Conferenza Stampa per la presentazione dell’Esortazione Apostolica post-sinodale del Santo Padre Francesco “Amoris laetitia”, sull’amore nella famiglia, 08.04.2016
THE evening of 13 March 2013, the first words of the newly-elected Pope Francis to the people gathered in St. Peter’s Square and throughout the world were: “Buona sera” - “Good evening”. The language and style of Pope Francis’ new text are as simple as this greeting. The Exhortation is not quite as brief as this simple salutation, but is similarly close to reality. In these 200 pages Pope Francis speaks about “love in the family”, and does so in such a concrete and simple way, with words that warm the heart like that good evening of 13 March 2013. This is his style, and it is his hope that aspects of life are spoken about in the most concrete way possible, especially with regard to the family, one of the most elementary realities of life.
It must be said that the documents of the Church often do not belong to one of the most accessible literary genres. This text of the Pope’s is readable, and those who are not dissuaded by its length will find joy in its concreteness and realism. Pope Francis speaks about families with a clarity that is not easy to find in the magisterial documents of the Church.
Before entering into the text itself I would like to say, in a very personal way, why I read it with joy, gratitude and always with strong emotion. In the ecclesial discourse on marriage and the family there is often a tendency, perhaps unconscious, to discuss these realities of life on the basis of two separate tracks. On the one hand there are marriages and families that are “regular”, that correspond to the rules, where everything is “fine” and “in order”, and then there are the “irregular” situations that represent a problem. Already the very term “irregular” suggests that such a distinction can be made very clearly.
Those, therefore, who find themselves on the side of the “irregular” families, must live with the fact that the “regular” families are on the other side. I am personally aware of how difficult that is for those who come from a “patchwork” family, due to the situation of my own family. The discourse of the Church in this regard may cause harm and can give the sensation of exclusion.
Pope Francis’ Exhortation is guided by the phrase “It is a matter of reaching out to everyone” (AL 297) as this is a fundamental understanding of the Gospel: we are all in need of mercy! “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone” (John 8, 7). We are all, regardless of the marriage or family situation in which we find ourselves, are journeying. Even a marriage in which everything is “going well” is journeying. It must grow, learn, and overcome new phases. It knows sin and failure, and needs reconciliation and new beginnings, even in old age (cf. AL 297).
Pope Francis has succeeded in speaking about all situations without cataloguing them, without categorising, with that outlook of fundamental benevolence that is associated with the heart of God, with the eyes of Jesus that exclude no-one (cf. AL 297), that welcome all and grant the “joy of the Gospel” to all. This is why reading Amoris Laetitia is so comforting. No-one must feel condemned, no-one is scorned. In this climate of welcome, the discourse on the Christian vision of marriage and the family becomes an invitation, an encouragement, to the joy of love in which we can believe and which excludes no-one, truly and sincerely no-one. For me Amoris Laetitia is, first and foremost, a “linguistic event”, as was Evangelii gaudium. Something has changed in ecclesial discourse. This change of language was already perceptible during the Synod process. Between the two Synods of October 2014 and October 2015, it may clearly be seen how the tone became richer in esteem, as if the different situations in life had simply been accepted, without being immediately judged or condemned. In Amoris Laetitia this tone of language continues. Before this there is obviously not only a linguistic choice, but rather a profound respect when faced with every person who is never firstly a “problematic case” in a “category”, but rather a unique person, with his story and his journey with and towards God. In Evangelii gaudium Pope Francis said that we must take of our shoes before the sacred ground of others (EG 36). This fundamental attitude runs throughout the Exhortation. And it is also provides the most profound reason for the other two key words, to discern and to accompany. These words apply not only to the so-called “irregular situation” (Pope Francis underlines this “so-called”) but rather for all people, for every marriage and for every family. Indeed, we are all journeying and we are all in need of “discernment” and “accompaniment”.
My great joy as a result of this document resides in the fact that it coherently overcomes that artificial, superficial, clear division between “regular” and “irregular”, and subjects everyone to the common call of the Gospel, according to the words of St. Paul: “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that He may have mercy on all” (Rom. 11, 32).
This pervasive principle of “inclusion” clearly troubles some people. Does this not favour relativism? Does the frequently evoked mercy not become permissiveness” Does there no longer exist the clarity of limits that must not be exceeded, situations that must objectively be defined as irregular or sinful? Does this Exhortation favour a certain laxity, a sense that “anything goes”? Is Jesus’ mercy not instead often severe and demanding?
To clarify thus: Pope Francis leaves no doubt regarding his intentions or our task:
“As Christians, we can hardly stop advocating marriage simply to avoid countering contemporary sensibilities, or out of a desire to be fashionable or a sense of helplessness in the face of human and moral failings. We would be depriving the world of values that we can and must offer. It is true that there is no sense in simply decrying present-day evils, as if this could change things. Nor it is helpful to try to impose rules by sheer authority. What we need is a more responsible and generous effort to present the reasons and motivations for choosing marriage and the family, and in this way to help men and women better to respond to the grace that God offers them.” (AL 35).
Pope Francis is convinced that the Christian vision of marriage and the family also has an unchanged force of attraction. But it demands “a healthy dose of self-criticism”: “We also need to be humble and realistic, acknowledging that at times the way we present our Christian beliefs and treat other people has helped contribute to today’s problematic situation” (AL 36). “We have also proposed a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families. This excessive idealization, especially when we have failed to inspire trust in God’s grace, has not helped to make marriage more desirable and attractive, but quite the opposite” (AL 36).
I would like to relate here an experience of last October’s Synod: as far as I know, two of the thirteen “circuli minores” started their work by first hearing an account from each participant of his own family situation. It soon emerged that almost all the bishops or other participants in the “circulus minor” had encountered, in their families, the themes, concerns and “irregularities” that we, in the Synod, have discussed in a rather too abstract way. Pope Francis invites us to speak about our own families “as they are”. And here the magnificent aspect of the Synod journey and of its continuation with Pope Francis: this sober realism of families “as they are” does not take us far at all from the ideal! On the contrary, Pope Francis succeeds, in the work of both Synods, to offer a positive outlook to families, profoundly rich in hope. But this encouraging outlook on families requires that “pastoral conversion” we find in Evangelii gaudium. The following text from Amoris Laetitia outlines this “pastoral conversion”:
“We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life. We find it difficult to present marriage more as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfilment than as a lifelong burden. We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them” (AL 37).
Pope Francis speaks of a profound trust in the hearts and the nostalgia of men. He expresses this very well in his reflection on education. Here we perceive the influence of the great Jesuit tradition in education in personal responsibility. He refers to two contrary dangers: “laissez-faire” and the obsession with controlling and dominating everything. On the one hand it is true that “Families cannot help but be places of support, guidance and direction, Vigilance is always necessary and neglect is never beneficial” (AL 260).
But vigilance can also become excessive: “Obsession, however, is not education. We cannot control every situation that a child may experience. … If parents are obsessed with always knowing where their children are and controlling all their movements, they will seek only to dominate space. But this is no way to educate, strengthen and prepare their children to face challenges. What is most important is the ability lovingly to help them grow in freedom, maturity, overall discipline and real autonomy” (AL 261). I consider this thought on education very enlightening in connection with the pastoral practice of the Church. Indeed, precisely in this sense Pope Francis often returns to the issue of trust in the conscience of the faithful: “We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them” (AL 37). The great question, obviously, is this: how do we form consciences? How do we arrive at what is the key concept of all this great document, the key to correctly understanding Pope Francis’ intentions: “personal discernment”, especially in difficult and complex situations? “Discernment” is a central concept in Ignatian exercises. Indeed, these must help to discern the will of God in the concrete situations of life. It is discernment that grants a person a mature character, and the Christian path should be of help in reaching this personal maturity: not forming automatons, externally conditioned and remote-controlled, but people who have matured in their friendship with Christ. Only when this personal “discernment” is mature is it also possible to arrive at “pastoral discernment”; which is important especially in “those situations that fall short of what the Lord demands of us” (AL 6). The eighth chapter refers to this “pastoral discernment”, a chapter likely to be of great interest not only to ecclesial public opinion, but also to the media.
I should however mention that Pope Francis has described Chapters 4 and 5 as central, not only in terms of their position but also their content. “we cannot encourage a path of fidelity and mutual self-giving without encouraging the growth, strengthening and deepening of conjugal and family love” (AL 89). These two central chapters of Amoris Laetitia will probably be skipped by many people keen to arrive at the so-called “hot potatoes”, the critical points. As a pedagogic expert, Pope Francis knows well that nothing attracts and motivates as strongly as the positive experience of love. “Speaking of love” (AL 89) . this clearly brings great joy to Pope Francis, and he speaks about love with great vivacity, comprehensibility and empathy. The fourth chapter is a broad-ranging comment on the “Hymn to charity” in the thirteenth chapter of the First Letter to the Corinthians. I recommend meditation on these pages to all. They encourage belief in love (cf. John 4, 16) and trust in its strength. It is here that growth, another key word in Amoris Laetitia, finds its main location: in no other place does it manifest itself so clearly, but it can also turn cold. I can only invite you to read and enjoy this wonderful chapter. I think it is important to indicate one aspect: Pope Francis speaks here, with rare clarity, of the role of the passions, passions, emotion, eros and sexuality in married and family life. It is not by chance that Pope Francis reconnects here with St. Thomas Aquinas, who attributes an important role to the passions, while modern society, often puritanical, has discredited or neglected them.
It is here that the title of the Pope’s exhortation finds its fullest expression: “Amoris Laetitia!” Here we understand how it is possible to “discover the dignity and beauty of marriage” (AL 205). But here it is made painfully visible how much harm wounds to love can cause, and how lacerating the experience of a failed relationship can be. Therefore it is unsurprising that it is largely the eighth chapter that has attracted attention and interest. Indeed, the question of how the Church treats these wounds, of how she treats the failure of love, has become for many a test question to understand whether the Church is truly the place where God’s Mercy can be experienced.
This chapter owes much to the intense work of the two Synods, to the extensive discussions in the arenas of public and ecclesial opinion. Here the fruitfulness of Pope Francis’ method is shown. He expressly wished for an open discussion on the pastoral accompaniment of complex situations, and has been able to fully base this on the two texts that the two Synods presented to him to show the possibility of “accompanying, discerning and integrating weakness” (AL 291).
Pope Francis explicitly makes his own the declarations that both Synods presented to him: “the Synod Fathers reached a general consensus, which I support” (AL 297). With regard to those who are divorced and civilly remarried, he states: “I am in agreement with the many Synod Fathers who observed that … the logic of integration is the key to their pastoral care. … Such persons need to feel not as excommunicated members of the Church, but instead as living members, able to live and grow in the Church and experience her as a mother who welcomes them always…” (AL 299).
How this personal and pastoral discernment can and should be is the theme of the entire section of Amoris Laetitia constituted of paragraphs 300-312. In the 2015 Synod, in the Appendix to the statements by the Circulus germanicus an Itinerarium of discernment, of the examination of conscience that Pope Francis has made his own.
“What we are speaking of is a process of accompaniment and discernment which “guides the faithful to an awareness of their situation before God”. But Pope Francis also recalls that “this discernment can never prescind from the Gospel demands of truth and charity, as proposed by the Church”.
Naturally this poses the question: what does the Pope say in relation to access to the sacraments for people who live in “irregular” situations? Pope Benedict had already said that “easy recipes” do not exist (AL 298, note 333). Pope Francis reiterates the need to discern carefully the situation, in keeping with St. John Paul II’s Familiaris consortio (84) (AL 298). “Discernment must help to find possible ways of responding to God and growing in the midst of limits. By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth, and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God” (AL 205). He also reminds us of an important phrase from Evangelii gaudium, 44: “A small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties” (AL 304).
Is it an excessive challenge for pastors, for spiritual guides and for communities if the “discernment of situations” is not regulated more precisely? Pope Francis acknowledges this concern: “I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion” (AL 308). However, he challenges this, remarking that “We put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance. That is the worst way of watering down the Gospel” (AL 311).
Pope Francis trusts in the “joy of love”. Love is able to find the way. It is the compass that shows us the road. It is both the goal and the path itself, because God is love and love is from God. Nothing is more demanding than love. It cannot be obtained cheaply. Therefore, no-one should be afraid that Pope Francis invites us, with Amoris Laetitia, to take too easy a path. The road is not an easy one, but it is full of joy!
[00532-EN.02] [Original text: Italian - working translation]
DEACON JIM RUSSELL
April 18 2016
The aftershocks continue after the ground-shaking April 8 release of Pope Francis’ post-synodal apostolic exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia. Extreme reactions vary from “we don’t have to talk about sin any more” and “conscience trumps everything” and “Communion for everybody” and “now we can contracept” all the way to “Francis is a heretic and a pernicious liar” to “the Pope just shot us in the back” to “how dare you defend the pretender Bergoglio.”
All because, after two wild and wooly synods on the family, Pope Francis brought us all the way to the very edge of making a decision between the synod’s two conflicting episcopal views on Communion for the divorced and remarried (and not annulled)—and left all of us hanging.
Why? Is pushing the panic button now justified on both sides of that issue? Not so fast, folks.
What’s Up With Pope Francis
Late last year, as the World Meeting of Families and the Synod concluded, I had occasion to give a talk on both important events. At that time, I pointed to a strong parallel that exists between those who once spoke of the Second Vatican Council as two things—a “council of the media” and “a council of the Fathers.”
It struck me that this precise thing was happening to the two synods on the family. The “synod of the media” was all about the hot-button issues, with the top issue being Communion for divorced/remarried (not-annulled) Catholic. The real and all-important question was, and remains, what is the “synod of the Father”—the Holy Father—really focused on? With such a range of views and proposals emanating from two confusing synod processes, all of which has no official standing whatsoever, in terms of affecting the Church directly, what would the official conclusion—Pope Francis’ post-synodal apostolic exhortation—reveal to us?
Well, the “synod of the media” was also the only synod encountered by many of the faithful. So, on April 8, the reception of Amoris Laetitia naturally continued to feed the erroneous view that this document would ultimately be all about resolving the media’s and many Catholics’ fixation on the question of Communion.
And, of course, the exhortation, it turns out, wasn’t about that. At all. How frustrating for so many to have their expectations derailed, one way or the other. The synod of the Holy Father, it turns out, was different from the “synod of the media.” All the same, “interpretations” of the text came hurtling forth from all forms of armchair experts, such that the synod of the media continues to push aside Francis’ authentic voice and intention for his exhortation.
A Form of Ecclesial
A political term comes to mind regarding how Pope Francis has navigated his way through the last two or more years of the synods and his final text—brinkmanship. Webster’s would define the term as “the practice of causing or allowing a situation to become extremely dangerous in order to get the results that you want.” Perhaps that’s not a bad description of what we have seen. I would assert that Francis has, all the while, deliberately left unresolved this crucial question of the “synod of the media” precisely so that he can continue to resolutely point the Church toward his synod, so to speak.
This will, of course leave a huge number of Catholics of every ideological stripe greatly disappointed. But remember, this is the pope of “the mess”—getting out into the streets and into the mess in order to proclaim the Kingdom through personal encounter. Also remember the Fourth Commandment—please! I have seen so many violations of the Fourth Commandment in the comments of those who are wrapped up in the view that Pope Francis is harming the Church that they throw him completely under the bus and show his office as Vicar of Jesus Christ no respect whatever. We must continue to honor our father, fellow Catholics, even if we disagree.
But, one might continue, respectfully, to disagree and say that the Pope’s “brinkmanship” on the question of Communion for the divorced-remarried (not-annulled) is wreaking havoc in both directions. Isn’t all this ambiguity really bad?
I’m not convinced it is.
Evidence of the Holy Spirit
One side note in all this is that “brinkmanship” is not necessarily a new phenomenon when it comes to the papacy. Indeed, it’s precisely the kind of thing one would expect to see in the office of the Papacy if it is really exercised under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Who protects the Pope and the Church against universally teaching error in faith and morals. So, let’s assume for a moment that the “worst-case-scenario” here is true, taking the reactionary view that Pope Francis is totally dedicated to undermining the Church’s understanding of the crucial importance of worthily receiving Communion in a state of grace.
If this were true, and if he had the courage of his convictions, he could just teach what he believes is true. After all, to whom does he answer?
Well, to God, of course. To the Holy Spirit. Even in this worst case, guess what? A pope would indeed be somehow prevented from universally and formally teaching error. “Brinkmanship” is exactly as far as a Pope could ever go with this kind of error before running squarely into the Holy Spirit.
The Schonborn Effect
Yet, I don’t find the reactionary view of Francis persuasive at all, so even though it’s deeply important that Amoris Laetitia does not universally teach any error, I’ve been continuing to look for additional clues regarding the Holy Father’s “synod.” He gave us an absolutely vital clue during his recently concluded press conference on the papal plane returning this past weekend from Greece to Rome.
Right on cue, the “synod of the media” was front and center as a reporter asked:
For a Catholic who wants to know: are there new, concrete possibilities that didn’t exist before the publication of the exhortation or not?
Pope Francis replied:
I can say yes, many. But it would be an answer that is too small. I recommend that you read the presentation of Cardinal Schonborn, who is a great theologian. He was the secretary for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, and he knows the doctrine of the faith well. In that presentation, your question will find an answer.
This means we have to examine closely what Cardinal Schonborn said in his introduction of the papal exhortation.
What Did Cardinal Schonborn
There are several takeaways I wish to point out (paraphrased for the sake of brevity) from Cardinal Schonborn’s intervention that help us understand what Pope Francis intends:
1. Francis is seeking to view both “regular” and “irregular” situations in marriage and family life with the eyes of Christ—eyes that acknowledge the truth of each situation while always welcoming and encouraging the persons to experience the “joy of love.”
2. All persons are neither “cases” nor “categories” but are the subjects of “discernment” and “accompaniment”—tasks required of the Church for all persons regardless of whether their circumstances are “irregular” or not.
3. “Only when this personal ‘discernment’ is mature is it also possible to arrive at ‘pastoral discernment,’” Schonborn says, “which is important especially in ‘those situations that fall short of what the Lord demands of us’ (AL 6).” (And this is where the all-important “eighth chapter” comes in, a chapter that won’t make sense in the absence of mature personal discernment.)
4. Schonborn clearly states that this kind of discernment and accompaniment is “the key to correctly understanding Pope Francis’ intentions.”
5. Yet, Schonborn also says that Chapter Eight is not what the Pope thinks is central. Rather, Schonborn says, “I should however mention that Pope Francis has described Chapters 4 and 5 as central, not only in terms of their position but also their content.” (These chapters are respectively titled “Love in Marriage” and “Love Made Fruitful.”)
6. Regarding the vexing-for-some Chapter Eight, Schonborn says: “What we are speaking of is a process of accompaniment and discernment which ‘guides the faithful to an awareness of their situation before God.’ But Pope Francis also recalls that ‘this discernment can never prescind from the Gospel demands of truth and charity, as proposed by the Church.’” He says the Pope “mentions two erroneous positions”: one of “excessive rigor” and the other of neglecting the “full ideal of marriage.”
7. Importantly, Schonborn explains what the Pope is thinking regarding “access to the sacraments for people who live in ‘irregular’ situations”: “Pope Benedict had already said that ‘easy recipes’ do not exist (AL 298, note 333). Pope Francis reiterates the need to discern carefully the situation, in keeping with St. John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio (84) (AL 298). ‘Discernment must help to find possible ways of responding to God and growing in the midst of limits. By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth, and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God’ ” (AL 305).
8. Finally, the cardinal states: “In the sense of this ‘via caritatis’ (AL 306), the Pope affirms, in a humble and simple manner, in a note (351) that the help of the sacraments may also be given ‘in certain cases.’ “
Readers, did you notice that Schonborn clearly states that Francis intends all this “discernment” to be in keeping with Familiaris Consortio and its paragraph 84—the precise paragraph in which we read: “However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried”?
And did you notice that the Holy Father himself says in the exhortation (AL 305) that this discernment is supposed to help find ways of spiritual growth “in the midst of limits”? What limits? One “limit” particularly comes to mind, doesn’t it?
That footnote should now make a bit more sense, shouldn’t it? The kind of help he wants all to receive is what Francis is focusing on in the main text. The footnote is there to help make clear that the kind of help everyone else seems to want to focus on—specifically sacramental help, like Communion for the divorce-remarried-not-annulled—may apply but only “in certain cases.”
Francis then intentionally avoids giving examples of these cases in the footnote. Why? He’s not interested in changing lenses at this point. He’s still looking at all of us, “regular” or “irregular,” with the loving and welcoming eyes of Jesus Christ.
Choosing Not to Decide
If you’ve read this far and still remain skeptical, then let’s return once again to Pope Francis’ weekend plane presser. Another reporter entrenched in the “synod of the media” asked him another question about this footnote (351), which elicited this incredibly revealing response from the Pontiff:
One of the recent popes, speaking of the Council, said that there were two councils: the Second Vatican Council in the Basilica of St. Peter, and the other, the council of the media. When I convoked the first synod, the great concern of the majority of the media was communion for the divorced and remarried, and, since I am not a saint, this bothered me, and then made me sad. Because, thinking of those media who said, this, this and that, do you not realize that that is not the important problem? Don’t you realize that instead the family throughout the world is in crisis? Don’t we realize that the falling birth rate in Europe is enough to make one cry? And the family is the basis of society. Do you not realize that the youth don’t want to marry? Don’t you realize that the fall of the birth rate in Europe is to cry about? Don’t you realize that the lack of work or the little work (available) means that a mother has to get two jobs and the children grow up alone? These are the big problems.
Here in the Pope’s own words I have found affirmation of my intuition from last year—the “two councils” image was just appropriated by Francis himself. Here at long last is a way to make sense of all the documentary evidence. Here is a wise father who is choosing not to decide anything new about a question he thinks is “too small.” He is not going to let either his own bishops or the media distract him from “the synod of the Holy Father,” which is so much richer and broader and deeper than the narrower question of Communion, which in Francis’ own words “is not the important problem.”
In not deciding, Pope Francis leaves in place everything about that issue that has been previously taught and practiced by the Church. So, living as husband and wife and having sexual relations in an adulterous union will continue to result in those persons being prohibited from receiving Communion—how could it not, since Canon Law and Church discipline prior to Amoris Laetitiae remains identical more than a week later?
But Francis, like a loving father, is exhorting us—literally—to not let “his synod” be reduced to such a small question in the midst of the immense work we need to do on all the other problems. This work can only be done by seeing through Pope Francis’ eyes, not ours.
And how can the Church’s sons and daughters fail to respond to his selfless example? He’s merely showing us how to love each other as Christ loves us.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is Cardinal Schonborn who introduced Amoris Laetitiato the public at a press conference on April 8 in Rome. (Photo credit: Daniel Ibáñez / ACI Prensa)
Α Big Heart