Seeing the many rich facets

Like a many-faceted jewel, Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”) needs to be viewed in all its richness. Its teaching is lucid concerning the priest’s responsibility to proclaim the truth. At the same time, this profound apostolic exhortation includes the recognition of the condition of the person, the ability of the individual to even understand the regulations of the Church, the place of pastoral accompaniment of those who do not fully follow the teaching, as well as the determining role of individual conscience when assessing personal culpability before God and therefore before his Church.

Pope Francis is asking us to be aware of all these elements, the teaching on marriage and on conscience, as well as the example of Jesus’ mercy, compassion and forgiveness.

Path of accompaniment

It seems that what is at issue is not so much what the exhortation says but rather where one chooses to place the emphasis. Some seem more comfortable emphasizing the teaching and the obligations of canon law. While others, certainly the majority of bishops who were a part of both Synods on marriage, accept the canon law, but also see the need to renew the pastoral dimension of the Church’s ministry.

Thus there was the repeated call from the Synodal Fathers to affirm again the Gospel value of accompaniment and the Church’s respect for an individual’s conscience in the whole process of judgment making. The bishops, during both the 2014 and 2015 synods, voiced the need for a change of mentality in our pastoral approach to married couples.

In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis puts it this way: “I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion. But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, a Mother who, while clearly expressing her objective teaching, ‘always does what good she can, even if in the process, her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street’” (No. 308).

Here Pope Francis cites the document of the Synod, the Relatio Finalis (the final document approved by the bishops of the Synod), that urged the Holy Father to consider that “Under certain circumstances people find it very difficult to act differently.

Therefore, while upholding a general rule, it is necessary to recognize that responsibility with respect to certain actions or decisions is not the same in all cases. Pastoral discernment, while taking into account a person’s properly formed conscience, must take responsibility for these situations. Even the consequences of actions taken are not necessarily the same in all cases” (Relatio Finalis 2015, No. 85).

It is also helpful to recall that all of the material in the Relatio Finalis received over a two-thirds majority positive approval in the voting by the bishops of the Synod. Nearly all the content received over 90 percent approbation.

Yes, this approach involves what some would say are serious challenges. But if we start with the recognition that Jesus came for our redemption, that the Son of Man has come “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28), and that it is not the righteous but sinners that the Son of Man has come to heal (cf. Mk 2:17), and if we take as our inspiration the image of Jesus, the Good Shepherd with the lost sheep around his shoulders, we can begin to recognize in the richness of this apostolic exhortation what it is Pope Francis is telling us. The wider context for reading any particular sentence in Amoris Laetitia involves the two realities: the fall/the human condition and the gratuitous redeeming mercy of God.

Always with Peter

One of the many aspects of Amoris Laetitia that is particularly noteworthy is that it expresses the Holy Father’s engagement with the bishops who attended both the 2014 and the 2015 Synods on marriage and all of the material that was a part of those two gatherings that spoke about marriage, the challenges to marriage and of course the beauty and blessings of marriage.

Following the mind and words of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Francis has placed great emphasis on his unity with the bishops as they carry out their teaching and governance role in the Church. The Council reminds us that bishops, always with and never without Peter (cf. Lumen Gentium No. 22), share a responsibility for the life of the Church.

After all of its deliberations, discussions, prayer and voting, the Synods affirmed what we all recognize, that there is a difference between the teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, a doctrine of the Church, and the personal, conscientious judgment concerning one’s relationship to the sacraments, and how pastoral accompaniment is a big part in bringing these two elements of Christian experience into harmony.

To be avoided are both a laxism that too readily dismisses moral obligation, and a rigid legalism that too quickly denies the role of human conscience in making moral judgments. In the Synod discussions we heard some few who asserted that what we have to do is announce and repeat the precepts of the Church regarding marriage. We also heard the call for a more expansive pastoral outreach to accompany those who are in situations that do not completely reflect the fullness of Church teaching on marriage, or so many other Gospel mandates.

A significant aspect of both Amoris Laetitia and the received teaching of the Church is the recognition that not every moral judgment is made in the full, rich light of complete understanding of the Faith and its requirements. Such a judgment, however, still has value and, for priests, the pastoral task is to accompany the person in a journey we are all making together to draw closer to a fuller embrace of Christ and his Gospel.

The pope together with bishops from around the world for two years discussed, prayed, listened and reflected on how to present the Church’s teaching on marriage in a way that it is inviting, compelling and faithful to the truth and, at the same time, able to engage people who live in a marriage that does not reflect perfectly and entirely the Church’s teaching.

Amoris Laetitia has been received with affirmation by nearly every bishop and cardinal who participated in one or both of the two Synods on marriage.

In the exhortation, we see the continuity with the teaching that we find in the conciliar era beginning with St. John XXIII, following through with Blessed Paul VI, St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and now Pope Francis. If Amoris Laetitia is properly placed in the context of the constant teaching of the Church, we will see an affirmation of both the teaching on the indissolubility of marriage and also the Church’s universal practice of applying that unchanging teaching to individual lived experience and concrete situations.

Generosity and fidelity

The key to understanding Amoris Laetitia is recognizing both the teaching of the Church affirmed in this document and its call for pastoral accompaniment. The pastoral responsibility to help individuals apply objective moral norms to their concrete personal circumstances cannot, by definition, rely on a textbook of predetermined responses. However, three principles that do help guide pastors in their priestly work with individual souls include: fidelity to received tradition, respect for individual conscience and pastoral accompaniment.

There is clearly no new doctrine introduced in the apostolic exhortation on the nature of marriage, the indissolubility of marriage, the determinant role of human conscience in moral capability or the applicability of current canon law. More than once, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the Vatican office to oversee the integrity of the Faith), has affirmed the doctrinal authenticity of Amoris Laetitia. Concerning the exhortation’s content, Cardinal Müller makes clear “I do not see any opposition: On one side we have the clear doctrine on matrimony and on the other the obligation of the Church to care for those people in difficulty.”

Here we return to what I think is the source of some of the challenge. Amoris Laetitia offers a rich and multifaceted teaching. Its emphasis is on both correct doctrine and pastoral accompaniment. If one chooses to emphasize only one of these mutually related aspects there can seem to be doubt and confusion. Yet, the exhortation, according to the will and suggestions of the Synodal Fathers at two month-long sessions, presents both facets of the same jewel of Catholic faith.

My experience with so many priests is that they are already living out their priesthood in the way envisioned by the pope — with generosity and fidelity, striving to make present the merciful face of the Father to their people. Amoris Laetitia is an affirmation to every priest endeavoring to imitate the Good Shepherd, and a warm encouragement to continue this good work with the people entrusted to his care.

Once we start with the recognition that the teaching of the Church has not changed, nor has the call to compassionate accompaniment, nor has the Church’s understanding of the role of human conscience, and the acceptance that this is what Amoris Laetitia is presenting, then any real doubts or concerns should find their response.

Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl is archbishop of Washington, has a doctorate in theology and has been a member of seven Synods, including both the 2014 and 2015 Synods on the family.