Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli
In his post-synodal exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis has offered the Church a challenge to reflect more deeply on Christ’s teaching on marriage. The Holy Father reemphasizes the Church’s firm teaching on family and the Sacrament of Matrimony, while challenging us to be understanding and compassionate toward those who struggle in the concrete exigencies of their lives to form stable and healthy families.
Many in the media have greeted the Pope’s teaching as a revolution in Church doctrine. They see the Pope’s teaching as the carte blanche for Catholics living in marital situations not consecrated by the Sacrament of Matrimony to receive Holy Communion. This is not the case. The Holy Father’s teaching is nuanced and draws deeply on the Church’s Tradition to speak to our world today.
First, we must notice the form of Pope Francis’ teaching. It is not an encyclical stating a new understanding of doctrine. Rather, it is an exhortation; and, it must be read in that light. As an exhortation, it is meant to summarize the results of the 2015 and 2016 synods on the family and to offer encouragement to the faithful to live out our Catholic teaching. It is an exercise of the Pope’s pastoral ministry and is not an extraordinary exercise of papal infallibility.
Pope Francis’ teaching must be contextualized within Tradition. He has inherited the great teaching of his sainted predecessors to whom all Catholics owe a great debt of gratitude for their courage in clearly explaining the Church’s consistent teaching on marriage. Pope Francis draws on the richness of their teaching and emphasizes the Gospel imperative of charity to all individuals whatever their marital situation.
In his reflection on marriage, the Pope upholds the beauty and the sacredness of marriage. He reminds us that “Christian marriage…is fully realized in the union between a man and a woman who give themselves to each other in a free, faithful and exclusive love, who belong to each other until death and are open to the transmission of life, and are consecrated by the sacrament…”(292). However, he recognizes the reality that some individuals enter into irregular situations or “…forms of union radically contradict this idea” (ibid.).
While urging respect for the dignity of all individuals, the Pope does not shrink from affirming that “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family. He further states that “it is unacceptable that local Churches should be subjected to pressure in this matter and that international bodies should make financial aid to poor countries dependent on the introduction of laws to establish ‘marriage’ between persons of the same sex” (251).
Contrary to any ideology that would reduce marriage by demeaning or eliminating male and female sexuality as a precious gift from God, the Pope teaches that the differences and mutual reciprocity of male and female are essential to the beauty of marriage as designed by the Creator. When these sexual differences are eliminated, we lose the anthropological basis of the family. Thus, the Pope speaks strongly against any gender ideology that makes one’s identity as male or female merely a personal choice that can be changed over time (56).
At a time of increased secularization, especially in the United States where the government refuses to recognize the right of Catholics to practice their faith in all areas of their lives, the Holy Father strongly “rejects the forced State intervention in favor of contraception, sterilization and even abortion” (42). To counteract such a mentality, he advocates a return to the wisdom of Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae (82). And, at a time when some of our most prominent leaders and judges advocate abortion on demand and legalized euthanasia, the Pope unambiguously offers the truth on the value of every human life. He defends each person’s God-given right to life.
As Pope Francis teaches, “the family is the sanctuary of life, the place where life is conceived and cared for. It is a horrendous contradiction when it becomes a place where life is rejected and destroyed. So great is the value of a human life, and so inalienable the right to life of an innocent child growing in the mother’s womb that no alleged right to one’s own body can justify a decision to terminate that life, which is an end in itself and which can never be considered the “property” of another human being. The family protects human life in all its stages, including its last.” (83)
Because “the welfare of the family is decisive for the future of the world and that of the Church” (31), the Holy Father recognizes that the tragedy and heartbreak of divorce cast a dark shadow over family life. In the eighth chapter of his exhortation, the Holy Father reflects on the situation of those Catholics who have suffered a divorce. He urges compassion and understanding to the many and varied situations in which so many divorced Catholics now are living. The Pope encourages pastoral ministers to accompany these individuals toward a fuller participation in the life of the Church.
The Holy Father adopts an essentially pastoral perspective in speaking of irregular unions. His statements of outreach to the divorced and remarried must be seen as a way of accompanying and guiding people to the truth of Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce and to a proper understanding of the worthy reception of the Eucharist. The Pope himself states that he cannot include in his teaching each and every individual situation.
In chapter eight of the exhortation, Pope Francis offers some guidance for a pastoral care to divorced and remarried Catholics. Applying some ideas and principles that the Pope mentions or implies to the different and complex situations of the divorced and remarried leads to the inevitable consequence of varied interpretations. It is for this very reason that Amoris Laetitia cannot be read apart from the Church’s consistent teaching.
When a man and a woman enter into a valid, sacramental marriage, no person on earth, not even the Pope himself, can dissolve that marriage. It enjoys what Pope Francis calls “the gift of indissolubility.” However, some individuals who have been married in the Church do divorce and remarry civilly without the benefit of annulment. In some cases, they have not sought an annulment. In other instances, their marriage cannot be declared null. What is the situation of these individuals? Can they receive the Eucharist?
Instead of giving a ready-made, one-size-fits-all answer, chapter eight of the exhortation calls for pastoral discernment. Hence, many will answer this question in different ways. For this reason, it is important to remember that the Church has spoken on the issue and has given certain unchanging principles that cannot simply be dismissed.
Jesus unambiguously taught that divorce was evil and that a man or woman who divorces his spouse and marries another commits adultery (cf. Mt 19:3-9; Mk 10:1-13). The Ten Commandments lists adultery as a serious sin. The Church can never change that teaching. Neither can the Pope nor any other authority on earth say that the engaging in sexual relations outside a valid marriage is not sinful.
Every sacramental marriage images the love of Christ for his Church. Since Christ never stops loving us even in our weakness, those sacramentally married are graced to love each other, even in their failures, until death. However, the Church can declare that a particular marriage entered in good faith did not meet the requirements of a valid, sacramental marriage. Thus, after a civil divorce and church annulment, the individuals who were never married sacramentally in the first place can now marry and are free to receive the Eucharist.
Furthermore, the constant teaching of the Church, most recently taught by Pope John Paul II, leaves a way open for those who, without the benefit of the annulment of their previous marriage, have civilly contracted another marriage. As Pope John Paul II has clearly taught, the sacraments are available to these individuals under certain conditions. “Reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the Eucharist can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage” (Familiaris Consortio, 84). In the press conference introducing Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia, Cardinal Schönborn twice said that the Pope’s new exhortation did not change this teaching.
What, then, is new in Pope Francis’ teaching? The Holy Father places a strong emphasis on not judging others and on looking for ways to welcome everyone, no matter what his or her situation, to their rightful place in the Church. Pope Francis speaks to the real life situations of married couples. He acknowledges that there are certain situations that are complex and do not admit of a facile solution. He “does not disregard the constructive elements in those situations which do not yet or no longer correspond to [the Church’s] teaching on marriage” (292). He offers to those in such situations the balm of compassionate pastoral care to heal their wounds, to help them form correct consciences and to accompany them to full integration in the life of the Church. A challenging teaching, indeed!