Pope Francis waves to newlywed couples during his Wednesday general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican on Wednesday (January 21, 2015). Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Tony Gentile *Note: This photo may only be used with RNS-POPE-FAMILIES, published on January 21, 2015

Applause, dismay, confusion over pope's words

Pope Francis waves to newlywed couples during his Wednesday general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican on Wednesday (January 21, 2015). Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Tony Gentile *Note: This photo may only be used with RNS-POPE-FAMILIES, published on January 21, 2015

Pope Francis waves to newlywed couples during his general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican on Jan. 21, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Tony Gentile
*Note: This photo may only be used with RNS-POPE-FAMILIES, published on January 21, 2015

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

(RNS) Pope Francis’ “The Joy of Love,” a massive document released Friday (April 8) that wraps unchanged doctrine on marriage, divorce, and LGBT life in gentle terms, is getting a mixed reaction from U.S. Catholics and others.

It brought joy to conservative Christians who feared Francis would tamper with dogma, but less love from liberals who had hoped for a change in practices, not simply in tone. Statements flooded out from both directions. A sampling:

RELATED STORY: Will papal document settle the controversies? (ANALYSIS)

  • Archbishop of Louisville Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, extolled it as “a love letter to married couples and families” and to the church "to realize more and more her mission to live and love as a family.“ The pope traces through the Bible all the beauty of marriage and that "no obstacle is too big for Christ to overcome."
  • The Human Rights Campaign was “disappointed” that the document, issued in the pope’s Year of Mercy, did not translate into fuller inclusion for LGBT Catholics, said Mary Beth Maxwell, an HRC senior vice president. She found consolation in knowing that "in a growing number of Catholic families and parishes all across this country we are welcomed for who we are, not judged or excluded because of doctrine.”
  • Conservative Catholic writer George Weigel, in the National Review, saw a thread throughout that church teachings can offer a structure for both holiness and happiness. He wrote that it says "many important things about love, marriage, the family, and the current cultural crisis of a world in which the imperial autonomous Self is running roughshod over just about everything, leaving a lot of human unhappiness in its wake."
  • Catholics for Choice, a pro-contraception and an abortion-rights group, pointed out that most U.S. Catholics were not waiting for approval from their church. President Jon O'Brien called Francis’ pastoral approach "a breath of fresh air. ... But talking about the law in a pastoral manner does not change doctrine, and it will not change the real practice of Catholics."

RELATED STORY: Papal document prescribes pragmatic view of family

Analysis by Catholic publications also divided on which themes to highlight.

National Catholic Reporter columnist Michael Sean Winters pulled a more optimistic message from the document. He says Francis "challenges the Church to do more than simply repeat the Catechism and harangue the fallen. ... (T)he Holy Father does not believe the pastor, still less the magisterium, should tell people what to do, but that a pastor should accompany people so that they can discern God’s activity and calling in their own lives."

The National Catholic Register highlighted a different thread through the document, one that might disturb conservatives by muddying up traditionalist ideas of clear rules with unspecified pastoral discretion: "Francis speaks in the chapter of a 'need to avoid judgments' that don’t take account of the 'complexity of various situations' and stresses the need of 'reaching out to everyone.' The divorced, he writes, should not be pigeonholed in 'overly rigid classifications,' leaving no room for personal and pastoral discernment."

Reaction did not only come from Catholics struggling with the complex material and conflicting ways to read it. Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptists' Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, tweeted @drmoore:   "Man. #AmorisLaetitia is a mess."

(Cathy Lynn Grossman is senior national reporter for RNS)


  1. Benedict XVI has to wake up every morning and wonder what this guy is going to say next.

  2. How many millions more American lay Catholics will walk away from the Church over this latest nastiness?

    “Our analysis found that this increasingly diverse Catholic community is strongly supportive of acceptance of and rights for gay and lesbian Americans. Generally speaking, Catholics are at least 5 points more supportive than the general population across a range of issues. For example, nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of Catholics favor laws that would protect gay and lesbian people against discrimination in the workplace; 63 percent of Catholics favor allowing gay and lesbian people to serve openly in the military; and 60% favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to adopt children.



  3. Benedict XVI does not have to do any such thing, and I seriously doubt he does. His most recent interview rather confirms this.

  4. I’m sad for the millions of couples who should have had a divorce but refused to do so because they did not want to lose their connection to their beloved friends at church.

    All these years of cruel shunning for no good reason. And now the Pope decides (for convenience only) that it is time to allow divorced people to come back (because the church is dying!).

    The Catholic church is incredibly, insufferably cruel.

  5. Institutions, like countries, do not have friends; they have interests. Like countries, they cannot be moral or empathetic. Even if the pope were a saint,
    he could not change the character of his organization. Openness and transparency might help with corruption, but not its basic character.

  6. The Pope’s response should silence any traditional Catholic clergy and laity advising formation of conscience using the rules and the “magisterium” of the Church as their guide. These sterile comments have often neglected to take each person’s experience into account when the conscience is formed.

  7. If Baptists and other Evangelicals think it’s a mess, then it *must* be merciful and pastoral. Evangelicals have too much hate in what little’s left of their hearts after judging everyone but themselves to understand these terms.

  8. I’ll probably always think in positives terms that the Catholic Church is in some way or another, a power for righteousness and good. That’s because of the many Catholics I’ve known that have been warm and friendly people.

    But the comment ‘The Catholic church is incredibly, insufferably cruel’ is an important truth I can’t avoid believing in also. Fortunately, Catholics and their church are not the same thing.

  9. The document is ambiguous enough to be interpreted by each bishop and priest as he chooses. For example, Pope Francis recently extended the Holy Thursday foot-washing ritual to include women which was already being done for decades if the pastor approved. The pope’s appointed prefect in charge of liturgy announced soon after Pope Francis’ statement that no priest was obligated to include women.
    NB: The pope’s exhortation is more than 60.000 words. Jesus spoke 2026 words in Gospels and the four Gospels combined are 64,766 words.

  10. “The pope traces through the bible for marriage”? Either archbishop Kurtz is lying, or he does not know all the marriage anomalies we find in his bible!

  11. George Weigel misses the point that there is a coalition of the Selfs, not riding roughshod over morality, but rather assessing the harm which has been caused by dogmatic christian rules, which are based solely on the MEN of the church. We know dogma, by the way they refer to “unchangeable church doctrine.” There is no reason to exclude LGBTQ, other than bigotry and dogma.

  12. Christians have dispensed with so much of the old testament. Why do they cling so tenaciously to a few verses form Leviticus? This is where Paul got his dogma, and he falsely taught it to christians. It is nothing but bitter dogma. Fix it, in Jesus name.

  13. No one deserves to be pigeon holed in christian dogma and bigotry. Christianity has no right to judge what others do. Mind your own sheep.

  14. Found One,
    ” Christians have dispensed with so much of the old testament. Why do they cling so tenaciously to a few verses form Leviticus? ”

    Less than mature Christians cling to certain Levitical verses because their prejudices agree with them and they can feel emboldened to judge and condemn. Mature and seasoned Christians are well aware of their prejudices and not wanting to be a hypocrite, will strive to take the high road and will think about and promote far far better verses that promote love and peace.

    Example —

    1. …stop passing judgment on one another….….Romans 14:13

    2. Accept one another……Romans 15:7

    3. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven…..Luke 6:37

    4. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love…..Ephesians 4:2

    5. Above all, LOVE EACH OTHER DEEPLY, because love covers over a multitude of sins………..1 Peter 4:8

  15. Found One,
    ” Christianity has no right to judge what others do. ”

    You’re right, according to 1Corinthians 5:12, Christians are not to judge what unbelievers do. They will be judged by God himself.

    It should be pointed out here that unbelievers are often entitled to and will receive blessings in all kinds of ways.

  16. What you’re referring to was originally taught by the disciples, not Paul. The Jewish and Torah-observant Jerusalem Church, made up of the disciples and others who had known Jesus, seeing that the Gentiles were being converted and receiving the Holy Spirit, decided to place no Torah restrictions upon them other than the bare minimum which had always been expected of the righteous Gentiles, which included abstention from blood and inhumane butchering practices and all sexual immorality. The command about blood was given to Noah, not Moses. And the prohibitions about sexual immorality are found in Leviticus 20, which specifically states that it was for these practices that God judged and rejected the Gentile peoples that Israel replaced, long before there was ever a Torah. It is a much more ancient standard than Leviticus. This all used to be understood as a matter of course — now ignorance is the rule rather than the exception.

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