Friday, April 8

Read What Pope Francis Said About S*x, Gay Marriage and More in His Long Awaited Talk on Family Life

Read What Pope Francis Said About S*x, Gay Marriage and More in His Long Awaited Talk on Family Life

Pope Francis performs a foot-washing ritual at the Castelnuovo di Porto refugee center near Rome. Osservatore Romano/AFP via Getty Images)

Pope Francis has finally released his long-awaited and anticipated document on marriage, s*x, spirituality, marital affairs etc to the billions of eager worshippers.

He called for divorced and remarried Catholics to participate more fully in church life. But he closed the door on gay marriage. He quotes Jorge Luis Borges and Jesus Christ. There is an entire chapter on Love.

But more than anything, Pope Francis’s long awaited document on family life, released Friday by the Vatican, amounts to an exultation of traditional marriage while recognizing that life, in his own words, isn’t always “perfect.” Yet rather than judging, he commanded, the church should be a pillar of support.

Some two years in the making, the 256-page document known as an apostolic exhortation and titled Amoris Laetitia, or “the Joy of Love,” amounted to his most sweeping pronouncement to date on the social issues that have deeply divided his senior clergy.

The reformist pope often appeared to strike a pragmatic balance and offered no changes in church laws – either to the status of gay people or those who divorce and remarry outside the church.

But his words on whether select divorced and remarried Catholics could take Holy Communion immediately set off division and debate over whether and how much he had expanded the freedom of Catholics and their priests to make that call. Though observers had hoped for clarity, the pontiff’s ambiguity on access to the sacrament could sow tensions as a divided church hierarchy parses his words like so many tea leaves.

Although the pope did not explicitly call for a rule change, he seemed to suggest that such cases should be studied and ruled on one by one. At one point, he mentions that people who are living in an “objective situation of sin” can “also grow in the life of grace.” Then, in this footnote for priests, he notes:

“I would also point out that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”

The pope seemed to say that the church must deal with the world it lives in, not the world it wants. He sometimes sounded less like a pontiff than a marriage counselor.

Single women get pregnant, and need the support of those around them, he wrote. Children sometimes need punishment – and, he notably added-- sex education. Gays and lesbians deserve protection from “unjust discrimination.” And while he clearly upholds his church’s teachings of marriage as only between a man and woman, he notes that unconventional unions do indeed form. And they are not, he writes, without their “constructive elements.”

Perhaps most importantly, he exhorts the church – specifically it’s clergy – to use “discernment,” and not paint with a broad brush. Do not, he warned, wield “moral laws” like a weapon.

“This would bespeak the closed heart of one used to hiding behind the Church’s teachings,” he scolds, comparing such moralizing to “sitting on the chair of Moses and judging at times with superiority.”
“The pope does not overlook the fragility of families, and even their failure,” Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the general secretary of the Synod of Bishops, told a press conference at Vatican City Friday.

“It is matter of reaching out to everyone,” Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna told a press conference in Rome. He later added, “no one is condemned, no one is scorned.”

Nodding to the fact that many hoped for a blanket rule allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to take communion, Schönborn said “many people expected such rules, but they will be disappointed, and persuaded that this is the necessary choice made by our pope.” But he suggested that the pope did offer “renewed encouragement” for a pastoral path in “particular cases.”

Monsignor Fred Easton, who led the Indianapolis Archdiocese’s tribunal for 31 years, said Friday morning that the pope’s document was not offering the divorced and remarried a path to the Eucharist, but rather encouraging laypeople and priests to find every possible other way to include them in church life. He acknowledged the wording might prompt different analyses.

“This is a communications problems we have,” he said. “He’s giving us a new way of approaching moral decision making. It’s not a wooden approach. It has to relate to the situation of the people. He’s giving us priests at the parish level an encouragement to look for the wide spectrum of possibilities that are there.. unlike his predeceesors, he is telling us not to cut off dialogue so quickly as we had in the past, to see if there is a legitimate path to keeping them in church. That’s the direction he’s going in.”

Cardinal Baldisseri of the Synod of Bishops said he believed “there is difficult work envisioned here. We are not used to such a work, everything was imposed from above before and now we have to apply discernment. We have to apply it to each and every case.”

Austen Ivereigh, a prominent Francis biographer, wrote Friday that Francis basically punted in the document in terms of the very specifics of who gets Communion and when.

“In effect, Francis has cleared the ground for maximum pastoral flexibility, refusing to treat civilly remarried divorces as a category,” he wrote on the Catholic site Crux.

Ivereigh said this of the changes that might come as a result: “Yet while this is a significant development, it is unlikely to affect that many people.” The heart of the document, where there will be real change, he said, comes in the section about the importance of marriage preparation.

“Our most important pastoral task with regard to families,” he says later, in a reference to the “evil” of divorce, “is to strengthen their love, helping to heal wounds and working to prevent the spread of this drama of our times.”

Contrary to Pope Francis’s informal quips on the road, the document is written in sometimes-indirect Popese. It is highly nuanced in parts, a fact the pope himself seems to nod to by stating: “I do not recommend a rushed reading of the text.”

For a pope known for changing the tone but not necessarily the substance of Catholic teachings, the document contains one very important element. In a roundabout way, he appeared to side with progressives clamoring for change on divorced and remarried Catholics, who under church teachings are committing adultery and thus technically barred from the highest sacrament of the Catholic Church: Holy Communion.
 
Two highly contested synods– or meetings of the hierarchy – failed to come to a clear consensus on whether such parishioners should be granted access to the sacrament. Conservatives see banning them as vital to preserving the church’s moral bar, while progressives view change as key to avoiding blanket judgments.

The pope, in the document, was not explicit on his specific position regarding communion. But he wrote that priests must use their individual relationships with such parishioners to determine their level of access to church life. The Rev. Bruno Forte, a senior Italian archbishop and a top official at last year’s synod said the pope seemed to be saying that such decisions should be made by priests on a case-by-case basis.

“In some cases, integration can be realized as far as allowing participation to the sacraments,” he said.

He further interpreted the pope by saying, “there’s a need to be faithful to doctrine but at the same time, to be faithful to real people, especially those living in situations of failure and in the wounds of love.”

Others immediately viewed the pope’s words as an example of loose discipline. Rose Sweet, a US-based Catholic marriage counselor and writer, suggested the pope was treating sinners like coddled children.

“We’re dealing with very immature, uninformed people who want Papa Francisco to give them what they want,” she said. “And they don’t want it too hard, and they will love him for it. And they’ll say, ‘You’re like Jesus; you’re so merciful.’ But here’s the thing: what real mercy is, it’s not letting people off the hook.”

The apostolic exhortation, while not as high level in the hierarchy of papal documents, as, say, the environmental encyclical he released last year, nevertheless carries the weight of his office and is seen as powerful interment of church teachings. Progressive Catholics seemed to hail his movement on the divorced and remarried, while expressing regret that he did not go farther on issues relating to same sex couples.

“There is some disappointment in Pope Francis [among progressives] now because they want him to act quickly, they want him to change laws, they want him to be different,” said Christian Weisner, a founding member of the Munich-based Catholic reform group who advocates church-sanctioned same sex unions.

“But what I see here is that he is starting a process, one that will redefine the moral teachings of the Roman Catholic Church,” he said. “But that’s going to take a long time, and some people are disappointed because of that.”

With a couple of key exceptions – same-sex marriage and the idea of fluid gender – the document emphasizes and reemphasizes a single point: Support families. The pope builds a mighty laundry list of challenges to relationships today, from the economy and migration to social isolation, priests who are unprepared to give decent marriage counseling and people too exhausted by daily demands to greet one another at the end of the day with a kiss.

He repeatedly says people’s day-to-day realities should take priority over any teaching or dogma, and that pastors should not place boxes of rules atop real life situations.

“At times we have also proposed a far too abstract and al­most artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed 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,” Francis wrote.

As far as the concrete impact of the document, this will be typical Francis fare – Catholics will disagree about what it says and what he meant. In multiple sections, Francis makes clear that he didn’t intend to issue a clear policy manual on family life, in fact the opposite – he believes the conversation is continuing.

“If we consider the immense variety of concrete situations such as those I have mentioned, it is understandable that neither the Synod nor this Exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases,” he wrote. “What is possible is simply a renewed encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment.”

On the topic of gay equality, Francis repeated words he has written and said before: same-sex unions are no in way “similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.” Yet for the pope who floored the planet when he said, of gay priests, “who am I to judge,” there may be others who still hold out hope, based on other comments Francis wrote in his document

After praising Christian marriage as being “fully realized in the union between a man and a woman…” he write that “Some forms of union radically contra­dict this ideal, while others realize it in at least a partial and analogous way. The Synod Fathers stated that the Church does not disregard the constructive elements in those situations which do not yet or no longer correspond to her teach­ing on marriage.”

There will undoubtedly be Catholics who see Francis as closing the door on gay equality forever while others will say he left it open a crack .

Rather than scolding, Francis enumerates the pressures on modern families. Among them: a lack of quality sex education, the way electronic devices feed the need for instant gratification, migration, lack of housing, pornography, child abuse, lack of respect for the elderly and violence against women. He sees burdens in “the ideological denial of differences between the sexes” and the “impact of biotechnology in the field of procreation.”

He encourages people to nurture romance with “a morning kiss, an evening blessing, waiting at the door to welcome each other home, taking trips together and sharing household chores. Yet it also helps to break the routine with a party, and to enjoy family celebrations of anniversaries and special events.”

One question looming over the document was whether it would seem overly addressed to Western Catholics – the ones divorcing and gay-marrying. Yet at a time when the church’s growth market appears to be in the developing world – where competition is stiff with evangelical Christianity – Francis emphasized decisions shouldn’t always come from Rome.

“Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs. For cultures are in fact quite diverse and every general principle… needs to be inculturated, if it is to be respected and applied,” he wrote.

Thomas Groome, a theology professor at Boston College and a former priest, said the paper will be read in different ways.

“Liberals will see it as a green light for what many Catholics have been doing de facto, following their consciences. More conservative people will say: ‘It doesn’t say the divorced can receive the Eucharist.’ And it doesn’t. But if you use your intelligence at all, it clearly says: ‘Hey, it depends on circumstances.’”

“In a sense conservatives will say: ‘All the principles are in place.’ He does, but he says: They apply very differently, it’s a matter of conscience, the church’s role is to form conscience, not replace it.”

“It’s a heck of an improvement from where we were with John Paul and Benedict, when we couldn’t even discuss these issues, at least he’s lifted the embargo on discussing them.”

Groome said he thought the most striking thing in the document was that it never spoke of artificial birth control.

“In no place does it explicitly condemn artificial birth control. Which in a Catholic document on family and marriage is amazing. The Catholic Church never said the world is round, but just stopped saying it was flat. The Catholic way isn’t to say: ‘Sorry folks, we were wrong on birth control’ but just to stop saying it.’ It says it’s important to be open to life, but in no place does it condemn artificial birth control. That’s a breakthrough. That will be a major significance of the document.”

On the paper in general, Groome said, “It won’t be the huge headlines some might have hoped for. But a careful reading moves the Catholic Church forward from where it was.”

Monsignor Easton from Indianapolis noted Thursday that the annulment process was streamlined in December after one of the major meetings about the family that led to this document. Among the key changes was to eliminate an second review on cases that made them slower. Easton said the question is whether people will disagree about whether a change in procedure amounts to a theological change.

“Some see any change in practice as a change in doctrine. That’s the tension we have – does the change in how we deal with situations always necessitate a change in doctrine. I think the pope says ‘no’ but there are some high ecclesiastical authorities who say the contrary,” he said.

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