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Colleen DulleApril 08, 2021
Pope Francis embraces Simone Zanini, 8, while greeting the disabled during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Sept. 2. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” was released five years ago today, on April 8, 2016. The 264-page document, whose title is Latin for “The Joy of Love,” is one of the longest papal writings in history. It meanders through an introduction and nine chapters, offering everything from grandfatherly advice on family life to Scripture reflections to South American love poems, observing along the way the difficulties families face and gently urging pastors to be more compassionate toward parishioners whose relationships do not always match the church’s ideal.

The document marked a shift away from an exclusive emphasis on the church’s idealistic image of family life, one that had often felt out of reach for ordinary Catholics. “At times we have also proposed a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families,” Pope Francis wrote. “This excessive idealization, especially when we have failed to inspire trust in God’s grace, has not helped to make marriage more desirable and attractive, but quite the opposite.”

While still encouraging Catholics to live up to the church’s ideal for marriage, Pope Francis said, pastors must find ways to welcome the many Catholics living in relationships deemed “irregular” in church teaching: Catholics who had been divorced and civilly remarried without having their first marriage annulled, gay and lesbian couples and unmarried cohabitating couples. Many Catholics in these situations had expressed that they felt ostracized by the church, being told they were “living in sin.”

The document marked a shift away from an exclusive emphasis on the church’s idealistic image of family life, one that had often felt out of reach for ordinary Catholics.

In light of the church’s “solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations,” the pope wrote, “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.” Instead, the document instructs pastors to work with such couples to examine their consciences for what God is calling them to do and to discern “with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response that can be given to God,” keeping in mind that the answer may not be the same for everyone.

In a now-famous and controversial footnote, Pope Francis noted that in some cases, people whose relationships were not blessed by the church may find themselves called to return to the sacraments. Previously, divorced and civilly remarried Catholics who did not receive an annulment were considered to be “persevering in manifest grave sin” and were barred from receiving Communion.

It is difficult to determine how many people this change actually affected. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, around a quarter of U.S. Catholics had been divorced and one-third remarried. Only about a quarter of those who had been divorced said they or their former partner had sought an annulment from the church, with 43 percent of those who did not have their first marriage annulled saying they did not think it was necessary. Almost half of all respondents said that remarrying after a divorce was not a sin, and 62 percent supported allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion.

In a now-famous and controversial footnote, Pope Francis noted that in some cases, people whose relationships were not blessed by the church may find themselves called to return to the sacraments.

Only about three in 10 of those Catholics who attended Mass but were ineligible for Communion because of their relationship status said they never received Communion; the rest said they received at least sometimes. Further obscuring the number of Catholics potentially affected by these changes in “Amoris Laetitia” are Pope Francis’ late 2015 annulment reforms, which simplified a process that could previously take years. Those who were abstaining from Communion while awaiting annulments in 2015 would likely have had their annulments approved by now.

Finally, one must take into account the diverse interpretations of this document by bishops and theologians around the globe. Pope Francis, shifting away from blanket rules and toward case-by-case discernment, left the decision on whether to admit remarried Catholics to Communion to local bishops, who have interpreted the teaching in a variety of ways in their own dioceses. Bishops in Malta, Germany, Argentina and San Diego, Calif., for example, have instructed priests in their dioceses to help divorced and remarried Catholics discern whether they should return to the Eucharist, with the Maltese bishops going so far as to say that for some couples, living “as brother and sister” may be “humanly impossible.”

[Related: Top 10 takeaways from “Amoris Laetitia”]

On the other hand, some bishops have concluded that all divorced and remarried Catholics must choose between sexual relations with their spouse and reception of the Eucharist, effectively making no change relative to the practice prior to “Amoris Laetitia.” One such bishop, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia, wrote soon after the document’s release, “Undertaking to live as brother and sister is necessary for the divorced and civilly-remarried to receive reconciliation in the Sacrament of Penance, which could then open the way to the Eucharist.”

For his part, Pope Francis has said informally that the Argentine bishops had interpreted “Amoris Laetitia” correctly when they stated, “When the couple’s concrete circumstances make it possible, especially when both are Christians with a journey of faith, one can propose a commitment to living in continence.” In other cases, they said, further discernment may be necessary; for example, abstaining from sex could harm a new marriage and the children who are part of that family. There could also be factors mitigating a spouse’s culpability in his or her divorce. In those cases, they said, “Amoris Laetitia opens the possibility of access to the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist.”

The Vatican, however, has not imposed that interpretation on all dioceses and has largely ignored those who have interpreted the document differently.

Bearing in mind the difficulty of quantifying how many Catholics have found themselves able to return to the sacraments following “Amoris Laetitia,” given the wide variations in how both bishops and lay Catholics interpret the church’s teachings, what effects can one say “Amoris Laetitia” has had in the five years since its release? I would posit three.

What effects can one say “Amoris Laetitia” has had in the five years since its release? I would posit three.

First, some Catholics who had been ineligible for Communion, inspired by Francis’ approach, will have quietly sought out their pastors and discerned whether or not to return to the sacraments. For those who have, receiving Communion and even being accompanied by a pastor could have a deeply positive and consoling, although largely hidden, effect.

The second and more visible outcome of “Amoris Laetitia” is that it galvanized resistance to Pope Francis and his magisterium among his opponents in the church. The pope foresaw that some Catholics would be uncomfortable with his shift away from blanket rules and toward case-by-base discernment: “I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care that leaves no room for confusion,” he wrote. “But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a church attentive to the goodness that 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.”

Complaints that “Amoris Laetitia” was sparking confusion came most vocally in the form of the now-famous “dubia”—a list of yes-or-no questions addressed to a church authority—from four cardinals demanding that the Pope Francis affirm or deny whether he was rejecting previous church teaching. The pope has not responded to the document. His supporters say doing so is unnecessary because “Amoris Laetitia” states that it is not changing church teaching but is instead posing possibilities for pastoral care in complex cases; critics have taken the lack of response as confirmation that the pope has broken from church doctrine. A group of traditionalist priests and academics followed the “dubia” with a “formal correction” of the pope, a measure that had not been employed since the 14th century.

Complaints that “Amoris Laetitia” was sparking confusion came most vocally in the form of the now-famous “dubia.”

This group has concluded that, as senior editor Matthew Schmitz wrote in First Things, if one believes “that marriage really is indissoluble, that communion must be made in a state of grace, or that humans are eternally answerable for their actions,” then “the only possible response to Francis’s effort is opposition.”

Such opposition has now expanded far beyond criticism of Pope Francis’ openness to Communion for the divorced and remarried, to include in some circles opposition to his entire papacy. Some have even questioned the legitimacy of his election, frequently accusing him of heresy and placing him at the center of “deep church” conspiracy theories. This small but vocal resistance, seen most widely in the United States, led one journalist to ask the pope if he thought there could be an “American schism.”

Despite such resistance, “Amoris Laetitia” has had a third, ongoing effect of furthering the implementation of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, including synodality, the primacy of conscience and the universal call to holiness that Pope Francis has made a goal of his pontificate to actualize. With a year of study and reflection on “Amoris Laetitia” already underway and a “synod on synodality” planned for next year, it is clear that Pope Francis does not see the work of “Amoris Laetitia” as complete.

The document followed up on two synods of bishops at the Vatican in 2014 and 2015, where representatives from around the world gathered to discuss the issues that families in their regions faced and to propose solutions. The suggestion to open Communion to some remarried Catholics originated with the German bishops and was approved by those at the meeting, representing the “synodal” way of making decisions—that is, with church leaders listening to the needs of those they serve and discussing teachings together, with the pope being attentive to those discussions and making a final decision.

It is clear that Pope Francis does not see the work of “Amoris Laetitia” as complete.

“Amoris Laetitia” also sparked local synods; for example, in San Diego, Bishop Robert W. McElroy gathered Catholics throughout the diocese and asked them to discuss the needs of families. Following that synod, he made the decision to allow remarried people to discern returning to the sacraments in his diocese.

A new stress on the primacy of an individual’s conscience in making decisions continues an emphasis of “Dignitatis Humanae,” the “Declaration on Religious Freedom” promulgated at Vatican II. That document affirmed the notion of the “primacy of conscience” (present in Catholic teaching since St. Thomas Aquinas), saying: “In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious.”

Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, commented on this passage in his 1968 Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II:

Over the pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority there still stands one’s own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority. Conscience confronts [the individual] with a supreme and ultimate tribunal, and one which in the last resort is beyond the claim of external social groups, even of the official church.

The subject is germane to “Amoris Laetitia” because the apostolic exhortation brought into consideration some concrete cases in which a person with a well-formed conscience may find themselves called to receive the sacraments even when the church declares them ineligible; the document also calls on pastors to help them discern well. As Pope Francis wrote pithily, “We have been called to form consciences, not replace them.”

Ultimately, “Amoris Laetitia” reminds the faithful of the “universal call to holiness” that undergirded the most important documents of Vatican II. At the time understood to mean that the vocation of the laity was just as holy as that of clerics and religious, that notion is present in the challenge of “Amoris Laetitia” to laypeople and pastors to see where the Holy Spirit is calling all people to holiness, no matter how messy the concrete realities of their lives.

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