Pope Francis urges compassion toward all in dealing with modern families

Opening up the possibility for divorced people to receive communion, Pope Francis urged pastors 'to avoid judgments that do not take into account the complexity of various situations.'

Andrew Medichini/AP
People reach out to Pope Francis as he arrives for his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican April 6, 2016.

For Pope Francis, the church’s moral laws should not be used “as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives,” especially those in families living in “irregular” situations.

Instead of rigid and uncompromising lines in the sand, the pope on Friday said bishops and priests should approach the church’s authoritative teachings more as a starting point in a process of “discernment,” a process of pastoring that would address both parishioners’ personal consciences and their often messy, stressful lives.

"We have been called to form consciences, not replace them," he wrote.

After 1-1/2 years of institutional soul searching, including two contentious global gatherings of bishops discussing divorce, homosexuality, and other moral issues that exclude individuals from receiving communion, the pope on Friday released his long-awaited pastoral exhortation "Amoris Laetitia," Latin for "The Joy of Love."

The exhortation does not change church teachings. But in emphasizing a process of discernment, the pope detailed a more nuanced understanding of the role of moral teachings, telling pastors “to avoid judgments that do not take into account the complexity of various situations.”

“I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion,” Francis wrote. “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.’ ”

The treatise is in line with the ideals of mercy and compassion that have stood at the heart of Francis’s papacy, scholars say.

“It will be part of his legacy,” says Andrew Chesnut, the Bishop Walter Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. “He’s trying to remake the church to be a more inclusive, compassionate institution, the church of the people.”

Divorce is not permitted in the Roman Catholic Church, and those who do and remarry without church-sanctioned annulment are technically barred from receiving communion, the center of Catholic worship. But given the complexities surrounding the reasons for divorce, the pope suggested that “the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same.”

“To my mind, that always bumps up against the American imagination, or American way of looking at these things,” says Bruce Morrill, the Edward A. Malloy professor of Catholic studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn., who is also a Catholic priest. “That would be, well, we don’t want to look at laws or rules as teachings that we have to interpret.”

The pope’s emphasis on pastoring has often clashed with conservatives, however, especially the conference of bishops in the United States. The majority continues to emphasize the clarity of the church’s objective teachings rather than “the mud of the street.”

And most continue to stress the culture war issues of abortion and same-sex marriage, as well as the hot-button political issue of religious freedom.

“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,” R. R. Reno, a Catholic theologian and editor of the conservative journal First Things, told The New York Times. The papal exhortation substituted the church’s “rules and laws and requirements” with “talk about ideals and values,” he said.

In order to give the ideals of mercy and compassion more prominence, Francis must confront a hierarchy that, since the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, have emphasized the clarity of moral teachings and the importance of strict adherence.

So Francis’s exhortation also emphasized the formation of priests in seminary, calling for next generation of priests to be much better prepared to engage people’s messy lives. If they are truly to be prepared to engage in careful discernment with their parishioners, they need “to attain the maturity and psychological balance needed for their future ministry,” he said.

And in order to do this, lay people, families, and women should be integral parts of seminary training and the formation of the church’s future ministers.

“That jumped off the page to me,” says Father Morrill. “Diocesan seminaries, at least in this country, are very clerical. It’s men, men only, and they only talk about their issues. They are often tone deaf to the very kinds of complexities Francis talks about in this very long document.”

Francis denounced violence and discrimination against those with homosexual orientations – which is not a sin in Catholicism if it does not lead to homosexual actions. But he rejected same-sex marriage, saying “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.”

But in the end, though it did not change any specific church teaching, Amoris Laetitia was “classic Francis,” says Professor Chesnut.

“It is a pastoral approach that is much kinder and gentler without a spirit of judgmentalism,” he says.

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