While some of the world’s leading media outlets pronounced that Pope Francis had paved the way for people in “‘irregular’ situations” to receive Communion with the release of his long awaited apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, commentators in Australia said they did not read any major revolutionary teaching into the pope’s latest document.
Melbourne-based theologian Dr Conor Sweeney of the John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and the Family says he read no revolutionary impetus in the document.
What jumped out for him was not so much the exhortation’s content but its pastoral tone.
“We already know this about Francis: that there is a marked pastoral focus to his theology,” Dr Sweeney said.
“From a theological point of view, there’s not really much there in terms of theological or doctrinal development in the document. In a way he retains the status quo, but what he gives us are some real practical, homely – that is simple, to the point – reflections on how the vocation might be lived in today’s world.
“Overall, his concern is with the question of how to live the truth – and he’s big on truth – but we actually do this with love, and of walking with a person, in their journey of faith; particularly those who struggle in their faith for a number of different reasons.
“I don’t think he really gives much to either the conservatives or the liberals – if you want to use those tired phrases – in terms of dealing with the highly politicised kinds of issues which came to the fore in the synod, in the two-year process.”
What stood out for University of Notre Dame philosopher Renee Kohler-Ryan was the pope’s emphasis on the idea that marriage is something that matures and that people who marry mature together.
“He gives a picture of marriage and of the family, a picture of people who are quite young and don’t really understand the full implications of what they are getting into,” Dr Kohler-Ryan said.
“So in that the aesthetic dimension of that first love, there’s a lot of joy – and that should be embraced – but then that needs to continue to grow and it needs support to grow: the period of engagement and that period of the first year of marriage, and how there needs to be a lot of parish support for that. I found that really interesting and quite perceptive.”
She also appreciated the pope’s categorisation of “family” as including but extending beyond the “nuclear” ideal to a much broader network of interrelations, from husband and wife and their children, to the parish – “the family of families” – and beyond.
“It just keeps opening and opening up. So you are embracing the elderly, the very young, the disabled, those who might not have a family around – so that the family becomes a much richer kind of concept.
“I would have also liked to have seen more on marriages which are literally infertile but I think that infertility is this great untapped area of pastoral care that this document could have gone into a little bit more but didn’t.
“Maybe it is up to us to incorporate that more: to think of family and marriage as fruitful and fertile, even if you are not literally able to have children.”
While some have been critical of the pope’s distinction between the ideal and the on-the-ground pastoral practice, Dr Sweeney said he did not think the pope was seriously entertaining the idea that the two were ultimately separable.
He said that he couldn’t remember, in his own life, the confessional “ever feeling like a torture chamber” but that it was sometimes difficult to know the context in which the pope was speaking when he decried rigorist pastoral practices – attitudes which treated people as moral problems to be solved rather than as children of God.
“He talks about how we are meant to image the Trinity – there’s this notion of marriage being iconic of that reality – but he says in many cases that such an idea can be experienced as a burden.
“But I think what he is trying to do here is saying that all of us, at the end of the day, will struggle to achieve a perfect participation in the life of the Trinity.
“I think we all know that, we’re still all on the way.
“The question is whether, in the end, it is a burden or a liberation. And I think that he would agree, ultimately, that striving towards this Trinitarian existence is that full liberation that we all need to aspire to, as much as we possibly can.”
Dr Sweeney said he would agree with the idea that so-called “orthodox” positions had often not been as attentive as they ought to be to the lived realities of married couples and families; that the Church had not done a good job of making those theories liveable realities.
But there was, he said, a properly sacramental way to unite theory and practice – “or their caricature, rigorism and laxity” – in a way that respects the demands of the truth but gently leads the person towards it.
“There is no such thing as pure theory or pure praxis (the lived enactment of theory) in a sacramental world.
“God became flesh, here and now; in my life, in your life. So this is a sacramental reality and any burden associated with it lies in the fact that, yes, being holy is difficult, but I think that the joy of love is that Jesus Christ has truly shared Himself with us.
“So it is a precisely a burden in this sense that we all need, because it is the only burden at the end of the day that can liberate, redeem and truly challenge us,” Dr Sweeney said.
“What Pope Francis has done is to say truth can be experienced as a burden, yes, and as a consequence it must always be paired with a very deep, personal and pastoral walking with the person on the journey of faith, and that, at the end of the day, in light of that fact, the Christian faith is a revelation of hope, redemption and liberation.”
Dr Kohler-Ryan and Dr Sweeney were agreed in their assessment that the document, in Dr Kohler-Ryan’s words, “did not do anything revolutionary” when it came to the role of conscience, contrary to enthusiasts’ claims that conscience had been “re-established” as being of “paramount importance”.
Critics of the exhortation also saw the pope as elevating conscience, such that it could potentially be used to justify readmitting divorced and remarried persons to reception of the Eucharist in spite of any public scandal – leading others away from God – that might result, particularly for wronged spouses and their children.
Dr Sweeney said that he did not think the pope had intended to say anything doctrinally on the matter, and that the pope would not see himself as going beyond what St John Paul II said about conscience in Veritatis Splendor – a papal encyclical, and therefore a more authoritative teaching document.
“I think he’s most concerned with ensuring each case is dealt with in as just and merciful way as possible.
“It seems to me he’s trying to balance two important considerations. It’s clear that conscience needs to be formed in the truth: ‘Every effort should be made to encourage the development of an enlightened conscience formed and guided by the respect and serious discernment of one’s pastor and to encourage an ever greater trust in God’s grace’ (par 303).
“Immediately following this he gives this other important consideration … saying that conscience ‘can also recognise with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response that can be given to God and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits while not yet the objective ideal’.
“His fundamental point of departure tends to be the concrete person in his or her own journey called ultimately to the truth of course but ultimately not there yet.
“So the key to interpreting this is to try to read him at this level while at the same time remembering that perhaps a more fully fledged treatment of an understanding of the basics can be discovered in Veritatis Splendor … that subjective conscience cannot be elevated as the pure and ultimate measure of reality. Conscience always has to be formed. Conscience is, at the end of the day, accountable to what truly is. And I think it’s clear that Francis would agree with that but perhaps his emphasis would lie in the fact that conscience is always a work in process”.
Dr Kohler-Ryan said that philosophically, particularly in more recent iterations of the natural law tradition, conscience was one of the basic goods of being human as well as a habit that had to continually be formed.
“To be able to act in good conscience is to be able to work out for yourself what the right thing or the wrong thing is to do in a particular situation,” she said.
“So if you have a priest that goes into a situation and, objectively speaking, the situation looks terrible, how do you get the couple to see that there is another possibility for them as human persons in a loving way that won’t completely turn them away?
“How do you get them to take on board the fact that they could be very genuinely trying to do what is right but that they have just been misinformed and the whole of society is misinforming them about what is an anthropological truth?
“So, I don’t know that talking about primacy of conscience over natural law is actually what is going on in the document.
“In fact, there is one particular place where the pope says the priest is to accompany those who are sincerely trying to do the right thing, even in these horrible situations.
He is trying to accompany them to help them to discern to help them to discern, always with a knowledge, love and trust of church teaching in view
With regard to the specific claim, in much of the secular and progressive Catholic media, that the pope had opened a way for the divorced and remarried to receive Communion, she said that, in her view, the document was “grey in that area”.
“It’s not as if people (who are divorced and remarried) are excommunicated and should be made to feel so, but there’s a difference between not being excommunicated and not being in a state of grace. And I suppose that doesn’t come through clearly enough in the document.
“What he is getting at is there could be many reasons for a divorce. You could be the wronged party and maybe that’s something that needs to be considered by the priest, and then that becomes more of a pastoral than a dogmatic issue.”
Dr Sweeney said that if there was a limitation with the document it was that the pope left a lot of ambiguous open-ended situations “where if you read into that something from various ideological points of view you can sort of make it say more than it actually says”.
“The overriding factor, especially with relation to an apostolic exhortation, is to always read it in the light of the tradition and what has preceded it.
“The temptation, of course, is always to try to make it say what we want it to say. Unfortunately, there are probably a lot of people out there who will perhaps make more of it than it actually is, to that end.”