Pope Francis: the church must integrate, not exclude, Catholics in ‘irregular situations’
In his post-synod apostolic exhortation on the family, “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”), Pope Francis not only strongly affirms the traditional Christian ideal of marriage, he also opens doors to the progressive integration into the life of the church of those Catholics who can only participate in it now “in an incomplete way” because they are either civilly married, living together or divorced and remarried.
He says the aim is to integrate, not exclude, these people who fall short of the Christian ideal. He uses three verbs to express how the church should assist them here: “accompany, discern and integrate.” These words were much in vogue at the two synods on the family and are central to his non-judgmental approach to people.
The concept of integration is the key element in this 260-page magisterial text, where he emphasizes the importance of “reaching out to everyone” to help each person find “his or her proper way of participating in the ecclesial community and thus to experience being touched by an ‘unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous’ mercy.” He insists, “No one can be condemned for ever [sic], because that is not the logic of the Gospel!” and adds without explaining, “Here I am not speaking only of the divorced and remarried, but of everyone, in whatever situation they find themselves.”
In Chapter 8, Francis endorses the 2015 synod’s key conclusion (No. 84) that “the baptized who are divorced and civilly remarried need to be more fully integrated into Christian communities in the variety of ways possible, while avoiding any occasion of scandal.”
The logic of integration is the key to their pastoral care, a care which would allow them not only to realize that they belong to the Church as the body of Christ, but also to know that they can have a joyful and fruitful experience in it. They are baptized; they are brothers and sisters; the Holy Spirit pours into their hearts gifts and talents for the good of all. Their participation can be expressed in different ecclesial services, which necessarily requires discerning which of the various forms of exclusion currently practiced in the liturgical, pastoral, educational and institutional framework can be surmounted (No. 299).
This integration “is also needed in the care and Christian upbringing of their children, who ought to be considered most important,” he declares.
Given “the immense variety of concrete situations,” Francis states 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.” Instead, he advocates “a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases,” and says, “priests have the duty to ‘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.’” Given this complex reality, Francis declares, “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 acknowledges that the route to integration takes time, there is nothing automatic about it; it requires accompaniment and discernment, but the doors are open, even to the sacraments. It should be noted, however, that just as in the final report of the 2015 synod so, too, in this exhortation the word communion is nowhere to be found in the body of the text in relation to the divorced and remarried, except in two footnotes. The broader term liturgy, however, is used.
The exhortation is the fruit of a worldwide consultation on the family and two synods but does not change church doctrine. In the introduction Francis insists 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. This will always be the case as the Spirit guides us towards the entire truth.” Furthermore, “each country or region, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs (No. 3).
Francis knows most of the world’s bishops support the direction he is taking, but a minority does not and claims the pope is causing confusion. He responds this way:
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 (No. 307).
Besides Chapter 8, there are eight other chapters that cannot be overlooked. Francis has written them in a language that is fresh and easily understood, without ever losing the spiritual dimension that is the golden thread of this text. In it, he approaches the panoply of complex situations with the heart and wisdom of a pastor who has accompanied and counselled countless couples over half a century. This shines through in the text.
Francis in Chapter 1 presents a vision of family through the lens of the Scriptures, because “the Bible is full of families, births, love stories and family crises.” He says “the couple that loves and begets life is a true, living icon capable of revealing God the Creator and Savior.” He quotes Argentina’s famous writer and poet, Jorge Luis Borges, who said, “Every home is a lampstand.”
In Chapter 2, Francis looks at “the experiences and challenges of families” today. He mentions “the anthropological-cultural change,” the exaggerated individualism and “the culture of the ephemeral” reflected in human relations, too. He reflects on the impact of migration, war, poverty, inadequate housing, unemployment and drug addiction on families. He comments on the challenges from the ideology of “gender” and the technological revolution in the field of human procreation.
One of the striking things here is Francis’ insistence that the church needs “a healthy dose of self-criticism,” because “we often present marriage in such a way that its unitive meaning, its call to grow in love and its ideal of mutual assistance are overshadowed by an almost exclusive insistence on the duty of procreation.” Moreover, “we have proposed a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families. This excessive idealization has not helped to make marriage more desirable and attractive, but quite the opposite.”
Continuing his critique, Francis says, “We have thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life.” Furthermore, “We find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them (No. 37).
Francis acknowledges that
there is no stereotype of the ideal family, but rather a challenging mosaic made up of many different realities, with all their joys, hopes and problems. The situations that concern us are challenges. We should not be trapped into wasting our energy in doleful laments, but rather seek new forms of missionary creativity (No. 57).
In Chapter 3, he focuses on the vocation of the family in the light of Christ. He insists that church teaching can only inspire if it is centered on the core of the Gospel message and emphasizes the need “to enter into” the mystery of Jesus’ birth and the family of Nazareth. He recalls the teaching on marriage and openness to children of the Second Vatican Council, Paul VI and John Paul II. He rejects abortion, euthanasia and the death penalty (No. 83)
Chapter 4 stands out as poetic theology. Here, under the title “Love in Marriage,” Francis offers couples a profound reflection on love in marriage and the family, centered on St. Paul’s hymn on love in First Corinthians (1 Cor 13). He combines this reflection with many practical suggestions for developing and strengthening this love. He speaks about patience, for instance, and meeting trials and tribulations with fraternal love; here he quotes Martin Luther King (No. 118). He refers to marriage as “the icon of God’s love for us,” and refers to conjugal love as “the greatest form of friendship.” He emphasizes the importance of dialogue in marriage and the family, and discusses the role of desires, emotions, feelings, passions, sexuality and violence in marriage and “the transformation of love” as the couple journeys through life.
That beautiful chapter is followed in a somewhat similar vein by Chapter 5, “Love Made Fruitful.” Speaking about accepting new life, Francis says, “Each child has a place in God’s heart from all eternity; once he or she is conceived, the Creator’s eternal dream comes true” (No. 168). He discusses the love of the mother and the father. He gives attention to adoption, the extended and intergenerational dimension of the family and encourages the family to have “a big heart.”
In Chapter 6, Francis looks at the need for “new pastoral methods.” He offers suggestions but says this must be done by the local church. He says families should develop a missionary spirit and notes that ordained ministers often lack the necessary formation for dealing with complex family problems. He calls for proper interdisciplinary formation in seminaries in this field and suggests that “the experience of the broad oriental tradition of a married clergy could also be drawn upon.” He emphasizes the need for proper formation of laity that engage in pastoral work with families.
In particular, he calls for sound preparation of couples for marriage and accompaniment in the early years of marriage and of abandoned or separated spouses. He says pastors should “encourage families to grow in faith,” and take advantage of such occasions as baptism, confirmation and first Communion to do this. In this chapter he advocates helping couples face crises in marriage and spouses after marriage breakup. He addresses questions that arise when a Catholic marries someone from another Christian community or from another religion. He appeals to parents who separate or divorce not to take their child “hostage against the other spouse” (No. 245).
Here too, Francis speaks about homosexuality but only in the context of the family. He repeats the catechism’s teaching that homosexuals must be respected in their dignity and that all forms of unjust discrimination, as well as forms of aggression and violence, be avoided. He calls for families with homosexual members to “be given respectful pastoral guidance, so that those who manifest a homosexual orientation can receive the assistance they need to understand and fully carry out God’s will in their lives” (No. 250).
Francis restates the church’s position that “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.” Moreover, “it is unacceptable that local Churches be subjected to pressure in this matter and that international bodies should make financial aid to poor countries dependent on the introduction of laws to establish ‘marriage’ between persons of the same sex” (No. 251).
Francis has long been concerned about the education of children, and in the exhortation he dedicates the entirety of Chapter 7 to this, emphasizing the importance of the family in the education of children, the need to educate children in values, the benefit of discipline, the need for sex education and the importance of bringing up children in the faith. He touches on the latter point again in Chapter 9, which he devotes to the development of a family spirituality.
Aware that the exhortation is long, Francis says, “I do not recommend a rushed reading of the text.”