In the days leading up to Francis’s recent Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laeititia, one would have thought that a seismic shift in Catholic theology was about to take place. The New York Times wrote excitedly, “Liberals . . . are hoping Francis will directly address same-sex marriage and contraception in a way that would make the Church more responsive to today’s realities.” The usually restrained John Allen wrote a column speculating that the new papal document might amount to a Humanae Vitae “in reverse” and “will likely be touted in the blogosphere as a Catholic waterloo. Liberals will hail the pope for loosening up, while conservatives will fret about a surrender on teaching and tradition.” And Cardinal Walter Brandmuller reminded Francis that he was “bound by the dogmas of the Church,” as well as the authoritative teachings “found in the Church’s Catechism.”

It must have been a surprise to many, therefore, when Francis finally published his long-awaited exhortation. There was no departure from settled Catholic teaching, but, rather, a lucid, beautiful meditation on Catholic marriage and the family.

At the heart of the Pope’s exhortation is the Church’s deep love for marriage and the family, and its desire to protect them from the ravages of secularization and a “culture of the ephemeral.”

Consequently, the Pope responds as a caring pastor would—defending the faithful against assaults on Catholic teaching; setting out a more hopeful vision of marriage and the family; and reaching out to Catholics who are in “irregular” situations, but who sincerely want to find their way back to grace within the Church. This three-pronged and interrelated approach is what gives Francis’s exhortation its dynamism and harmony.

Although the Pope’s tone is gentle and compassionate throughout, Amoris Laetitia is filled with the liberating truth of the Gospel, particularly on the burning social issues of our time. Francis strongly upholds marriage as a unique, sacred indissoluble bond between a man and a woman, and utterly rejects the idea of same-sex marriage (even putting the latter in quotation marks). Stressing that married couples should always be open to life, he praises the rich wisdom of Humanae Vitae, and welcomes children as precious gifts from God. He denounces divorce, pornography and gender ideology; and condemns abortion and euthanasia in no uncertain terms. He rebukes movements and organizations trying to pressure the Church to conform to these aberrant practices, and warns of artificial technologies trying to manipulate humanity and the natural world. And even as Francis calls for a more pastoral, loving and sensitive Church, he declares: “If someone flaunts an objective sin, as if it were part of the Christian ideal, or wants to impose something other than what the Church teaches, he or she can in no way presume to preach or teach to others; this is a case of something which separates from the community (cf. Mt 18:17). Such a person needs to listen once more to the Gospel message and its call to conversion.”

The Pope knows that one cannot just issue fiery condemnations against the cultural evils of our time; the Church also, and of necessity, needs to provide an alternative vision—one that attracts people to the joys of Christian living. Here is where Amoris Laetitia excels, laying out Francis’s bold and inspiring vision of marriage and family life, in several beautifully written chapters. Drawing on St. Paul’s lyrical first letter to the Corinthians, as well as St. John Paul II’s Catechesis on Human Love, the Pope discusses everything from marital relations and intimacy, to sound parenting and prudent (as distinct from coarse and damaging) sex education, to the indispensable value of grandparents, offering many wise insights along the way. Francis obviously learned a great deal, as a long-time pastor serving families in Argentina, and now the Church is benefiting from his first-hand experience. Among his most powerful statements in this regard is his belief in the power of Christian love to overcome failing relationships, and troubled families:

This means that love bears every trial with a positive attitude. It stands firm in hostile surroundings. This ‘endurance’ involves not only the ability to tolerate certain aggravations, but something greater: a constant readiness to confront any challenge. It is a love that never gives up, even in the darkest hour. It shows a certain dogged heroism, a power to resist every negative current, an irrepressible goodness.

The Pope’s exhortation also has a moving section praising Catholics called to virginity and celibacy, which are subjects rarely discussed these days. In so doing, the Pope highlights and honors these Catholics, whose transcendent lifestyles are so important for the Church’s ongoing witness.

On the question of those living outside the boundaries of Catholic orthodoxy, particularly the divorced and remarried, Francis cites the Catechism and advises that pastors not throw stones at these couples, assuming their subjective guilt, but rather help integrate them into the Catholic community as far as can be allowed without violating the Gospel. In contrast to Cardinal Walter Kasper’s controversial proposal to allow Communion to those still living in an illicit state, the Pope offers a solution that is consistent with Catholic doctrine and tradition. He also calls for them to enlighten their consciences, so that they will be moved to reform their lives, in a way true to Catholic teaching. “For this reason,” writes Francis, “a negative judgment about an objective situation does not imply a judgment about the imputability or culpability of the person involved.” A footnote to this sentence (345) then approvingly references the Holy See’s “Declaration Concerning the Admission to Holy Communion of Faithful Who Are Divorced and Remarried”—which fully upholds Catholic teaching forbidding divorced and Catholics from receiving the Holy Eucharist, as long as they remain in an irregular state. Many of those who have accused Francis of indirectly sanctioning Cardinal Kasper’s proposal have completely ignored this text and footnote, and instead, cited another footnote in the papal exhortation, 351—but that footnote also contradicts their reading. As both American canon lawyer, Edward Peters, and British canon lawyer Ed Condon have shown, all that footnote says is that, “in certain cases,” such Catholics may be assisted by the sacrament of Confession, with Francis adding—as he already had in Evangelii Gaudium—that the Eucharist is “not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” Nowhere is there any papal authorization for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the Holy Eucharist, for that all depends on whether, through Confession and other pastoral assistance, these Catholics are able to return to an objectively moral living situation. This would mean either receiving a legitimate annulment of the first marriage, and marrying in the Church; or living a life of marital abstinence. In a piece entitled, “The Law before ‘Amoris’ is the Law After,” Peters concludes: “Sacramental words are made of rules, not surmises. Those who think Amoris has cleared a path to the Communion rail for Catholics in irregular situations are hearing words that the Pope . . . simply did not say.” Condon adds: “Without question, there will be those who try and contort Amoris Laetitia into the Kasper proposal, but they will do so against the obvious and clear intentions of Pope Francis.”

Similarly, the Pope’s statement, early in the exhortation, that “Each country or region . . . can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs,” does not, as some have assumed, mean the Pope is granting discretion to various countries to do whatever they please, for that line is preceded by the statement that “unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church,” and followed with this one, in the Pope’s chapter on pastoral perspectives: “Different communities will have to devise more practical and effective initiatives that respect both the Church’s teaching and local problems and needs.” [emphasis added]. In other words, local practices and customs of a given country or state do not trump settled Catholic teaching on the worthiness of receiving the Holy Eucharist; those local practices must always be compatible with Church teaching.

Framing Francis by distorting his words and omitting key parts of his teaching is no way to read an Apostolic Exhortation. But if Catholics and others really want to understand the character and approach of the Pope, they should study the life of Jesuit Father Peter Faber, a great sixteenth-century Catholic reformer, whom Francis canonized in 2013. Father Faber was known for his gentle, pastoral approach in dealing with Catholics in irregular situations, as well as those outside the Church. Like Francis today, Faber was also accused of going “soft” by not resorting to harsh language and instant, categorical judgments upon those who had fallen from grace. But Faber’s patient, serene, orthodox approach ultimately turned out to be a huge success, winning countless souls back to Christ and His Church.

This is the same goal of Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia—not to “open the door” to more sin and family dysfunction—but to bring disaffected and fallen-away Catholics back to the truth of Gospel, so that they, too, can ultimately experience the joy and spiritual fruits of being faithful Catholics.

William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.

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