Friday’s exhortation will be a landmark in Church’s ‘pastoral conversion’

Amoris-laetitia-574x493[Austen Ivereigh] Bearing the simple, uplifting title of ‘the Joy of Love’, Pope Francis’s eagerly awaited post-synodal apostolic exhortation on marriage and the family will be released on Friday, bearing the signature date of 19 March, the Feast of St Joseph, protector of the family, which was also the third anniversary of the inauguration of this pontificate.

Amoris Laetitia, which has the subtitle ‘On Love in the Family’, marks the conclusion of the most significant church discernment process since Vatican II. It is also a start, unleashing a bold new pastoral strategy in response to the collapse of the meaning of marriage in the culture and law of much of the world.

The document is long, possibly 200 pages, the fruit of a worldwide consultation of the faithful, two synods of bishops, a year-long catechesis on the family, as well as reforms to the canon law on annulment. Because the process has been so lengthy and at times so turbulent, there is a heightened sense of expectation in both the Church and the media. Many sense great changes afoot.

I have had no sight of it. But there are certain themes that it is safe to predict both from what Pope Francis and his collaborators have said, and from the synod itself, which came together in the end in ways that the Pope recognised as being proof of the Holy Spirit at work. The final document, deeply pastoral as Francis hoped, set a new direction for the Church’s response to the crisis in the family which the exhortation will endorse and define.

Despite the noise and fears offstage, what the document will not do is dilute or diminish church doctrine on the meaning of marriage as intended to be a lifelong union between a man and a woman, open to life, a vehicle of God’s grace, and the cornerstone of the family, the health of which is a matter of vital importance to both Church and society.

Amoris Laetitia comes not to alter Jesus’s clear teaching on marriage but boldly to bolster it in testing times. It will be a powerful, lyrical hymn to married love and family life, one that, like his other teaching documents, Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato Si, will appeal as much to the heart as to the head.

In its teaching, Amoris Laetitia will not contradict but will be in continuity with the two great papal documents related to marriage and family in the modern era: Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae in 1968 and St John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio of 1980, which was also a post-synodal exhortation.

A new attitude

But Francis’s document will be different in its style and its approach. Its primary objective will not be a defence of the truth about marriage and family (that truth will be acknowledged and assumed) but about enabling the Church better to help people to live that truth in circumstances that conspire against them.

It will lay out a pastoral strategy for the Church to reinvigorate the family by coming alongside people in their struggles and their poverty. For some, that poverty is of a lack of economic and social means (not just in developing countries but among young people forced to pay skyrocketing rents in rich cities); for others, it is the poverty induced by relativism or the experience of divorce. The document will perceive the social fragmentation brought about by the collapse of marriage as setting humanity on course for disaster.

Amoris Laetitia, in short, will not take refuge in finger-wagging idealism, but start from social realities, reading the signs of the times. The Pope will look out on a world of solitude and lament a lack of love; he will see everywhere marriage and family under huge strain. He will declare, as it were, a state of emergency, an SOS for humanity, and will summon the Church to the mission of rebuilding the family from below.

Amoris Laetitia will do for the human family what Laudato Si sought to do for the planet —  plot a path to ecological recovery that begins with a conversion of minds and hearts. Just as Laudato Si hears “the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” , so Amoris Laetitia will hear the cries of those most afflicted by family breakdown — above all the children who are its primary victims. Amoris Laetitia will pull no punches in inviting the world to take stock of the damage done.

The interpretive key for reading the document will be, precisely, the mercy the Pope has spoken of so often in the Jubilee: a mercy that looks for endless opportunities for a fresh start, a mercy that converts and enables conversion; a mercy that is not about standing outside in condemnation, but which is willing to enter into the darkness and chaos of contemporary society to chart a way back.

Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna, who will present the document Friday

Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna, who will present the document Friday

The key phrase here is one often used by Francis from the 2007 Aparecida meeting of the Latin-American Church: “pastoral conversion.” As Christoph Schönborn, the cardinal archbishop of Vienna, who will be presenting the document to journalists on Friday, put it in his interview with Fr Antonio Spadaro SJ last year:

Pope Francis calls each one of us pastors to a true pastoral conversion.  In the final discourse of the Synod, he well summarized what he meant when he said that the experience of the Synod is an experience of Church, of one, holy, catholic, apostolic Church and composed of sinners, needy of her mercy.  It is the Church that is not afraid to eat and drink with the prostitutes and the publicans.  The Pope perfectly expresses the balance that must characterize this pastoral conversion.  At the end of his discourse, all spontaneously stood up and there was a unanimous and intense applause.  Everyone had the perception that it was the Pope, Peter, speaking.

Rebuilding family from below

A  Church unafraid to eat and drink with prostitutes and publicans is a Church that understands the pressures they are under, the errors they make, the environment that surrounds them.

synod line up cardinals Day1A
That environment is increasingly bleak. The loss of the meaning of marriage in western culture — a tide noted in Familiaris Consortio, which sought to build a bulwark against it — is now so complete that the Church must start from elsewhere. The Church cannot build a wall against cohabitation and divorce; it is a reality in every Catholic family, every pew.

Nor can the Church continue with an “elite” strategy of seeking to convince lawmakers and opinion formers: those elites, across the western world, now regard the Church’s understanding of marriage as backward or discriminatory.

Nor can the Church continue to assume that people (including Catholics) grasp the  meaning of marriage, for the impact of divorce has been so great that each new generation is less capable than the previous one of knowing what marriage really is. Put simply, the Church cannot continue along a path in which it ends up annulling more and more marriages that should never have been entered into in the first place.

There are two major implications of this change of paradigm. The first is that the Church must now teach what marriage means — first to its own, and then society. It has a major mission now ad intra and ad extra.

Second, it needs to recognize that the high levels of divorce in western countries (Belgium and Portugal have some of the highest rates in the world, despite being Catholic countries) must seriously put in question the validity of many or most marriages. Jesus’s teaching that what God has put together no man can untie is not in question. What is in question is whether God has really put together marriages where the couples entering them lack the knowledge, the capacity, and the determination of the will to achieve the Catholic understanding of marriage.

One major area of the document, therefore, will focus on the preparation for marriage as a call from God that needs to be discerned and prayed over, requiring spiritual guidance and catechesis. The synod final report calls for a “broadening of the themes in pre-marriage courses, such that they become pathways of education in faith and love, integrated into the courses in Christian initiation” and says formation in love and marriage “needs to take on the shape of a pathway geared to the vocational discernment”.

Pope Francis has often spoken of the inadequacy of a few hours’ talks — the usual “marriage prep” — in responding to the powerful messages from media and the culture. If the Pope endorses the synod’s calls for what will be, in effect, a pathway of Christian initiation for fiancés, there will be major consequences.

First, it will require a major mobilisation of resources, raising serious questions about capacity. Secondly, if such preparation becomes a prerequisite for the validity of marriage, will priests be able to refuse Catholics who want to marry without it?

Francis is likely to want to go even further, to making the preparation of couples a key mission of the contemporary Catholic Church in society. That will require a major change in parish culture, one much more geared to creating and supporting meaningful bonds between people. Parishes will be called on, for example, to arrange for the pastoral accompaniment of young couples in the first years of their marriage, inviting them to take part in prayer groups and parish meetings to overcome the tendency to isolation that often follows the wedding.

All such initiatives in the document will illustrate Francis’s attempt to move the Church from lamenting to enabling, as he urged the US bishops to do in Philadelphia.

‘Marriage prep’ may not dominate Saturday’s headline reports on the exhortation, but it is likely to be the part of the document that unleashes the most far-reaching changes.

A Church of second chances

“Pastoral conversion” also means making it easier for people to access the goods of the Church — parish life, liturgies and sacraments, prayer, formation, and so on. Aware that failure in marriage produces guilt and shame, and causes people (and therefore their children) to stay away from church, Pope Francis has been at constant pains to stress that no one should ever feel excluded or judged, and that the Church is not in the business of condemning anyone, but of bringing them to an encounter with God’s mercy.

This is a message that will be triple-underlined in Amoris Laetitia, which may well have harsh words for pastors and parishes that view the divorced and remarried as a threat from which the Christian community must be protected.

President Macri and family

President Mauricio Macri and family

Francis has led by example here, by changing the protocol rules for state visits. If a Catholic head of state is in an irregular union (married again without an annulment, for example), he or she can now meet the Pope accompanied by the new partner, who can be in the official visit photo. (The new rules came into effect when Argentina’s new president visited Pope Francis with his third wife last month).

The policy of inclusion does not erode or undermine the Church’s doctrine on marriage indissolubility, but treats all people involved with warmth and respect.

In the same way, when the Church seeks to include and integrate the divorced and remarried it does not renounce the doctrine of indissolubility. But it makes it easier for those who in their hearts know they have failed and want to be at rights with God and the Church to examine their conscience and face up to what needs to be forgiven and healed, and the steps that need to be taken to be fully integrated.

That is why Amoris Laetitia is almost certain to endorse the internal forum discernment pathway proposed by the synod.

Retaining the communion rules — but opening the gate in some cases

Integrating the excluded is about facilitating conversion. But this does not mean changing the rules on Communion.

In an answer to a question about divorced and remarried couples, Pope Francis during his return flight from Mexico praised the example of a couple he heard from in Tuxtla Gutiérrez on February 15. Humberto and Claudia Gómez, who have been civilly married for 16 years, cannot receive the Eucharist, but can be in communion in other ways, performing acts of mercy and involving themselves in the life of the Church. “All doors are open, but we cannot say that these people can take Communion,” Francis told journalists.

Because the objective here is conversion, admitting people to Communion without requiring that conversion is to prevent God’s grace, and cheapen salvation.

That is why the normal path back to the Sacraments will remain the annulment process, which examines the conditions existing at marriage and allows the parties to face the truth about their marriage contract. Pope Francis has made the annulment process simpler and easier (see CV Comment here and here), and the exhortation will spell out and clarify further the reasons for this.

But there will always be cases where the judicial path is pastorally inappropriate or for practical reasons impossible, and it is likely that the exhortation will introduce some freedom for bishops to re-admit people to the Eucharist in rare cases where there is a demonstrable turnaround in a person’s life. This has been the position of Cardinal Schönborn, and it is unlikely the Pope will have asked him to present a document that rejected that position.

Fr Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher to the papal household

Fr Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher to the papal household

Amoris Laetitia could well introduce a further canonical reform. In his book The Gaze of Mercy, the preacher to the papal household, Fr Raniero Cantalamessa, says that to refuse the divorced and remarried Communion “in every case, even when they are repentant and have resolved to follow a path of reintegration into the community, means saying to them that they are in a state of mortal sin, that is, objectively separated from God”. He then cites the so-called “Pauline privilege” in canon law, in which remarriage is allowed for people who become believers if a spouse refuses to follow the other person in that decision.

“Should we not allow the same thing for a person who has had a true and profound conversion to Christ and then cannot live with the first spouse?” asks Fr Cantalamessa.

Whether the Pope comes up with a change to canon law or simply grants greater pastoral latitude to pastors to re-admit to the Eucharist in rare circumstances, or both, some change is likely here — but only if it reflects a radical conversion in a person’s life which the Church, seeing God’s grace at work, recognizes.

Spinning the exhortation

Card Baldisseri with pope Francis

Card Baldisseri with pope Francis

A letter sent to the world’s bishops in advance of the document has been written by the synod’s secretary-general, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, who will present the exhortation alongside Cardinal Schönborn on Friday.

In it, Baldisseri suggests that the Pope will be seeking to express himself in everyday language. In talking of the family, “the problem is not that of changing doctrine but of inculturating general principles so that they can be understood and practised,” says Baldisseri, who adds: “Our language must encourage and comfort every step taken by every real family.”

He goes on to mention two other “keys” to reading the document: discernment and dialogue. The first implies that the truth has to be discerned not just in the objective truth, but also in peoples’ lives; the second demands entering into a conversation with contemporary society.

Although it will have implications for law, Amoris Laetitia is not a legal document, laying down a new prescription; nor is it a doctrinal document, defining some article of faith or condemning errors. The headlines will give the impression that it is all about both — law and doctrine. But it will be, in fact, a pastoral document, seeking a pastoral conversion in the Church, in order to enable people more easily to convert to and live the Christian life.

Its aim will be nothing less than the recovery of the ecology of the family founded on a covenant that mirrors God’s unshakeable commitment to humanity.

[Hear Austen Ivereigh discuss the exhortation on BBC Radio 4 Sunday here]

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