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Pope gives a new slant on facing difficulties

Several weeks ago Walter Cardinal Kasper predicted that Pope Francis’ much-awaited document on the family would be the beginning of the biggest reform in 1,700 years.

He probably jumped the gun. But then again, it all depends which of those words you stress—beginning, biggest or reform.

The recently released apostolic exhortation called, The Joy of Love (Amoris Laetitia), was released on April 8 in a standing-room-only press conference at the Vatican.

And the general reaction was disappointment, at least among those who were expecting the pope to issue guidelines for readmitting divorced and remarried Catholics to the sacraments or to declare that the Church could identify that there are positive elements in stable same-sex unions.

“Nothing has really changed,” shrugged a colleague who works in centre-to-left-leaning media. “This is just a lot of Jesuit casuistry,” those from the more conservative press quarters mumbled.

But that’s not exactly true either.

While The Joy of Love may not mark a millennial shift or constitute a bombshell by some standards, in the current state of Catholicism it is a hugely significant document.

Pope Francis has totally changed the conversation and not just in the area of what constitutes a regular or good Catholic marriage. But, even more significantly, he has introduced a new language and method for the Church to teach and apply its rules and doctrine.

Don’t expect him to offer black-and-white, unambiguous answers for sticky problems. After many years as a real pastor among real people, he knows that life is not black and white and that people struggle with difficult situations that are often anything but unambiguous.

Instead, in this 264-page document, the pope challenges Catholics to do the hard yards by undertaking the journey of discipleship, which does not consist only in following rules. It calls for discernment, dialogue, prayer and sometimes painful growth.

But the bottom line is that Pope Francis admits that we all fall short of the Christian ideal, whether that pertains to marriage or anything else that has a moral or ethical component.

For now, it is important to see how the pope, against the background of lethargy and opposition from many bishops, is opening up a new path.

At the risk of over-exaggeration, let’s say he is setting before us something akin to situational ethics, which takes into account the particular context of an act when evaluating it ethically, rather than judging it according to absolute moral standards.

The Catholic magisterium has rejected this principle. But listen to what the pope says at the very beginning of The Joy of Love:

“Since time is greater than space, I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium. Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it.”

The pope knows full well that he will be opposed on this point.

Yet he continues, “I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion. But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, a Mother who, while clearly expressing her objective teaching, ‘always does what good she can, even if in the process, her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street’.”

Goodness in the midst of human weakness. This requires a Church whose priests and people offer mercy, patience and accompaniment to those who don’t meet the standard.

Perhaps the most divisive issue has been how the Church deals with the divorced and remarried or people in other so-called irregular unions.

For starters, Pope Francis says we should stop using the terminology living in sin in reference to them, because it ain’t necessarily so.

“The Church possesses a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations. Hence, 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,” he says.

In fact, the pope says that because of “conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin—which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such—a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.”

He calls for a greater respect for the conscience of the individual, which he says, can “recognise with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal.”

In opening the door for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion on a case-by-case basis, Pope Francis is sure to unsettle doctrinal hardliners most of all.

And he will anger them by calling into question the validity of an ironclad prohibition on such a possibility that Pope John Paul II issued in 1981 in a similar text on the family called Voice of the Family (Familiaris Consortio).

The late pope said that the only way civilly remarried Catholics could receive the sacraments was by leaving their spouse or living with them as brother and sister. Pope Francis has taken a text from the Second Vatican Council to at least express doubt about that teaching, if not refute it.

In a footnote, he says that many people in this situation “point out that if certain expressions of intimacy are lacking, ‘it often happens that faithfulness is endangered and the good of children suffers’” (The Church in the Modern World, 51).

The Joy of Love may not be the beginning of the biggest reform in 1,700 years, but perhaps in 34 or so. (UCAN)