The Pope has clarified that he wants a change of attitude, not of the discipline on Communion

Pope Francis speaks to journalists aboard the flight to Lesbos (AP)

Trying to understand Pope Francis can sometimes feel like aiming at a moving target. The metaphorical ink had barely dried on Amoris Laetitia, and the debate about its there-or-not-there radical changes just about died down, when we were treated to another papal inflight press conference.

As the Pope completed his humanitarian trip to the island of Lesbos, the questions turned, with grim inevitability, to the now infamous footnote of the exhortation. He was asked if Amoris Laetitia “changed anything for divorced and remarried couples, who currently cannot receive Communion?” Francis responded: “Yes. And that’s it.” He then referred his questioner, and the rest of us, back to Cardinal Schonborn’s remarks during the document’s launch last week.

It is strangely emblematic of this papacy that a yes-or-no answer to a yes-or-no question can inflame, rather than settle, debate. The internet is already ablaze with those calling this an “authoritative interpretation” of the exhortation and, while authoritative interpretation actually requires something rather more, many are seeing this as confirmation that footnote 351 was every bit as loaded as some claimed. That seems unlikely, though, given that the Pope, when asked directly, said: “I don’t remember the footnote.”

What was actually far more interesting than the Pope’s enigmatic “yes” was the visible and vocal irritation he displayed at the laser-like focus on an issue he thinks barely merits an ambiguous footnote. Francis has spoken of his “annoyance” at the preoccupation with Communion for the civilly remarried before, during and after the Synod on the Family, and now Amoris Laetitia as well.

For myself, I make little of the Holy Father’s “yes” since, had nothing changed at all, why would he have bothered to write the document and, given that he refers us all back to Schonborn’s remarks that there were no disciplinary “novelties” or “innovations”, it seems evident that the Pope still hopes for a transformation of attitude in the welcome and pastoral formation couples in these situations receive in the parish, rather than a revolution in sacramental discipline. It was, after all, Pope Francis who said, during another recent inflight press conference, that “integration in the Church doesn’t mean taking Communion.”

What I find most curious is the myopic fixation with this side-issue by those who consider themselves Francis’s self-appointed vanguard. Those who have made the loudest noises about one footnote have, strangely, found the least to say about the rest of the exhortation, the bulk of which, as Stephen Bullivant writes in this week’s print edition of the Catholic Herald, is actually a beautiful re-presentation of Humanae Vitae. For all the debate about its supposedly radical changes, Amoris Laetitia is a full-throated reiteration of Paul VI’s teaching on Christian marriage and family life, which those who insist Francis is a radical progressive appear to have missed.

It’s beginning to feel like this is less of an omission on their part, and more of a deliberate distraction.