In his post-synodal 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 participate in it now only “in an incomplete way” because they are either civilly married, living together or divorced and remarried.
The pope 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 nonjudgmental approach to people.
The concept of integration is the key element in this 260-page magisterial text, in which Pope Francis 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 forever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel!” and adds, “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 key conclusion of the meeting of the Synod of Bishops in 2015 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” (No. 84).
He affirms, “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” (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.”
He adds, “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 complexity, “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.”
The pope acknowledges that the route to integration takes time and 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 synod in 2015 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.
Pope Francis knows most of the world’s bishops support the direction he is taking, but a minority do not and claim 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).