moral musings, Nigeria, dear native land!

First Thoughts on “Amoris Laetitia”

By Bishop Robert Barron

On a spring day about five years ago, when I was rector of Mundelein Seminary, Francis Cardinal George spoke to the assembled student body. He congratulated those proudly orthodox seminarians for their devotion to the dogmatic and moral truths proposed by the Church, but he also offered some pointed pastoral advice. He said that it is insufficient simply to drop the truth on people and then smugly walk away. Rather, he insisted, you must accompany those you have instructed, committing yourself to helping them integrate the truth that you have shared. I thought of this intervention by the late Cardinal often as I was reading Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. If I might make bold to summarize a complex 264-page document, I would say that Pope Francis wants the truths regarding marriage, sexuality, and family to be unambiguously declared, but that he also wants the Church’s ministers to reach out in mercy and compassion to those who struggle to incarnate those truths in their lives.

In regard to the moral objectivities of marriage, the Pope is bracingly clear. He unhesitatingly puts forward the Church’s understanding that authentic marriage is between a man and a woman, who have committed themselves to one another in permanent fidelity, expressing their mutual love and openness to children, and abiding as a sacrament of Christ’s love for his Church (52, 71). He bemoans any number of threats to this ideal, including moral relativism, a pervasive cultural narcissism, the ideology of self-invention, pornography, the “throwaway” society, etc. He explicitly calls to our attention the teaching of Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae regarding the essential connection between the unitive and the procreative dimensions of conjugal love (80). Moreover, he approvingly cites the consensus of the recent Synod on the Family that homosexual relationships cannot be considered even vaguely analogous to what the Church means by marriage (251). He is especially strong in his condemnation of ideologies that dictate that gender is merely a social construct and can be changed or manipulated according to our choice (56). Such moves are tantamount, he argues, to forgetting the right relationship between creature and Creator. Finally, any doubt regarding the Pope’s attitude toward the permanence of marriage is dispelled as clearly and directly as possible: “The indissolubility of marriage—‘what God has joined together, let no man put asunder’ (Mt 19:6) —should not be viewed as a ‘yoke’ imposed on humanity, but as a ‘gift’ granted to those who are joined in marriage…” (62).

In a particularly affecting section of the exhortation, Pope Francis interprets the famous hymn to love in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (90-119). Following the great missionary Apostle, he argues that love is not primarily a feeling (94), but rather a commitment of the will to do some pretty definite and challenging things: to be patient, to bear with one another, to put away envy and rivalry, ceaselessly to hope. In the tones of grandfatherly pastor, Francis instructs couples entering into marriage that love, in this dense and demanding sense of the term, must be at the heart of their relationship. I frankly think that this portion of Amoris Laetitia should be required reading for those in pre-Cana other similar marriage preparation programs in the Catholic Church. Now Francis says much more regarding the beauty and integrity of marriage, but you get my point: there is no watering down or compromising of the ideal in this text.

However, the Pope also honestly admits that many, many people fall short of the ideal, failing fully to integrate all of the dimensions of what the Church means by matrimony. What is the proper attitude to them? Like Cardinal George, the Pope has a visceral reaction against a strategy of simple condemnation, for the Church, he says, is a field hospital, designed to care precisely for the wounded (292). Accordingly, he recommends two fundamental moves. First, we can recognize, even in irregular or objectively imperfect unions, certain positive elements that participate, as it were, in the fullness of married love. Thus for example, a couple living together without benefit of marriage might be marked by mutual fidelity, deep love, the presence of children, etc. Appealing to these positive marks, the Church might, according to a “law of gradualness,” move that couple toward authentic and fully-integrated matrimony (295). This is not to say that living together is permitted or in accord with the will of God; it is to say that the Church can perhaps find a more winsome way to move people in such a situation to conversion.

The second move—and here we come to what will undoubtedly be the most controverted part of the exhortation—is to employ the Church’s classical distinction between the objective quality of a moral act and the subjective responsibility that the moral agent bears for committing that act (302). The Pope observes that many people in civil marriages following upon a divorce find themselves in a nearly impossible bind. If their second marriage has proven faithful, life-giving, and fruitful, how can they simply walk out on it without in fact incurring more sin and producing more sadness? This is, of course, not to insinuate that their second marriage is not objectively disordered, but it is to say that the pressures, difficulties, and dilemmas might mitigate their culpability.  Here is how Pope Francis applies the distinction: “Hence it is 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” (301). Could the Church’s minister, therefore, not help such people, in the privacy of the rectory parlor or the confessional, to discern their degree of moral responsibility? Once again, this is not to embrace a breezy “anything-goes” mentality, nor to deny that a civil marriage after a divorce is objectively irregular; it is to find, perhaps, for someone in great pain, a way forward.

Will Amoris Laetitia end all debate on these matters? Hardly. But it does indeed represent a deft and impressive balancing of the many and often contradictory interventions at the two Synods on the Family. As such, it will be of great service to many suffering souls who come to the Field Hospital.

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Year of Mercy: Key dates

Year of mercy• Opening of the Holy Door of St. Peter’s Basilica, December 8, feast of the Immaculate Conception.

• Opening of the Holy Door of the Basilica of St. John Lateran and in the cathedrals of the world, December 13.

• Opening of the Holy Door of the Basilica of St. Mary Major, January 1, feast of Mary, the Holy Mother of God and World Day for Peace.

• Jubilee for those involved with guiding or organising pilgrimages and religious tourism, January 19 – January 21.

• Opening of the Holy Door of the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, January 25, feast of the Conversion of St. Paul.

• Jubilee for Consecrated Life and the closing of the Year for Consecrated Life, February 2, feast of the Presentation of the Lord.

• Sending forth the Missionaries of Mercy, St. Peter’s Basilica, February 10, Ash Wednesday.

• Jubilee for the Roman Curia, February 22, feast of the Chair of St. Peter.

• “24 Hours for the Lord” with a penitential liturgy in St. Peter’s Basilica, March 4.

• Jubilee for those who are devoted to the spirituality of Divine Mercy, April 3, Divine Mercy Sunday.

• Jubilee for teens aged 13 to 16 to profess the faith and construct a culture of mercy, April 24.

• Jubilee for deacons, May 27-29, the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ.

• Jubilee for priests, June 3, feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

• Jubilee for those who are ill and for persons with disabilities, June 12.

• Jubilee for youth, July 26-31, World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland.

• Jubilee for workers and volunteers of mercy, September 4, the vigil of the memorial of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.

• Jubilee for catechists, September 25.

• Marian Jubilee, October 8-9.

•Mass celebrated by Pope Francis in memory of the faithful departed, Nov. 1, feast of All Saints.

• Jubilee for prisoners, November 6.

• Closing of the Holy Doors in the basilicas of Rome and in the dioceses of the world, November 13.

• Closing of the Holy Door of St. Peter’s Basilica and the conclusion of the Jubilee of Mercy, November 20, feast of Christ the King.

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