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Pope Francis ventures into uncharted waters

The daunting length of Amoris Laetitia undermines its simple and direct style (CNS)

Reaction to Amoris Laetitia, the long-awaited apostolic exhortation on the family, shows that its short-term effect has been to stoke the flames of an ongoing and sometimes acrimonious debate within the Church about its meaning and significance.

For some commentators, the Pope has made no significant change in the current discipline on Communion for the divorced and remarried, and they are predictably either relieved or disappointed. Others are convinced that the document does in fact break new ground, with reactions varying from cautious acclamation of a new dawn of mercy to venomous accusations of heresy directed at the Pontiff.

Why such a bewildering diversity of reactions? Has anything significant really changed? Part of the difficulty of assessing the long-term impact of the document is its sheer scale and scope. Pope Francis asks us to take the time to read it slowly and reflectively, and with good reason. The document refuses to limit itself to the controversial issues that have almost monopolised attention both inside and outside the Church in the last three years. Rather than offering clear and concise answers to concrete questions, it seeks to put them within the context of a broader reflection on the way the Church teaches and pronounces on moral questions in general.

This approach has obvious attractions but also drawbacks. Most will concur that the issues under discussion are part of the tissue of a Christian life whose demands and problems cannot be limited to those moral questions which to outsiders often seem like the exclusive preoccupations of churchmen and their flocks. On the other hand, there is a real hunger for concrete guidance and answers from pastors and the like regarding questions which for many cause real and sometimes anguished soul-searching.

Some on both sides of the debate have called not only for specific and clear answers, but also for a less ambitious document. Would it have been better for the Pope to deal exclusively for now with the question that has generated more hope and apprehension than any other – that of the possibility of access to Communion for the divorced and remarried – and to leave to another document his thoughts on the wider picture?

Such a document could have been brief and to the point. I remember with nostalgia the teaching style of Blessed Paul VI and his predecessors, who could make interventions of lasting significance with documents of a few dozen pages. As it is, the daunting length of Amoris Laetitia undermines the impact of its simple and direct style.

But when we talk of the text being more than 250 pages we should bear in mind that Vatican documents contain in general significantly less text per page than most published material. I cannot help wonder, as the Pope urges the Church to promote ecological concerns, why the Vatican retains a page layout with huge margins, intercalated blank pages and an unnecessarily large font size. Most people now read these documents online, but many thousands of printed copies in multiple languages are still produced by the Vatican presses.

Inconsistencies such as this seem to be part of Pope Francis’s governing style. Small wonder, then, that a close analysis of the text itself reinforces the impression of a certain tugging in contrary directions.

We get many quotations taken from the Magisterium of St John Paul II, and reiterating his Theology of the Body, albeit at times with significant omissions. There is one passage, however, which may be a hint at criticism of Francis’s predecessors, when he writes that “at times we have … proposed a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families”.

The Pope goes so far as to talk of an “excessive idealisation” of marriage and the family, and makes a collective mea culpa on behalf of the Church as a whole, saying we have been for too long “stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace” (37).

Here he is putting his finger on the central difficulty of the Church’s teaching role in today’s world. If we concentrate on holding a line, defending the objective truth of Catholic teaching against secularising propaganda, then we risk appearing as hard-hearted ideologues, content to abandon those weaker brethren incapable of living up to the high ideals we proclaim. They will only be more tempted to succumb to despair, or to the illusion that their spiritual aspirations can be met by a more accommodating creed.

On the other hand, we can direct our energies to reaching out to those who struggle, not denying or keeping silent about the objective truth, but seeking to subordinate it to the preaching of a mercy which calls all to a gradual healing, while recognising that full health remains a distant goal for many. This is essentially to desire a Church which, as Newman wrote of St Philip Neri, is “willing to lead us on from good to better, as we can bear him”.

This is clearly Francis’s preferred strategy. We can sense throughout Amoris Laetitia his impatience with those Catholics who do not understand or share it. He takes up the analogy he advanced at last year’s synod of those who turn doctrine into dead stones to be hurled at others. He writes of committed families whose witness is weakened by their narrow, almost obsessive concentration on a few issues, while remaining apparently inattentive to the Christ-given imperative to take care of those in need of mercy both corporal and spiritual.

But of course this approach has its dangers, especially in a world where opinion is often manipulated by the powerful forces behind secular ideology. Any deviation from even the tone of his predecessors will be presented as a shift in doctrine. The smallest change, even in matters of prudential judgment rather than doctrine proper, will be sledgehammered until the merest gap becomes a gaping breach.

Has there been any real change at all? I think there has. The Church has a longstanding tradition of legitimate “casuistry”, where the general principles taught at the universal level are applied and sometimes mitigated at the concrete level of particular cases. The Pope has decided to invite exploration of the possibilities that this tradition might offer in difficult cases. But there is a risk that when the authority responsible for universal teaching talks about possible exceptions in particular cases, the particular exceptions will inevitably be taken to apply more universally.

It needs to be stressed that he is not suggesting that those in mortal sin might be allowed the Eucharist. What he is doing is recalling another, entirely classical distinction within Catholic theology. Not everybody who does something seriously, objectively wrong (grave matter) is in a state of subjective mortal sin. Their culpability may be diminished by other factors: most notably, lack of knowledge and lack of full consent.

Let us say that two married people form a new union in ignorance of the Church’s teaching. This happens more often than we might think – which in itself should serve to call into question the effectiveness of our catechesis and preaching. The pastor is morally bound to dispel such ignorance, so this mitigating factor can easily be removed. But by then they may have entered into stable situations – most notably any children resulting from the new union – which restrict their freedom of action. It is much harder to recover full freedom than to dispel ignorance.

Footnote 351 (and, indirectly, footnote 336, referring to his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium) seems to imply that this principle may in some cases permit Communion of the divorced and remarried, although even this much is not entirely clear. Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, who presented the document in Rome last Friday, apparently has said the footnote refers only to Confession.

Any possible liberalisation must operate within this principle of objective discernment of subjective guilt. However, even this limited opening to individual cases does constitute an innovation. Until now, even when subjective guilt can be presumed to be diminished, the room for relaxing the application of the discipline is limited in cases that involve a stable and public situation which is in conflict with the objective norm.

Whatever the actual state of individual souls as discerned by private consciences, for pastors to allow those in public, irregular situations access to Communion risks provoking “scandal”. For this reason, official teaching until now has restricted access to the Eucharist, even for those who have succeeded in living “as brother and sister”, to cases where such danger is judged to be minimal.

“Scandal” in ordinary speech refers to the possibility of shocking others. In theological terms, it means that our public conduct may put an obstacle (skandalon in Greek) in the path of others, causing them to sin.

We might encourage others to take moral precepts lightly by giving the impression that we ourselves do not give them great weight. Amoris Laetitia makes light of this danger, evoking it hardly at all. This seems to me to be the greatest weakness of the document.

Great space is devoted to the various circumstances in which people in irregular situations might be under pressures which excuse their conduct. Very little space is given to the possibility under grace, once forgiveness is received, to change one’s life and seek to tend towards the perfection which the Lord enjoins on us: “be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). Indeed, the very possibility of seeking perfection seems almost discounted.

This has theological consequences. Amoris Laetitia talks much of grace, but it appears only as the agent of reconciliation or justification, and there is little about the healing and transformative aspects which form the next stage of its action. There is a risk of creating the notion that sanctity is just for the few, whereas St John Paul II made the insistence that it is for all the key to his understanding of Vatican II. Paradoxically, Amoris Laetitia might foster the resurgence of the spiritual elitism which Francis rightly castigates elsewhere.

This is a flawed document; perhaps inevitably so, in view of the scale of the task faced and the vast range of the text’s teaching. There are many troubling omissions and ambiguities in it which I have not mentioned, not only for lack of space but also out of a desire not to overshadow its positive features by nitpicking.

I am sure that the Pope would not contradict me about its imperfection. He seems to envisage it not as a final word but as a stage in a process. Three years ago Francis chose to open a debate which many thought closed. Now, after a bruising experience which has provided no definite gain, it is still open.

I suspect he sees his way of leading the Church as a corrective swing of the pendulum away from a previous, excessively moralising and directive approach. If he does, then he would probably not be surprised if subsequent popes push the pendulum deftly in the contrary direction.

Pope Francis does not always seem evenhanded in his attempts to strike a balance. His strictures against the immoderate zealots of orthodoxy are justified, but need to be balanced by an equally forthright repudiation of the excesses of laxism. He mentions the possibility of this error,but seems to underestimate its prevalence in many parts of the world.

Whatever the future might hold, by using the Petrine office to make changes which invite debate and diversity rather than seeking to build unity around clearly enunciated doctrine and discipline, he is consciously directing the Church into uncharted waters. The consequences of this choice potentially go far beyond the manner of its moral teaching.