Saturday 11 June 2016

Amoris Laetitia: what Pope Francis really said in nn.302-306

I can recall a conversation many years ago now, in, of all places, an airport coffee bar, in which the subject of conversation was trying to understand why some families succeeded in passing on practice of the Catholic faith to their children and others did not. A strong component in that conversation was the impact that an irregular marriage situation could have, leading to family members even from strongly practicing backgrounds ceasing to live their Catholic faith. That the recent Synod of Bishops meetings, dedicated to the mission of the family in the contemporary world in the context of the new evangelisation, should address this issue is not surprising.

I quote below from one of the sections of Pope Francis' Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia that some are finding problematical (the added emphases in bold are mine):

302. The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly mentions these factors: “imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors”. In another paragraph, the Catechism refers once again to circumstances which mitigate moral responsibility, and mentions at length “affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen or even extenuate moral culpability”. For this reason, a negative judgment about an objective situation does not imply a judgment about the imputability or culpability of the person....
 304 ..... It is true that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations. At the same time, it must be said that, precisely for that reason, what is part of a practical discernment in particular circumstances cannot be elevated to the level of a rule. That would not only lead to an intolerable casuistry, but would endanger the very values which must be preserved with special care.
305. For this reason, 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, “sitting on the chair of Moses and judging at times with superiority and superficiality difficult cases and wounded families”. 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”. Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end. Discernment must help to find possible ways of responding to God and growing in the midst of limits. By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth, and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God. Let us remember that “a small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order, but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties”. The practical pastoral care of ministers and of communities must not fail to embrace this reality.
306. In every situation, when dealing with those who have difficulties in living God’s law to the full, the invitation to pursue the via caritatis must be clearly heard. Fraternal charity is the first law of Christians (cf. Jn 15:12; Gal 5:14). Let us not forget the reassuring words of Scripture: “Maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet 4:8); “Atone for your sins with righteousness, and your iniquities with mercy to the oppressed, so that your prosperity may be prolonged” (Dan 4:24[27]); “As water extinguishes a blazing fire, so almsgiving atones for sins” (Sir 3:30). This is also what Saint Augustine teaches: “Just as, at the threat of a fire, we would run for water to extinguish it… so too, if the flame of sin rises from our chaff and we are troubled, if the chance to perform a work of mercy is offered us, let us rejoice in it, as if it were a fountain offered us to extinguish the blaze”.
What is the essential argument of these paragraphs?

Without indicating any compromise on Catholic teaching that irregular marriage situations, and in particular the situation of those who are divorced and civilly remarried, represent an objective situation that is sinful/contrary to the law of God, Pope Francis teaches that this does not equate in every case to a situation of mortal sin (= a full separation from the grace of God). The objective situation is what bars the divorced and re-married from receiving Holy Communion, as indicated in n.1650 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and not the discernment as to whether or not the particular situation represents a situation of mortal sin on the part of the people involved:
If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God's law. Consequently, they cannot receive Eucharistic communion as long as this situation persists. For the same reason, they cannot exercise certain ecclesial responsibilities.
Pope Francis then intends that the Church propose to those who find themselves in these cases that, in the discernment of their particular situations, they may not be excluded from the life of grace by mortal sin but may have access to grace, the lifeblood of the Church, in the communion of saints. This is not to suggest that this is the case for everyone in an irregular situation; it is subject to discernment, and requires a certain conversion of heart on the part of the people involved (the small step in the circumstances of human limitations). This is where the accompaniment of a pastor comes in to play, and Pope Francis words directed at pastors asks them to take this responsibility for discernment seriously.

And finally, Pope Francis asks that the Church offers clearly the invitation to take part in what he terms the "via caritatis". In other words, those whose objective situations mean that they are not able to receive Holy Communion or to exercise responsibilities such as catechesis, should nevertheless be encouraged to engage in the life of the charity that is Christ-love offered to others. Pope Francis attempts to give this form of participation in the life of the Church a higher value for all, but especially for those in irregular situations, though he expresses it in a language of atonement for sin that is very traditional. This life of charity to others is as much a part of the life of the Church as is being a Eucharistic minister or a catechist.

I suspect that, for those in irregular situations, it will require a sensitivity to the supernatural, to a sense of the life of the spirit, if this pastoral approach is to be effective. Those whose sense of their Catholic faith is more secularised or worldly, and are really looking for a positive judgement on their objective situation, will not find comfort here.

I do wish that those who attack Pope Francis for these paragraphs would, rather than themselves contributing to the confusion that they decry, should read and teach what the paragraphs really do say.