Light of truth

Question: Mr Jinu John, Idukki

Recently a group of 62 signatories including a bishop, some clergy and lay scholars from around the world sent a 25-page letter to Pope Francis accusing him of propagating heresies in the Church concerning marriage, the moral life and reception of the sacraments etc. in his apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia.” What about the ‘dubia’ submitted by the four cardinals to Pope Francis? I would like to have your opinion on this matter?


The post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation on Love and Family, Amoris Laetitia, already gave Pope Francis’ answer to this letter. In it the Pope asks the Church to meet the married people where they are – to accept them in the concrete circumstances and complexities of their lives with pastoral sensibility. He said that Church teaching should be understood “not in a laboratory, but in life, in dialogue with reality.” He pleads the Church to respect people’s consciences and their discernment in moral decisions and underscores the importance of considering norms and mitigating circumstances in pastoral discernment.

This exhortation is also the Pope’s reminder that the Church should avoid simply judging people and imposing rules on them without considering the struggles of family persons to be faithful to the teaching of Christ. The Church should therefore look with the intellect of love and with the wise realism, at the reality of the family today in all its complexity, with its lights and it shadows; and not limit ourselves to practices in pastoral ministry that reflect forms and models of the past.

Pope Francis makes it clear that although unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary for the Church, it does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it. Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs. In his address at the end of the Synod of the 2015, he also drew attention to different contexts where what is lawful in one place is deemed outside the law in another. “What seems normal for a bishop on one continent is considered strange and almost scandalous – almost! – for a bishop from another; what is considered a violation of a right in one society is an evident and inviolable rule in another; what for some is freedom of conscience is for others simply confusion.”

The Teaching on Marriage
Though Pope Francis never deviates from the fundamental mystery of marriage and the family as a covenant of man and woman for the care of generation and creation, he calls his approach as something new with regard to the pastoral practice in the way pastoral care is to be extended as help and encouragement to those in difficult marital situations or in irregular unions and to families in their daily commitments and challenges. The Pope asks for a compassionate pastoral concern to such persons since they continue to be members of the Church and brothers and sisters of God’s household. In addition he encourages everyone to be a sign of mercy and closeness wherever family life remains imperfect or lacks peace and joy. Further, Pope Francis’ call in his Evangelii Gaudium for “a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets,” suggest that the moral and pastoral practice of the Church should be more attentive to the realities and complexities of life in the concrete rather than in the abstract. “The result is a challenging reappraisal that expects moral theologians to promote a genuine culture of discernment in the Church.”

Family Planning and Contraception
Thus, with regard to family planning, though the decisions should be reached in dialogue and respect for the other and considerations proceeding from Humanae Vitae and Familiaris Consortio are in place as also the role of a formed conscience as taught by Gaudium et Spes (n. 50), the Pope speaks of “generative responsibility” in a way that echoes but without citing an examination of conscience for married people with three questions to married couples: “In agreement with my spouse, have I given a clear and conscientious answer to the problem of birth control? Have I prevented a conception for egotistic motives? Have I brought a life into the world without a sense of responsibility? These questions tested the loving and responsible decision of the two spouses. But nothing was asked about the methods used to prevent what they together judge would be an “irresponsible” pregnancy. Such a decision was left to their conscientious agreement.

Norms of Sexual Morality
Regarding the norms of sexual morality, Pope Francis certainly sees the need for a humane and ethical analysis of the state of sexual intimacy, personal commitment, erotic longing, and gender rights and encourages the young people to be sexually responsible, especially since the mature use of contraceptives could avoid a later choice about abortion. He solves this dilemma with the so-called pastoral solution, which allows us to quietly defy Vatican dogma when the situation seemed to call for it. In the confessional booth or in the parish priest’s parlour, the parish priest could encourage his parishioners to decide for themselves, by helping them to examine their own consciences, whether the doctrine of the Church applied to them in their particular circumstance (Gaudium et Spes).

Homo sexuality
“Who am I to judge?” With those five words, in reply to a reporter’s question about the status of gay in the Church, Pope Francis stepped away from the disapproving tone, the explicit moralizing typical of Popes and bishops. The phenomenon of same sex orientation cannot simply be dismissed as an aberration of individuals. The biological and social causes that are alleged to be behind this have to be seriously looked into. If the persons concerned are differently sexually oriented from birth or due to social upbringing and if they are not to be blamed for this, what does the Great Mystery expect us to do? What provisions have we made for the transgender, who may be a microscopic minority, but are still people created in God’s image?

Pope Francis makes quite clear his two central convictions. On the one hand, he insists that the Church must continue to propose the full ideal of marriage and clearly express her objective teaching. The integrity of the Church’s moral teaching requires nothing less than that. On the other hand, to those who press for a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion, the Pope responds that if we put so many conditions on [God’s] mercy that we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance, we will be indulging in the worst way of watering down the Gospel.

Repeatedly, Pope Francis argues that the Church’s purpose was more to proclaim God’s merciful love for all people than to condemn sinners for having fallen short of ideal, especially those having to do with gender and sexual orientation. His break from his immediate predecessors—John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, is less ideological than intuitive, an inclusive vision of the Church centred on an identification with the poor. From this vision, theological and organizational innovations can follow.

Pope Francis views the Church as a field hospital after a battle. “The thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful.”

This vision of the Church makes Pope Francis depart from a set of code of Catholic ethical and philosophical discourse when, in an open letter to the prominent Italian journalist and atheist Eugenio Scalfari, he wrote, “I would not speak about ‘absolute’ truths, even for believers…. Truth is a relationship. As such, each one of us receives the truth and expresses it from within, that is to say, according to one’s own circumstances, culture, and situation in life.” When Spadaro asked Francis about “the great changes in society, as well as the way human beings are reinterpreting themselves,” Francis got up to retrieve his well-thumbed breviary. He read from a fifth-century saint’s writings on the laws governing progress:

“Even the dogma of the Christian religion must proceed from these laws. It progresses, solidifying with years, growing over time.” Then Francis commented, “So we grow in the understanding of the truth. . . . There are ecclesiastical rules and precepts that were once effective, but now they have lost value or meaning. The view of the Church’s teaching as a monolith to defend without nuance or different understanding is wrong. Pope Francis has not overthrown the traditional teachings of the Church, as the 62 Signatories fear, that he has, in this post-Synod exhortation. Instead he has sought to carve out ample room for a flexible pastoral interpretation of those teachings, encouraging pastors to help couples apply general moral principles to their specific circumstances.

Such a progression has already occurred in Catholic attitudes about contraception. Once the vast majority of the faithful took for granted their right and duty to weigh situation against principle—and decided, mostly, that the principle did not apply—it was only a matter of time before the hierarchy itself did the same. That is the significance of Pope Francis’ own conclusion, offered on his flight back from Mexico, that the Zika-virus pandemic requires a change in the Church’s policies on contraception. In that drastic situation, the principle of “Humanae Vitae” simply does not apply. As has happened before, the private forum had become public. Official Church teaching on birth control may never change, but its meaning will never be the same. Moral discernment belongs to the people.

‘Dubia’ of the Four Cardinals
Finally to your question regarding the dubia [doubts] submitted to Pope Francis by the four cardinals – the late Italian Carlo Caffarra, American Raymond Burke, and Germans Walter Brandmüller and Joachim Meisner, the main question they asked was whether Amoris Laetitia indeed permits divorced and civilly remarried Catholics in some cases to receive the sacraments.

Pope Francis had legitimately made possible the reception of Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried in certain carefully considered cases where grace is working in their souls, and a sincere desire to strive for holiness is present. Amoris Laetitia, does indeed open the door to Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, the importance of both upholding Church teaching and also fostering discernment in specific cases.

But the Holy Father is clear that he is in no way changing the Church’s doctrine, nor making general changes to its sacramental practice or Canon Law in Amoris Laetitia:

“The teachings on the indissolubility of marriage remain.”

“Each person must strive to follow the moral teachings of the Church.”

“Divorce is an evil, and adultery is always evil — even if guilt can be reduced or erased altogether.”

“Consciences must be formed. Nowhere does the text allow anyone to come to the conclusion they can do as they please.”

“In no way does Pope Francis suggest that irregular unions are a ‘good’ alternative option to the original marriage. However, it cannot be denied that grace is at work in some of these unions.”

In conclusion, I would like to quote Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl, named by Pope Francis to a drafting team for the reports of his two Synods of Bishops on the family, said that the pontiff’s own document concluding the synods make clear that broad Church teaching, and pastoral judgment on how to apply the teaching in individual cases, “are not the same thing.” He affirmed that there is a difference between the teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, a doctrine of the Church, and the pastoral judgment concerning individuals’ relationships to the sacraments. “The two realities are greatly related, but they are not the same. Francis’ document, Amoris Laetitia, therefore does indeed open the door to Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics. But cardinal Wuerl stressed the importance of both upholding Church teaching and also fostering discernment in specific cases. Those in irregular situations, such as the divorced and civilly remarried, should be invited to deeper inclusion in the life of the Church. The Holy Father is inviting such families, and the pastors who accompany them, to discern what it means for them to walk the path of conversion.

The distinction between broad Church teaching and the specifics of individual cases reflects the “pastoral tone” of Amoris Laetitia. Pope Francis approaches his teaching ministry first and foremost as a pastor of souls. Indeed, in many places in the document, one hears the voice of a pastor speaking directly to members of his flock, sharing his own experience and wisdom formed from many years of service to God’s people. At the same time, Pope Francis’ new document encourages a renewal of marriage and family life through pastoral accompaniment on the part of the Church and its members, bringing God’s love and mercy to individuals and families in all stages of life: in preparing for marriage, in the first years after marriage, during times of crisis, in cases of marital breakdown, and when families are touched by death.

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