Pope Francis Holds the Line and Says ‘No’ to Homosexual Marriage, But Tries to Give Divorced Catholics Hope

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He called for divorced and remarried Catholics to participate more fully in church life. But he closed the door on gay marriage. He quotes Jorge Luis Borges and Jesus Christ. There is an entire chapter on Love.

But more than anything, Pope Francis’s long awaited document on family life, released Friday by the Vatican, amounts to an exultation of traditional marriage while recognizing that life, in his own words, isn’t always “perfect.” Yet rather than judging, he commanded, the church should be a pillar of support.

Some two years in the making, the 256-page document known as an apostolic exhortation and titled Amoris Laetitia, or “the Joy of Love,” amounted to his most sweeping pronouncement to date on the social issues that have deeply divided his senior clergy.

The reformist pope often appeared to strike a pragmatic balance and offered no changes in church laws – either to the status of gay people or those who divorce and remarry outside the church.

But his words on whether select divorced and remarried Catholics could take Holy Communion immediately set off division and debate over whether and how much he had expanded the freedom of Catholics and their priests to make that call. Though observers had hoped for clarity, the pontiff’s ambiguity on access to the sacrament could sow tensions as a divided church hierarchy parses his words like so many tea leaves.

Although the pope did not explicitly call for a rule change, he seemed to suggest that such cases should be studied and ruled on one by one. At one point, he mentions that people who are living in an “objective situation of sin” can “also grow in the life of grace.” Then, in this footnote for priests, he notes:

“I would also point out that the Eucharist ‘is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.’”

The pope seemed to say that the church must deal with the world it lives in, not the world it wants. He sometimes sounded less like a pontiff than a marriage counselor.

Single women get pregnant, and need the support of those around them, he wrote. Children sometimes need punishment – and, he notably added– sex education. Gays and lesbians deserve protection from “unjust discrimination.” And while he clearly upholds his church’s teachings of marriage as only between a man and woman, he notes that unconventional unions do indeed form. And they are not, he writes, without their “constructive elements.”

Perhaps most importantly, he exhorts the church – specifically it’s clergy – to use “discernment,” and not paint with a broad brush. Do not, he warned, wield “moral laws” like a weapon.

“This would bespeak the closed heart of one used to hiding behind the Church’s teachings,” he scolds, comparing such moralizing to “sitting on the chair of Moses and judging at times with superiority.”

“The pope does not overlook the fragility of families, and even their failure,” Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the general secretary of the Synod of Bishops, told a press conference at Vatican City Friday.

“It is matter of reaching out to everyone,” Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna told a press conference in Rome. He later added, “no one is condemned, no one is scorned.”

Nodding to the fact that many hoped for a blanket rule allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to take communion, Schönborn said “many people expected such rules, but they will be disappointed, and persuaded that this is the necessary choice made by our pope.” But he suggested that the pope did offer “renewed encouragement” for a pastoral path in “particular cases.”

Monsignor Fred Easton, who led the Indianapolis Archdiocese’s tribunal for 31 years, said Friday morning that the pope’s document was not offering the divorced and remarried a path to the Eucharist, but rather encouraging laypeople and priests to find every possible other way to include them in church life. He acknowledged the wording might prompt different analyses.

“This is a communications problems we have,” he said. “He’s giving us a new way of approaching moral decision making. It’s not a wooden approach. It has to relate to the situation of the people. He’s giving us priests at the parish level an encouragement to look for the wide spectrum of possibilities that are there.. unlike his predecessors, he is telling us not to cut off dialogue so quickly as we had in the past, to see if there is a legitimate path to keeping them in church. That’s the direction he’s going in.”

Cardinal Baldisseri of the Synod of Bishops said he believed “there is difficult work envisioned here. We are not used to such a work, everything was imposed from above before and now we have to apply discernment. We have to apply it to each and every case.”

Austen Ivereigh, a prominent Francis biographer, wrote Friday that Francis basically punted in the document in terms of the very specifics of who gets Communion and when.

“In effect, Francis has cleared the ground for maximum pastoral flexibility, refusing to treat civilly remarried divorces as a category,” he wrote on the Catholic site Crux.

Ivereigh said this of the changes that might come as a result: “Yet while this is a significant development, it is unlikely to affect that many people.” The heart of the document, where there will be real change, he said, comes in the section about the importance of marriage preparation.

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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Anthony Faiola and Michelle Boorstein