Amoris Laetitia: Pope Francis Shines a Light of Divine Mercy on the Family

The following is a talk delivered in Fresno, California, on May 13, 2016 by Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD, director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.

Just one week after Divine Mercy Sunday, the Vatican released the long-awaited Apostolic Exhortation on Marriage and the Family by Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love). The timing of that release doubtless was no accident. For this 250-page document offers reflections on every aspect of the divine gift of the family, and how the Church can provide better pastoral care for struggling and broken marriages, all in the light of God's merciful love.

There are many beautiful passages in Amoris Laetitia testifying to: "God's original plan for man and woman; love and marriage; children, siblings, parents, grandparents; the bond between the generations; and the crucial importance of all this to the future – and the sheer survival – of the Church and society. Oh, and not least, the 'tenderness' of God, which [the Pope says] should be reproduced in our homes." (Robert Royal)

"The first seven chapters discuss the nature of marital love, the surpassing importance of the family in God's plan, and the great many problems which weaken both the family and the marital bond in our time. Anyone can read and reflect on all this with great profit. Pope Francis has done a fine job of pulling it all together. This is true of the closing chapter (chapter 9) as well, which outlines a brief 'Spirituality of Marriage and the Family.'" (Jeff Mirus)

Nevertheless, as I am sure you all know, Amoris Laetitia has also stirred up plenty of controversy in the media, and challenged the pastoral perspectives of many in the Church (as the Holy Father predicted it would in its "Introduction").

Pope Francis has been criticized in some circles (and praised in others) for allegedly "watering down" during his pontificate the Church's traditional teachings on contraception and homosexuality, and the traditional teaching barring divorced and remarried Catholics from receiving Holy Communion before they have repented and rectified their marital situation. There is no doubt that this pope has occasionally made off-the-cuff remarks to the press that have caused confusion, some of which the Vatican has never really succeeded in clarifying (for example, his famous remark about practicing homosexuals: "If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and His good will, then who am I to judge him?"(a remark that easily could be misinterpreted to mean: sincere searching alone makes mortal sins no longer gravely sinful). But is this a fair criticism of what The Holy Father was doing in Amoris Laetitia? Has he watered down Catholic teaching on the family in this document, or spoken here in a similarly confusing way?

No, I don't think so. For one thing, there are many pages of profound teaching about marriage and the family in this document. You cannot understand what someone is trying to say by taking their words out of context - and all of those 250 pages, and indeed the whole Jubilee Year of Mercy, are the proper context in which to understand what the Holy Father is trying to say to us.

Consider our Lord's Parable of The Prodigal Son. We all have heard it said many times, no doubt, that this story shows us just how merciful our heavenly Father really is. In the parable the father sees his son coming home while his son is still a long way off. But the father does not just wait patiently at the front door for his son to return. Rather, the Gospel says that his heart went out to him: he ran down the road to meet him, embraced him and showered him with kisses (Lk 15:20). This reveals how much God our Father longs to recover and restore his long-lost sons and daughters. At the first sign of our (still imperfect) penitence, he pours out his forgiveness and grace upon us from his merciful Heart. In fact, the motto for the Jubilee Year of Mercy is an echo of the central message of this parable: "Merciful Like the Father."

Now, in effect, Pope Francis has been asking us to notice something else about this story. After all, if the father had run down the road to meet his son, then after their first greeting was over, he must have accompanied his son on the walk back to their home, and back to the banquet that was already being prepared for them. What the Pope is asking us to do in this Jubilee Year of Mercy, in a nutshell, is carefully to consider how we can best accompany Catholics who are divorced and remarried, or using contraceptives, or struggling with same-sex attraction, on their own journey back home to the Catholic Church, and back to the family banquet of the Holy Eucharist. Of course, many of these Catholics have a grossly inaccurate understanding of what the Church actually teaches on such family issues, and to start with, many also have only a very limited and imperfect penitence for the sins they have been committing. They are still "a long way off" as the parable puts it, even if they are sincerely trying to find their way home.

So how can the Church and her pastors come alongside them and walk with them on their journey home? And what part can the sacraments - especially Reconciliation and Holy Eucharist - play in this whole process?

These are difficult questions. To begin with, we certainly need to be willing to, as St. Paul put it, "speak the truth in love" (Eph 4:15), as I think Pope Francis has done in Amoris Laetitia. Let's be clear: in this document the Pope does not reject the truth of traditional Catholic teaching on the sanctity and indissoluble bond of marriage. He also does not deny Catholic teaching on the conjugal act as the celebration and seal of complete mutual self-giving between the spouses-a mutual self-gift that must always include the gift of their fertility to each other. And the Pope also does not deny that only a natural marriage between a man and a woman can express the authentic complementarity and openness to new life of a true marriage covenant. In fact, all of this is covered and clearly re-iterated in this document! Our Lord has promised to pour out a super-abundance of graces from his merciful Heart, especially through the sacraments, upon all those who seek to live out these beautiful dimensions of the mystery of the family. Remember the 150 gallons of new wine that he provided for the Wedding Feast at Cana! The Holy Father is simply asking us to consider how those graces also can be shared with the many broken and wounded Catholic marriages and families of our time, to help heal and restore them.

In chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis briefly touches upon the most controversial issue that emerged at the Synod of Bishops last October: whether or not there are circumstances in which divorced and remarried Catholics might be welcome to receive Holy Communion.

Pope Francis wrote that we cannot automatically assume that every divorced and remarried Catholic is living in an unrepentant state of mortal sin. In some cases there are extenuating circumstances that might make their sin of remarriage venial rather than mortal, and might leave open the possibility for them of the reception of the Body and Blood of the Lord. For example (my own, not one given by the Pope), suppose a Catholic mother of three young children is abandoned by her husband for another woman, and this mother finds she is unable to provide for her children on her own, unable to keep them out of dire poverty, much less to raise them properly in a fatherless home. Then "Mr. Right" comes along, promises to provide for her and her family and to be a good step-father to her kids, so in hope and desperation she agrees to marry him. She knows her first marriage was a valid one, and that she is disobeying the teachings of the Church, but under duress she thinks that it is the only thing she can do.

Objectively, she has committed a mortal sin: she has contracted a new marriage, even though she was validly married to someone else, with whom she made unconditional wedding vows of lifelong fidelity that formed an indissoluble bond between them.

(By the way, I am going to assume in this talk that you know and accept the Church's teaching about the indissoluble bond of marriage, derived from our Lord's words in the gospels. We don't really have time this morning the lay out the whole case for that teaching, but if it is an issue for you, I have brought with me some copies of a website article I wrote about the Catholic understanding of marriage and divorce - you are welcome to take a copy home if you wish. It is called: "The 'D' Word: A Divine Mercy Perspective".)

Again, objectively this Catholic mother has committed a mortal sin, but subjectively she probably committed that sin under extreme psychological, maternal, and financial duress - which, according to Catholic Moral teaching would mitigate her moral responsibility, making her remarriage more likely an act of weakness, and a venial sin, rather than a fundamental turning away from the love of God, that is, a mortal sin. Catechism 1862 states that "one commits a venial sin when in a less serious matter, he does not observe the standard prescribed by the moral law, or when he disobeys the moral law in a grave matter, but without full knowledge or without complete consent." And exceptional situations of duress would be obstacles to complete consent.

According to Pope St. John Paul II in his Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (and I believe it was not new with him, but long a part of the Church's canon law), if her first marriage was valid and cannot rightly be annulled, then she can only be restored to Holy Communion if she is penitent, confesses her sin of remarriage, and shows she is truly penitent by separating from her putative new husband, or at least agreeing to live with him from now on in chastity as brother and sister. After all, as St. John Paul II wrote, it's not just that the act of remarriage is a sin: the abiding marital state of the divorced and remarried "objectively contradicts that union of love between the Church and Christ signified and effected by the Eucharist" (section 84). In other words, Christ's bond of love with His Bride, His Church is indissoluble, unbreakable, and renewed at every Eucharist: how can someone come forward to receive the Eucharist who is living in a marital state that contradicts such unconditional, indissoluble marital commitment?

Suppose, however, that in her circumstances, although she has confessed and is truly penitent for her act of remarriage, it is just unrealistic for her right now to be able to arrange to separate from her new husband (since she and her children would fall back into dire poverty), and suppose it is also unrealistic at the moment to ask him to continue to live with her as brother and sister. After all, he might not be willing to put up with the new situation; he might not even be a Catholic. He might say to her: "So now you are telling me our marriage was a mistake, and even a sin, and that you cannot sleep with me anymore? That's a betrayal of my love, and of the promises you made to me - I'm outa here!" So her children would now be abandoned a second time by their father-figure. Should this penitent Catholic mother, caught in this situation, be forced to put her children at such extreme risk of poverty and fatherly abandonment, so she can come back to Jesus in Holy Communion - and all because of a (likely) venial sin she committed under duress when she got remarried?

What is the best and most merciful response to such a couple and their children, the best way for the Church to accompany them on their journey as penitents toward living the full truth about marriage and the family? And what part does the indissoluble marriage bond play in God's plan to sanctify human hearts on the road to heaven - even in difficult family circumstances? Again, these are very tough pastoral issues (which is why the pope and the bishops have been agonizing over them recently!).

If I understand this papal document correctly, this is precisely the kind of rare and exceptional case in which the woman's pastor might legitimately decide to admit her to Communion to help her on her journey prior to the full sorting out of her irregular marital situation. The Holy Father does not say so directly; he only alludes to such situations, including the (now famous) footnote 351 to chapter eight. Pope Francis writes:

In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, "I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord's mercy" (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium [24 November 2013], 44: AAS 105 [2013], 1038). I would also point out that the Eucharist "is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak."

I think the Holy Father used some confusing rhetoric in this footnote that has sadly clouded the main issue. He reminds his readers that the Eucharist is "not a prize for the perfect." But surely that is not the issue here. No one is arguing that communion is only for the perfect; everyone accepts that communion is for the penitent. The real question is what should be required as a proper expression of authentic penitence before someone in a sinful and irregular marital situation can be invited back to receive the Eucharist. In our hypothetical case of the abandoned mother of three, penitent but trapped, still living with and sleeping with her second husband: hasn't she done all that she can reasonably do, for the time being anyway, in her circumstances? After all, the full rectification of an irregular marriage situation often takes a change in the attitudes and actions of both partners, not just one. Would our Savior be offended if her pastor allowed her to come to Him in Holy Communion for strength and refreshment on the road to that full rectification of her situation, which may still take many months or even years of careful marital counseling and diplomacy between her and her new partner (if the collateral damage on her children is to be avoided)?

The Pope's recommendations on the pastoral care of such Catholic families in exceptional circumstances are not definitive papal teachings on faith and morals - so a Catholic can, in good conscience, respectfully disagree with them. Given that he is the successor of St. Peter, however, even his pastoral directives merit from us every benefit of the doubt. At least, let's not "throw the baby out with the bathwater" here. There is so much profound teaching on Marriage and the Family in Amoris Laetitia. We run the grave risk of missing the wedding banquet of wisdom he has prepared for us by quibbling about this issue.

Still, let's try to understand why some good and faithful Catholics object to the pastoral provision that the Holy Father has opened up here.

On the more "liberal" wing of the Church, some disagree simply because they do not accept the Church's traditional teaching on the indissolubility of marriage.
Much like Cardinal Kasper, and many German and Swiss bishops, they believe that the Church's teaching about marriage can and should be changed, and that welcoming divorced and remarried Catholics to Holy Communion should be much more widely practiced-as it is in their dioceses. Pope Francis actually caused considerable confusion last year when he highly praised the scholarly work of Cardinal Kasper on this subject. But happily, as far as I can see, he did not adopt Cardinal Kasper's point of view, to any great extent.

On the more "conservative" wing of the Church, fears have been expressed that what the Pope has done by opening this pastoral door to communion for some in irregular marriages will only cause further division in the Church on this issue. Now, they say, liberal and permissive priests, and the German and Swiss bishops and their supporters, will take Pope Francis's footnote as "cover" to justify their continuing disobedience of church teaching by widely offering communion to the remarried.

Well, no doubt they will (as the Old Testament says, the People of God are a "stiff-necked" people), but I do not know how Francis could have been any clearer that he was not intending to throw the door open to communion for all, or most, or even many divorced and remarried Catholics. Here is what he wrote in chapter 8 on this (and I quote):

For this discernment [about reception of the Eucharist] to happen, the following conditions must necessarily be present: humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching, in a sincere search for God's will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it. These attitudes are essential for avoiding the grave danger of misunderstandings, such as the notion that any priest can quickly grant "exceptions", or that some people can obtain sacramental privileges in exchange for favours. When a responsible and tactful person, who does not presume to put his or her own desires ahead of the common good of the Church, meets with a pastor capable of acknowledging the seriousness of the matter before him, there can be no risk that a specific discernment may lead people to think that the Church maintains a double standard. [#300]"

Some conservative Catholics are dismayed that this kind of pastoral provision now seems to put the Church and her pastors in an impossible situation. They now have to discern and judge whether acts of divorce and remarriage by some of their parishioners were mortal sins or only venial, and whether they are adequately penitent now and doing the best they can to rectify their situation; in other words, they now have to make a judgment about the subjective state of divorced and remarried persons, so they can then decide which ones can be admitted to Communion, and which ones can't. How can they possibly do that? Only God can discern the depths of the human heart. What we do know is that objectively they are in state of mortal sin, and a state that objectively contradicts the reality of the Eucharist, and that is all the Church can go on, without trying to play God in the matter.

The trouble is that in exceptional circumstances, the Church and her pastors do sometimes have to make such difficult discernments before admitting people to the Sacraments. For example, the whole marriage tribunal and annulment system, even in its new, revised form under Pope Francis, involves making a discernment about the validity, or lack thereof, of a couple's marriage. Was one or both of them really acting freely, in full understanding of the vows they were making, fully intending to make such vows, and fully psychologically capable of making such a commitment? The Church has to look at the evidence for the state of their souls at the time of the marriage ceremony, in order to discern whether it was a real marriage or not - and therefore whether they are free to contract a new marriage with someone else.

Or let's take a (perhaps) more embarrassing pastoral situation: the sin of masturbation by young people. Objectively, according to the entire Sacred Tradition of the Church, masturbation is a grave misdirection of one's sexual desires, and therefore a mortal sin. But as Catechism 2352 points out, in some cases there may be extenuating circumstances that mitigate the person's moral responsibility here, such as extreme stress, or deep emotional wounds, or developmental immaturity. Confessors and spiritual directors of teenage boys, for example, usually find that a high percentage of them frequently fall into this sin - many have even fallen into a habit of this sin - but in most cases it is almost certainly a matter of venial rather than mortal sin, due to their subjective condition (emotional wounds and immaturity, for example, that insure they are not acting with full and free consent). Most of these young men do not need to be disciplined by frequent or prolonged excommunication, so to speak; as long as they are penitent, confessing their falls, and sincerely trying to overcome this imperfection, most of them need to come to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament for healing, rather than to be almost perpetually barred from Him for something over which they lack full control. The discernment of their subjective condition is the Church's common pastoral practice with teenage boys.

Again, the Pope has not said that all, or most, or even many divorced and remarried couples contracted their irregular union under such exceptional circumstances that they can be candidates now for immediate re-admission to communion. As my example of the abandoned mother of three young children was meant to show, we are talking about rare and exceptional cases here, not the general attitude of too many divorced and remarried Catholics that "Well, I was lonely, and I just knew I would be happier if I got remarried." Loneliness is a cross to bear, to be sure, but as Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman once said, comfort and maximal temporal happiness are not the main goal of life for disciples of Jesus Christ: "Holiness is the great end," he said. "There must be a struggle and a trial here [on earth]. Comfort is a cordial, but no one drinks cordials from morning to night."

To sum up, as you can see I think the Holy Father's pastoral provision is probably the right way forward, although I can see that there will be difficulties in applying it fairly and wisely from parish to parish, and diocese to diocese, difficulties which will need to be ironed out. As the Holy Father wrote: "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 the human being."

The Pope is our universal pastor, engaging in the difficult (and even for him, fallible) task of applying the truth, in exceptional circumstances, with merciful love. Faithful Catholics can disagree with what he has done in this instance; but faithful Catholics also should give him every benefit of the doubt. As the successor of St. Peter and the chief shepherd Christ gave to us, non-infallible expressions of his ordinary magisterium, and even his pastoral directives are always presumed to be under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, unless one can prove otherwise, beyond any reasonable doubt.

In short, let's listen to our Holy Father on this matter, give him at least the benefit of the doubt, and give his pastoral directive a fair shot.

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