VATICAN CITY — For anyone who thought, however delusionally, that the pope’s highly anticipated “apostolic exhortation” on “Love in the Family” would somehow clear the way to the altar for same-sex couples or divorced and remarried Catholics—or, on the contrary, slam the door shut in their faces—the document released at high noon here at the Vatican is bound to be a disappointment.
Intended as, in essence, an instruction manual for priests dealing with the complex realities of modern family life, it emphasizes tolerance and understanding, to be sure, but there is no change to the Catechism or to other fundamental doctrines of the church. So, there are few revelations that stand out, or, at least, none that anyone but the most seasoned Vaticanista church followers will be able to parse. But the 263-page document, titled Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), does say a lot by not saying certain things.
Conspicuously absent from the document are phrases like “intrinsically disordered” and “unacceptable behavior,” which previous popes used to describe same-sex relationships. He’s not exactly calling them to holy matrimony, but he’s not at all condemning them either. After all, who is he to judge? Or, as he puts it in more formal language: “We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.”
This “exhortation” lays down the final word on what Francis deems the relevant thinking from two tense synods on the family, during which we heard the first words of acceptance for same-sex couples and divorced and remarried people in the context of the Catholic Church—and where we also saw the nasty opposition to that initial acceptance.
In fact, the words “homosexual” or “same sex” appear just six times, which is a bit surprising given the heavy focus on same-sex unions during both synods. And this is not exactly “infallible” doctrine, rather it is an executive reading of conflicting advice and past practices, with 391 footnotes quoting what Francis endorses from the synod discussions and final documents, previous papal decrees, and episcopal conferences.
Indeed, one might imagine Francis has grown weary of all the tiresome discussion and wants to just get on to the job of preaching to whoever is left in the pews. “The opposite of resentment is forgiveness, which is rooted in a positive attitude that seeks to understand other people’s weaknesses and to excuse them,” he writes in the chapter titled “Love in Marriage,” which is not meant for couples as much as for the priests counseling them and, one may say, for the Catholic Church as a whole. “Yet we keep looking for more and more faults, imagining greater evils, presuming all kinds of bad intentions, and so resentment grows and deepens.”
When it comes right down to it, no matter how long his papacy lasts, Francis will never condone same-sex marriage as a sacrament blessed by the Catholic Church. On this, he leaves no wiggle room at all. “In discussing the dignity and mission of the family, the Synod Fathers observed that, ‘as for proposals to place unions between homosexual persons on the same level as marriage, there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family,’” he writes. “It is unacceptable that local churches should be subjected to pressure in this matter and that international bodies should make financial aid to poor countries dependent on the introduction of laws to establish ‘marriage’ between persons of the same sex.”
He also made it clear that a marriage performed in and blessed by the church has the singular purpose of procreation, and if a couple won’t agree to produce, their marriage cannot be recognized. “There is a failure to realize that only the exclusive and indissoluble union between a man and a woman has a plenary role to play in society as a stable commitment that bears fruit in new life,” as Francis puts it.
But unions outside the church are greeted with a new tone of tolerance, even as they are described as flawed: “We need to acknowledge the great variety of family situations that can offer a certain stability, but de facto or same-sex unions, for example, may not simply be equated with marriage. No union that is temporary or closed to the transmission of life can ensure the future of society.”
“Some forms of union radically contradict this ideal, while others realize it in at least a partial and analogous way,” he continues, almost apologetically. “The Synod Fathers stated that the Church does not disregard the constructive elements in those situations, which do not yet or no longer correspond to her teaching on marriage.”
On the issue of divorced and remarried Catholics and Communion, which is very important to the faithful, Francis is less clear. “Divorce is an evil,” he says flatly, but he quotes himself on the right for local bishops to take the pulse and make exceptions when they feel it is necessary, and he reminds them that he has already made it easier for divorced Catholics to get annulments, which, in the eyes of the church, is really the only acceptable way a remarried Catholic should be allowed the sacrament of the Eucharist.
It seems clear this is another issue that he doesn’t want to dwell on. “The divorced who have entered a new union, for example, can find themselves in a variety of situations, which should not be pigeonholed or fit into overly rigid classifications leaving no room for a suitable personal and pastoral discernment,” he writes.
Later he adds, “Divorced people who have not remarried, and often bear witness to marital fidelity, ought to be encouraged to find in the Eucharist the nourishment they need to sustain them in their present state of life.” Does that mean that if you are divorced, but you are not sleeping with anyone new, you can drink the wine and eat the wafer? So it would seem.
“It is important that the divorced who have entered a new union should be made to feel part of the church,” Francis writes. “They are not excommunicated and they should not be treated as such, since they remain part of the ecclesial community.”
These situations, he says, “require careful discernment and respectful accompaniment. Language or conduct that might lead them to feel discriminated against should be avoided….; The Christian community’s care of such persons is not to be considered a weakening of its faith and testimony to the indissolubility of marriage; rather, such care is a particular expression of its charity.”
In line with previous comments, Francis appears to maintain his annoying blind spot when it comes to women. Denial of differences between the sexes is described as “ideological.” But who claims that there are no differences? Rather, women are struggling to do away with unequal opportunities that exploit difference as an excuse to, for instance, pay women less than men, or for that matter, to exclude them from the priesthood.
Starting with a section called “You and Your Wife,” which is not followed by one called “You and Your Husband,” Francis struggles with the complicated role of women in the modern family, and in fact his document leaves no room for what most of us understand by equality of the sexes. Nor does it quote any women on the matter.
“With great affection I urge all future mothers: keep happy and let nothing rob you of the interior joy of motherhood,” he writes. “Your child deserves your happiness. Don’t let fears, worries, other people’s comments or problems lessen your joy at being God’s means of bringing a new life to the world. Prepare yourself for the birth of your child, but without obsessing,” he writes.
“The weakening of this maternal presence with its feminine qualities poses a grave risk to our world,” writes Francis. “I certainly value feminism, but one that does not demand uniformity or negate motherhood.”
Along the same lines, and what will surely come as a relief for American Catholic bishops who strongly oppose Obamacare’s contraception mandate, Francis reiterates that birth control is still a no-go zone.
In one rather bizarre passage, he writes that “safe sex” conveys “a negative attitude towards the natural procreative finality of sexuality, as if an eventual child were an enemy to be protected against.” What about “safe sex” to prevent STDs? Indeed, what about AIDS? That meaning seems to have eluded him.
“The upright consciences of spouses who have been generous in transmitting life may lead them, for sufficiently serious reasons, to limit the number of their children, yet precisely for the sake of this dignity of conscience, the church strongly rejects the forced State intervention in favor of contraception, sterilization and even abortion,” he writes, in language that would appear to lump the pill together with China’s one-child policy and its abuses. “Such measures are unacceptable even in places with high birth rates, yet also in countries with disturbingly low birth rates we see politicians encouraging them.”
Still, Francis gives his clergy plenty of not-so-subtle guidance for self-reflection, at times scolding those who cling to doctrine in a modernizing world. Perhaps surprisingly, he seems to acknowledge the potential inadequacies of celibate priests dealing with the evolving relations among couples married in the Catholic Church and otherwise. Indeed, at one point he writes, “the experience of the broad oriental traditions of a married clergy could also be drawn upon.”
“We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life,” he writes, clearly labeling that an error. Later he adds, “No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel! Here I am not speaking only of the divorced and remarried, but of everyone, in whatever situation they find themselves.”
Yet, the document also stresses that Western problems that come with developed nations, like capitalism and boredom, much criticized by church conservatives, are not the greatest threats to the family, and he gives ample guidance for clergy dealing with families breaking up because of migration, armed conflicts and extreme privations.
“Forced migration of families, resulting from situations of war, persecution, poverty and injustice,” he writes, may be “marked by the vicissitudes of a journey that often puts lives at risk, traumatizes people and destabilizes families. In accompanying migrants, the church needs a specific pastoral program addressed not only to families that migrate but also to those family members who remain behind.” (Next week the pontiff is traveling to Greece to meet with refugees there.)
The exhortation will be analyzed for weeks, months, and perhaps years to come with each phrase parsed down to the syllable. But it seems inarguable that while Francis does not abandon any of the doctrinal teachings that make the Catholic Church strong, he does want those running the church to be more open-minded, if not in deed, at least in thought.
“As this Exhortation has often noted, no family drops down from heaven perfectly formed,” Francis writes in his conclusion. “Families need constantly to grow and mature in the ability to love.”
And, it would seem, Francis has the same plan for his church.