Cardinal Schönborn on “The Joy of Love”: the full conversation

A conversation with Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, the archbishop of Vienna, brings one into a space for reflection that demands tranquility and attentiveness. The lucidity of his reflection always goes hand in hand with spiritual depth. In this way, he demonstrates the charism of the Order of Preachers, which is well summed up in St. Thomas Aquinas’s motto, contemplata aliis tradere (“to hand on to others the things that have been contemplated”). And that is what our conversation was: a handing on and a sharing, not of abstract intellectual or scholastic theses, but of lines of thought that had found their verification in prayer. The tone and the rhythm of the conversation also reflected this contemplative dimension.

The cardinal presented the text of "Amoris Laetitia" (“The Joy of Love”) during the official press conference on April 8, 2016, in the newsroom of the Holy See. Some days later, on April 16, on his return flight from Lesbos to Rome, Pope Francis himself stated that the archbishop of Vienna had understood well and communicated correctly the significance of the apostolic exhortation. The pope has repeated the same assessment in public on other occasions. This means that the cardinal’s words about discernment in the document take on a specific weight.

I had already interviewed the cardinal for La Civiltà Cattolica on the eve of the ordinary synod in October 2015. As on the former occasion, our conversation took place in meetings in the offices of the periodical. (I thank our friend Marc Larivé for making this conversation possible. Larivé heads the publishing firm Parole et Silence, which will publish the complete edition of this interview, which is more extensive that the text that appears here.)

Your Eminence, what were your emotions when you read “The Joy of Love”? What did you feel?

This text by Pope Francis struck me by reason of its simplicity and because it has the taste of the Gospel. Its freshness reminded me of his “Good evening!” on St. Peter’s Square just after he had been elected. It is a text that is capable of welcoming people. When I read it, I am also struck by the kindness of the Good Shepherd who reaches families in their concrete lives and reminds us that, with all their hopes and their imperfections, families are the place of love, the door through which brotherhood and friendship enter into the world, a sign of the unshakable fidelity of God to his covenant.

How do you assess the perspective present in the pages of this text? How is the reality of the family contextualized?

The language of “The Joy of Love” is a language that opens a living dialogue with the reader, who feels understood. This makes the text easy to read. One feels that there is a profound joy here and wonder at the beauty of conjugal and family life. The text is very realistic. And it certainly is not alarmist: there is no obsession with critical cases and complex situations. Francis writes about the realities of our times, the risks, the challenges and all the immense sufferings with a profound compassion for what people experience, without succumbing either to rigorism or to laxity. Here, the pope is a father who shows trust and encourages people to trust. He is a pastor who puts his trust both in grace and in people’s consciences.

Some have spoken of “The Joy of Love” as a minor document, a personal opinion of the pope, without full magisterial value. What value does this exhortation possess? Is it an act of the magisterium? This seems obvious, but it is good to specify it now, in order to prevent some voices from creating confusion among the faithful when they assert that this is not the case.…

It is obvious that this is an act of the magisterium: it is an apostolic exhortation. It is clear that the pope is exercising here his role as pastor, as master and teacher of the faith, after benefiting from the consultation of the two synods. I have no doubt that it must be said that this is a pontifical document of great quality, an authentic teaching of sacra doctrina, which leads us back to the contemporary relevance of the word of God. I have read it many times, and each time I note the delicacy of its composition and an ever greater quantity of details that contain a rich teaching. There is no lack of passages in the exhortation that affirm their doctrinal value strongly and decisively. This can be recognized from the tone and the content of what is said, when we relate these to the intention of the text—for example, when the pope writes, “I urgently ask.…”; “It is no longer possible to say.…”; “I have wanted to present to the entire Church.…,” and so on. “The Joy of Love” is an act of the magisterium that makes the teaching of the church present and relevant today. Just as we read the Council of Nicaea in the light of the Council of Constantinople, and Vatican I in the light of Vatican II, so now we must read the previous statements of the magisterium about the family in the light of the contribution made by “The Joy of Love.” We are led in a living manner to draw a distinction between the continuity of the doctrinal principles and the discontinuity of perspectives or of historically conditioned expressions. This is the function that belongs to the living magisterium: to interpret authentically the word of God, whether written or handed down.

Did some things surprise you? Did other things prompt reflection? Did you need to read some passages several times?

I was pleasantly surprised by the methodology. In this sphere of human realities, the Holy Father has fundamentally renewed the discourse of the church—certainly along the lines of his apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel” but also of Vatican II’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” which presents doctrinal principles and reflections on human beings today that are in a continuous evolution. There is a profound openness to accept reality.

This openness to accept reality is a form of trust.…

We dare to look at things in a way that does not renounce the ideal or the patrimony of doctrine but that has the courage to look at families as they are, not as projections of the imagination. The certainty that God loves, seeks and attracts each person with tenderness, and that he always offers a new possibility, elicits an enormous trust. This is another characteristic of the document: love gives trust. Francis writes that sometimes, the light kindled by God must be recognized behind the darkness, like the embers that still burn under the ashes.

Would you say that this perspective, which is so open to reality and thus to fragility, can do damage to the strength of doctrine?

Absolutely not. The great daring of Pope Francis is precisely to demonstrate that this perspective, which is capable of appreciating and is permeated by benevolence and trust, does not do any damage whatsoever to the strength of doctrine. This perspective forms part of the vertical column of doctrine. Francis perceives doctrine as the “today” of the word of God, the Word incarnate in history, and he communicates it while listening to the questions that arise en route.

What he rejects is the perspective of a withdrawal into abstract pronouncements unconnected to the subject who lives and who bears witness to the encounter with the Lord that changes one’s life. The abstract, doctrinaire perspective domesticates some pronouncements in order to impose their generalization on an elite, forgetting that when we close our eyes to our neighbor, we also become blind to God, as Benedict XVI said in “God Is Love.”

How then is this Exhortation to be read?

As I reflected on this, I realized that the perspective of the Good Shepherd, which permeates the entire document, also gives us the key to reading it. It allows us discover, in the welcome we extend to the poorest and weakest, the paradigm of how we in the church welcome weaknesses or difficult situations. The attention dedicated in “The Joy of Love” to migrants and to handicapped persons is a sign of the Spirit. These two situations are paradigmatic: they bring into play in a special way the manner in which the logic of merciful welcome and of the integration of weak persons is lived today. In keeping with the same logic, the pope also speaks of the dependent status of old people and of families who are crushed by extreme poverty.

We see in Francis a great admiration for all those virtues that are lived day by day in situations of grave difficulty. The perspective of living faith sees the flesh of Jesus there. It is thus the poor who offer us the key to reading the text. This perspective takes nothing away from the clarity of the church’s teaching. On the contrary, it welcomes this teaching as a light on this path where Christ goes ahead of us, united to those who are least. As Francis recalls at the beginning of the text, the word of God does not manifest itself as a sequence of abstract texts, but rather as a traveling companion. This perspective of faith on concrete realities and this attentiveness to those who are weakest on the journey are certainly the keys that let us open the treasure chest that is “The Joy of Love.”

Pope Francis rebukes those who, moved by a defensive attitude, waste pastoral energies by multiplying their attacks on a decadent world, thereby demonstrating their lack of ability to propose paths that will lead to happiness. One can truly say that some ministers of the Gospel and some pastors end up speaking more about the ugliness of sin than about the beauty of salvation. The pope seems to be insisting on a pastoral style that is positive and welcoming.…

This is correct. The pope is summoning us to self-criticism in the pastoral sphere and drawing our attention, as we go on, to the great ideological temptations—which he has also called “Pelagian”—that can lead us astray with regard to reality. Before we denounce, we must announce and accompany, stimulating growth and consolidating a deeper perception. The entire dynamics of “The Joy of Love” consist of showing that nothing encourages true love more strongly than believing in love. This is a great pedagogical truth: it is the attractiveness of the good that motivates and gives the strength to walk along this path where the Father attracts us and searches for us, no matter what our situation may be. This removes us very far from a defensive pastoral style in which evil becomes an obsession that turns its back on the presence of the “faithful and true witness” (Rev 3:14).

I find this positive pastoral style more important today than ever before. The pope insists strongly on growth, on maturing, on small steps that take one further.…

The positive pastoral style means accompaniment along the path of growth, the yeast that makes the dough rise. One senses this joy on the part of a father who sees, in the difficult situations, the little step that was possible and that may have cost a tremendous effort—a greater effort than is required of one who lives his own family situation in very favorable conditions. This is the meaning of the “law of graduality” that St. John Paul II evoked when he affirmed that the human being knows, loves and performs the moral good by growing step by step. The human being gradually moves forward through the progressive integration of the gifts of God and the demands of his definitive and absolute love into one’s entire personal and social life. We must therefore be attentive to “the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness” (No. 308).

Is the positive pastoral style also a way of expounding doctrine?

Exactly. The positive pastoral style is also a way of expounding doctrine in a gentle manner, linking it to the profound motivations of men and women. The totality of doctrine is expressed, but in a fresh and new way that a large public can read. This is a beautiful illustration of what St. John XXIII said at the opening of the council: the truths are unchangeable, but the way of uttering them and proposing them must be renewed. There is a genuine renewal.

One is struck by the pope’s insistence in “The Joy of Love” that no family is a perfect and ready-made reality. Why then do we have the tendency to be excessively idealistic when we speak about the relationship of a married couple? Is this perhaps a romantic idealism that risks falling into a form of Platonism?

The Bible itself presents family life not as an abstract ideal but as what the Holy Father calls a “work of craftsmanship.” The eyes of the Good Shepherd look at persons, not at ideas that are present in order to justify afterward the reality of our hope. Separating these notions from the world in which the Word becomes incarnate leads to the development of “a cold bureaucratic morality” (No. 312). We have sometimes spoken of marriage so abstractly that it loses all its attractiveness. The pope speaks very clearly: No family is a perfect reality, since it is made up of sinners. The family is en route. I believe that this is the bedrock of the entire document. This way of looking at things has nothing to do with secularism, with Aristotelianism as opposed to Platonism. I believe, rather, that it is biblical realism, the way of looking at human beings that Scripture gives us.

The language employed in this exhortation is very surprising: it is a language of daily life, normal, readable. The text seems to be addressing everyone. I have in mind, for example, the phenomenology of eroticism.…

Sexuality is not particularly open to abstractions. In the central chapters of the exhortation, which speak of the growth of love, Pope Francis writes with great realism and freshness about the passions, the emotional life, eroticism and sexuality. The erotic dimension of love, the desire, the pleasure that is given, the pleasure that is received…all these are elements of a phenomenology of eroticism that the exhortation integrates, using numerous arguments, into the Christian vision of matrimony, which is not reduced to its procreative goal. The sexual union of the spouses is presented as “a path of growth in the life of grace” (No. 74).

This is one step further than was taken in the past, I believe.…

With his theology of the body and his vision of the family as the image of the Trinity, John Paul II had made an innovation vis-à-vis an almost unanimous tradition that had refused to see the image of God in the human being otherwise than in his or her soul. I believe that, with Pope Francis, the church’s teaching is making a further step forward, consolidating an approach to marriage and to the family no longer from above, but from below, with this loving look at reality that also embraces all the joys and the passions of the human being, in order to demonstrate openness to what God wants to realize as his image in the couple and in the family.

The chapter on raising children seems to me to clarify the overall meaning of the exhortation. The pope speaks there of the father and the mother, but perhaps also of the church as mother and of the spiritual fatherhood of its ministers. “Obsession is not education. We cannot control every situation that a child may experience,” writes the Pope (No. 261). He himself had stated, in the interview I had with him in 2013, that the church must not be obsessed with moral topics to the detriment of the “kerygma,” the proclamation of the death and the resurrection of Christ for me. The pope then affirms that the important thing is “the ability lovingly to help them [the children] grow in freedom, maturity, overall discipline and real autonomy.” Could we apply this principle, by analogy, to the concern of Mother Church for all her children, whom she brings up in the faith and for the faith? How would this be possible?

I admire this delicacy of Pope Francis, who puts the chapter on education before the chapter on the pastoral care for difficult situations. This sheds a light on the pastoral praxis of the church and on the patient realism that love demands: proposing small steps that can be understood, accepted and appreciated. This gives us the key to Chapter 8. What Pope Francis says about the family—the little church—he also says about the whole church. In the family, just as in the church, neither laissez-faire nor obsessiveness is capable of creating processes of maturing and of growth, since all these are processes of liberation, drawn by the magnetic power of the good that summons us. In this process that goes from imperfection to a greater fullness, it is important that the “children can learn for themselves the importance of certain values, principles and norms, rather than by imposing these as absolute and unquestionable truths” (No. 264). Francis had made the same point earlier on, in a magnificent quotation from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius: “it is not great knowledge, but rather the ability to feel and relish things interiorly that contents and satisfies the soul” (No. 207). St. Thomas says the same about the new law, which is a law written on the heart.

One seems to perceive a synthesis between Ignatian spirituality and the Thomist tradition. You yourself said in the official presentation in the Vatican that “The Joy of Love” has two noble fathers: Ignatius of Loyola and Thomas Aquinas.

Yes, I believe that the exhortation has its roots in Ignatius and Thomas. We find here the exposition of a moral theology that draws inspiration from the great Ignatian tradition (the discernment of the conscience) and the great Dominican tradition (virtue ethics). We turn our back on the ethics of obligation, which have an extrinsicism that generates both laxity and rigorism. And we rejoin the great tradition of Catholic moral theology, which allows us to integrate the entire contribution of personalism.

I ask you, as a Dominican: do we need the virtues?

We need them, in order that the good that is perceived by the Spirit may put down roots in us and that it may be perceived as a good for us…prudence, right judgment, the common sense that derives from a whole chain of elements that are synthesized in the person, in the heart of his or her freedom…the inadequate concepts that condition freedom…the tendencies and the wounds suffered in childhood.… “The Joy of Love” is the great text of moral theology that we have been waiting for since the days of the Second Vatican Council and that develops further the choices that were already made by the Catechism of the Catholic Church and by “The Splendor of Truth.” Probably only a Jesuit could have done justice with such acuteness and lucidity to the alchemy of the singular and the universal, of the conditioning and the norm of the dynamics of the moral act. I am struck by the extent to which Pope Francis has put his finger on the core of Thomist moral theology, when he speaks of the morality of friendship. It is indeed about the interplay of two freedoms that meet each other. The entire dynamism of friendship cannot depend on an external obligation. It must depend on an interior need. It is love’s need that provides orientation to the path that “The Joy of Love” takes. Nothing is more demanding than love. One can observe a law externally without putting one’s heart into it—solely out of obligation. But one cannot live the love of friendship without bringing one’s freedom fully into play.

Some of the critics have said that this Exhortation appears to succumb to “situation ethics” and “the graduality of the law.” I believe that the pope is certainly not proposing that we take our own weakness as the criterion for establishing what is good and what is evil. He does, however, emphasize a progression in the knowledge, the desire and the realization of the good. To aim at the fullness of the Christian life does not mean doing in an abstract manner that which is more perfect, but doing that which is concretely possible. What do you think of this? How does one reply to such accusations?

Against the background of a clear objectivity of the good and of the truth, the exhortation highlights the progress in knowledge and in the commitment to do what is good on the part of the human being who is on the way. As one gradually grows, the invitation to follow Christ in the daily life of the family and of marriage will make it concretely possible for the rule to become the demand that love makes. This is the entire experience of the Christian life. And this is the opposite of a situation ethics in which the norm is always perceived as extrinsic to the act that is performed: the norm is located exclusively on the level of general principles, in the hierarchy of the values, the values of the personality. In a situation ethics, the subject liberates himself from the objective norm (which is considered in an abstract manner) and embraces a pragmatism that looks to the specific circumstances.

We find ourselves in a double moral truth: the ideal and the existential. In a virtue ethics, which is emphasized by the Catechism, morality and its principles are located in the action under the conditioning of prudence, not of theoretical knowledge. “The truth about the moral good, stated in the law of reason, is recognized practically and concretely by the prudent judgment of conscience” (No. 1780). The moral rightness of such a concrete act includes inseparably the search for the objective norm that applies to the complexity of my case—a case that is never as simple as an abstract analysis of the exterior act might suggest—and the rootedness of the virtues that lead one to perform the good that one has recognized. This is the nodal point of the clarification of the relationships between objective and subject, to which neither the ethics of obligation nor situation ethics is able to do justice.

We are speaking of the centrality of that “prudence” of which St. Thomas speaks.…

Unlike a situation ethics, in which the conscience is regulated in accordance with the autonomy of the person, and an ethics of obligation, in which the conscience is the simple registration of an abstract norm that is imposed from outside, in the Catholic morality that is set out in the Catechism, “prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance” and that “immediately guides the judgment of conscience.” It is precisely “with the help of this virtue” that “we apply moral principles to particular cases without error and overcome doubts about the good to achieve and the evil to avoid” (No. 1806). It is in view of what I am, and of the context in which I exist, that the prudential judgment searches, judges and chooses what appears to it to be just and right in a concrete case. This is indeed an objective norm, but it is the objective norm that corresponds to the specificity of my case in seeking and loving the true and the good. We read in the Catechism: “When he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking” (No. 1777).

In the dynamism of this seeking and of this rootedness, which is characteristic of our life of growth towards a “total truth,” is it possible to identify factors that can explain a lack of guiltor at least, a clear diminution of imputabilitywhen a norm is not respected?

Yes, that is correct. In this path of growth, there are factors that can explain why it is possible not to be subjectively guilty if we do not objectively respect a norm; or else, it is possible that the imputability of guilt may be strongly diminished. We read in the Catechism: “Imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments and other psychological or social factors” (No. 1735). These are all things that influence “full knowledge” or “complete consent” (No. 1859) and that can therefore lessen the perception here and nowof the significance or the centrality of the norm.

In this sense, therefore, Pope Francis is in accord with church tradition.…

What Pope Francis says about the conscience is in the heart of the great ecclesial tradition, enriched by a personalist perception of the uniqueness of every free act.

My curiosity is aroused by the fact that, when the pope speaks of irregular situations, he puts the adjective in quotation marks and prefixes the expression “so-called.” Do you believe that this has any particular significance?

The relevant fact here is that this document goes beyond the categories of “regular” and “irregular.” To oversimplify: there are not marriages and families that function well, on the one hand, and others that do not function well, on the other hand. Francis speaks of a reality that concerns us all: we are viatores, “travelers.” We are subject to sin, and we all need mercy. The appeal to conversion is just as real in the most orthodox of situations as in an irregular situation. It is only at a second stage that one should speak of sin, of failure, of wounds that touch the reality of the family. The “so-called irregular” situations is an expression that the pope repeats often. This is not a question of relativism. On the contrary, he leaves no doubt about the reality of sin. Francis is not denying that there are regular or irregular situations, but he goes beyond this perspective in order to put the Gospel into practice: “Let whoever among you is without sin be the first to throw a stone.”

What profound message is present in this bypassing of the categories of “regular” and “irregular”?

It does not mean putting all situations on the same level, without any distinctions. It means expressing a fundamental message: quite apart from what is regular and irregular, we are all begging for grace. I myself know, thanks to the situation of my own family, how difficult this distinction is for those who come from a patchwork family. The church’s language can inflict wounds. With “The Joy of Love,” something changes in the ecclesial discourse. Pope Francis’ document stands under a guiding phrase: everyone must be integrated, because what is involved is fundamental Gospel compassion. We must help everyone to find his or her own way of participating in the ecclesial community, so that they may feel they are the object of compassion that is unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous. “No one can be condemned forever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel!” writes Francis (No. 297).

This continuous principle of inclusion certainly alarms some people. Does not this exhortation perhaps favor a kind of laxity, a disregard for the church’s teaching, the loss of points of reference?

The pope leaves no space for any doubt about the church’s teaching, and in order to avoid any kind of erroneous interpretation, he points out “that in no way must the church desist from proposing the full idea of marriage, God’s plan in all its grandeur” (No. 307). But he also affirms in strong language that “It is reductive simply to consider whether an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being” (No. 304). We must not be reductive.…

And above all, the pastor cannot and must not be reductive!

Francis affirms that a pastor cannot feel satisfied if all he does is to apply moral laws to those who live in “irregular” situations, as if these laws were stones thrown at people’s lives. Sometimes, unfortunately, even the church’s teachings conceal hearts that are closed and attitudes that are reductive. This is why the Holy Father demands “a healthy dose of self-criticism” (No. 36) and urges all of us, without any distinctions, to pursue a via caritatis, a path of charity, with sober realism, a path that will incarnate the Gospel of the family step by step. Along this path, doctrine gradually becomes light, as we become increasingly captivated by the person of Jesus.

As he listened to the synod fathers, the pope became aware of the fact that one can no longer speak of an abstract category of persons, nor subsume the praxis of integration under a universal rule.

On the level of principle, the doctrine of marriage and the sacraments is clear. Pope Francis has newly expressed it with great clarity. On the level of discipline, the pope takes account of the endless variety of concrete situations. He has affirmed that one should not expect a new general set of norms in the manner of canon law that would be applicable to every case.

On the level of praxis, in view of the difficult situations and the wounded families, the Holy Father has written that all that is possible is new encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment in the specific cases. This must recognize that “since ‘the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases,’ the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same” (No. 300). He adds, very clearly and without ambiguity, that this discernment also concerns “sacramental discipline, since discernment can recognize that in a particular situation no grave fault exists” (No. 336 footnote). He also specifies that “individual conscience needs to be better incorporated into the church’s praxis” (No. 303), especially in a “conversation with the priest, in the internal forum” (No. 300).

After this exhortation, therefore, it is no longer meaningful to ask whether, in general, all divorced and remarried persons can or cannot receive the sacraments.

The doctrine of faith and customs exist—the discipline based on the sacred doctrine and the life of the church—and there also exists the praxis that is conditioned both personally and by the community. “The Joy of Love” is located on the very concrete level of each person’s life. There is an evolution, clearly expressed by Pope Francis, in the church’s perception of the elements that condition and that mitigate, elements that are specific to our own epoch:

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. More is involved here than mere ignorance of the rule. A subject may know the rule full well yet have great difficulty in understanding “its inherent values,” or may be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin. As the synod fathers put it, “factors may exist which limit the ability to make a decision” (No. 301).

But this orientation was already contained in a way in the famous No. 84 of St. John Paul II’s “The Family in the Modern World,” to which Francis has made recourse several times, as when he writes: “Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations” (No. 79).

St. John Paul II did indeed distinguish a variety of situations. He saw a difference between those who had tried sincerely to salvage their first marriage and were abandoned unjustly and those who had destroyed a canonically valid marriage through their grave fault. He then spoke of those who have entered a second marital union for the sake of bringing up their children and who sometimes are subjectively certain in their consciences that the first marriage, now irreparably destroyed, was never valid. Each one of these cases thus constitutes the object of a differentiated moral evaluation.

There are very many different starting points in an ever-deeper sharing in the life of the church, to which everyone is called. St. John Paul II already presupposes implicitly that one cannot simply say that every situation of a divorced and remarried person is the equivalent of a life in mortal sin, separated from the communion of love between Christ and the church. Accordingly, he was opening the door to a broader understanding by means of the discernment of the various situations that are not objectively identical and thanks to the consideration of the internal forum.

I have the impression, therefore, that this stage is an evolution in the understanding of the doctrine.

The complexity of family situations, which goes far beyond what was customary in our Western societies even a few decades ago, has made it necessary to look in a more nuanced way at the complexity of these situations. To a greater degree than in the past, the objective situation of a person does not tell us everything about that person in relation to God and in relation to the church. This evolution compels us urgently to rethink what we meant when we spoke of objective situations of sin. And this implicitly entails a homogeneous evolution in the understanding and expression of the doctrine.

Francis has taken an important step by obliging us to clarify something that had remained implicit in “The Family in the Modern World” about the link between the objectivity of a situation of sin and the life of grace in relation to God and to his church, and—as a logical consequence—about the concrete imputability of sin. Cardinal Ratzinger explained in the 1990s that we no longer speak automatically of a situation of mortal sin in the case of new marital unions. I remember asking Cardinal Ratzinger in 1994, when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published its document about divorced and remarried persons: “Is it possible that the old praxis that was taken for granted, and that I knew before the council, is still valid? This envisaged the possibility, in the internal forum with one’s confessor, of receiving the sacraments, provided that no scandal was given.” His reply was very clear, just like what Pope Francis affirms: There is no general norm that can cover all particular cases. The general norm is very clear, and it is equally clear that it cannot cover all the cases exhaustively.

This means that the dynamic of integration, which Francis has now taken to a deeper level, was already present in “The Family in the Modern World”.

Francis has continued in this direction, taking one further step than John Paul II. The evolution that is present in the exhortation is principally the new consciousness of an objective evolution, namely of the conditionings that are specific to our societies. Discernment takes greater account of those elements that suppress or attenuate imputability. And there is the discernment of a path that is objectively meaningful towards the fullness of the Gospel. Although this is not yet the objective ideal, this kind of lack of guilt, accompanied by small steps towards that to which we are called, is no small thing in the eyes of the Good Shepherd. Here, we are at the very heart of the Christian life. This dynamic process possesses objectively a significant value that must be taken into account in a discernment that is permeated by mercy, when we ask about the sacramental help that the church gives.

The pope states that “in some cases,” when a person is in an objective situation of sinbut without being subjectively guilty, or without being totally guiltyit is possible to live in the grace of God, to love and to grow in the life of grace and of charity, receiving for this purpose the help of the church, including the sacraments, and even the Eucharist, which “is not a reward for those who are perfect, but a generous medicine and a nourishment for those who are weak.” How can this affirmation be integrated into the classical doctrine of the church? Is there a rupture here with what was affirmed in the past?

Bearing in mind the document’s perspective, I believe that a fundamental point in the elaboration of “The Joy of Love” is that all of us—no matter what abstract category we may belong to—are called to beg for mercy, to desire conversion: “Lord, I am not worthy....” When Pope Francis speaks only in a footnote about the help given by the sacraments “in some instances” of irregular situations, he does so despite the fact that the problem, which is a very important one, is formulated in the wrong way when it is hypostatized, and also despite the fact that some people want to deal with it by means of a general discourse rather than by means of the individual discernment of the body of Christ, to which each and every one of us is indebted.

With great perspicacity, Pope Francis asks us to meditate on 1 Cor 11:17-34 (No. 186), which is the most important passage that speaks of eucharistic Communion. This allows him to relocate the problem and place it where St. Paul places it. It is a subtle way of indicating a different hermeneutic in response to the recurrent questions. It is necessary to enter into the concrete dimension of life in order to “discern the body,” begging for mercy. It is possible that the one whose life is in accordance with the rules lacks discernment and, as St. Paul says, “eats and drinks judgment on himself.”

It is possible, in certain cases, that the one who is in an objective situation of sin can receive the help of the sacraments. We come to the sacraments as beggars, like the tax collector at the back of the temple who does not dare to lift his eyes. The pope invites us not only to look at the external conditions (which have their own importance) but also to ask ourselves whether we have this thirst for a merciful pardon, so that we may respond better to the sanctifying dynamism of grace. One cannot pass from the general rule to “some cases” merely by looking at formal situations. It is therefore possible that, in some cases, one who is in an objective situation of sin can receive the help of the sacraments.

What does “in some cases” mean? Someone will ask, “Why should we not get a kind of inventory to explain what this means?”

Because otherwise, there is a risk of falling into abstract casuistry. Even more seriously, we would risk creating, even by means of a norm that spoke of exceptions, a right to receive the Eucharist in an objective situation of sin. I believe that the pope is obligating us here, for the love of the truth, to discern the individual cases both in the internal forum and in the external forum.

Please explain this to me: Pope Francis speaks here of an “objective situation of sin.” Obviously, therefore, he is not referring to those who have received a declaration of the nullity of their first marriage and who have then married, nor to those who succeed in satisfying the requirement of living together “as brother and sister.” (Their situation may be irregular, but they are not in fact living in an objective situation of sin.) Accordingly, the pope is referring here to those who do not succeed in realizing objectively our concept of marriage and in transforming their way of life in accordance with this requirement. Is this correct?

Yes, certainly! In his great experience of accompanying people spiritually, when the Holy Father speaks of “objective situations of sin,” he does not stop short at the kinds of cases that are specified in No. 84 of “The Family in the Modern World” He refers in a broader way to “certain situations which do not objectively embody our understanding of marriage. Every effort should be made to encourage the development of an enlightened conscience” while “recognizing the influence of concrete factors” (No. 303).

The conscience plays a fundamental role.…

Indeed it does:

Conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize 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 not yet fully the objective ideal” (No. 303).

This is in fact very important. “The Joy of Love” underlines not only the capacity to understand the norm, but also the limit of the capacity to take a different decision, to take a new decision, without incurring new guilt.…

The Holy Father broadens the perspective, with his starting point in a long and authentic tradition of theoretical and practical moral theology with regard to the imputability of the subject. John Paul II did not take this directly into consideration, but he did not disown it (as he did when he spoke of the graduality of the law) or exclude it. Francis appeals to the praxis of the great tradition of spiritual directors whose role has always been that of discernment, taking into account both the interior dispositions and the real possibilities of transforming these existential situations with the aid of grace. Between everything and nothing there lies the path of grace and of growth: “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” (No. 305; “The Joy of the Gospel, No. 44).

How can this perspective of Francis be integrated into the classical doctrine of the church?  

There may perhaps be an analogy in “the administration of the Eucharist under special circumstances, to individual persons belonging to churches or Ecclesial communities not in full communion with the Catholic Church. In this case, in fact, the intention is to meet a grave spiritual need for the eternal salvation of an individual believer, not to bring about an intercommunion which remains impossible until the visible bonds of ecclesial communion are fully re-established” (John Paul II, “On the Eucharist in Its Relationship to the Church,” No.45). This was already indicated by the council with regard to the Eastern brethren who are objectively separated from Catholic communion, and who ask to receive the eucharist with the necessary dispositions ( “On the Catholic Churches of the Eastern Rite,” No.27). There is a tension between an objective separation and the Eucharist as the sacrament of ecclesial communion. And yet, we have found a path that is based not on imputability but on the shared faith in the sacraments, the spiritual need and our shared concern for unity.

This does not solve the problem of communion between Catholics and our separated brethren, but we recognize that situations exist in which admission to Holy Communion is not excluded. It is not a question of opening up a navigable path in the structure of the church nor of privatizing the Eucharist but (as John Paul II told us) of “meeting a grave spiritual need for eternal salvation.” One could outline something analogous in the discernment of “certain cases” in Footnote 351: the non-imputability, faith in the sacrament of matrimony, the search for possible paths that allow a response to the project of God in the reality of an objective significant process. We are witnessing here a development by means of the addition of a complementary truth, just as the “primacy” formulated at the First Vatican Council has undeniably been developed through the addition of the “collegiality” of the Second Vatican Council. “The Joy of Love” does not develop the objective requirements of the marriage bond, which were already formulated clearly in “The Family in the Modern World,but it contributes a complementary reflection on the present-day conditionings of the married couple in the exercise of their freedom.

The language of mercy incarnates the truth of life. The pope’s concern in this exhortation on family love is to “re-contextualize” the doctrine at the service of the church’s pastoral mission. One could identify a journey, a kind of relay race from one pope to the next: John Paul II renewed our entry into hope, which is a genuine rock. In a magisterial manner, Benedict XVI has shown us the organic nature of faith, not only with regard to the abstract corpus of doctrine but also with regard to the person of Jesus. Pope Francis shows us the logic of the incarnation: God is love now, for each one of us, he searches for us, and he draws us to himself thanks to the unlimited mercy that impels the church to open its doors. You are a witness, you have experienced this personally. How do you see this passage?

I was greatly struck by the interview that Emeritus Pope Benedict gave to Fr. Jacques Servais, published by the Osservatore Romanoimmediately before the publication of “The Joy of Love.” Pope Benedict demonstrates here a profound continuity from Saint John Paul II to Pope Francis in their reading of this authentic sign of the times—namely, the ever more central dimension of mercy in the consciousness of the faithful. John Paul II opened the doors to Christ. Pope Benedict established anew the organic nature of faith in the person of Christ. Pope Francis is urging us to cross the threshold, to go out to meet him in our poverties. All three popes, each with his own providential style, are enacting this process of renewal in fidelity that characterizes the council.

That interview is illuminating with regard both to pastoral conversion and to doctrine.…

Yes, it is a precious illustration of the continuous pastoral conversion that the exercise of doctrine ought to have, in order to express always the salvific truth in a society that is changing, in a world in which men and women no longer perceive themselves as they did in the past. This is exactly what “The Joy of Love” does. Benedict XVI tells us, for example, that one can no longer speak about the salvation of non-believers as we once did: “There can be no doubt that, on this point, we are faced with a profound evolution of the dogma.… The discovery of the New World at the beginning of the modern age radically changed the perspectives.…” (Osservatore Romano interview). We touch here on some of the profound questions connected with the “hermeneutic of reform in continuity.” In order to transmit the doctrine, to grasp it in greater death and to present it in a way that corresponds to the demands of our time, a tremendous effort is needed to contextualize it, drawing a distinction between the truths that are contained in the deposit of faith and the way in which they are enunciated. This is particularly relevant in the areas of anthropology and of the relationship between the church and today’s world, where, at first sight, there may seem to be some discontinuity. One could mention several examples, such as lending money at interest or religious freedom, where the church has taken a fresh look and has sometimes corrected certain historical decisions in order to grasp more deeply, across apparent discontinuities, the truth that is entrusted to it. “It is precisely in this combination of continuity and discontinuity at different levels that the very nature of true reform consists” (Benedict XVI, address to the Curia, Dec. 22, 2005).

“The Joy of the Gospel,” “The Joy of Love.”... It seems that Pope Francis wants to insist strongly on the topic of joy. Why do you think this is? Do we need to speak about joy today? Are we at risk of losing it? Because mercy is disturbing? Because we are preoccupied with inclusion? What are the fears that the pope’s words awaken in some people? Can you explain this?

The appeal to mercy points us to the need to go out from our own selves to practice mercy and to obtain in return the mercy of the Father. The church of “The Joy of the Gospel” is the church that goes out, and going out from oneself causes fear. We have to go out from our ready-made securities, so that we can let ourselves be reunited to Christ. Pope Francis takes us by the hand to point us in the right direction of testimony to the faith. He wants to show us an encounter that changes our life, an encounter of love that can take place only if we go toward the meeting with others.

Pastoral conversion continuously seeks this presence of the God who is at work today. This presence kindles joy, the joy of love. Love is demanding; but there is no greater joy than love.

English translation: Brian McNeil; texts of the magisterium in English are taken from the Vatican website.

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