What can be said in a positive vein about Amoris Laetitia after I have already made clear my overall disappointment with it?
The truth is, I am less disappointed with what Pope Francis had to say than I am with what I fear will be the reaction to his words. The document contains any number of powerful quotes that suggest the church needs to move in a different direction. Let's look at just a few of them.
- "Since 'time is greater than space', I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium." (Paragraph 3)
- "Each country or region … can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs." (Paragraph 3)
- "Nor is it helpful to try to impose rules by sheer authority." (Paragraph 35)
- "We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations." (Paragraph 37)
- "Many people feel that the Church's message on marriage and the family does not clearly reflect the preaching and attitudes of Jesus, who set forth a demanding ideal yet never failed to show compassion and closeness to the frailty of individuals like the Samaritan woman or the woman caught in adultery." (Paragraph 38)
- "Marital love is not defended primarily by presenting indissolubility as a duty, or by repeating doctrine, but by helping it to grow ever stronger under the impulse of grace." (Paragraph 134)
- "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." (Paragraph 297)
- "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. This would bespeak the closed heart of one used to hiding behind the church's teachings." (Paragraph 305)
- "Along these same lines, the International Theological Commission has noted that 'natural law could not be presented as an already established set of rules that impose themselves a priori on the moral subject; rather, it is a source of objective inspiration for the deeply personal process of making decisions'." (Paragraph 305)
- "By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and growth, and discourage paths of sanctification." (Paragraph 305)
- These quotes are not only representative of what Pope Francis has to say in this exhortation, but they also mirror what he has been saying and doing since being elevated to the papacy.
What is the primary message? I believe he is trying to say to both clergy and laity alike, "Don't keep looking to me or the institutional church to answer all your questions." As my mother always told me, "God gave you a mind, and he expects you to use it."
The primacy of conscience stands out clearly, but also it seems like Francis is opening the doors as St. John XXIII once did, and saying go out and find better ways of bringing God's message of love and mercy and caring to the world. Don't be bound by a set of rules, and don't expect a new set of rules.
There is a new freedom that is being proclaimed in the church, yet why do I remain generally pessimistic? It is because I fear no one will hear the message. Unfortunately, I believe too many read such documents and keep looking for that statement that ends all discussion and makes clear what each person must do in every conceivable situation.
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Hope for the church lies in bishops, priests and laity reading and understanding the words, and acting on them. That will take a lot of prayer and the working of the Holy Spirit. It will also likely take a significant period of time, as the spirit of Francis and a new understanding of what it means to be a church and to be Christian permeates through what continues to be a rigid and immovable ecclesial community.
We need to look for oases of movement. Where will they come from? Will it be Germany, South America, parts of Africa or Asia? Can we hope to see movement at all in the United States?