Marriage one step at a time
Those who have been following this series of articles on Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation “The Joy of Love/Amoris Laettia” can be in no doubt that this is a pastoral vision of the beauty and attractiveness of Christian family life.
The purpose of the Exhortation is not to change anything concerning the Church’s doctrine on the sacrament of marriage or on family life but to reach out to everyone, no matter what their marital status or family situation. We could say that all Pope Francis’ concern is rooted in three words: ‘Accompany, Discern, Integrate’.
In chapter 8, Francis faces up to the reality of many people’s lives: the ideal is one thing but the reality as experienced in daily life is often very different. He recognises that many believers fall short of the ideal, many live the vision of Christian marriage and family life in what he calls a “partial” or “analogous” way. It is to them that this chapter is addressed.
How often has Pope Francis spoken of the Church as a “field hospital” offering emergency help to those wounded by life! He would like his words in this chapter to offer hope to those who fall short of the ideal, “like the beacon of a lighthouse in a port or a torch carried among the people to enlighten those who have lost their way or who are in the midst of a storm”.
When it comes to analysing the situations of those who fall short of the ideal, the pope draws attention not only to those who remain content with a purely civil marriage but also to those who are happy with simple cohabitation.
But what is so refreshing is the pope’s attitude that, however irregular, “all these situations require a constructive response seeking to transform them into opportunities that can lead to the full reality of marriage and family in conformity with the Gospel” (294).
Rather than simply issuing a condemnation of those who do not meet the idea in their domestic lives, the pope seeks to initiate a pastoral dialogue with a view to a greater openness “to the Gospel of marriage in its fullness” (293). Behind this pastoral approach lies a very important pastoral strategy: the law of gradualness.
This is something articulated by St John Paul which is based on the reality that all of us grow in human maturity, as well as our discipleship, “step by step”.
Pope Francis describes this “step by step” approach when he writes, “This is not a gradualness of the law but rather a gradualness in the prudential exercise of free acts on the part of subjects who are not in a position to understand, appreciate or fully carry out the objective demands of the law” (295).
Pope Francis discusses the discernment of “irregular” situations. He draws attention to two ways of thinking which recur throughout the history of the Church: one is the way of exclusion, the other the way of inclusion. Pope Francis makes it very clear that the way of Jesus is the way of inclusion.
He admits there are situations where “a man and woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate” (298) because of responsibilities arising from the second marriage. He lists several perplexing situations where it is impossible to achieve the ideal of Christian marriage.
What Pope Francis calls “The Logic of Integration” is the key to pastoral care of the divorced and remarried. Such integration demands a careful discernment of how such people may participate more fully in the life of the Church.
Pope Francis offers an examination of conscience which is worth reproducing as a help to the divorced and remarried: “The divorced and remarried should ask themselves how did they act towards their children when the conjugal union entered into crisis; whether or not they made attempts at reconciliation; what has become of the abandoned party; what consequences the new relationship has 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” (300).
Such a careful discernment by the divorced and remarried presupposes the following necessary conditions: “humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching, in a sincere search for God’s will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it” (300). Then the divorced and remarried are ready to initiate a pastoral conversation with a priest in a privileged context of spiritual direction/confession (the “internal forum”) to find the appropriate way forward.
Under the simple heading ‘Rules and Discernment’ we come, in three paragraphs, to the most discussed part of the Exhortation. Although the pope himself said that Chapters 3 and 4 are the most important, by far, more attention has been given to Chapter 8 and to these three paragraphs (304‐306) in particular.
In paragraph 304, Pope Francis prepares the ground for his immediate treatment of the admission of divorced and remarried Catholics to the sacraments. He says, “It is true that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation that cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations”. Paragraph 305 delivers Pope Francis’ teaching. There can be no question of “one size fits all”.
Rather, Pope Francis insists that “Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible 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”.
At this point the pope adds a footnote (number 351) with the simple words, “In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments”. He supports this conclusion by reminding us that Confession is not a torture chamber and that the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.
The third paragraph describes the above pastoral approach as “the way of love”. Pope Francis is not saying that all divorced and remarried Catholics can now freely approach the Sacraments. Nor is he saying that the teaching of Jesus about divorce and remarriage can be ignored. He is drawing attention to a way forward “in certain cases” for those who find themselves in an impossibly difficult situation.
It should be clear that Pope Francis is offering a pastoral solution which leaves the great doctrinal teaching of the Church intact. Pope Francis draws Chapter 8 of his Apostolic Exhortation to a conclusion by reflecting on the logic of pastoral ministry. The pope is unambiguous about the importance for the Church to proclaim, “the full ideal of marriage, God’s plan in all its grandeur” (307). The whole purpose of the two Synods on marriage and family life, as well as this Exhortation is “to strengthen marriages and thus to prevent their breakdown”.
The logic of pastoral ministry is such that while proclaiming the ideal “there is a need to accompany with mercy and patience the eventual stages of personal growth as these progressively appear”. Pope Francis acknowledges that many people “prefer a rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion” (308). But he is not one of them.
Pope Francis widens the discussion from the particular case of those divorced and remarried to everyone. The mercy and tenderness of God knows no exceptions. Anyone, in any kind of difficulty, can rely on divine mercy.
We have come to the final section. It brings chapter 9 to a close and is entitled “A spirituality of Care, Consolation and Incentive”. Throughout this chapter Pope Francis has been sketching out a vision of the spirituality of marriage and family life. Inspired by the teachings of the Second Vatican Council which described married couples as “co‐operators of grace and witnesses of the faith”, Pope Francis interprets that as a call to bestow life and to care for life.
But he translates this lofty ideal, as usual, into very practical gestures: “a word, a look, a helping hand, a caress, an embrace” (321). This is the kind of caring Pope Francis associates with the family as “the nearest field hospital”.
The final aspect of married and family spirituality which Pope Francis stresses is that openness which mature families have towards others. Openness to life within the family leads naturally to openness to wider and wider circles of friends and neighbours. He sees this openness as growing into hospitality, an attractive aspect of family spirituality.
This was the final story in the series by Larry Kaufman on Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation ‘The Joy of Love/Amoris Laettia’.
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