality, and pastoral needs, can become clear.

The first goal of this period of pastoral discernment is, according to Pope Francis, to provide a solid mechanism for welcoming those in irregular situations into the Church; a welcome that needs to be as individual as the person and their situation and which reflects that, whatever their circumstances, the parish is the proper home of every Christian.

Pope Francis repeats, again and again, that couples in irregular unions are not excommunicated, they are not, in the language of the old code of canon law, the vitandi – those to be shunned. On the contrary, their presence and participation in the life of the parish is essential, how else are they to be helped?

The second purpose of the period of pastoral discernment is to allow for the person to be met exactly where they are and genuinely accompanied along a period of discernment, formation of conscience, and growth in the faith.

Where Amoris Laetitia parts company with the Kasper proposal is the stated goal of this process. Kasper and his supporters were clear that the goal is always full sacramental participation in the life of the Church, most especially through Communion.

Pope Francis is clear that the goal of this pastoral accompaniment is as individual as the person’s situation – and he does state that, in some cases, this can include access to the sacraments. This will be held out by many as Kasper’s vindication, but, in fact, it couldn’t be further from the case.

When Francis refers to the sacraments his is referring, and this is explicit in the text, first of all to Confession, which is our primary means of encountering the mercy of God. It is within this context that he insists that pastors consider the full complexity of a person’s situation and never think 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.”

The period of pastoral accompaniment and discernment described in Amoris Laetitia is, effectively, an extended guided examination of conscience leading to Confession.

It is in the light of this period of discernment that the person or couple can find their place in the life of the parish of which Francis says “necessarily requires discerning which of the various forms of exclusion currently practised in the liturgical, pastoral, educational and institutional framework, can be surmounted.”

And for some this will mean being able to take Communion. But, crucially, when discussing these situations and the huge scope for different circumstances, the Pope refers to two documents in particular, St. John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio, and the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts’ Declaration Concerning the Admission to Holy Communion of Faithful Who are Divorced and Remarried.

These documents both articulate the significance which individual circumstances can have, but also make it clear that only couples in irregular marriages who live a life of marital abstinence can receive Communion, and this is left absolutely intact by Francis.

Without question, there will be those who will try and contort Amoris Laetitia into the Kaspser proposal, but they will do so against the obvious and clear intentions of Pope Francis. In fact, what the Pope has produced is something much more personal, pastoral, coherent, and enduring. If it can be successfully brought, in its fullness, into parish life, its potential is enormous.