With his new apostolic exhortation, “Amoris Laetitia,” or “The Joy of Love,” Pope Francis affirms lives and heals wounds, even if his approach will produce confusion and conflict.
If people thought the pope might give clear direction for divorced and civilly remarried Roman Catholics seeking communion, they will be disappointed. Instead he speaks in honest and unexpected ways to a great many Catholic families who feel the church has become irrelevant to their lives.
He is critical of the church for too often advancing a rigid and unrealistic vision of married life. “We need a healthy dose of self-criticism,” he says, for having “proposed a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage,” one that is “removed” from the real world and has made marriage less “desirable and attractive.” Francis also points out obstacles to the vitality and happiness of families and married couples that come from inequality, individualism, materialism and technology.
But what’s really striking about “Amoris Laetitia” is the pope’s recurring focus on the shortcomings of the church in speaking to millions upon millions of Catholics who are not in church itself. This absence is due, in most cases, to indifference beyond idealized or overly technical marriage preparation culminating in a picturesque wedding day. But others feel cut adrift because of their sexual orientation, or because their divorce bars them from receiving the sacrament of communion.
With this exhortation, Francis calls for the church and its pastors to be more responsive and merciful in trying to engage these members of his flock.
Francis affirms church opposition to same-sex marriage, but he frames it with a far more candid realism than you might expect from a papal document: “We need to acknowledge the great variety of family situations.”
In the eighth chapter of the exhortation, the pope offers no hard and fast new rules on admitting divorced and remarried Catholics to the sacrament of communion. Instead, he challenges priests to discern, through prayerful reflection and dialogue, how best to include those who are divorced and seek to be included meaningfully in the universal life of the church. Undeniably, this will be interpreted by some as creating an opening for divorced Catholics to receive the sacrament of communion, but it need not.
He neither modifies fixed Catholic teachings nor demands that parish priests merely enforce the rules. Indeed Francis is empowering divorced Catholics and their pastors to have serious, mature conversations about communion. He is trusting that they will make prudent, responsible decisions instead of merely accepting or ignoring an authoritative ruling.
This is why the eighth chapter of this exhortation is going to create intellectual and theological divisions worldwide. Opposing sides will find ample evidence for their positions. But I don’t think Francis cares. I think he’s far more concerned with encouraging millions of Catholics to think again about what the church can offer them in their family life, and that starts with an honest appraisal of how much better the church can do.
Randy Boyagoda, a professor of American studies at Ryerson University in Toronto, is the author, most recently, of Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square.