For our Church, the Apostolic Exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” is the milestone on a long and winding journey. The Holy Father’s enthusiastic invitation to deal broadly, freely and openly with questions that are real and not just academic resounds throughout this Exhortation. Respecting tradition, it reflects prior synodal documents, the 2015 Wednesday Audience catecheses, and the writings of recent Popes, especially St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
In line with the development of the magisterium from Vatican II till today, the document provides a basis for a new relationship between the Church and the family. For the Church, the lives of families are not to be primarily a series of moral questions to be answered, they are to be the wellsprings of a lively faith that brings God’s love to mankind.
Tellingly, the Pope chose to comment about St. Paul’s description of love in 1 Corinthians 13. That choice shows how deeply and how concretely love –every love–springs from the highest love — the agape of God, a love that is far from being simply mystical and romantic. As the Pope describes it, following St. Paul step by step, love is solid, it is marked by interaction, by beauty, by sacrifice, by vulnerability and by tenacity (“love bears all...endures all”). God’s own love is like that! We are nowhere near that individualism that shuts love up in an obsessive “just us” situation that endangers the “joy” of the marital and family bond. The vocabulary of family love is all about passion and fruitfulness.
Overcoming the Separation Between Doctrine and Pastoral Care
The Gospel of Jesus is the Easter message of God’s love that calls us to Him. This is the truth of our faith, and any interpretation of doctrine that excludes this Easter message from pastoral activity drives “faith” away from faithfulness to Divine Revelation.
Sadly, there are those, even among committed believers, who would like the Church to be a sort of courtroom of life and human history, a Church that accuses, a prosecutor who gathers evidence of transgressions without taking into account the unfortunate circumstances of life or the difficult choices we have to make. That view is one-sided and it forgets that the Church has been commissioned by the Lord to be courageous and strong in its protection of the weak, in forgiving wrongs, in healing the wounds of fathers, mothers, children, brothers and sisters—starting with those who realize that they are prisoners of their own failings, and in despair for having ruined their lives.
The Pope writes: “in no way can the Church stop preaching the full ideal of marriage, which is God’s plan in all its greatness.” (307) We must be more bold in presenting this ideal. For example, recognizing the societal difficulties faced by the youth of today, the Holy Father gives special emphasis to preparation for marriage and to staying close to young couples in their first years as a new family: “Today, pastoral attention to strengthening marriages and preventing breakdowns is more important than pastoral assistance in failed situations.” (307) But the Church is also familiar with weakness, with the “law of graduality,” and with the certainty that the Lord never abandons anyone.
The synthesis that the Pope proposes in the document calls for a change of pace and style that alters the face that the Church presents to the world. He emphasizes that the structure and ministry of the Church is dedicated to the faith life of families and not vice versa. Thus, the Church cannot fulfill its family mission from the Lord without calling families to share in that mission.
This basic ecclesiology of the family is the very air that the Exhortation breathes; it is the horizon toward which the Church wants to lead believers in this new age. If this transformation is welcomed with faith, it is destined to transform decisively the way in which the community of believers perceives itself. The key to this transformation is not found where some thought it to be, that is, in the dispute that marked the beginning of the recent synodal process, namely, the presumed conflict (or necessary choice) between doctrinal rigor and pastoral flexibility. The Church is rediscovering the moral responsibility involved in the way it interprets doctrine. It must discern rules in a way that takes into account the lives that its members are living and that ensures that they never lose sight of the fact that they are loved by God. That love can only be made plain by the way the Church treats us, even in all the weaknesses that our lives suffer.
There are at least two clear signs of this change of course:
- Marriage is indissoluble, but the bond between the Church and its sons and daughters is even more so because it like the bond that Christ has established with the Church, which is full of sinners who were loved by God even while they were still sinners. They are never abandoned, not even when they sin again.
- The bishop has full authority and responsibility for maintaining and protecting the bond between the Church and its members, with the knowledge that the salvation of souls is what is most important. The bishop is a judge because he also is a shepherd, and a shepherd knows his sheep even ( or especially) when they go astray. His most important task is always to lead them home, where he can care for them and heal them; and he cannot do that if he leaves them where they are, abandoning them to their fate because “they brought it on themselves.”
Care for Wounded Families-Process
In the next-to-last chapter of the Exhortation, the Holy Father traces out the path the Church is to follow. He uses three words: accompany, discern and integrate. But in reality the whole document is a guide to a new approach to the pastoral activity of the Church, which, as set out clearly in Evangelii Gaudium, has mercy as its guiding principle—the Church is fully committed to staying close to all its members, to accompanying them throughout all of life, in all circumstances; and it is committed to their full integration into the Christian life, with no one left out. And the role of discernment is to discover, wherever they are, the “signs of love that reflect in some way the love of God” (294) in order to “integrate all” (297) into the Body of Christ. Everybody is to find a place in the Church where he or she can grow to become fully a part of the Body, and as we help each other to achieve that full integration, we remember that no one in this life is ever “condemned once and for all.” (297)
In the Exhortation, the Holy Father does not see any need for “a new set of rules.” (300) Rather, he is calling for wise and serious “personal and pastoral discernment in individual cases.” (300) And the bishops’ tasks in this process are spelled out clearly: accompany, discern and integrate into the Christian community. Our shared faith and love for our brothers and sisters can work miracles, even in the most difficult circumstances. Access to God’s grace which, once welcomed, results in the conversion of sinners, is a serious matter. The Catholic doctrine of moral judgment, somewhat neglected perhaps, is restored to a place of honor: the moral quality of a process of conversion does not necessarily coincide with the legal definition of the state of life of the sinner.
The role of the parish priest or chaplain in the process is to guide the sinner to where he or she is open to discernment by the bishop and to reintegration into the community of believers. Discernment and integration is not a do-it-yourself job. It is not a legal formula that gets applied automatically, but neither is it an unprincipled individual choice. The path traced out in the Exhortation is has clear mile markers: interpret Church doctrine, discern individual consciences respect moral principles and safeguard communion.