Amoris Laetitia is a strikingly elegant presentation and defence of the Catholic vision of marriage and the family. The content of the exhortation, and the broad and sincere welcome it has received, came as a genuine surprise to many who had braced themselves for its release as if for an earthquake.
Across two extraordinarily contentious sessions, which included allegations of intercepted books, deliberate mistranslations, racism and leaks to the press, the family synod managed to convince many, inside and outside the Church, that almost the whole of the magisterium on sex, marriage and the family was up for debate.
In between the sessions, Cardinal Kasper, whose eponymous proposal on Communion for the divorced and remarried was the locus of much of the debate, would appear, from time to time, to deliver himself of smug assurances of how much the Pope agreed with him. The most recent of these came last month, when His Eminence assured us that Amoris Laetitia, title then unknown, would be a “turning of the page” in the Church “after 1,700 years”. The Pope, we were told, would “definitively express himself on family issues addressed during the last synod, and in particular on the participation of the divorced and remarried faithful in the active life of the Catholic community.”
Given the public paranoia of many so-called conservatives, and the preening expectation of Cardinal Kasper and his clique, something very controversial was expected. Communion for the divorced and remarried was considered a certainty,
a much softened tone on same-sex relationships was to be expected, and there might even be hints that Humanae Vitae should be seen as a moral ideal, rather than a way of life.
So when Amoris Laetitia was finally released last week, many were left scratching their heads when they finished reading. While the style was uniquely Francis, the substance was the same magisterium as taught by St John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
One journalist, seeking to spare us another round of interpretation and counter-interpretation, asked Cardinal Schönborn, who was launching the document at a Vatican press conference, if the teachings and norms on who can receive Communion were still intact or had been changed.
The cardinal was clear that there were no “novelties” or “innovations”. It is now evident that Cardinal Kasper lost, and lost both dramatically and publicly. His quotation offered to Vatican Radio that the possibility of admitting the civilly remarried to Communion was “there if you look for it” is an almost pitiable climbdown from the hubris of a month ago. For all his supposed influence, it has become clear that he actually understood little of the Pope’s mind and methods, and still less of his goals.
The great controversy has now been telescoped into a debate about the text of a single footnote, number 351. In this, the Pope says that some individuals, or couples, might be living in objectively sinful situations but can still, as they are brought to better understand their situation in the light of the Church’s teaching, benefit from the help of the sacraments.
Given the pains the Pope goes to, throughout the document, to insist that he is not providing individual solutions for individual cases, the myopic reduction of any irregular situation to mean the civilly remarried, and all the sacraments to mean receiving Communion, betrays the lengths some will go to make any text support their position. In fact, the footnote, and the surrounding text, are much more concerned with Confession than Communion, and the much-debated irregular situations being considered are, statistically, much more likely to be couples in valid marriages who habitually practise contraception.
Similarly, it has been frustrating to see the number of Catholics willing to assume, in the face of more than 250 pages to the contrary, that the Pope must be up to something. Given that neither side of this manufactured debate seem to take any notice of the immediate context of the footnote in question – which cites both Familiaris Consortio and the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts’ declaration “Concerning the Admission to Holy Communion of Faithful Who are Divorced and Remarried”, on the criteria for the reception of Communion, which are both left intact – we are left with the rather tragic conclusion that these two distinct minorities in the Church are mutually determined to paint Francis as the radical reformer they either crave or loathe.
Cardinal Kasper, and those with him, began with a specific, political goal: to legitimise divorce and remarriage in the Church. His proposal was an elaborate theological/pastoral construct to achieve this end; the people themselves, and their best interests, were very much secondary. Pope Francis has a genuine concern for the significant number of Catholics in damaged and difficult family circumstances; Amoris Laetitia is at once a love letter to them and a methodology for helping them grow in the faith. He saw in Cardinal Kasper’s “penitential path” a blueprint for the intensive pastoral care he wanted to offer them, but he has no interest in changing policy, only in helping people. This is the reason the cardinal so badly misjudged Francis’s intentions.
Ed Condon is a canon lawyer