Pope Francis arrives to lead the weekly audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on April 6, 2016. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

Will papal document settle the controversies? (ANALYSIS)

Pope Francis arrives to lead the weekly audience in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican April 6, 2016. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

Pope Francis arrives to lead the weekly audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on April 6, 2016. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

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VATICAN CITY (RNS) The wide-ranging papal document on the Catholic Church and modern-day families that the Vatican released on Friday (April 8) was expected to be the culmination of a two-year gantlet of unusually frank discussions -- a chance for Pope Francis to finally settle the fierce debates, and even dark warnings of schism, that his effort to open dialogue on contentious topics had unleashed.

With so much at stake, various camps were eager to parse every phrase to see if they had won, or lost, on a particular point and, as expected, the verdict on the document, a 263-page papal exhortation, titled “Amoris Laetitia,” or “The Joy of Love,” was mixed.

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The hopes of some in the liberal camp that the pontiff might soften Catholic doctrine on marriage and divorce, or somehow signal an approval of same-sex unions, were always unrealistic; indeed, many progressives expressed disappointment in the exhortation even as Francis’ stress on pastoral flexibility over theological rigidity signaled a fundamental reorientation of Catholicism away from a rule-based focus.

That reaffirmation of long-standing doctrine on marriage was at least some consolation to the vocal number of conservatives who long feared the kind of unambiguous changes that the progressives hoped for, though many winced at several other elements, such as the openings Francis left for the divorced and remarried to take Communion.

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But the larger reality conveyed by the document -- and one that could unsettle Catholic traditionalists more than anything -- is that the pope clearly wants the debates over church teachings and pastoral practices to continue and, perhaps, to continue to evolve.

Francis signaled as much early on in “The Joy of Love,” a landmark document that is essentially the pope’s extended spin on a series of high-level meetings of leading cardinals and bishops that he launched in February 2014 and that concluded with an intense, three-week synod of bishops in Rome last October.

“The complexity of the issues that arose revealed the need for continued open discussion of a number of doctrinal, moral, spiritual, and pastoral questions,” Francis wrote.

He said that “honest, realistic and creative” thinking by pastors and theologians “will help us to achieve greater clarity,” and he rejected both “an immoderate desire for total change without sufficient reflection or grounding” and a hard-line “attitude that would solve everything by applying general rules or deriving undue conclusions from particular theological considerations.”

Francis also endorsed a kind of “local option” on ministry, stressing that pastors in each country or region “can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs.”

“I would make it clear,” he wrote, “that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium. Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it.”

In other words, don’t look to Rome for the solution to every challenge, and don’t stop looking for ways to welcome anyone and everyone who feels alienated from the faith because their personal lives do not conform to the Catholic ideal.

No family is perfect, Francis says, and the church itself has much to learn from those families as it accompanies them through their difficulties.

Just as important, Francis in this exhortation repeatedly emphasizes the primacy of individual conscience and the ability of sincere believers to discern -- with the help of a pastor and through their own experience -- whether they are able, for example, to take Communion if they are divorced and remarried.

Conscience is for many a wild card in Catholic theology, a concept that critics say allows for a perilously high chance of moral freelancing.

But Francis says the concept is vital, and has been ignored by too many for too long.

Church leaders, he wrote, “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, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations.”

“We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.”

That is certainly not the clarion call that the Catholic right wanted to hear.

“(I)t is precisely the pope’s studied ambiguity that many find stimulating, and others exasperating,” Thomas Williams, a conservative theologian and former priest who left the clergy to marry, wrote in a prebuttal to the exhortation.

“People inside and outside the church have always admired the clarity of her teachings,” Williams wrote on the Catholic news site Crux. “Agree or disagree, at least you knew where she stood, yet this hasn’t always been the case with Francis."

Yet others would in fact see Francis’ nuanced approach as precisely in keeping with the church’s tradition of developing doctrine over time in the light of changing historical realities, and the gradual movement -- guided by the Holy Spirit -- “towards the entire truth,” as Francis put it.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, a retired German theologian who has provided some of the intellectual framework for Francis’ focus on mercy over condemnation, likes to say that Francis “does not want to get short-term results.”

“He does not want to occupy positions,” the 83-year-old Kasper has written, “but wants to put processes into motion and create a dynamic that will bear fruit at the right time.”

That is a formula some will welcome, and others will reject. But it certainly points to greater ferment in the church, not less.

To be sure, exactly where doctrine and pastoral practice might be headed under Francis -- and beyond him -- isn’t clear, and it’s not at all obvious that any eventual changes will please liberals who are feeling disappointed today.

But the engagement with faith is essential to Francis’ vision for the church. “We make the path by walking,” the pope likes to say.

If that journey is part of the pilgrimage of faith, it is far from over. In fact, it may never be over.

(David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS)


  1. Things are just getting worse, for Catholics and Protestants alike.

  2. The BIble is clear on matters of family and morality. We don’t need man to interpret these issues for us. Read the Word! We need to be forgiven of our sins through faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. We need to read His Word and walk in the power and direction of His Holy Spirit. Man is NOT a part of any of this. Our spiritual relationship should be with God. Receive Jesus as your Savior, and know God’s peace and forgiveness. Then the other matters of life will become very clear. God Bless

  3. Mark, secular civilized people are clearly advanced on matters of family and morality. We don’t need religion to interpret these issues for us.

  4. Very disappointing. The hardliners (deacons, priests and bishops) still have a plethora of anti-mercy rules and regs to operate with to further alienate the laity: birth control, no significant change in the written rules on marriage and divorce, no written change re gay marriage, no discussion of providing more priests by letting them marry and mercy for those who left and are willing to return. When the church changes canon law to address these issues, THAT will be significant.

  5. I dunno that “things are getting worse,” but they’re certainly changing, as they’ve always done. And Heaven knows, in plenty of ways, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

  6. I wouldn’t exactly say the bible is “clear” on those things; and I certainly wouldn’t say that, in many cases, what we see in the bible concerning “family and morality” are practices, standards and mores that are tolerated in civilized societies, thank God. You’ve gotta admit, bro, that Bronze Age culture, which dominates much or most of the bible, just isn’t all that decent or humane.

  7. I doubt if papal documents have ever settled any controversies ever. As an aspect of this particular case, GLBT people will continue to regularize their place in society, no matter how much people with retrograde attitudes deplore it. Common decency requires it, as can be seen in the social consensus in Europe, much of South America, and the US.

  8. Nothing lie stoning your no-longer-a-virgin daughter for being no longer a virgin, or beating your child with a rod because he disobeyed, or sacrificing your son on god’s orders, or murdering the little children of the world who couldn’t have sinned even if they wanted to..

    to tell you everything you need to know abut morality, raising a child and having a family.

  9. “a fundamental reorientation of Catholicism away from a rule-based focus.”

    I whole-heartedly endorse this change, and would prefer that he’d gone much further. Jesus was pretty clear on the primacy of mercy and forgiveness. Every facet of Christianity would do well to emulate thst, but we humans love our rules. It’s so much easier to identify who’s right and who’s wrong, good guys versus bad guys.

    It’s very challenging to have a warm and generous spirit. It’s the risky “you don’t know and I don’t either” route.

  10. Jesus, and his followers, Christians, for the past 200 years are responsible for a transformation of culture that is the basis for western culture. The basis of this cultural change is that human life is sacred. Not only those of the elite and powerful but even of the poor, the leper, the outcast and the sinner.
    These were not common understandings before Christ, and granted, did not sweep automatically through even the Christian communities but developed nonetheless because of His teachings.
    One cannot deny power of the parables of the Prodigal Son, or The Good Samaritan and others.
    If secularized western societies are more civilized, it is because of their rise out of Christian Philosophies. They did not arise out of no where. It WAS mans interpretive understanding of what Jesus was teaching that got us here. It would be arrogance and folly to ignore those roots and cast them aside.

  11. You state “We don’t need man to interpret these issues for us. ” But if that is true, how come god hasn’t spoken out to everyone on earth, all at once, so that we can all hear her voice?

    In fact, anyone who thinks about this situation for more than 2 seconds understands that the bible is very ambiguous, and is ALWAYS interpreted by human beings, ALL of whom have agendae.

  12. “The basis of this cultural change is that human life is sacred. ”

    Funny how conditional Christian notions of the sanctity of life are when push comes to shove. Life certainly wasn’t considered sacred to Christians if one was a woman, a non-believer, of of certain skin tones…Religious notions of morality were always slippery nonsense full of loopholes and exceptions as to be worthless. Atrocities performed in the name of God are legion.

    Secularism and more humane civilization owes itself to keeping as far away from religious notions as possible. Learning from the atrocities and excesses of religious fanatical belief.

  13. well done. that was the point I was trying to make but he seems to have missed it.

    The fact is that any social progress achieved in Europe and the US has, by and large, been no thanks to the Church.

    To say that increasingly secular society of the last 200 years all of a sudden started taking the Gospel seriously is, well, a stretch.

  14. ” Christians, for the past 200 years are responsible for a transformation of culture.” But what were they doing for the previous 1800 years? Murdering, torturing, condemning.

    One could easily argue that it was the state putting a stop to the depredations of Christians by removing them from power that stopped the bloodshed and injustice– more or less. Certainly, Christian Germany and Christian Italy had no qualms about murdering.

    Christians surel ike to take credit for the good stuff, and sweep the bad stuff completely under the rug.

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