Amoris Laetitia, released two years ago this month, is one of the longest papal documents in history – and one of the most contentious. Pope Francis issued the apostolic exhortation on the pastoral care of families after two acrimonious synods of bishops in Rome. At 60,000 words, the text read like several documents merged into one. It contained lyrical passages on married love, sage advice on child-rearing and a handful of footnotes that some interpreted as permitting remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion.
That last element has, of course, dominated the debate about Amoris. Two clear camps have emerged. The first regards the exhortation as a bold, compassionate attempt to draw a marginalised group back into the heart of the Church. The second sees Amoris as a dangerously ambiguous text that threatens to undermine Catholic teaching on marriage and the Eucharist.
The latter group marked the exhortation’s second anniversary with a major gathering in Rome. The meeting was organised by friends of Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, who called for a conference to address doctrinal confusion within the Church shortly before his death last September. The Italian was one of four cardinals who sent a private letter to Pope Francis in September 2016 asking five questions (dubia) about the compatibility of Amoris with previous papal teaching. Two of the four – Cardinals Raymond Burke and Walter Brandmüller – spoke at the conference. The fourth, Cardinal Joachim Meisner, died a few months before Cardinal Caffarra.
Observers saw the Rome event as a test of the strength of opposition to Amoris. Several concluded, from the hundreds present at the meeting, that the text’s critics were a tiny minority within the Church. But that is a mistake: what they were seeing was only the tip of the iceberg. Many more have misgivings about Amoris, but they remain largely hidden from view.
They include many bishops. That is evident from the sluggish response of most episcopal conferences to the Vatican’s demand for local guidelines on Amoris. The bishops of England and Wales, for example, have produced little more than an anodyne statement welcoming the exhortation. The Polish bishops’ document on Amoris has been repeatedly held up, reportedly over infighting.
What this shows is that the exhortation was never the consensus document that its supporters claimed it to be. They argued that the text reflected the wishes of the overwhelming majority of the world’s bishops as expressed at the family synods. But there was never a majority on Communion for the remarried.
Yet there was a consensus, before the family synods, that the Church needed to improve its pastoral care of the remarried. Indeed, this issue had so preoccupied Benedict XVI that he tried to persuade bishops to enable more remarried Catholics to receive an annulment and therefore return to the sacraments. But he backed down once he realised that he couldn’t command majority support.
The consensus in favour of reform has given way to intense polarisation. The energies of millions of Catholics are being exhausted on internal debates, when they should be directed outwards towards our suffering world.
Raising our sights
Pope Francis’s new apostolic exhortation, published on Monday, is a call to holiness entitled Gaudete et Exsultate (“Rejoice and Be Glad”). The title comes from the words of Jesus to his disciples: “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you (falsely) because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12).
The Pope remarks that God “wants us to be saints and not to settle for a bland and mediocre existence”. This is a welcome message. For too long the bar has been set too low. Not just in the spiritual life, but also in other fields, it has been assumed that human beings are weak and cannot achieve very much, and thus must be content with not just failure, but poverty of ambition as well. This was not the way of Jesus, and it was certainly not the way of the saints.
Pope Francis writes that the exhortation’s “modest goal” is to “repropose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time”. Not surprisingly, the world’s first Jesuit pope draws heavily on Ignatian spirituality, with its hard-headed understanding of Christian life as a constant battle against the Devil.
An apostolic exhortation takes time to read and to digest. But our first reaction must surely be this: if we are being asked to go further, if we are being urged to strive for greater holiness and to reach greater spiritual heights, this is a very good thing.
Pope Francis is right: we have allowed ourselves to become accustomed to the bland and mediocre for far too long. It is time for the discovery of a wider horizon, for a restoration of what has been called “the vision thing”.
The Church exists to call her children to holiness. This exhortation reminds us all of our fundamental vocation in life: to be saints.
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