Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia
THE Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia completes the reflection on the family conducted by the Synods of 2014 and 2015, a reflection that engaged the entire world.
In issuing Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis once again calls the Church to renew and intensify the Christian missionary proclamation of God's mercy, while presenting more persuasively the Church's teaching about the nature of the family and the Sacrament of Matrimony. Amoris Laetitia has sections of exceptional beauty and usefulness on the nature of family life and marital love. Over the next year (2016-17), these will be a key resource in revising and upgrading our Archdiocese of Philadelphia marriage preparation programs.
In all of this the Holy Father, in union with the whole Church, hopes to strengthen existing families, and to reach out to those whose marriages have failed, including those alienated from the life of the Church.
Amoris Laetitia therefore calls for a sensitive accompaniment of those with an imperfect grasp of Christian teaching on marriage and family life, who may not be living in accord with Catholic belief, and yet desire to be more fully integrated into Church life, including the Sacraments of Penance and Eucharist.
The Holy Father's statements build on the classic Catholic understanding, key to moral theology, of the relationship between objective truth about right and wrong — for example, the truth about marriage revealed by Jesus himself — and how the individual person grasps and applies that truth to particular situations in his or her judgment of conscience. Catholic teaching makes clear that the subjective conscience of the individual can never be set against objective moral truth, as if conscience and truth were two competing principles for moral decision-making.
As St. John Paul II wrote, such a view would "pose a challenge to the very identity of the moral conscience in relation to human freedom and God's law.... Conscience is not an independent and exclusive capacity to decide what is good and what is evil" (Veritatis Splendor 56,
60). Rather, "conscience is the application of the law to a particular case" (Veritatis Splendor 59). Conscience stands under the objective moral law and should be formed by it, so that "[t]he truth about moral good, as that truth is declared in the law of reason, is practically and concretely recognized by the judgment of conscience" (Veritatis Splendor 61).
But since well-meaning people can err in matters of conscience, especially in a culture that is already deeply confused about complex matters of marriage and sexuality, a person may not be fully culpable for acting against the truth. Church ministers, moved by mercy, should adopt a sensitive pastoral approach in all such situations — an approach both patient but also faithfully confident in the saving truth of the Gospel and the transforming power of God's grace, trusting in the words of Jesus Christ, who promises that "you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free (Jn 8:32)." Pastors should strive to avoid both a subjectivism that ignores the truth or a rigorism that lacks mercy.
As with all magisterial documents, Amoris Laetitia is best understood when read within the tradition of the Church's teaching and life. In fact, the Holy Father himself states clearly that neither Church teaching nor the canonical discipline concerning marriage has changed: "it is understandable that neither the Synod nor this Exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases" [Amoris Laetitia 300] — a point reiterated by Cardinal Schönborn at the Vatican's presentation of the document. The Holy Father's Exhortation should therefore be read in continuity with the great treasury of wisdom handed on by the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, the witness of the lives of the Saints, the teachings of Church Councils, and previous magisterial documents.
As Amoris Laetitia notes, bishops must arrange for the accompaniment of estranged and hurting persons with guidelines that faithfully reflect Catholic belief [Amoris Laetitia 300]. What follows are archdiocesan guidelines meant for priests and deacons, seminarians and lay persons who work in the fields of marriage, sacramental ministry and pastoral care regarding matters of human sexuality. They are effective as of July 1, 2016.
For Catholic married couples
Christian marriage, by its nature, is permanent, monogamous and open to life. The sexual expression of love within a truly Christian marriage is blessed by God: a powerful bond of beauty and joy between man and woman. Jesus himself raised marriage to new dignity. The valid marriage of two baptized persons is a sacrament that confers grace, with the potential to deepen the couple's life in Christ, especially through the shared privilege of bringing new life into the world and raising children in the knowledge of God.
Marriage and child-rearing are sources of great joy. They have moments (like the birth of a child) when the presence of God is palpable. But an intimately shared life can also cause stress and suffering. Marital fidelity is an ongoing encounter with reality. Thus it involves real sacrifices and the discipline of subordinating one's own needs to the needs of others. Amoris Laetitia reminds husbands and wives that their "common life...the entire network of relations that they build with their children and in the world around them, will be steeped in and strengthened by the grace of the sacrament" [Amoris Laetitia 74]. Integrated into every pastoral plan that seeks to support married couples should be instruction in the sacramental grace available to them and in particular, how they can more fully "tap into" this wellspring of grace, so that they experience the power of the sacrament to strengthen their relationship, not just as an idea but as a reality that impacts their daily married life.
Closely related to this, pastors should stress the importance of common prayer and reading Scripture in the home, profiting from the grace offered them by frequent reception of the Sacraments of Penance and Communion, and the need for building mutual support with committed Catholic friends and family. Every family is a "domestic church," but no Christian family can survive indefinitely without encouragement from other believing families. The Christian community must especially find ways to engage and help families who are burdened by illness, financial setbacks and marital friction.
For Catholics and Christians who are separated or divorced and not remarried
Pastors often encounter persons whose marriages face grave hardships, sometimes for reasons that seem undeserved, and sometimes through the fault of one or both married parties. The state of being separated or divorced, and thus finding oneself alone, can involve great suffering. It can mean separation from one's children, a life without conjugal intimacy, and for some the prospect of never having children. Pastors should offer these persons friendship, understanding, introductions to reliable lay mentors and practical help, so they can sustain their fidelity even under pressure.
Likewise, parishes should be keenly concerned for the spiritual good of those who find themselves separated or divorced for a long time. Some persons, aware that a valid marriage bond is indissoluble, consciously refrain from a new union and devote themselves to carrying out their family and Christian duties. They face no obstacle to receiving Communion and other sacraments. Indeed, they should receive the sacraments regularly, and they deserve the warm support of the Christian community, since they show extraordinary fidelity to Jesus Christ. God is faithful to them even when their spouses are not, a truth that fellow Catholics should reinforce.
In some cases, one can reasonably ask whether an original marriage bond was valid, and thus whether grounds may exist for a decree of nullity (an "annulment"). In our age, such grounds are not uncommon. People in those circumstances should be strongly encouraged to seek the assistance of a marriage tribunal of the Church. The inquiry in these cases should always be guided by the truth of the situation: Did a valid marriage exist? Decrees of nullity are not an automatic remedy or an entitlement. They cannot be granted informally or privately by individual pastors or priests. Because marriage is a public reality, and because a determination about the validity of a marriage affects the lives, the rights, and the duties of all parties touched by it, there must be a canonical process and a decision by the proper authority under canon law. Such matters require that those conducting the inquiry be both compassionate and alert to the truth. They should investigate these matters in a timely way, respecting the rights of all parties, and ensuring that all have access to the annulment procedures.
For Catholics and Christians who are divorced and civilly-remarried
Amoris Laetitia manifests a special concern for divorced and civilly-remarried Catholics. In some cases, a valid first marriage bond may never have existed. A canonical investigation of the first marriage by a Church tribunal may be appropriate. In other cases, the first marriage bond of one or both of the civilly-remarried persons may be valid. This would impede any attempt at a subsequent marriage. If they have children from the original marriage, they have an important duty to raise and care for them.
The divorced and remarried should be welcomed by the Catholic community Pastors should ensure that such persons do not consider themselves as "outside" the Church. On the contrary, as baptized persons, they can (and should) share in her life. They are invited to attend Mass, to pray, and to take part in the activities of the parish. Their children — whether from an original marriage or from their current relationship — are integral to the life of the Catholic community, and they should be brought up in the faith. Couples should sense from their pastors, and from the whole community, the love they deserve as persons made in the image of God and as fellow Christians.
At the same time, as Amoris Laetitia notes, priests should "accompany [the divorced and remarried] in helping them to understand their situation according to the teaching of the Church and the guidelines of the bishop. Useful in this process is an examination of conscience through moments of reflection and penance. The divorced and remarried should ask themselves: how they have acted toward their children when the conjugal union entered into crisis; if they made attempts at reconciliation; what has become of the abandoned party; what consequences does the new relationship have on the rest of the family and the community of the faithful; and what example is being set for young people who are preparing for marriage" [Amoris Laetitia 300]. Amoris Laetitia continues: "What we are speaking of is a process of accompaniment and discernment which `guides the faithful to an awareness of their situation before God.... [T]his discernment can never prescind from the Gospel demands of truth and charity as proposed by the Church' [Amoris Laetitia 300].
In light of this, priests must help the divorced and civilly-remarried to form their consciences according to the truth. This is a true work of mercy. It should be undertaken with patience, compassion and a genuine desire for the good of all concerned, sensitive to the wounds of each person, and gently leading each toward the Lord. Its purpose is not condemnation, but the opposite: a full reconciliation of the person with God and neighbor, and restoration to the fullness of visible communion with Jesus Christ and the Church.
In fact, pastors must always convey Catholic teaching faithfully to all persons — including the divorced and remarried — both in the confessional as well as publicly. They should do this with great confidence in the power of God's grace, knowing that, when spoken with love, the truth heals, builds up, and sets free (cf. Jn 8:32).
Can the divorced and civilly-remarried receive the sacraments? As a general matter, baptized members of the Church are always in principle invited to the sacraments. The confessional's doors are always open to the repentant and contrite of heart. What of Communion? Every Catholic, not only the divorced and civilly-remarried, must sacramentally confess all serious sins of which he or she is aware, with a firm purpose to change, before receiving the Eucharist. In some cases, the subjective responsibility of the person for a past action may be diminished. But the person must still repent and renounce the sin, with a firm purpose of amendment.
With divorced and civilly-remarried persons, Church teaching requires them to refrain from sexual intimacy. This applies even if they must (for the care of their children) continue to live under one roof. Undertaking to live as brother and sister is necessary for the divorced and civilly-remarried to receive reconciliation in the Sacrament of Penance, which could then open the way to the Eucharist. Such individuals are encouraged to approach the Sacrament of Penance regularly, having recourse to God's great mercy in that sacrament if they fail in chastity.
Even where, for the sake of their children, they live under one roof in chaste continence and have received absolution (so that they are free from personal sin), the unhappy fact remains that, objectively speaking, their public state and condition of life in the new relationship are contrary to Christ's teaching against divorce. Concretely speaking, therefore, where pastors give Communion to divorced and remarried persons trying to live chastely, they should do so in a manner that will avoid giving scandal or implying that Christ's teaching can be set aside. In other contexts, also, care must be taken to avoid the unintended appearance of an endorsement of divorce and civil remarriage; thus, divorced and civilly remarried persons should not hold positions of responsibility in a parish (e.g. on a parish council), nor should they carry out liturgical ministries or functions (e.g., lector, extraordinary minister of Holy Communion).
This is a hard teaching for many, but anything less misleads people about the nature of the Eucharist and the Church. The grace of Jesus Christ is more than a pious cliché; it is a real and powerful seed of change in the believing heart. The lives of many saints bear witness that grace can take great sinners and, by its power of interior renewal, remake them in holiness of life. Pastors and all who work in the service of the Church should tirelessly promote hope in this saving mystery.
For couples who cohabitate and are unmarried
Cohabitation of unmarried couples is now common, often fueled by convenience, fear of a final commitment, or a desire to "try out" relationships. Some couples delay marriage until they can afford an elaborate wedding celebration. Many children are born to these irregular unions. Cohabiting and contracepting couples often enter RCIA, or seek to return to the Catholic faith, only dimly aware of the problems created by their situation.
Working with such couples, pastors should consider two issues. First, does the couple have children together? A natural obligation in justice exists for parents to care for their children. And children have a natural right to be raised by both parents. Pastors should try, to the degree possible and when a permanent commitment of marriage is viable, to strengthen existing relationships where a couple already has children together. Second, does the couple have the maturity to turn their relationship into a permanently committed marriage? Often cohabiting couples refrain from making final commitments because one or both persons is seriously lacking in maturity or has other significant obstacles to entering a valid union. Here, prudence plays a vital role. Where one or another person is not capable of, or is not willing to commit to, a marriage, the pastor should urge them to separate.
Where the couple is disposed to marriage, they should be encouraged to practice chastity until they are sacramentally married. They will find this challenging, but again, with the help of grace, mastering the self is possible -- and this fasting from physical intimacy is a strong element of spiritual preparation for an enduring life together. (Of course, persons should also be guided to an awareness of their situation before God, so that they can make a good confession before their wedding, and so begin their married life with joy in the Lord.)
Couples who have no children should ready themselves for marriage by a time of domestic separation. Where a cohabiting couple already has children, the good of the young may require the couple to remain living together, but in chastity.
For persons who experience same-sex attraction
The same call to chastity and holiness of life applies equally to all persons, whether attracted to the same or opposite sex. The pastoral care of persons with same-sex attraction should be guided by the same love and respect the Church seeks to offer all people. Ministers of the Church should emphasize to such persons that they are loved by God, that Jesus desires them to receive an inheritance as adopted sons and daughters of the Father, and that, as with every Christian, this is made possible through the gift of grace.
Those who work in pastoral ministry often encounter persons with diverse forms of same-sex attraction. Many such persons have found it possible to live out a vocation to Christian marriage with children, notwithstanding experiencing some degree of same-sex attraction. Others have found it difficult to do so. Because Christian marriage with children is a great good, those who find themselves unable to embrace this good may suffer from a sense of loss or loneliness. And, as with those who are attracted to the opposite sex, some can find chastity very difficult. Pastoral care of such persons must never lose sight of their individual calling to holiness and union with Jesus Christ, and that the power of God's grace can make this a real possibility for their lives.
Catholic belief, rooted in Scripture, reserves all expressions of sexual intimacy to a man and a woman covenanted to each other in a valid marriage. We hold this teaching to be true and unchangeable, tied as it is to our nature and purpose as children of a loving God who desires our happiness. Those with predominant same-sex attractions are therefore called to struggle to live chastely for the kingdom of God. In this endeavor they have need of support, friendship and understanding if they fail. They should be counseled, like everyone else, to have frequent recourse to the Sacrament of Penance, where they should be treated with gentleness and compassion. In fact, more than a few such persons, with the help of grace and the sacraments, do live exemplary and even heroic Christian lives.
The pastoral situation of same-sex couples
When two persons of the same sex present themselves openly in a parish as a same-sex couple (including those who may have entered into a same-sex union under civil law), pastors must judge prudently how best to address the situation, both for the sake of the authentic spiritual good of the persons involved, and the common good of the believing community It's important to remember that some same-sex couples do live together in chaste friendship and without sexual intimacy, and many pastors have had the experience of counseling such couples. The Church welcomes all men and women who honestly seek to encounter the Lord, whatever their circumstances. But two persons in an active, public same-sex relationship, no matter how sincere, offer a serious counter-witness to Catholic belief, which can only produce moral confusion in the community Such a relationship cannot be accepted into the life of the parish without undermining the faith of the community, most notably the children.
Finally, those living openly same-sex lifestyles should not hold positions of responsibility in a parish, nor should they carry out any liturgical ministry or function.
COMMENTARY: If any confusion exists in a text, it must be interpreted consistent with the magisterium of previous popes.
Last month The Wall Street Journal covered the fighting around the Philippine city of Marawi. The story was riveting, and I was struck by the violence of the Muslim militants who had seized the city. It reminded me of how many hardships Filipinos have faced over the 73 years of my lifetime. Japanese occupation, the Huk insurgency, the NPA insurgency, dictatorship, corruption, martial law and now Islamic extremism. The list of sufferings is a long one.
But as I read about Marawi, I also recalled the 4 million people who jammed the streets of Manila for John Paul II at World Youth Day 1995. Despite their hardships, Filipinos have always been a people of joy, enthusiasm for life and deep Catholic faith. Those same qualities have always marked Filipinos in the United States. The Filipino community in Philadelphia is a great blessing for our local Church. So it’s a particular pleasure to be here.
My job today is to talk about Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love). Papal documents are always important. But — if we can be candid for a moment — some have the energy of a lead brick. Amoris Laetitia is very different. It has passages of great wisdom and beauty on marriage and on family life. And it has other passages that have caused some obvious controversy. The controversy has obscured much of the good in the document. So we need to engage the text with open hearts and the discipline of clear thinking.
The specific issues I want to deal with today are three: the pastoral challenges Amoris Laetitiaseeks to address; the pastoral challenges the text itself may seem to create; and how we as priests need to respond as “missionaries of mercy.”
But let me start first with some background.
Some of you probably took part in the World Meeting of Families two years ago in Philadelphia. It was a great success and a wonderful gift for our people. I think Pope Francis was surprised by the faith and enthusiasm of the Philadelphia crowds. I’m sure he was pleased.
Three days later, I left for Rome as a delegate to the 2015 Synod on the Family. I served as secretary to one of the Anglophone working groups. I shared my thoughts on the synod floor. And I worked with other bishops in suggesting improvements to the synod’s final document. I was also elected to the synod’s permanent council.
My point is this. I took part directly in the synod discussions on marriage, sexuality, conscience and the family as a synod father myself. And back at home in Philadelphia, that experience helped us to draft our local guidelines for applying Amoris Laetitia promptly and accurately once it appeared.
We developed our guidelines in consultation with pastors, lay couples, our marriage tribunal and many others in the process. And we based our work on paragraph No. 2 from Amoris Laetitia, which reads, in part:
“The thinking of pastors and theologians, if faithful to the Church, honest, realistic and creative, will help us achieve greater clarity” in addressing the issues that face today’s families.
The key words there are “if faithful to the Church.” Fidelity to the received and constant wisdom of Catholic teaching is paramount. So the spirit behind our Philadelphia guidelines, grounded in Amoris Laetitia, is the following.
As a Church, we need to meet people where they are. We need to listen to their sufferings and hopes. We need to accompany them along the path of their lives. That demands from us as priests a spirit of patience and mercy. We need to have a bias toward welcoming and a resistance to seeing individual persons merely as parts of alien or alienated groups. The divorced-and-civilly remarried are not exiles from Church life. They need to be invited back. The same applies to persons with same-sex attraction. Jesus Christ died for all of us, and we need to behave in a manner that embodies his love.
At the same time, “accompanying” people also means that we need to guide them in the right direction — gently but also honestly, speaking the truth with love. It does no one any good if we “accompany” someone over a cliff, or, even worse, to a fatal separation from God. We can’t simply confirm people in their mistakes. Scripture is very clear about right and wrong sexual relationships and behavior. We’re very poor disciples if we lack the courage to speak the truth as the Church has always understood it.
We live in an age of studied ambiguity — at times, even within the Church — and in such an age, clarity about the truth, made gentle by patience and understanding, is a treasure without price.
So let’s turn to the problems Amoris Laetitia seeks to address. Much of this you already know. American culture is rapidly becoming less religious. One of the big reasons is a steady diet of distractions offered every day by a mass-media-driven consumer economy. The average adult is exposed to about 5,000 commercial messages a day. The average child sees 40,000 ads a year, and that’s just on television.
There’s no way to compete with that kind of catechesis in materialism except by turning it off. And most families don’t. The results are no surprise.
Jean Twenge’s new book, iGen, is a study of young people born between 1995 and 2012. They’ve never known a world without iPhones and iPads. And statistically they’re the least religious generation in American history. This isn’t really news. Researchers like Christian Smith have been tracking the behavior and beliefs of young people for years. And they come to the same conclusion: The implications for marriage, family life and religious institutions are not good.
Philadelphia is seen as a fairly traditional diocese. So consider these facts as evidence.
In the year 2000, the Philadelphia Archdiocese had 441,000 registered Catholic households. By 2015, that had dropped to 389,000. In 2000, we had 283 parishes. In 2015, we had 219. In 2000, we had 6,000 marriages and 15,400 infant baptisms. In 2015, we had about 3,200 marriages and 9,100 infant baptisms. Our parish schools had 81,300 students in 2000. They had 43,000 in 2015. And so on.
Now, the picture I just drew can be misleading. Demographics are always changing. Other dioceses, especially in the South and West of the country, are growing. Overall, though, American religious faith is weakening. And plenty of social research tells us that people who practice their faith and attend religious services regularly have more stable marriages and families than people who don’t.
But a paradox of our national personality is this: Even at our most religious, Americans have always had a deep streak of individualism, a distrust of authority, and a big appetite for self-invention and personal happiness unencumbered by obligations to others. As religion loses its hold on people’s behavior, all of these instincts accelerate. And that leads to exactly the kind of personal and social suffering that Amoris Laetitia seeks to heal.
One of the main messages in the Holy Father’s text is that life, marriage, children and family are joys to be treasured — not problems to be solved. This seems obvious, and in normal times, it would be. But we don’t live in a “normal” time. For 50 years since Vatican II, the Church has been locked in disputes over doctrine and practice. And these have been compounded by deep and rapid changes in the world around us.
Conflict can become a habit. Every issue can become a nail that needs a hammer. We can get comfortable in our anger. And that’s dangerous, especially within the Church, because frustration and resentment can start to feel normal, and then to feel good.
C.S. Lewis would describe the pleasure we take in an unhealthy taste for argument as a pretty clear mark of the demonic. There’s nothing more poisonously delicious than trashing an enemy in the name of the gospel of love.
So for me, at the heart of Amoris Laetitia, and a key to the whole document, is paragraph No. 28, where Francis writes:
“Against [the] backdrop of love so central to the Christian experience of marriage and the family, another virtue stands out, one often overlooked in our world of frenetic and superficial relationships. It is tenderness.”
Tenderness, personal contact, listening instead of just hearing, and intimate attention to the needs of the other — these are the priorities Francis weaves throughout his text. It explains why he stresses in paragraph No. 22 that “the word of God is not a series of abstract ideas, but, rather, a source of comfort and companionship for every family that experiences difficulties or suffering.” And it gives a context to his paragraphs Nos. 36 and 37, where he warns against “a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families.” Francis urges us again and again to deal lovingly with people and situations as they really are.
In my reading, that leads to one of the central ironies in communicating the message of Amoris Laetitia. We live in an age of the laity. The text deals very heavily with marriage and the family, major features of Christian lay life. But to succeed, Amoris Laetitia depends profoundly on the zeal and sensitivity of the priest.
The priest has the freedom of action, the pastoral experience and the overview of human relationships to be the presence of Jesus Christ in so many of the complex situations Francis describes. In other words, the vocation you have, brothers, has never been more vital for family life than it is right now.
That might sound curious, because I’ve never had more priests voice uncertainty about their value to the Church than I’ve heard in recent years. I’ve had many priests approach me feeling confused or hurt by something the Pope has said about priestly indifference or harshness. And these are good, solid men — not whiners or crazies — experienced in their parishes and committed to their people.
How can we make sense of that? Part of their priestly frustration comes from the constant beating the priesthood has taken in this country since 2002. The clergy-abuse crisis has caused a lot of innocent priests to suffer. And some of the Pope’s more painful comments surely come from his own pastoral experiences in Latin America, which seem to have been very different from the realities in the United States. In my own experience, cruel confessors and harsh “doctors of the law” have been rare, and a very long way from the American norm.
But I do think Francis is right in pushing all of us as priests to engage our people more directly, personally, with an open heart and a patient spirit. And we need to really listen to the truth in the Holy Father’s words.
There’s a great temptation in ecclesial life, including parish life, to hide behind staff and offices and committees and programs and schedules. Jesus was captured by none of those things. He was always present to his people. And while we can’t escape our material duties as priests, we can find ways to keep them from dominating our pastoral service.
To put it another way: We can’t be missionaries of mercy if our main focus is running the machinery of an institution. I know very well that hitting the right balance in priestly life can be very difficult. I deal with it myself every day. But it’s possible, and Francis is urging us to put mission and people first.
It’s not my purpose today to go through Amoris Laetitia paragraph by paragraph. But the text has some beautiful passages on the needs of the elderly, the poor, migrants, persons with special needs, the importance of children and openness to new life. It’s important for all of us to read the text with an attentive mind and study its strengths. Chapter 4 on “Love in Marriage” is especially rich. And his reflection on St. Paul’s thoughts on the nature of love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 is perfect material and easily adapted for parish study groups of four or six sessions.
I want to spend my remaining time on the pastoral challenges the text itself may seem to create; some general comments on the state of our Church; and how we as priests need to respond as “missionaries of mercy.”
Ground zero is this: For Christians, sexual intimacy outside a valid sacramental marriage can never be morally legitimate. And it’s the Church that determines what a valid sacramental marriage is.
Scripture’s clearest words about the indissolubility of marriage come from Jesus himself in Matthew 19. They can’t be softened, or reinterpreted or contextualized. Christian marriage is a covenant between one man and one woman. When valid, it endures until the death of one or the other spouse. And our task as priests is to uphold and advance that truth as a message of liberation, even when it’s difficult.
The most widespread concerns voiced about the content of Amoris Laetitia — in public, but even more urgently and commonly in private — focus on Chapter 8, including Footnote 351. Critics see in the text a preference for ambiguity over clear teaching and a resentment toward defenders of traditional Church teaching that seem out of sync with the rest of the document.
Since at least some of the people raising these issues are persons of fidelity and substance, their concerns can’t — in justice — be dismissed. And the resulting confusion is regrettable, because the whole purpose of Chapter 8 is to provide a merciful outreach to decent persons entangled in irregular marital situations.
So how should we proceed?
First, as with all papal documents regarding faith and morals, if any confusion exists in a text, it must be interpreted consistent with the magisterium of previous popes.
Second, I’ve been a priest for 47 years and a bishop for nearly 30. In all that time, I’ve met very few priests who like punishing anyone, kicking anyone out of their parish, or keeping anyone from taking part in the sacraments. But I’ve met hundreds of priests who worry that their people, while loving God, don’t really know their faith, don’t understand the sacraments, don’t catechize their children, and don’t know what a properly formed Catholic conscience is.
Poorly formed, immature consciences are among the biggest pastoral challenges facing the Church. This is what makes delegating decisions about the nullity or validity of a first marriage to the internal forum a matter of real concern.
The Christian virtue of mercy flows out of charity and depends on the existence of justice and truth. Romano Guardini argued that mercy is a greater virtue than justice. And rightly so. But he also stressed that truth undergirds and is essential to both virtues.
In other words, real mercy is always more than mere sentiment. It can never exclude careful moral reasoning about right and wrong. It can never be set against, or elevated above, the other virtues that are key to life-giving human behavior. Otherwise it becomes just another source of confusion. Permanent truths exist about human nature, sexuality, behavior and relationships. Those truths apply to all of us, in all circumstances, and justice involves living according to those truths.
But of course, all of us fail many times every day. Thus, mercy is God’s outreach through the Church to offer a way back to grace. It’s a living expression of his tenderness. But mercy does not abolish God’s justice any more than it can soften or adjust the demands of truth in order to be more congenial to our weaknesses, to our culture or to our times.
Christian marriage is never simply an “ideal.” Describing it as an “ideal” tends to open the door to excusing and then normalizing failure. Clearly many married couples do fail, especially in today’s world of institutionalized selfishness. They need our understanding and support, especially in cases of domestic violence.
But if grace is real, and God’s word is true, then the joy of a permanent marriage is possible for anyone called to the vocation. This is why better preparation and support for couples considering marriage are so vital. It’s also why we need to defend the permanence of the marriage bond wherever and whenever we reasonably can.
The permanent, loving bond between a man and a woman to create and grow new life is the glue of a culture and the guarantee of its future. We need to fight for it, and not collapse — like so many other Christian communities — into the confusion of a society based on compromises, caveats and alibis. That’s the message we need to preach and teach.
More than 70 years ago the economic historian Karl Polanyi wrote a book called The Great Transformation. It’s one of the seminal works of the last century. It chronicles the deep changes that took place during the Industrial Revolution — not just in economics, but in politics, law, patterns of thought, and all kinds of human relationships. We’re living in that same kind of moment right now. So much of life can seem out of our control and beyond our influence.
As Joseph Ratzinger saw five decades ago, the Church of the future will very likely be smaller, poorer and empty of prestige — not everywhere, but certainly in the nations that like to posture themselves “advanced.”
We might mitigate that outcome with smart thinking and good Church leadership. But we probably can’t prevent it. The reason is simple. We can’t quick fix ourselves out of moral and social problems we behaved ourselves into. And knowing that can easily lead to frustration and despair.
But God doesn’t ask us to save the Church or fix the world. That’s in his hands. What he asks is much simpler and more important. He asks each of us as priests to be faithful and to be his healing presence to his — and to our — people.
In the midst of confusion, he asks us to speak and live the truth. In the midst of conflict, he asks us to be peacemakers. In the midst of distress, he asks us to be sources of hope.
The curse of our age is loneliness; a loneliness wrapped in relentless noise to muffle the worry that our lives and sufferings have no meaning. No matter how intractable or unfixable the problems of a marriage or family might be, the priest who listens and counsels with a spirit of mercy guided by truth is doing what God called him to do: to be the presence of God’s love in the world.
There’s no greater mission of mercy than that, and no greater joy in the life of a priest.
Archbishop Charles Chaput is the archbishop of Philadelphia.
He gave this address Nov. 8 to the National Assembly of Filipino Priests USA in Houston.
It is reprinted with permission
This Webpage was created for a workshop held at Saint Andrew's Abbey, Valyermo, California in 2014