Pope Francis recently published the papal document, “Amoris Laetitia (Joy of Love)”, which, although a marked shift in tone from that prevalent until very recently, makes no substantial difference in terms of fundamental Church teaching. Here is how “The Guardian” newspaper assessed the document:
Pope Francis has called for the Catholic Church to revamp its response to modern family life, urging greater acceptance for divorced people and those in same-sex relationships while adhering to traditional Church teachings.
The landmark papal document, entitled “Amoris Laetitia (Joy of Love)”, was hailed as a “paradigm shift” by Francis’s biographer Austen Ivereigh, who said it had the “potential to shape the Church’s response to the family for generations to come”.
Over more than 250 pages, Francis outlines a more compassionate vision for the Church on family issues, urging priests to respond to their communities without rigidly enforcing Church rules. “Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs,” he wrote.
The apostolic exhortation concludes a two-year consultation that saw bishops twice gather in Rome to debate issues affecting the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.
Ivereigh said the document was “a remarkable step forward for the Church”. It was “epic in scale, bold in ambition, and beautifully direct and tender, the fruit of decades of a holy man listening carefully to the truth of people’s lives”. He added: “It’s a fantastic piece of work.”
Much of the document is devoted to a detailed exposition of how a lifelong partnership between two people has the potential to bring joy, comfort and companionship. Francis offers practical advice for overcoming marital and family problems and issues, including bringing up children, conjugal sex and ageing.
In comments welcomed by some LGBT organisations, Francis urged the Church to “reaffirm that every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration”, while “every sign of unjust discrimination” is to be carefully avoided, particularly any form of aggression or violence.
But the pope stopped short of pushing for a change in Church doctrine. “De facto or same-sex unions, for example, may not simply be equated with marriage,” he said.
The Church’s traditional definition of same-sex relationships as “intrinsically disordered” is notably absent from the exhortation, however.
Martin Pendergast, a Catholic LGBT activist in London, said the tone marked a new approach. The pope “clearly recognises the existence and experience of people in same-sex unions, although the Church is still not willing to equate such unions with marriage. But the door is still open. Conservatives won’t like this document,” he said.
After a lengthy debate about remarried divorcees, who are not allowed to take holy communion, Francis did not call for the rules to be changed but said such parishioners must be made to feel part of the Church.
He signalled his support for a proposal by progressives for “internal forums” in which a priest and a parishioner decide jointly, privately and on a case-by-case basis whether they can receive communion.
Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, the archbishop of Vienna, who presented the document in Rome, said he recognised that some Catholics would be disappointed that the pope had not provided a new set of rules to govern the Church’s response on remarried divorcees. But the pope’s response demonstrated progress was being made on Church teachings, said Schönborn, who is viewed as a progressive within the Vatican hierarchy.
In discussing reproduction, the pope voiced the Vatican’s opposition to abortion in all circumstances: “No alleged right to one’s own body can justify a decision to terminate that life.” He also rejected fertility treatment, describing creation as something which “must be received as a gift” and suggested infertile couples could adopt.
Francis offered support for women, condemning the “verbal, physical and sexual violence” that many endure in marriages, rejecting “sexual submission” to men and denouncing the “reprehensible” practice of female genital mutilation. He said the belief that feminism was to blame for the crisis in families today was completely invalid.
The pontiff dedicated two pages to “the erotic dimension of love” within marriage, promoting a positive vision of sexuality. “[This] must be seen as a gift from God that enriches the relationship of the spouses,” he said.
The 79 year-old pontiff explored the way technology affects relationships, such as when people stay on their mobile phones during meal times. He said the fast pace of the online world was affecting people’s approach to relationships. “They believe, along the lines of social networks, that love can be connected or disconnected at the whim of the consumer, and the relationship quickly ‘blocked’.”
The papal document – which also touches upon a number of other issues affecting families, such as abuse, migration and unemployment – reflects the hands-on approach seen throughout Francis’s three-year papacy. The pope emphasised the need for priests to reach out to members of their communities and present the Church as a “field hospital”.
Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the general secretary of the synod of bishops, who presented the document alongside Schönborn, envisaged a difficult road ahead for priests as they tried to follow the pontiff’s guidance. “We are not used to such a work. Everything was imposed from above and now we have to apply discernment… to each and every situation. So we have to keep the doctrine of faith very clear,” he said.
Peter Doyle, the chair of the bishops’ committee for marriage and family life, said the document was “very exciting, embracing everyone whatever their situation. Some people will be disappointed that it is not full of black and white solutions, but, as Pope Francis says, every situation is different and needs to be approached with love, mercy and openness of heart.”
Matthew McCusker, of the conservative organisation Voice of the Family, said there were “grave problems” with the document, which failed “to give a clear and faithful exposition of Catholic doctrine”. He said: “The Church has always taught that when a Catholic does something that is gravely wrong they must seek reconciliation with God and the Church through confession prior to receiving holy communion. If a person chooses to remain in a union that contradicts the moral law, they cannot be admitted to holy communion.”
One problem with the document is that it does not have the authority of an encyclical. It is what is known as a post-synodal apostolic exhortation. An apostolic exhortation is a pastoral document in which the pope exhorts the Church. Although it contains doctrine, its primary focus is on pastoral care. Apostolic exhortations are different to encyclicals, which do focus primarily on doctrine. When a pope issues an apostolic exhortation in response to a meeting of the synod of bishops (a gathering of bishops from around the world), it is called a post-synodal (after the synod) apostolic exhortation.
The “National Catholic Register”, published in the United States, notes with obvious regret that very little is said about homosexuality:
Same-sex unions “may not simply be equated with marriage”. “Amoris Laetitia” also says: “During the Synod, we discussed the situation of families whose members include persons who experience same-sex attraction, a situation not easy either for parents or for children… We would like before all else to reaffirm that every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration, while every sign of unjust discrimination is to be carefully avoided, particularly any form of aggression and violence… Such families should be given respectful pastoral guidance, so that those who manifest a homosexual orientation can receive the assistance they need to understand and fully carry out God’s will in their lives.”
In discussing the dignity and mission of the family, the Synod Fathers observed that, “as for proposals to place unions between homosexual persons on the same level as marriage, there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family”.
Additionally, it is unacceptable “that local churches should be subjected to pressure in this matter and that international bodies should make financial aid to poor countries dependent on the introduction of laws to establish ‘marriage’ between persons of the same sex”.
And that’s it. Contrary to the hopes of some, the document did not attempt to reframe the Church’s teaching on same-sex activity or same-sex unions.
Conclusion? The pope has done a little too much for the conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church but far too little for the liberals, but, given the overwhelmingly conservative character of the most senior figures in the Church, he probably did as much to shift Catholic thinking as is currently possible. I genuinely believe the pope is keen to reform many aspects of Roman Catholicism’s more ludicrous teachings, but he has so few reformist allies among the Church’s most senior figures that his room for manoeuvre is very limited. Then again, I could be misjudging the man. Perhaps he is just very good at appearing liberal in inclination when in reality he is almost as conservative as the popes who immediately preceded him. Perhaps we will be in a better position to judge him in two or three years’ time.