An ‘ill-judged shift’ or a new ‘pastoral mind-set’? Different takes on ‘Amoris Laetitia’
The pope’s exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”) was greeted warmly by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops this morning. Bishop Richard J. Malone of Buffalo, N.Y., the chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, said the apostolic exhortation brings “a rich reflection on the mission of the family and on how the church can equip couples to embrace God’s vision for marriage and can offer healing for families who are struggling.”
He added, “We welcome this teaching from Pope Francis as the fruit of the synodal process started by him more than two years ago—a process that has inspired in our church, and indeed all over the world, a renewed attention to the importance of marriage and the family for all of society.
“I encourage all Catholics, especially those living the vocation of marriage and family life, to take time to read and study the exhortation as a pastoral guide to the great calling of marriage in the Lord.”
Bishop Malone called the exhortation “an inspirational aid for the clergy and laity who generously accompany couples as they prepare for marriage and throughout their married life, in both their joys and difficulties.”
Commenting on the exhortation during a press discussion this morning, Bishop Malone said “Amoris Laetitia” was focused on “reaching people not in the abstract, but in the concrete realities of their lives,” something he believes the the church in the United States is especially well poised to accomplish because of its various ministries and programs. “We stand with families, and we seek to support those who are touched by poverty, immigration challenges, pornography” and other social and personal difficulties.
Bishop Malone called the impact the new document might have on returning divorced and remarried Catholics—and others in what the church has called “irregular” situations—to the sacramental life of the church “a critical question.”
In the exhortation “the pope does not avoid or sidetrack the tough issues, so what we have to commit to with this call from the Holy Father is a much more intentional journey as church as we walk with our people through all of the joys and hopes and also all of the sadness and difficulties of marriage and family life; that’s where we’ve going to have to examine our consciences, examine our programs, look at everything—over time—illuminated by the Holy Father’s teaching.”
Bishop Malone was joined by U.S.C.C.B. President Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., said “Amoris Laetitia” urges the church to avoid the tendency “to fit people into categories,” urges it to “to see people as unique” and to cease throwing stones. Pope Francis, he added, “is not changing the rules; he is giving us a mind-set in which we see the person first.” In terms of the way the church and local pastors begin to reach out to the perhaps wounded or struggling in their communities “I think that can have a great effect,” the archbishop said, describing the exhortation as a revised “call to reach out and to find new ways to walk with people.”
The two U.S.C.C.B. leaders were accompanied this morning by Helen Alvaré, J.D., a columnist for America and professor of law at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University. She commented, "This document is a promise that the church will be dramatically active in the arena of the family and given how the state is really stepping back from the support that marriage needs and that marriage and children together need, I think this is a fabulous development.
"I just can’t be grateful enough for Pope Francis stepping that up."
Ms. Alvaré said the pope seems to have a keen appreciation how a corrosive individualism and economic pressures, especially keenly felt among America's working poor, can hurt relationships in married. "I think the pope balances well the natural longing for marriage with a really raw appreciation with how bad the situation can be on the ground," she said.
According to Ms. Alvaré, the exhortation celebrates both feminism and what the man and woman together bring to marriage. She added that “Amoris Laetitia” has “enormous children’s rights language” and language on the rights of parents against an intrusive state.
During a press conference in Chicago this morning, Archbishop Blase Cupich emphasized that the exhortation was “not about reform of rules of the church—it’s about reform of the church…it’s about having a very radical change in the approach we have to people living everyday lives” and discerning new opportunities for “accompanying them.”
Archbishop Cupich told Chicago media, “This is not a self-referential document; it’s not about increasing market share,” that is, getting Catholics back into parish pews. “This is about people and how to really accompany them and integrate them…and let them know they are not alone.”
Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles said the exhortation “comes at a critical time, when the meaning of marriage, family and human love is confused and disputed in our society. So I welcome this document as a gift to the church but also to everyone who wants to understand what God really intends for our true happiness as men and women.”
He added, "Personally, I was encouraged by what the pope has to say about preparing men and women for marriage and about our need to accompany couples, especially during those early years when they are just starting out on the path of their life together. I was also touched by our Holy Father’s call for all of us in the church to reach out with compassion to wounded families and persons living in difficult situations."
Reacting to the document, Archbishop William Slattery of Pretoria, South Africa, spokesperson of the Catholic Bishops’ in South Africa, said, "All family life is a shepherding in mercy. Special care must be given in the church community to those who experience struggle and failure; they are part of us, they must be welcomed, they must be invited to bring their gifts to the service of the family of God."
He said, “The pope does not propose solutions, but guides bishops and priests in possible responses. This may seem a radical step to those unfamiliar with the history of a church that we have grown to see as highly centralized, with doctrines, laws and practices sent down from on high to us to be applied in every case.”
Archbishop Slattery adds, "While the exhortation flows directly from the Synod and traditional church teaching, the pope—as usual—moves far from the hard realities of cold legislation to embrace with tenderness the lived experience of this the most human of all institutions."
Some might have expected Archbishop of Philadelphia Charles Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., to have found fault with the exhortation—he has been at odds at times with the Argentine pontiff—but in a statement released this morning, he seemed generally positive about the exhortation. He called “Amoris Laetitia” “a serious and extensive reflection on Christian marriage.”
“While it changes no Church teaching or discipline, it does stress the importance of pastoral sensitivity in dealing with the difficult situations many married couples today face,” Archbishop Chaput said. “Pope Francis is skilled at analyzing the cultural forces that make Christian marriage a unique witness, and often a special challenge. His recognition of the importance of children and the value of adoption are great expressions of support for family life.
“Happily, the kind of pastoral discernment called for in ‘Amoris Laetitia’ is already happening in many of our parish communities, and the Holy Father’s encouragement, coming just months after the World Meeting of Families, is a great gift.” Archbishop Chaput joined Pope Francis himself, and many bishops around the world commenting on the exhortation today, in urging that the entire, lengthy document—more than 250 pages—be read “with patience and attention.”
“This is sound guidance,” said the archbishop, “especially in the scramble that always takes place to stamp a particular interpretation on important papal interventions. My own more developed thoughts will be forthcoming. In the meantime, we can be thankful for the Holy Father’s thoughts on an issue of real gravity. Nothing is more essential to any society than the health of marriage and the family.”
Francis DeBernardo, Executive Director, New Ways Ministry, an independent Catholic outreach organization to L.G.B.T. Catholics was less enthusiastic about the new document, noting that “The Joy of Love” will not likely “inspire joy in LGBT Catholics and their supporters.”
“As far as sexual orientation and gender identity issues are concerned, the pope’s latest apostolic exhortation reiterates church formulas which show that the Vatican has yet to learn from the experiences and faith lives of so many L.G.B.T. Church members or their supporters,” he complained.
Mr. DeBarnardo said, “Though the pope calls for church leaders and ministers to be less judgmental and to respect individuals’ consciences, he has not provided a new pastoral approach to L.G.B.T. issues or people.”
On topics concerning the family, Mr. DeBernardo allowed that the document “offers some hopeful advice.”
And if this advice were simply applied to LGBT issues, which would not be incompatible to do, this document would have been much more positive. Pope Francis calls for non-judgmental pastoral care, assisting people in developing their consciences, encouraging diverse pastoral responses based on local culture, and calling church leaders to be more self-critical. All these things, if applied to LGBT people and issues, could produce enormous positive change in the church.
Speaking with The New York Times’ Laurie Goodstein, R. R. Reno, editor of First Things, described the “Joy of Love” as a “muddy” document that substitutes the church’s “rules and laws and requirements” with “talk about ideals and values.”
“I think it’s an ill-judged shift,” Mr. Reno told Ms. Goodstein. “This document clearly opens up the possibility that a priest may determine that a divorced and remarried person is worthy to receive communion, but under what terms and why is muddy.”
Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, R.I., who has been strongly critical of Pope Francis in the past, took a guarded approach to the exhortation in a statement released this morning. “The document addresses a wide range of topics based on real life experiences,” he said, adding, “It has the unique ability to simultaneously please and disappoint just about everyone who reads it.” He also urged caution and reflection: “The pope’s letter on marriage is a lengthy and nuanced reflection that deserves our careful and prayerful attention in the days, weeks and months to come. It’s like a fine red wine—it should be sipped and savored, not chugged.”
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