There is a brief comic moment in Amoris Laetitia at the point where, some 50,000 words into the matter, Pope Francis writes at paragraph 307: “In order to remove all misunderstanding …” At that length, if the danger of misunderstanding remains, it is because clarity is not the goal.
Amoris Laetitia insists repeatedly that general moral principles cannot be compromised, but in their application to particular circumstances they might well never apply. This leads to the analysis of chapter eight on the situation of those who are in conjugal relationships outside sacramental marriage – the cohabiting and the divorced and civilly remarried. As the Holy Father enumerates a comprehensive list of mitigating factors, it is noticeable that nowhere does Amoris Laetitia advise those who might be considering such relationships that it would be better not to enter such unions in the first place. It is an entirely plausible reading of chapter eight that, while it would be better to be sacramentally married, there is nothing subjectively sinful with being in a non-marital conjugal union. Pope Francis clearly thinks that would be to get things wrong, hence he writes “in order to remove all misunderstanding”.
Paragraphs 307 and 308 might be the most important in the vast Amoris Laetitia, for they sum up the pastoral approach that the Holy Father recommends. They are worth quoting at length:
I would point out that in no way must the Church desist from proposing the full ideal of marriage, God’s plan in all its grandeur: “Young people who are baptised should be encouraged to understand that the sacrament of marriage can enrich their prospects of love and that they can be sustained by the grace of Christ in the sacrament and by the possibility of participating fully in the life of the Church.” A lukewarm attitude, any kind of relativism, or an undue reticence in proposing that ideal, would be a lack of fidelity to the Gospel and also of love on the part of the Church for young people themselves. To show understanding in the face of exceptional situations never implies dimming the light of the fuller ideal, or proposing less than what Jesus offers to the human being. Today, more important than the pastoral care of failures is the pastoral effort to strengthen marriages and thus to prevent their breakdown.
At the same time, from our awareness of the weight of mitigating circumstances – psychological, historical and even biological – it follows that “without detracting from the evangelical ideal, there is a need to accompany with mercy and patience the eventual stages of personal growth as these progressively appear”, making room for “the Lord’s mercy, which spurs us on to do our best”. I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion.
But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, a Mother who, while clearly expressing her objective teaching, “always does what good she can, even if in the process, her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street”.
In all the debate about whether the Holy Father would declare the teaching of St John Paul in Familiaris Consortio to be wrong – he doesn’t, but comes close – what has been lost is an appreciation for how extraordinary the pastoral approach of the Holy Father is. The approach he recommends – propose the ideal but do not find fault with choices that fail to correspond to it – is counter to a widespread consensus in the world about how to move people towards ideal behaviour.
Consider any significant public health campaign of the last decades – against smoking, excess sugar, drink-driving – or one against a social ill – hooliganism, discrimination, bullying. Most of those campaigns do not propose an ideal as much as stigmatise the offending behaviour, not infrequently in harsh and condemnatory language. More to the point, public authorities have known for generations that marriage is socially efficient and reduces poverty. There has been precious lack of success in moving people towards (civil) marriage, no doubt in part because the state desires not to give a negative judgment about non-marital unions.
The Church ought not to follow broader society, but she should take note of its experience. Her own experience also has lessons in this regard. Consider the bishops of England and Wales, who generations ago did away with the old-fashioned rules-and-sin approach to Friday abstinence from meat, and proposed instead the ideal of a carefully chosen alternative penance suited to the individual’s penitential heart. That proved such a colossal failure that the bishops are attempting to undo it. It turned out that without the rules-and-consequences approach, the ideal was entirely forgotten.
Amoris Laetitia is a radical document, for at its heart it proposes an approach that everyone would hope would be effective, namely that the ideal of marriage proposed by itself will be sufficiently attractive.
As a pastor, I would be more pleased than most, for it would relieve me of the more burdensome spiritual works of mercy, instructing the ignorant and admonishing sinners. It would be a happy thing if Pope Francis was right; alas, experience suggests otherwise.
Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of Convivium magazine