Last year a synod of bishops from all over the world met in Rome to discuss issues of marriage and the family, in two separate sessions several months apart. Pope Francis I, who convoked the gathering, urged the assembled bishops to speak freely. They certainly did. Conservative and progressive views were forcibly expressed, not always in amicable tones. The Pope himself intervened sparingly, though he hinted that he favored a liberalizing course on some of the issues. Both sessions issued final reports, which mostly summarized the debates, without formulating joint conclusions. The Pope was to have the final word, possibly in his infallible voice (since matters of faith and morals were involved, where infallibility is supposed to apply). Well, that is not quite what finally happened.
On April 8, 2016, Francis dropped the other shoe. I first read about it in a full news story in The New York Times on the next day (starting on page 1, no less). I then went to get the full English text from the Internet. The title of the document is Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”), subtitled as “An Apostolic Exhortation”. The NYT story (with a byline from Rome by the newspaper’s very savvy religion expert Laurie Goodstein) already featured an array of early comments by influential Catholics. A rather telling comment came from James Martin, an editor of the Jesuit periodical America: “A quietly revolutionary document”; I think more quiet than revolutionary, at least in the short run. There were disappointed reactions from both the Right and the Left, and for the same reason: The Pope did not come out unambiguously on either side. That was predictable (and I did predict it, commenting on what to expect from Francis early in his pontificate): The Pope, except when he explicitly speaks ex cathedra, is not an autocrat. He can teach, “exhort”, even authoritatively, but not with the authority that comes from the beliefthat the Holy Spirit would not allow utter error to be infallibly proclaimed by Christ’s vicar on earth. (Luckily for the conscience of Catholics—as far as I know, infallibility has been unambiguously claimed for papal statements only three times since the doctrine was formulated at the First Vatican Council in the 1860s)
There are some issues that commanded much attention during last year’s synod on which a non-Catholic is likely to have neither an opinion nor an interest—such as the issue whether couples who were married sacramentally, and who subsequently divorced without the earlier marriage having been annulled, should be admitted to communion. I am not a Catholic nor tempted to become one—as they say in Texas, “I have no dog in this fight”—though I am a decidedly friendly observer. As such I would say that I consider Amoris Laetitia a splendid, even poetic invocation of the human wonder of family life, of the love of spouses, and between parents and children.
In this document Francis applies his previously stated view of the collegiality between the Pope and all bishops, and of the primacy of pastoral concern over the rigid application of doctrine. Thus on many issues (such as the one just mentioned) he leaves the decision to local bishops (who know the particular cultural and social context of the issue), and beyond that to priests (who know the circumstances of the human beings, adults and especially children, whose lives are affected). He could not be clearer about his reluctance to intervene in every case: “I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium” (that is, the authoritative teaching of the Church). An image suggests itself: The infallible voice that will not speak. There used to be a Catholic principle: Roma locuta, causa finita—“Rome has spoken, the matter is finished”. The old principle is considerably relativized if Rome is reluctant to speak.
There is an interesting theological aspect to Francis’exposition of marital love: “The couple that loves and begets life is a true, living icon”—revealing something about the inner life of God, specifically about relations of love within the Trinity and pouring out of it. The human beings animating the icon of the Trinity include spouses, parents and children. Francis holds up familial “tenderness” against “our world of frenetic and superficial relationships”.
It is on the basis of this iconic view of the family (which centrally includes the “begetting” of children) Francis very clearly states that “marriage is totally different from any same-sex partnership”. I would make two points here: First, the view that a same-sex partnership is not the same as marriage is not to take back what Francis had said spontaneously on earlier occasions, that same-sex relationships could be humanly admirable, even if “irregular”. Second, what Francis says about the distinctiveness of marriage in the creation of life does not necessarily imply the present Catholic position in contraception.
On the matter of divorced Catholics receiving communion, the document does not directly recommend it. But it comes pretty close: “It is important that the divorced who have entered a new union should be made to feel part of the Church. They are not excommunicated and they should not be treated as such.” (my italics) Note: Francis does not deny the traditional Catholic position about the indissolubility of marriage. Marriage entails a permanent commitment. But sometimes separation is morally necessary. The text here shows remarkable sensitivity to the needs of children, as when it urges that divorced parents should speak well of each other before the children.
To make doubly sure that the rejection of same-sex marriage (though not of same sex partnerships across the board) is clear, the document repeats it a second time with even stronger language: “There are no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.” Interestingly, in the same part of the document there is a condemnation of international pressures on poor countries to establish same-sex “marriage”. (This is clearly directed against the Obama administration which has increasingly made the whole LGBT agenda a part of US human rights policy—as no doubt a Hillary Clinton administration would.)
One of the very positive statements about Amor Laetitia was made by Christoph Schoenborn, the Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna: “The Pope’s message is that God’s mercy applies to all. No one must feel condemned, no one is scorned.” (This of course is not a statement of overall moral relativism. It is made in the context of trying to erase the distinction between “regular” and “irregular” families.) Cardinal Schoenborn evidently practices what he preaches. A few years ago the following incident was reported in a German-language Catholic publication: Somewhere in the Austrian provinces a bishop removed a man from serving on a local parish council because he lived with a male partner in denial of Catholic morality. Schoenborn invited both men to lunch in the archepiscopal residence in Vienna (an elegant palace next to St. Stephen’s Cathedral in the center of the city). He spent two hours in conversation with them, then issued a statement that he was convinced of the good Catholic faith and moral seriousness of the man who had been removed from the parish council. He then ordered the bishop to reinstate the man to his position on the parish council.
Whatever one may think Pope Francis’ other views (for example on the economy or the environment), and of Catholic social teaching in general, Amoris Laetitia takes positions that morally reflective individuals of any or no faith may find plausible. It is in fact an extended exegesis of one of the most famous New Testament texts, John 4:16: “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.”