Amoris Laetitia: The Pope's Big Tent Plan

April 13, 2016
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There is a lot of really good stuff in Amoris Laetitia. It's a huge document that is mostly a goldmine of solid, strong quotes expressing Church teaching on many different subjects involving the family. If the liberals were sticking their fingers in the door, hoping to make some leeway for same-sex marriage, reproductive technologies, abortion, or even contraception, they got their fingers slammed instead.

BUT. There is also a small amount of bad stuff. Namely, those references to letting priests decide to let some divorced and remarried Catholics possibly receive the Eucharist, in what looks like a violation of Church rules, because apparently conscience might make it okay.

Does that sprinkle of bad stuff, like too much salt, spoil the whole stew? Many sure think it does. Particularly if, as David Warren suggests, the stew was cooked just so that sprinkle could be added.

Others, like Fr. David Longnecker, are of the opinion that such a conclusion is uncharitable and unbecoming, akin to "picking through the Pope's exhortation like carrion crows". We should take time to digest the stew, not for a few hours or days but probably for a few months at least. Then we'll be able to speak more about it.

But here's the thing. The world is burning around us, we are now in Sodom. And our besieged leader has just issued a statement. Well, what does Fr. Longnecker (with all due respect) think we're going to do? File it away and sit on it for months? Not a chance.

We will scan each line with bated breath and eager anticipation, hoping to see, like those patriots behind the ramparts in the American anthem, whether our banner still waves over the home of the brave and the land of the free. Has the Pope given in to those liberal pressures, or is the Church still standing its ground?

For us in Sodom, that is the question. And all else is just...stew.

Time for desperate measures?

Amoris demonstrates that the Church is acutely informed of the worst plagues raining down on today's families. It lists them all, and vividly too.

But what to do about it all, well, that is a whole other hairball.

"We have long thought," says Pope Francis, "that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues...we were providing sufficient support to families...He seems to be referring to all those previous Encyclicals and other Church documents, which clearly outline the moral rules...but no one cares. So obviously that approach didn't pan out.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and Pope Francis appears to be in triage mode. He is trying to rescue those divorced and remarried Catholics, of which there are alarmingly many, who are no longer worthy to receive the Eucharist, at least according to the way the Church currently does the math. So it's either time to shrink the Church, or time to change the math.

And with Amoris, Pope Francis has clearly chosen to change the math. In his words:
"lest we take the wrong path: “There are two ways of thinking...: casting off and reinstating. The Church’s way, from the time of the Council of Jerusalem, has always always been the way of Jesus, the way of mercy and reinstatement…...It is a matter of reaching out to everyone...No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel!"
So onward with reinstating. Which means, in the case of divorced and remarried Catholics without annulments, that they might be able to receive the Eucharist without first getting their annulments.

Pope Francis's new approach gives the final word to the conscience of lay Catholics, rather than the 'objective' rules of the Church:
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”....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.351 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”.352 The practical pastoral care of ministers and of communities must not fail to embrace this reality.  
Footnote 351:
In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, “I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy” (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium [24 November 2013], 44: AAS 105 [2013], 1038). I would also point out that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (ibid., 47: 1039).
And there you have it, a crack has opened in the facade. Some say it is a little tear, some say it is quite a noticeable hole.

The gist of it is this: remarried Catholics without annulments can receive Communion without getting annulments, as long as they do so with sweaty brows and sincere effort to discern the right thing to do.

A new Winnipeg statement?

Paragraph 305, together with its Footnote 351, reminds me of that infamous Winnipeg Statement of 1968, when Canadian bishops took it upon themselves to do damage control after the publication of Humanae Vitae. Paragraph 26 of their statement said:
"In accord with the accepted principles of moral theology, if these persons have tried sincerely but without success to pursue a line of conduct in keeping with the given directives, they may be safely assured that, whoever honestly chooses that course which seems right to him does so in good conscience." 
In this way, the Bishops tried to make the Church's rejection of contraception more digestible for the laity, which seems to have been judged (and correctly, until now) as too weak to put the Church's teaching into practice.

But if the results of that experiment offer any lesson, then Amoris won't be ushering the Church into any kind of new springtime. Instead, we can expect still less adherence to Church teachings, as the laity (who won't bother with any of the fine print) put into practice the central lesson of Amoris: Church teachings can be circumvented by conscience.

Conscience at the wheel?

So how does this new approach not go along with the trend towards extreme individualism, which the Church identified as a major problem in No. 33 of Amoris?

Nearly every person in our society is already under the impression that they are a demi-God whose personal whims, feelings and desires are the only thing that matters. Is it really productive to tell such people that they can jump over the Church's rules as long as they "discern" it is okay?

Pope Francis knows the risks of this approach. He even spells them out himself:
"For this discernment to happen, the following conditions must necessarily be present: humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching, in a sincere search for God’s will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it”.338 These attitudes are essential for avoiding the grave danger of misunderstandings, such as the notion that any priest can quickly grant “exceptions”, or that some people can obtain sacramental privileges in exchange for favours. When a responsible and tactful person, who does not presume to put his or her own desires ahead of the common good of the Church, meets with a pastor capable of acknowledging the seriousness of the matter before him, there can be no risk that a specific discernment may lead people to think that the Church maintains a double standard."
These are some serious dangers. The Church might look like it's saying one thing and doing another. Priests might look like they welcome influence peddlers, and we might practically roll back a few centuries to the time of buying and selling indulgences.

But obviously, Pope Francis is willing to take his chances. And all will go well...except if it doesn't. And when has any new policy been applied only as intended?

The Pope's bleeding heart

Laudate Si unveiled the Pope's liberal leanings, and Amoris Laetitia cements the fact that he is, as they say, a bleeding heart. He's got a soft spot for those who don't fit into the Church's moral parameters, and he wants to pull them into his 'big tent' Church, rules be dammed. Yes, Pope Francis is the teacher who will lower the bar when the class can't master the material.

As a contrast, it's interesting that few things annoy the Pope more than seemingly "perfect" Catholics. He's leveled so many insults in their direction that there's a whole spoof book compiled on the subject (worth reading; it's hilarious).

What else could we expect?

There would have been another way. The other option, which seems to have been preferred by Pope Benedict, would be to keep on keeping on. The Church would stick to its rules even if the whole class got an F. If they can't keep up, they can drop the course.

The small but true Church would maintain its integrity and existence through the dark times of cultural decadence. It would keep the lamp burning, hoping that someday, a revival would happen and people would come to their senses. The Church has gone that route before, and has successfully survived those periods of theological famine.

But that's not the path traveled by Pope Francis, who has just launched a course for uncharted waters.

Uncharted for the Catholic Church, that is - but many Protestant denominations have already traveled that route. They've shown us just what becomes of churches that reduce their expectations in an attempt to swing their doors ever wider.

I have yet to see a good ending to that scenario.

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