Has Pope Francis changed marriage for Catholics?

On Friday the pope released a document encouraging a more pastoral care approach to diverse Catholic families but did not change traditional doctrine. 

Alessandro Bianch/Reuters
Pope Francis greeted Elizabeth 'Lizzy' Myers, a 5-year-old girl from Ohio, who does not see or hear, at the Vatican April 6. On Friday the pope released a document describing a more individualized approach to Catholic families that did not change doctrine, as some expected.

A long-awaited exhortation on family life from Pope Francis refocuses local leaders on supporting families, but analysts say it offers little enticement to draw disillusioned liberal Catholics back to church.

Amoris Laetitia, or "the Joy of Love" is the result of a pair controversial meetings among Catholic leaders in 2014 and 2015. The document released Friday is 256 pages long in English and has been received as a middle-ground approach that emphasizes individual pastoral care over doctrinal change.

"The Joy of Love is classic Pope Francis – a masterful mix of doctrinal traditionalism with pastoral innovation," wrote Andrew Chesnut in a statement for Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, where he is chair in Catholic studies. "Catholic doctrine on family matters is reaffirmed as the Argentine pontiff calls for new pastoral outreach based on mercy and discernment of individual, concrete realities."

The apostolic exhortation, which holds slightly less authority than an encyclical, focused on love rather than judgment as local leaders guide families, Julie Zauzmer suggested in The Washington Post. It reemphasizes traditional marriage as the Catholic ideal but "does not disregard the constructive elements" of other unions. Francis rebuts proposals for same-sex marriage without equivocation, while at the same time urging love and respect for gays and lesbians and their families. 

Divorced Catholics are likewise not excommunicated, and he urged pastors to seek the complex solutions needed to welcome them. He reaffirmed the importance of lifelong, loving marriages, and asked that Catholic children be properly educated about sexuality, but without terms such as "safe sex." He suggested that children are not "an enemy" to be "protected" against. He also asked leaders to apply moral laws with love and not "as if they were stones to throw at people's lives."

Tom Kington of the Los Angeles Times predicted that Pope Francis would leave the most intricate policy applications to leaders among individuals. His prediction was right. The document is aimed at the Americas and Europe, regions where the church's influence is declining. The document can guide leaders but is unlikely, Dr. Chesnut says, to change the minds or lives of wavering Catholics.

"Pastoral outreach predicated on mercy and inclusiveness without any doctrinal reforms will have very limited appeal to former and lapsed Catholics who left the Church over such matters of no Communion for the divorced and remarried and a rejection of same-sex marriage," Chesnut says in an e-mail.

He pointed to Colombia as a symbol of the church's declining influence over family matters in those regions. Colombia, traditionally one of the world's most staunchly Catholic countries, legalized same-sex marriage this week. 

Calling the document "a radical departure from recent pastoral practice," the National Catholic Reporter, a Kansas-based, independent newspaper that focuses on Catholicism's social justice wing, was enthusiastic about his extension of grace for atypical family situations and mercy for divorced Catholics, newlyweds, and long-term same-sex relationships.

Pope Francis' reforms in the three years since he took the papacy have been significant, and many of those are reinforced and explained in the document. How radical those have been is best shown by the pushback it receives from some church leaders, Nick Squires wrote for The Christian Science Monitor:

Pope Francis' papacy is undoubtedly strong on gestures and symbols. But beneath the public relations coups, the pope has been busy enacting a series of far-reaching reforms. And while it's too soon to determine how those reforms will endure after his tenure, the magnitude of resistance within the church hierarchy indicates that the stakes are high.

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