Friday, April 08, 2016

Francis' Feast – Pope's Hymn to Family "Is A Matter of Reaching Out to Everyone"

When you get to the part of Amoris Laetitia where the Pope says, “I certainly value feminism,” seeing the statement in a document of the Magisterium is enough to drop one’s jaw.

And, indeed, there’s more where it came from… most of which you’ll find in Chapter Eight. Yet while Francis himself warns against a “rushed reading” of the product, though the pontiff re-employs his maxim that “Time is greater than space,” another Francis-ism (albeit one unspoken here) offers the better summary:

“Life is bigger than explanations.”

Over 250 booklet pages – 60,000 words in length, including the yet-again critical footnotes – the most feverishly-awaited text of Francis’ pontificate closes the three-year Synodal process on the family by opening the wider church to a more sensitive and personalized style of pastoral outreach, even to the point where, as he defines today, it “can no longer simply be said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace.”

In terms of the church’s response to hot-button issues of family life, while no teaching has formally been altered – and the pontiff repeatedly takes pains to underscore the “Christian ideal” of a couple’s lifelong, exclusive commitment while echoing the Synod’s firm rejection of same-sex marriage – the shift of tone from the top represents a sea-change, above all in extending the possibility of a “discernment” which recognizes that, in complex situations vis a vis church teaching, “the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same” (300), adding in a footnote that “this is also the case with regard to sacramental discipline,” citing the church’s “solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations.”

Given the intensity of focus on the most prominent and charged front for those questions: the admission of civilly remarried couples to the Eucharist – a practice rejected categorically by St John Paul II in 1981’s Familiaris Consortio – Francis’ reluctance to “provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases” while going on to say “that in an objective situation of sin… a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end” is capped by another footnote (351) which begins, “In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments,” making reference to his earlier comments that the Confessional is not to be used as “a torture chamber” and "that the Eucharist 'is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.'"

“[A] pastor 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,” Francis writes. “This would bespeak the closed heart of one used to hiding behind the church’s teachings, ‘sitting on the chair of Moses and judging at times with superiority and superficiality difficult cases and wounded families’” – the Mosaic reference an echo to Jesus' Matthew 23 warning to the scribes and Pharisees about their hypocrisy.

“No one can be condemned for ever," the Pope says, "because that is not the logic of the Gospel!”

As for what it all means in practice, the old story bears recalling of the bishop who, on a visit to the CDF, was asked how prevalent internal forum conclusions for the remarried to receive Communion were in his area, only for the dumbfounded prelate to reply that the sacramentally-sealed nature of said discernment made it impossible to have any statistics on it.

“In every situation,” the Pope says, “when dealing with those who have difficulties in living God’s law to the full, the invitation to pursue the via caritatis must be clearly heard. Fraternal charity is the first law of Christians.” By contrast, meanwhile, the one occasion where the pontiff calls anyone’s disposition to Communion in question is focused on his usual target: “When those who receive [the Eucharist] turn a blind eye to the poor and suffering, or consent to various forms of division, contempt and inequality,” he says, the Blessed Sacrament “is received unworthily” (186).

All that said, even if Francis’ musing that “everyone should feel challenged by Chapter Eight” and its delving into discernment will likely get some significant takeup, the bulk of the mammoth text is disarmingly calm, dominated by lyrical reflections on family life, an extended meditation on 1 Corinthians 13 – St Paul’s treatise on love, the ever-ubiquitous reading at weddings – as well as a long take on the education of children and what appears to be a papal document’s first-ever citation of a movie (Babette’s Feast, long said to be the Pope’s favorite), not to mention a long quote from Dr Martin Luther King.

For the most part, with the text’s easily accessible meditations on the dreams of family life, it wouldn’t be hard to see much of it adapted as some kind of guidebook for marriage preparation or ongoing ministry to couples. Yet while Amoris likewise echoes its precursor – the Pope’s 2013 “manifesto” text, Evangelii Gaudium – in featuring a host of passages from documents issued by the world’s bishops’ conferences, the most heavily-quoted sources are the closing Relatii of 2014’s Extraordinary Synod and last October’s Ordinary assembly, with the Pope often letting extended pieces of both take up a hefty portion of the document, giving those lines the added weight of his teaching authority in the process. In other turns, the same elevation is given to several homilies and General Audience catecheses given by Francis over his three-year reign, most notably the blockbuster February 2015 preach to the last Consistory for the creation of cardinals, where the pontiff sought to hammer home his belief that the way of the church must be "the way of Jesus" – namely, "the path of reinstatement."

As for individual fingerprints on the finished product, especially in Francis’ weighing of the more fraught pastoral realities, Amoris’ conclusions on natural law, the weight of conscience in individual discernment – “We are called to form consciences,” he says, “not replace them” – and the Pope’s call for “respectful pastoral guidance… that those who manifest a homosexual orientation can receive the assistance they need to understand and fully carry out God’s will in their lives” are strikingly clear echoes of comments made during the 2015 Synod by his top US appointee to date, Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago.

Shortly after the October gathering ended, word got back that, having been present there as the Pope's choice (in addition to four elected USCCB delegates), at one point Cupich was privately buttonholed by the Pope with praise for the points he was making. Suffice it to say, now we’ve got the proof.

In the final analysis, as the twin assemblies of 2014 and 2015 wended on, Papa Bergoglio faced the high-wire challenge of threading the needle between warring, almost diametrically-opposed approaches which, at their extremes, represented what he terms an “immoderate desire for total change without sufficient reflection or grounding, [or] an attitude that would solve everything by applying general rules or deriving undue conclusions from particular theological considerations.”

Whatever one’s opinion of the result, Francis has taken his best shot at striking a balance… and with the text’s arrival, the discussion is over, but now comes the really hard part – the outcome’s integration into the life of a church which, to use the Pope’s old line reprised today, he envisions to be both "a mother with an open heart" and “the house of the father, with doors always wide open.”