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Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation, fittingly published in April, is full of springtime hope. It speaks candidly to the Christian amid the messiness of day-to-day life; it honestly addresses the difficulties of discipleship, while reminding us of our dignity as children of God. It makes some impressive affirmations of orthodoxy, alongside quirky insights that are themselves a sign of how Christian life is not a formula but an adventure.

Such were my thoughts when Amoris Laetitia came out almost exactly two years ago. My admiration for the document prevented me from worrying too much about the odd ambiguous sentence here or there. But the last two years have shown Catholics that it is precisely the ambiguities and silences and confusions that matter. And that experience has colored responses to this week’s apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and be glad). Gaudete contains much wisdom (see, for instance, paragraphs 14–18 on holiness, 29–30 on distraction, and 82 on forgiveness). But it contains other things, too, which may count for more in the long run.

After all, Amoris’s observation that “The aesthetic experience of love is expressed in that ‘gaze’ which contemplates other persons as ends in themselves”—one of my favorite passages—has not led to a dramatic revival in how lovingly people gaze at each other. But Amoris’s stray ambiguities have been used in defense of disastrous pastoral errors.

Its weird footnote on the sacraments has been used to justify communion for the remarried in ArgentinaSan Diego, and elsewhere. Its ambiguity on moral absolutes became the foundation of some Canadian bishops’ approval of last rites before euthanasia. Its curious words about moral dilemmas have been converted into the Maltese bishops’ statement that avoiding extramarital sex may be “impossible.” The Vatican has censured none of these errors, nor a score of similar cases.

The reader may reply that the pope is in fact a stout upholder of Catholic orthodoxy; if he appears otherwise, it is the fault of his dodgy advisors, the excitable secular media, and the mean-spirited Catholic blogosphere. I used to think all that myself. But even if it were true, it wouldn’t change the fact that apostolic exhortations these days are used to support doctrinal and pastoral errors. Any serious response to Gaudete needs to ask how that may happen here.

Start with the obvious. The Church’s teaching on intrinsically immoral acts—especially those related to sex—is its most frequent (if not its most profound) point of conflict with contemporary liberalism. There is massive pressure for the Church to admit that its tradition is nonsense. Opponents of Catholic moral teaching, whether inside or outside the Church, seldom give actual arguments; more often, they demonize the “harsh,” “obsessive,” “judgmental” Catholic who emphasizes dogma and wants to tell others how to live their lives.

They contrast this cartoon villain with the merciful Jesus—and, increasingly, with the merciful Pope Francis. I have heard several stories of Catholics being rebuked for opposing divorce or gay marriage because doing so is “not in line with Pope Francis.”

Unfortunately, Gaudete will encourage such a narrative. The document criticizes “doctrinal or disciplinary security,” “an obsession with the law,” “punctilious concern for … doctrine,” “dogmatism,” “hiding behind rules and regulations,” and “a rigid resistance to change,” while reprimanding those who “give excessive importance to certain rules,” overemphasize “ecclesial rules,” believe that “doctrine … is a closed system,” “feel superior to others because they observe certain rules,” have “an answer for every question,” wish to “exercise a strict supervision over others’ lives,” “long for a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance,” believe that “we give glory to God … simply by following certain ethical norms,” and “look down on others like heartless judges, lording it over them and always trying to teach them lessons.”

Meanwhile, “amid the thicket of precepts and prescriptions, Jesus clears a way to seeing two faces, that of the Father and that of our brother. He does not give us two more formulas or two more commands.” We are urged to contrast Jesus’s way with the way of precepts, formulas, and commands.

Of course, there is an orthodox interpretation of all this: that the pope is reminding Catholics that our religion is more a love affair than a theory. But there is a different interpretation: that when someone says, “The Church teaches that X is intrinsically wrong,” he is probably being a bit of a Pharisee. The history of Amoris Laetitia suggests that the more expansive interpretation often gains the upper hand.

Indeed, Gaudete seems to be gesturing at the controversies around Amoris. For instance, one recent debate concerns whether “discernment” can permit acts that the Church considers immoral. Could one discern, for instance, that one should continue committing adultery? The Catholic tradition says no, but some have used Amoris’s ambiguities to suggest otherwise. Gaudete could well add to the confusion. The document criticizes those who “tell the weak that all things can be accomplished with God’s grace.” It insists that discernment “is not a matter of applying rules or repeating what was done in the past.” On one interpretation, these are harmless statements; but they could be twisted to mean that God’s grace doesn’t always enable one to give up adultery, or that “applying rules” (such as Church teaching on communion?) is a mistake.

Opponents of Church teaching make such tendentious readings all the time. Fr. Maurizio Chiodi, a member of the pope’s own academy on life issues, has argued that Amoris justifies contraception, despite Amoris’s actual words on the subject. Dissent does not need much help. It needs, first, an atmosphere in which Church authorities are reluctant to condemn error; and, second, enough ambiguity to gain a foothold. Gaudete, for all its strengths, adds to the ambiguities.

Rejoice and be glad, yes. But also be ready, when some opportunist begins, “As Pope Francis teaches in Gaudete et Exsultate…,” to ask: “Are you absolutely sure it says that?”

Dan Hitchens is deputy editor of the Catholic Herald.

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Photo by Zebra48bo via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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