'Amoris Laetitia' is a disappointment overall

This article appears in the Amoris Laetitia feature series. View the full series.

I have just completed a pretty careful reading of Pope Francis' latest Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia.

I want to explore in some detail a few of the relevant issues the treatise raises -- like divorced and remarried Catholics, the primacy of conscience, how to evaluate the importance of seemingly absolute rules, and advocating for regional control of pastoral practices. For now, however, I will just make some general comments about the document itself.

I have to say at the outset that despite the fact that the "joy of love" is truly wonderful, I find it difficult to feel excessively positive about Amoris Laetitia. The document breaks little new ground and reads more like it is coming from a cautious cleric than a bold reformer.

Francis' deep message of compassion, mercy and respect for individuals is there in abundance, just as it was when it burst forth from the pages of Evangelii Gaudium, published during the first year of his pontificate. It is the same Francis we grew to love from the day he first stepped out on the balcony of St. Peter's in March of 2013.

On the other hand, as many have noted, Francis made no movement at all on doctrine -- a fact that should cheer many a traditionalist. It should actually do more than cheer conservatives because it gives them a clear path to change nothing at all in the way they do business. They can point to this document as justification for not changing. If they want to, as it were, get into the spirit of Francis a bit, they can say a few nice things about the poor and how much they care about all God's children and smugly return to business as usual.

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The Amoris Laetitia document is filled with traditional language and reaffirms Catholic teaching in every related family area. In some cases, such as on abortion and the relative merits of heterosexual or same-sex marriage, the language is quite strong, even harsh, and unequivocal.

It is especially troubling to me that when Francis seems to make pastoral exceptions for those in "irregular" situations, it comes at a price of a person's dignity. The individual is expected to go to a pastor, admit wrongdoing, seek reconciliation, and express loyalty to everything the holy, Catholic Church teaches.

I thought the whole idea was that it was understood that there is no subjective guilt in these cases. It seems that even Francis is exerting power over individuals and demanding conformity to the will of the church.

Don't misunderstand: I am well aware of the seeds of a significant ecclesial transformation that exist within this document, and I plan to discuss some of them in a future post. Those who might be willing to push the envelope within the church could also find much to justify such behavior in the pope's exhortation. The problem is, at least in the United States, it is hard to see anyone pushing for change. The hierarchy in particular is more likely to circle the wagons, issue a few nice sounding statements, and continue with a siege mentality that allows the hierarchy to believe that nothing needs to change in what its members are doing.

Consider just one recent case. Officials of the U.S. bishop's conference requested the resignation of Tony Spence, the director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service. On Twitter, he had questioned the anti-gay legislation being put forth in North Carolina and Mississippi. The message seems clear: "Don't rock the boat; don't try to think for yourself; don't have an idea -- or at least don't let anybody know about it."

Yes, I find a lot about which to be disappointed, in this latest document from Francis.

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