Debate over 'Amoris Laetitia' is over

Copies of Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation on the family, "Amoris Laetitia" ("The Joy of Love"), are pictured on a table at the Vatican Jan. 16. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Copies of Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation on the family, "Amoris Laetitia" ("The Joy of Love"), are pictured on a table at the Vatican Jan. 16. (CNS/Paul Haring)

by Michael Sean Winters

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This past week, I realized that the debate over Amoris Laetitia is over.

The Holy Father wisely chose not to respond to the five dubia, or questions, posed to him by four cardinals who objected to Amoris Laetitia. Unlike our president, Pope Francis can't be easily baited. "The dubia are not really expressions of doubt or questions but rather assertions that 'Amoris Laetitia' appears to have abandoned or altered key teachings of Catholic tradition," as Fr. Lou Cameli pointed out in his splendid essay at America. Answering them publicly would have only emboldened those few who resist the pope's pastoral approach. Where do they go now with their complaints?

The Catholic press has published hundreds of articles about the text, some supporting it, some suggesting that the document is confusing or worse, but mostly, we in the press have moved on. The opposition to Francis, on this and other matters, has always been disproportionately an American phenomenon and even the most severe critics of Francis have had to write about other issues, not least the consequential election and the inauguration of a new president.

But, what really made me realize the debate was over was a post by Cardinal Donald Wuerl at his archdiocesan blog. For many years, Cardinal Wuerl has long had a nose for the center of the Catholic church in this country. By "center" I do not mean an ideological middle ground: The Catholic church is decidedly more progressive than the country on a host of socioeconomic issues and equally more conservative than the ambient culture on a variety of familial and sexual issues. By "center" I mean that Wuerl is someone who looks at any particular issue and, in addition to seeking a clear enunciation of church teaching, also asks, "How will this discussion or that decision advance the unity of the church?" It is an important question, and one that bishops are charged with asking and answering. His focus on it is why the other bishops grow quiet and listen whenever Wuerl stands to speak at a meeting of the bishops' conference.

In his blog post, Wuerl notes that the priests of his archdiocese, by and large, not only appreciate Amoris Laetitia, but see in its approach a confirmation of what they do day in and day out. "At a recent meeting with a number of priests, when the topic of the pastoral implications of Amoris Laetitia and its pastoral application came up, most were explicit that they recognized an affirmation of their own pastoral concern and accompaniment in the apostolic exhortation," he writes. "It seems that what is at issue is not what the exhortation says but rather where one chooses to place the emphasis. Some seem much more comfortable emphasizing the teaching and the obligations of canon law. While so many more, the majority of bishops, including those who were a part of both synods on marriage, accept the canon law, but also see the Gospel value of accompaniment and the Church's recognition of the state of an individual's conscience in the whole process of judgment making."

It has always been the problem that the critics of Amoris Laetitia focus on one or two aspects of the church's teaching and exclude others, and even, sadly, sometimes forget the whole. They point to the passages in the Gospels of Mark 10: 2-12 and Matthew 19: 3-9 in which Jesus actually goes further than the Mosaic law in proscribing divorce, but they neglect the passage in the Gospel of John 4: 5-42 in which Jesus engages the woman at the well and strikes a different stance.

As Fr. Cameli suggests, these two Gospel stories are two poles that the church must respect. "There is a place and a necessity to offer clear and sound teaching. There is also a need to accompany people whose lives are broken and burdened, so that they can embrace the life-giving truth of the Gospel. In a word, 'Amoris Laetitia' assumes the teaching and takes up the challenge, task and responsibility of pastoral and spiritual formation that accompanies people along the path of discernment." I will suggest what Cameli does not: It is not hard to see the similarity in tone and approach between the Pharisees in the first Gospel passage and the cardinals with their dubia.

Cardinal Wuerl points us to a different Gospel text, the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery, surrounded by people eager to stone her, in the Gospel of John. "What does Jesus do? He does not abolish the law. He does not annul the application of the law in this case. He does not deny that there is an expected response invoking the full rigor of the law. Nor does he apply the law in a way that is anticipated. What he does is recognize the sinful human condition of the woman, avoids condemning her, and then tells her to go and sin no more."

Wuerl then applies the specific lesson of Amoris Laetitia to raise some broader questions about the Church and her ministry. "But it strikes me that there is even more of an undercurrent to the present position taken by a very small number of clergy and their media supporters," he writes. "It seems that a part of the distress evident in what has been described as a 'tempest in a teapot' is the fact that Pope Francis is challenging all of us to move into a far more Gospel-identified mode of living and being Church than we may have been comfortable with. We need to ask ourselves if perhaps the Church has not become too identified in the minds and hearts of many people with the politics and power struggles of the moment. Have we failed to persuade others of the significance of the Gospel message, so that they create the culture that reflects those values? Have we become too comfortable with announcing aspects of the Gospel but not necessarily witnessing its full demands?"

I say that the debate about Amoris Laetitia is over because the opposition is now living on fumes, most priests are embracing it and its vision, and because, in this last quote, Cardinal Wuerl, like Pope Francis, is pointing us to move on, and to reflect more deeply on how the Church proclaims the central message of the Gospel: God's mercy has been abundantly given to us. I have said for several years now that Cardinal Walter Kasper's proposal regarding the divorced and remarried was only the tip of the iceberg: Mercy as an essential, indeed the essential, attribute of the Godhead as revealed by Jesus Christ has for too long been obscured. Bringing it to the fore will not only alter the way we approach those in difficult and irregular marriage circumstances, it should alter the way we think about how we train priests, about the demands of social justice and the practice of economics, about criminal justice reform and immigration policy, about war and peace, about what we really do on Sunday when we attend Mass, about whom we are addressing when we begin the prayer "Our Father." It is time to let the light of God's mercy, the Gospel of mercy, shine on everyone and everything, not just the divorced and remarried. 

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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