157. Amoris Laetitia: On pastoral care for “irregular marriages” and wounded families

Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” [Matthew 9:13, NRSV]

We recall the profound imagery of joy and sorrow with which the Lineamenta for the 2015 Synod opened its preparatory reflections. It refers to the deep listening heart of Pope Francis who speaks of the evening time at the dining table. What does he see?

  • There, he sees warmth and affection, wine and feast. The atmosphere exudes with love. There is love, joy, fidelity and trust as members enjoy the company of each other in table-fellowship. This is an image of the joy of love that the Holy Father rejoices and urges us all to promote.
  • But, he never forgets those facing loneliness and bitterness, shattered dreams and broken plans, whose wine has run dry. He feels their wounds as he senses their unfinished symphonies. He refuses to be distant and aloof to their sufferings in life. He calls the whole Church to compassion and mercy.

This is the same adult reality of joys and sorrows the Pope wants his adult readers to see and think about in Amoris Laetitia, for this is the very call to us all in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World of the Second Vatican Council.

  • “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.” [GS, 1]

From the outset, Pope Francis sets out his agenda very clearly. While, therefore, the text opens with the joy of love in family life, it at once reports that the Synod Fathers have noted “many signs of crisis in the institution of marriage” in this modern world. Indeed, the concrete complexities of the issues affecting families in today’s world compel us to avoid two extremes: on the one hand, to demand for a total change of church doctrines and practices and, on the other hand, to solve everything by applying general rules (AL,2). And since general principles need to be inculturated, we should not look to Rome to solve all the ground problems (AL,3-4).

In contrast to the narrow vision of those bent on strict application of doctrine and law, Pope Francis, as usual, has a big-hearted, wholesome and merciful approach to the joys and sorrows, beauty and problems, faced by families throughout the world (AL,5). What the Holy Father, in inaugurating this Jubilee Year of Mercy seeks to do is to drive home one crucial message:

  • A merciful God wants to see a merciful Church!

As we turn to Amoris Laetitia, a truly ground-breaking document for the pastoral ministry of the Church, Pope Francis urges us all to meet people where they are, not just where we prefer them to be:

  • respect the concrete complexities of people’s lives;
  • when real life complications are factored into the equation, problems no longer seem so black and white as we first thought;
  • respect adult people’s consciences when it comes to moral decisions;
  • avoid simply judging people and imposing rules on them, insisting that one size fits all, without considering their struggles.

Pope Francis’ goal is to help people experience God’s love.

In doing so, while traditional teachings on marriage are of course strongly affirmed, he insists the church should not burden people with unrealistic expectations.

And, do not put on people any artificial “theological ideal” of marriage that is removed from their everyday lives. This can become an impossible burden. Priests, he suggests, need to be better trained to deal with the complexities of people’s lives. If a priest is not suitable to hear confession, with a tendency to turn the confessional into a “torture chamber”, he should be transferred out to a quiet desk-job.

All this requires “new” pastoral approaches to offer mercy and tenderness to irregular and other anomalous family situations:

  • Practise an approach of accompaniment. To accompany wounded people, first you listen to their stories. To encourage people to live by the Gospel, but also to be a church that welcomes and appreciates their struggles, and treats them with mercy.
  • Respect the role of conscience as being paramount in decision-making. “The Church is to form consciences, not to replace them”. And while it is true that a person’s conscience needs to be formed by Church teaching, our conscience does much more than just follow rules.
  • Moderate our language when we speak to people caught in difficult or imperfect situations. Stop using rough language on people: e.g., “intrinsic evil”, “living in sin”… It can no longer be said that those living in irregular marriages are in a “state of mortal sin” or a “permanent state of sin”.
  • Offer understanding, comfort and acceptance to single mothers. Children born out of wedlock are innocent. To an unmarried pregnant woman worried that her parish priest would not baptize her child, the Pope encouraged her to keep the baby, promising to baptize the child should her parish priest really refuse to do so.
  • Integrate to the best that we can everyone into the life and mission of the faith community. People caught in whatever “irregular” situations should not be excluded and marginalised, for they too are children of God and have different gifts to offer the church.
  • Do not apply moral laws like using stones to throw at other people’s lives. Recall Jesus protecting the woman caught in adultery (John 8).

Concerning the “irregular” and “wounded” families, we draw out three items from Pope Francis’ pastoral insights for reflection.

1. Pope Francis’ pastoral approach follows the law of gradualness

Mindful of the complexities of real life, Pope Francis wants the Church to show mercy and compassion to people who fall short of the Christian ideals.

We must help people in difficulties, to give them a chance to improve and to gradually move towards the perfection enshrined in doctrine and law. This is not “gradualness of the law”, as the law is always definitive, clear and precise [AL,295]. But the law of gradualness refers to a pastoral insight which appreciates that, like Jesus, we must meet people where they are, and gradually lead them to better places where God wants to see them at. For this insight, Jesus’ patience and mercy in relating to the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-42) and the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11) are useful illustrations for the kind of Church we are called to be.

Christ and the Adulterous Woman, by Rodolpho Bernardelli, 1881.

In John 8: 1-11, Jesus gives us a pastoral blueprint: start not with strict doctrines and harsh laws, but with love and mercy. Why? Because Jesus knows that real life is difficult and that real life is sometimes complicated. People experiencing life difficulties need understanding, a gentle touch, and a kind word. They need love and care, not more judgment and condemnation. Thus, Jesus saves the woman from a very bad situation and delivers her to a place where she has a chance to live, to breathe again, and the possibility of a new life of grace, that sins “no more”.

Quoting the episode of Jesus’ encounter with the adulterous woman in paragraph 38, Pope Francis reiterates the pastoral insight that a merciful God wants a merciful Church.

  • “The Church must be a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel.” [Evangelii Gaudium, 114].

For Christians, Jesus is the embodiment of God’s love and the exemplar of divine mercy. So the Holy Father urges that we gaze on Christ.

  • “To get diverted by many secondary or superfluous things does not help. What helps is to focus on the fundamental reality, which is the encounter with Christ, with his mercy and with his love.”

2. The first aim has got to be pastoral conversion

In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis is not seeking to change doctrines and laws. He is reforming our pastoral practices. He sees that what the Church needs is a solid sense of mission in the name of Christ. That mission drive rests on a pastoral conversion, which begins in two fundamental steps.

  • Step one is to open the doors to our hearts, to receive the Light of the World Jesus of Nazareth as he is portrayed in the Gospels. There, we find a compassionate and merciful Jesus who lives in the margins and identifies with the Poor and the excluded. He is not the Jesus portrayed in strict doctrines and unyielding laws harboured in hardened hearts. The greatest calamity is a hardened heart, for it will keep you from receiving spiritual truths.
  • Step two is to open the doors of our church, our office and our home, not so we may receive people, but so we may, in the first place, go out on mission, especially to the wounded and the confused, those who are hurting and are experiencing difficulties in life. In a word, to go where the needs are.

All this should hopefully help us understand better and more deeply our present, very pastoral-minded Pope, and appreciate him even more when we read those “difficult”, “controversial” and highly debated paragraphs and footnotes in the text of Amoris Laetitia. He urges the opening of our hearts to those caught in difficult marriages and family situations and reaching out to them with love and mercy. He directs parish priests to have Jesus in their hearts and journey with the people who have problems, mindful of the need for private dialogue and discernment and personalised advice, especially on the question of access to communion for the divorced and civilly remarried.

To this evidently most controversial topic of allowing access to communion to the divorced and civilly remarried Catholics we now turn.

3. Concerning the divorced and remarried in Chapter 8

The fundamental point Amoris Laetitia makes in this regard is the insistence upon the need to differentiate and distinguish between different situations in which divorced and remarried Catholics find themselves, so that it is literary obligatory upon a pastoral-Church to offer pastoral discernment.

The principles that are more fully detailed in the text include the following:

  • Do not condemn people forever. The Gospel is not like that (AL,297);
  • Do not pigeonhole people “into overly rigid classifications” (AL,298);
  • Be conscious of the “immense variety of concrete situations” (AL,299);
  • When the Church undertakes “responsible and pastoral discernment” in each case, we may recognise that “the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases” so that “the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same” (AL,300);
  • In some cases, no grave fault exists (AL,300; footnote336);
  • Remember that the Church recognises mitigating factors (AL,301-303); and
  • People in “objective situation of sin” may not necessarily be “subjectively culpable” (AL,305).

Given these and other considerations, it is utterly wrong for pastors to close their hearts and refuse the work of discernment, or turn the confessional into “a torture chamber”, and close off the way of grace (AL,305). Instead, with his tender and fatherly heart, Francis wants pastors to approach these imperfect situations with an eye to what is good in them and with a loving proposal for conversion.

Then comes the tricky part. Pastors may find that after proper discernment, sacraments may be helpful, the Pope suggests. After all, the Eucharist is “not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (AL, footnote 351). An opening to communion is clearly suggested for the divorced and civilly remarried Catholics. This opening is officially reserved for the internal forum – in a private discernment between pastor and faithful.

Amoris Laetitia asks the Church to help families of every sort and people in every state of life. Let them know that even in their imperfections, they can be homes for God’s love as well as places where people will concretely experience that love. The divorced and civilly remarried, as well as any other Catholics found in so-called “irregular” and “anomalous” situations are all children of God who must be integrated into faith communities in all possible ways, while avoiding scandal (AL,299).

Pope Francis offers a new vision of a pastoral and merciful Church that welcomes and encourages families and all people to experience the joy of love.

Do not “put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance,” he urges. “Do not water down the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” he sharply reminds us all (AL,311)

It is hoped that, despite the ultra-conservative section of the Church that is bent on denigrating every pastoral effort made by Pope Francis, Catholics everywhere do really begin to understand what the Holy Father is trying to do within our Church. He wants to change it from a Church that is judgmental, sometimes harsh, often condemnatory, into a Church that is like Christ, always merciful, always welcoming, always drawing people in by being like a field hospital, taking the wounded, the “irregular”, the suffering, and making them a part of our community, drawing together a community of love and forgiveness.

There is a very good line from the Filipino Bishops in their response to Amoris Laetitia useful for our practical adoption: “Mercy does not have to wait for guidelines.” We do not have to wait for any “official” word to do good, to be kind and merciful. We can exercise mercy anywhere, anytime.

Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, August 2016. All rights reserved.

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