Pope Francis’ latest apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, continues the discussion begun at the two Synods on the Family by addressing a number of issues families face in the modern world.
But the much-debated question of whether divorced and remarried Catholics should be able to receive Communion was only discussed in a few paragraphs. Commentators have argued over the exact meaning of Francis’ words, with some arguing that he expresses the possibility of letting divorced and remarried Catholic receive Communion and remarry within the Church. Others, The Most Rev. Philip Egan, Bishop of Portsmouth, maintain that Francis is “totally consistence with Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, with the Familiaris Consortio of St. John Paul II… and Francis frequently cites them. There has been no change in canon law.”
However, sections of the exhortation seem ambiguous. For example, Francis writes that:
“Not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium. Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching… Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs.”
Francis once again illustrates his concern for the personal rather than the abstract.
The pope also emphasized the importance of listening to one’s conscience when assessing “irregular” situations, rather than relying on general rules. Although a well-developed conscience is in accord with Church teaching, Francis sees it as an inherent human power that goes beyond the law to help people respond to their situations. “Yet conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel,” he writes. “It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God.”
Some have seen this as an attempt to downplay the Church’s relatively strict teachings on divorce and remarriage, but others laud his practicality and humility in saying that pastors “cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in ‘irregular’ situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives.” Instead, the pope encourages priests to be attuned to the greater spiritual well-being of his parishioners.
While many argue over the implications of Amoris Laetitia, the document primarily celebrates marriage and offers practical advice on how to strengthen relationships within a family, while contrasting God’s and society’s vision for human flourishing. Francis explores issues of communication, domestic violence, co-habitation, and gender roles, often giving simple yet profound advice on how to improve a marriage or raise children. The fruits of the two Synods on the Family are apparent in Francis’ appeals to experience and suggestion of practical ideas such as listening to family members instead of practicing “technological disconnect,” making frequent use of the words “please,” “thank you,” and “sorry,” and having older couples act as mentors to younger couples.
Francis also addresses what he calls the “ephemeral culture,” or a culture in which nothing, from relationships to commitments, is permanent. “It is very easy nowadays to confuse genuine freedom with the idea that each individual can act arbitrarily,” Francis says. “The fear of loneliness and the desire for stability and fidelity exist side by side with a growing fear of entrapment in a relationship that could hamper the achievement of one’s personal goals.” He argues that this mindset has resulted in a culture where marriage is unpopular, since it requires working around inconveniences to sacrifice for another person. This “ephemeral culture” also leads people to reject the most vulnerable members of society, such as the elderly and the unborn, because they are seen as burden.
While the document left commentators hoping for direct answers to their canonical questions wanting, it also left others inspired by its celebration of marriage and somewhat preventative approach to the divorce issue. Ultimately, the document does not answer the question of divorced and remarried Catholic srecieving Communion, but instead poses questions of its own: of why are divorce rates so high, why it is worthwhile to pursue marriage even after spouses cease being attractive or useful to one another. The best answer it provides is how Catholics’ responses to these imperfect situations can go beyond the law.