Not all is black and white: Why 12 months of unprecedented controversy and uncertainty have followed the publication of Amoris Laetitia
The Tablet06 April 2017 | by Nicholas Austin
Amoris LaetitiaOne year since the publication of, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), and it is difficult to recall when a papal document has met such controversy. Four cardinals sent five dubia, or “doubts”, to the Holy Father, expressing their concern about “a grave disorientation and great confusion” arising from the document. Germain Grisez and John Finnis, two distinguished philosophers known for their fidelity to the magisterium, published an open letter asking Francis to condemn eight positions contrary to the Catholic faith that could arise from the “misuse” of his apostolic exhortation.
Other theologians have warned that the Church’s moral teaching is under threat. It is not surprising that some Catholics are confused about whether the Pope is breaking with traditional doctrine.
The passage causing most dispute is not even in the main body of the text. In footnote 351, Francis implicitly extends the possibility of receiving absolution in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and permission to receive Communion to remarried Catholics, under certain circumstances. The confessional should not be a “torture chamber”, he writes, but “an encounter with the Lord’s mercy”; and the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak”.
It is made clear that there is no blanket permission. Certain “conditions” must be met, among them “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”. Yet the message is that Communion for the remarried may sometimes be allowed.
Why would Pope Francis relegate such an important provision to a mere footnote? He clearly foresaw the danger that one contested issue could distract from the exhortation’s more important content. That danger has been realised, and has led to a serious misunderstanding. Because Amoris Laetitia does not mark a rupture in Church teaching.
It helps to recall the context in which the two Synods on the Family held in 2014 and 2015 were called. The “crisis of the family” concerns not just the manifold threats to family life today but also the challenge of responding to those families whose situation does not match what the Church teaches is the ideal. Pope Benedict XVI had earlier spoken of the risk that the Church was being “identified with certain commandments or prohibitions” so that “not even a hint of the true greatness of the faith appears”.
The response of the bishops at the synod, and then of Francis, therefore, was to re-present the Church’s teaching about marriage, transposing it from the key of law to that of virtue. The beating heart of Amoris Laetitia is not a footnote but the whole of Chapter 4, where Francis engages in a scriptural and pastoral meditation on the hymn to love that is Chapter 13 of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. The Church’s primary way of proclaiming the gospel about marriage is not to issue prohibitions but to point to those Christians who have lived the marital covenant with fidelity, gentleness, courage and love.
However, the bishops were also concerned about the way that the “gap” between Church teaching and the marital situation of many can lead to an exclusive Church, what Cardinal Walter Kasper has called a “practical schism”. Francis’ response is to paint a “triptych” of three imperatives for the Church’s pastoral engagement with families and married couples: accompany, discern, integrate.
Pastors, in my experience, find it liberating to learn that fidelity to the Church means exercising “a pastoral discernment filled with merciful love, which is ever ready to understand, forgive, accompany, hope, and above all integrate.” Equally, Catholics in what used to be called “irregular situations” have been given a sense that there is hope, a way back to fuller communion with the Church.
What of the anxieties that Francis has been compromising Church teaching? Consider the following papal pronouncement: “Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations.” These are not the words of Francis but of St John Paul II in his exhortation on the family, Familiaris Consortio (1981). It is this principle of “careful discernment of situations” that offered a way forward for the synod, which, while remaining faithful to the teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, empowered pastors to respond to the particularities of situations.
Amoris Laetitia draws on Aquinas, who while acknowledging the importance of general moral principles, advocates a prudential sensitivity to particular cases. Francis’ advocacy of discernment is not a dilution of Church teaching by a “liberal” pope but a development of a principle acknowledged in the tradition, already present in papal teaching and advocated by the bishops at the two synods.
While there is continuity, there is also genuine development. Francis doggedly pursues the implications of the gospel value of mercy. He saw it as timely, even “providential”, that the document on the family was published during the Year of Mercy. During that year, there were many opportunities to ponder the inexhaustibly rich parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).
The lawyer and Jesus are engaging in a tussle about the true meaning of the law. The lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbour?” This is a typical lawyer’s question: he is asking Jesus, “How far does my liability extend – to my local community, to all the Jewish people, or even further than that?” After recounting the great parable, Jesus turns the question around and throws it back: “Which of the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The sound of the penny dropping for the lawyer is almost audible: “Well, the one who showed him – ah! I see now, the one who showed him mercy.” Jesus has led the lawyer not to a rejection of the law but to a paradigm shift in how to read it. The lens is mercy, because the author of the law himself is “mercy and fullness of compassion”.
The dispute around Amoris Laetitia is similarly not about whether to uphold or reject the law but about how best to interpret it. Francis is drawing out the implications of reading the law, like the lawyer at the end of Luke’s story, through the paradigm of mercy. For, “mercy is the very foundation of the Church’s life. All of her pastoral activity should be caught up in the tenderness which she shows to believers.”
Mercy, as moral theologian James Keenan SJ reminds us, is the willingness to enter into the chaos of another. The appropriate guide to a merciful pastoral response is, therefore, wise discernment, the spiritual quality most needed in situations of complexity, ambiguity, even chaos. In family life, not all is black and white, so rigidly applying the straight edges of universal norms to messy situations may not do justice to the “grey areas” in which many find themselves today. This is not to dispense with universal norms as important guides but to note that their pastoral application needs to be guided by a mature wisdom that is comfortable with complexity.
Francis, then, is not privileging Mercy and Discernment over Tradition and Law but is showing how any one of these deeply Catholic principles can only be interpreted rightly by keeping the other three in play.
What is the task for the Church now, after a year of struggling? Pope Francis has said: “Today the Church needs to grow in discernment, in the ability to discern.” Discernment, for Francis, is not individualism but a profoundly ecclesial activity with its own time-tested criteria of authenticity. The call is to a greater trust in, and sensitivity to, the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
Francis himself predicted that the process would not be without confusion and uncertainty. In his encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium, he observed: “It is true that this trust in the unseen can cause us to feel disoriented: it is like being plunged into the deep and not knowing what we will find. I myself have frequently experienced this.”
The Church is currently experiencing the disorientation that comes from entering into a more synodal, more Spirit-led way of moving forward. Yet, Francis’ words encourage us to trust in the midst of the uncertainty, since “there is no greater freedom than that of allowing oneself to be guided by the Holy Spirit, renouncing the attempt to plan and control everything to the last detail, and instead letting him enlighten, guide and direct us, leading us wherever he wills.”
Nicholas Austin SJ teaches theological ethics at Heythrop College. His new book, Aquinas on Virtue, will be published by Georgetown University Press later this year.