Popular as he is, Pope Francis cannot seem to win with some people. For conservative Catholics, he goes too far; for liberals he does not go far enough.
The pope's recent apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia wades into some of the most fraught issues in Catholicism and modern life -- divorce and remarriage, the definition of marriage itself, and the status of LGBT Catholics in the church. For many conservatives, Francis' attempts to reach out with mercy and flexibility to those living in morally complex and difficult situations seem likely to weaken the church's moral authority. Liberal Catholics are disappointed that the pope continues to reject same-sex unions and stops somewhat short of an open invitation to the Eucharist for divorced and remarried Catholics.
A close look at this lovely and personal papal reflection, however, reveals its radical nature because it shows that Francis is in dialogue with these opposing wings of the Catholic church. He rejects too-easy answers to difficult questions. He sees himself as a teacher in the truest sense of the word -- not someone who dictates answers for memorization, but someone who leads a thoughtful community closer to the true and the good.
In practice, the pope argues that the church's pastors need to realize that not all things are "black and white" when it comes to those whose situations in family and marriage do not align perfectly with Catholic teaching, asserting that such thinking may "sometimes close off the way of grace and growth." Rather than condemn as sinners all those who live in situations that do not conform to church law, Francis would encourage them to engage in a process of serious discernment that might help them participate in church life as fully and completely as their consciences allow. Francis writes that the reality of moral life in the family is often complicated and messy, and that discerning what is best in such situations is not simply an inflexible application of unbending law.
In short, Francis argues for a recovery of the Catholic teaching on conscience -- that one's participation in the life of the church, including the sacraments, is guided by the state of one's own conscience. The rules are there to help and guide, but those who are trying in good conscience to find their way in difficult and complicated situations should be helped in discernment, not dictated to: "We are called to form consciences, not replace them," he writes.
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Francis brings to this a gentle and human touch, deeply rooted in compassionate observations of human experience. Reflecting on the excitement of the first years of marriage, Francis writes: "Young love must keep dancing toward the future with hope." He worries about the speed with which we move from one relationship to another, in this age of "social networks," connecting and disconnecting with each other at whim. Francis applies Christian compassion to the problems of the modern world, rather than simply condemning it.
"Dialogue is essential for experiencing, expressing and fostering love in marriage and family life," Francis writes. This dialogue must account for generational and gender differences, and must take the time required to get to know the other, to truly listen, without always rushing to respond. Francis notes the widespread pain in many marriages of not being heard, or feeling ignored. Francis calls upon married couples to value each other, even when they disagree: "We ought to be able to acknowledge the other person's truth, the value of his or her deepest concerns, and what it is that they are trying to communicate, however aggressively."
He argues that keeping an open mind is not merely listening, but also recognizing that "the combination of two different ways of thinking can lead to a synthesis that enriches both."
In this season of political discontent, as many Americans feel unheard and undervalued, the pope's words have significance beyond family life. We should "show affection and concern" for each other, Francis writes, even as we engage in difficult discussion, always remembering that those with whom we disagree are members of our family and community.
Francis describes marriage as a kind of school, where we can learn to engage each other with mutual respect and care, and move closer to the truth together, helping each other along the way. We can hope that the conversation about Amoris Laetitia lives up to the description of dialogue found within the document.
[Joseph Curran, Ph.D., is professor and chair of the department of religious studies at Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa.]