Pope Francis’ document on the family avoids issuing directives or a “final word” on debatable questions. Instead, it argues for pastoral flexibility and recognition of the complex relationship be-tween the human conscience, sin and the state of grace. Titled “Amoris Laetitia, on Love and the Family,” the 260-page document reflects on the results of the Synod of Bishops, convened in two sessions in 2014 and 2015. The synod saw unusually sharp debate on a number of issues, including the thorny question of how the Church treats people in “irregular” unions. Whether divorced Catholics should be allowed to receive Communion was a particularly divisive matter.
Pope Francis opened his postsynodal document by stating clearly that he was not going to pronounce a verdict on all these issues. In fact, he added, “not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium.” He suggested that different ways of interpreting Church teaching can co-exist in the Church, with allowances for local needs and traditions in various countries or regions.
When addressing the various problems faced by modern families, the Pope pretty much adopted the synod’s laundry list of challenges, from excessive individualism to economic burdens on young couples. He added strong words of self-criticism, saying that the Church has “helped contribute to today’s problematic situation.” Church leaders, he said, have “often been on the defensive, wasting pastoral energy on denouncing a decadent world without being proactive in proposing ways of finding true happiness.”
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 over-shadowed by an almost exclusive insistence on the duty of procreation. Nor have we always provided solid guidance to young married couples, understanding their timetables, their way of thinking and their concrete concerns. At times we have also proposed a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far re-moved from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families. 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. We also 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.
The Pope expanded on that last point in a chapter intriguingly titled: “Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness.” He argued that when dealing with people in “irregular” unions, pastors need to show careful discernment, and not simply impose a set of rules, recognizing that the degree of individual responsibility varies with circumstances and that “no easy recipes exist.”