1. Frank Senn

    The Synod of Bishops on the Family has met and adjourned without any definitive statement. The final document was a compromise intended to gain the support of traditionalists and progressives. There are no doctrinal changes regarding marriage; none were expected. But it opens up the possibilities of more creative pastoral care for divorced Catholics who remarried without an annulment, and for ministry to gay members of the Church, whose dignity should be respected. Catholic interpreters say that this vagueness should open the door for Pope Francis to issue guidelines to provide greater pastoral flexibility.

    • Frank Senn

      The pope has now delivered his new apostolic exhortation, titled Amoris Laetitia (‘The Joy of Love’). The title indicates the positive tone of the document. As expected, the pope strongly advocates for the worth of the traditional, life-long Christian marriage but speaks respectfully of nearly all models of family life.

      He also persistently asks the church’s pastors to shift away from models of teaching focused on repetition of doctrine in favor of compassion and understanding for peoples’ struggles, and how God may be calling to them in the depths of their own consciences. In one great line he says, “The Church is called to form consciences, not replace them.”

      He calls for discernment rather than judgment in sorting out “irregular relationships”. “It … can no longer simply be said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace.” This will make the admission of divorced and remarried Catholics to the sacrament of Holy Communion a matter to be discerned locally rather than the blanket application of a universal canon law.

      Amoris Laetitia does not specifically discuss welcoming gays and lesbians into the life of the Church, although this had been broadly affirmed in the Synod on the Family and Francis reiterates that homosexuals are to be treated with dignity. But the pope does say that “The Church makes her own the attitude of the Lord Jesus, who offers his boundless love to each person without exception.” In point 52 Francis argues that there’s a need “to acknowledge the great variety of family situations that can offer a certain stability, but de facto or same-sex unions, for example, may not simply be equated with marriage” — marriage understood in Catholic doctrine as a conjugal relationship biologically geared toward procreation. But it seems to me that there is a recognition here that same-sex unions “can offer a certain stability” that’s good for society.

      It’s a long document that tries to hold together unchanging doctrine and changing social circumstances. It remains to be seen whether bishops and pastors will be able to hold these two things together as deftly as the pope has.

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