By Patrick Howell, SJ
The long-anticipated exhortation by Pope Francis on marriage, sexuality, divorce and remarriage, following the Synod on the Family last fall, made its debut on April 8. As we’ve become accustomed, Pope Francis speaks with a loving, pastoral tone throughout the 256-page document. Short it is not! (Even though he encouraged priests in his earlier exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel” to keep their homilies short.)
I haven’t read it yet, but a raft of publicity and articles have flooded the airwaves—offering thousands of pages more than the original. I recommend to two sources to give yourself an orientation to the document. The Washington Post published a comprehensive overview (April 8), highlighting key aspects of the pope’s teaching. These include strong encouragement to couples and an admonition to pastors to “live in the real world that couples inhabit,” which may include “mudding your shoes.” The balm of mercy should be at the heart of the Church. And he calls for a “healthy dose of self –criticism” in the church. The pope clearly paves the way for a compassionate welcome and inclusion of divorced and remarried Catholics. And though he doesn’t mitigate the indissoluble nature of a sacramental marriage, he reminds pastors that sacraments are not a reward for perfection but a remedy for weakness. Some may have unrealistically expected a change in teaching about the nature of marriage to be the union of a man and a woman, so that it could include gay marriage. It was never going to happen.
The other source that I recommend is by the insightful, always-on-top of the issues in the church Fr. Tom Reese, S.J., former editor of America and now a regular columnist for The National Catholic Reporter. For the lay reader, Fr. Reese recommends, start with Chapter Four! “It’s a masterpiece.” The first three chapters lay the groundwork and are eventually worth reading, but if you wish to get to the heart of the matter skip these. For priests, he says, “Read Chapters Four Eight.”
A key component I think is the pope’s pointed advice to priests, “We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitation.” We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them,” the pope says. See http://ncronline.org (Thomas Reese, Faith and Justice).
Surprisingly, the pope does not bring up artificial birth control in any part of the lengthy document. As one commentator observed, this omission is a typical way that church teaching evolves. During the age of scientific breakthrough of the Renaissance, the Church at no point said that the Earth is round. It just stopped asserting that the Earth was flat.