Philip Larkin lamented that whether or not anybody refills your drink at a party “seems to turn on where you are. Or who.” In our divided Catholic Church, pastoral care is a lot like Larkin's cocktails. Catholics who sincerely desire to submit themselves to the Church they love come to their local parish seeking the wine of resurrection; and receive sometimes water, sometimes vinegar. If you're in an especially culturally-contentious position, you may be favored with alternating doses of each. Laxity disguised as mercy creates a predictable reaction of stringency disguised as truth.
Comes now Pope Francis, with his characteristic gabby, cheery style, to try to speak a word of mercy that can be heard by everyone. I am not a scholar, a canon lawyer, or even a spouse. But here is what I heard from where I am, and who.
I volunteer with a Christian ministry serving mostly low-income women, so I do a lot of relationship counseling. I help women discern whether they should marry their partner, and if so, I try to lend both support and urgency to that decision. So I read Amoris Laetitia looking for ways it might help my clients, especially by distinguishing between marriage and long-term cohabitation.
This is one of the areas where the papal exhortation shines. Pope Francis doesn't rely on sociological, utilitarian defenses of marriage. He highlights two aspects of Catholic marriage which even the best cohabiting partnership can't provide: its sacramental character, and its deliberate promise.
“Christ the Lord ‘makes himself present to the Christian spouses in the sacrament of marriage’ and remains with them,” the Pope writes. “The sacrament of marriage is not a social convention, an empty ritual or merely the outward sign of a commitment,” but instead is “an icon of the relationship between God and his people,” and a reminder of the new covenant sealed in Jesus' blood. Marriage is a promise of “total self-giving, faithfulness and openness to new life.” Marriage makes sexual love not only Christ-centered but Christlike.
And where couples can “slide” into parenting or cohabitation, they must decide to marry. The Pope emphasizes “the words of consent”: “Those words give meaning to the sexual relationship and free it from ambiguity.” The free, public choice of marriage stands in contrast to the private, often hastily-discussed and economically-constrained decision to cohabit. Have some home truths from your grandma, the Pope: “Committing oneself exclusively and definitively to another person always involves a risk and a bold gamble. Unwillingness to make such a commitment is selfish, calculating and petty. It fails to recognize the rights of another person and to present him or her to society as someone worthy of unconditional love.”
My clients are often in relationships with men they trust. These are men who are providing as best they can, who care for their children, who struggle alongside them. Marriage might provide more stability, but the examples of the few marriages they've seen aren't convincing on that score. Marriage may be frightening, since many women know families in which the man became much more controlling and even abusive after rings were on fingers.
In several places, the exhortation offers strikingly blunt language on domestic violence, which he calls “craven acts of cowardice” that “contradict the very nature of the conjugal union.” The Pope hints that Paul's praise of patience in I Corinthians is not meant to trap women in abusive marriages.
But my clients really want to marry. The thing they find hard to articulate is why. Amoris Laetitia suggests some ways in which marriage, and marriage alone, can bring even very good relationships closer to God's will.
The Pope emphasizes economic realities (especially the pressure to find housing, the one specific need my clients mention most) but he speaks directly to my clients when he says, to people who think they can't afford a wedding or aren't economically stable enough for marriage, “What is important is the love you share, strengthened and sanctified by grace. You are capable of opting for a more modest and simple celebration in which love takes precedence over everything else.”
Amoris Laetitia is a defense not only of poor people's marriages, but of marriages that never lift a household off of welfare and never provide measurable positive social outcomes.
Social improvement is not the point of Christian marriage. But Pope Francis often makes it sound like marriage is a constant process of self-improvement. The word “growth” comes up again and again in a document that makes marriage, as Ross Douthat pointed out, seem more like an ideal we approach asymptotically than a sacramental reality.
I hesitate to say this whopping papal doorstop should be longer, but most of what I mistrusted in Amoris Laetitia came from what was not there. There's constant, exhausting talk of “growth,” but no hint of the Christian witness of resignation. If we view marriage as a constant process of improvement, it's easy to feel resentment when a spouse remains resolutely unimproved. Is there any place in Amoris Laetitia for people who have to confess, as most sinners sometimes must, “It isn't getting any better”?
Brideshead Revisited has come up now and then in these discussions, and one spiritually-powerful thing about Julia's situation is its passivity, passion, waiting, acceptance—she's not “working to regularize her situation.” She's not working toward anything really. This acceptance is perhaps the most overlooked, least American aspect of Christian life, whether in marriage or out of it.
By far the most controversial aspect of the exhortation is its suggestion that it may be possible for people in second marriages to receive the Eucharist without receiving an annulment. Since the Church considers remarriage when you are sacramentally bound to a living spouse as a form of adultery, people in these marriages have often been counseled to live “as brother and sister,” continuing to share household and parental responsibilities but abstaining from sex.
I became Catholic because I longed for the Eucharist. I knew that I needed it. To receive it I was willing, much to my own surprise, to forgo the possibility of a lesbian union.
I won't attempt syllogisms, but let me suggest a few harmonies. Communion is linked to belief and behavior by our relationship to the Church as Mother. She nourishes us with the Eucharist, and guides us as our most reliable teacher. Ultimately our understanding of Communion is grounded in our relationship with Jesus, Who is both the sacrifice on the altar and the Way: the way of life we are to follow. The God Who is truth and goodness became flesh; recognizing this bread as God's Body implies an acceptance of His truth and goodness as well.
If your submission to the Church or your acceptance of the way of life She teaches is only partial, that's “fine” in a certain sense—that's a part of lots of people's journeys, it's a way of being Catholic. The way Catholics have humbly and honestly lived out that painful, liminal position is by making a “spiritual communion”: attending Mass, praying for deeper unity with the Church, but not receiving the Eucharist. This is a beautiful and courageous witness—and one which is almost unknown to the average Catholic. When we hear about conditions for reception of the Eucharist it's almost always in the context of some priest refusing somebody at the altar, in contentious and usually politicized circumstances: stories about conflicting demands, in which the humility and witness of spiritual communion is impossible to see.
Pope Francis's line that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” is true. It is also exceptionally easy to misunderstand if you don't know why the Catholic Church asks you to confess and turn away from mortal sin before you receive the Eucharist. If you are a priest who dissents from Church teaching, or who just doesn't want to fight with people about it, Amoris Laetitia gives you some cover—at the expense of the souls in your care.
The exhortation's greatest weakness is its lack of specifics when it comes to “irregular situations.” This allows everybody to think it covers anything. I am deeply grateful to the friends who have shared some of their own experiences of trying to receive pastoral guidance in complex familial situations. So many people who sincerely want to bring their lives into harmony with God's will are stuck in situations where there is no clear path forward. Fr. Dwight Longenecker gives some examples from his own pastoral experience here; his list is only the beginning. Several of my friends have described their situations to priest after priest, each of whom listens, shakes his head, and says, “Boy, that's a toughie. Wish I knew what to tell you. Well, good luck!”
It's precisely this kind of situation where Pope Francis's encouragement to look outside the standard path back to the Eucharist makes sense. Women fleeing abusive marriages, who understand that the Church tries to hear both sides but are terrified of the repercussions of contacting their ex-spouses; “relapsed” Catholics in second marriages to non-Catholics, who fear that a sexless marriage will soon be a sexless divorce, with their children the primary victims; people who have good reason to lack Ross Douthat's trust in the diocesan marriage tribunal—so often these people get one of three responses. “Why don't you just [X]?”, where X is unrealistic, impossible, or something they've already tried; “The Church should make annulments easier,” which is not helpful in the moment and also bizarrely cavalier; or, “You are being called to heroic martyrdom,” which is not something you should volunteer other people's children for unless you definitely have to.
The Pope calls priests to listen to people when they say they accept Church teaching and are genuinely unsure how to bring their lives into harmony with it. He promises Catholics who fear that there is no path back that priests are out there who will work with them and help them find a way home. And ordinary people hear him: I've been moved and convicted by the gratitude with which many of my friends and colleagues have received Amoris Laetitia. These are Catholics who accept Church teaching and are already living in accordance with it (as much as any of us do) in the wake of divorces, struggles with NFP, addiction, and all the other difficulties that tempt us to despair. Pope Francis has given them hope. Any criticism of his approach should listen to them at least as responsively as he has.
I recently heard the Lutheran “pastrix” Nadia Bolz-Weber compare the “searching and fearless moral inventory” of Alcoholics Anonymous to having God grab you by the scruff of your neck and hold your face right up in a pile of your own, uh, waste.
GOD: What is it?
NADIA, grasping at straws: . . . Pudding?!
One easy way to keep people from penitence is to tell them, “Yep, just pudding, nothing to worry about.” Another way is to tell them there's nothing they can do to get their face out of it—there is no way to be clean. These are mutually-reinforcing cruelties: If you know the people around you won't be merciful to sinners, you have a very strong incentive to define sin out of existence. And if you're used to people excusing sin, you may see excuses where there is only humility in the face of life's complexity.
This week the Pope wafted out another cloud of folksy effervescence. I've only read excerpts from The Joy of Discipleship, but I'm struck by its explicit reminders that we receive mercy most fully when we acknowledge and repent of sin: “When, however, we recognize ourselves as sinners, God fills us with his mercy and with his love.” The penitent's heart is “purified by tears, to take part in [God's] joy.” The Pope writes, “Open your heart to Jesus’ mercy! Say, ‘Jesus, look how much filth! Come, cleanse. Cleanse with your mercy, with your tender words, cleanse with your caresses.'” Even shame can “make us humbler,” and the priest is called to receive this humble confession “with love and tenderness.”
If your experience of the Catholic Church has been priests who try to numb your conscience, you may read Amoris Laetitia as a menu of excuses. If your experience has been harsh judgment and dismissal no matter how hard you try, you may find in it balm and encouragement. Both sets of readers are crying out for what The Joy of Discipleship describes: a Church which will not turn away from us in our shame, but will clothe us in mercy.
Eve Tushnet is a lesbian and celibate Catholic freelance writer. She studied philosophy at Yale University, where she was received into the Catholic Church in 1998. She writes from D.C., and has been published in (among others) Commonweal, First Things, The National Catholic Register, National Review, and The Washington Blade. Eve blogs at Patheos.com.