A message from Bishop David M. O'Connell, C.M., Bishop of Trenton:
The Holy Father Pope Francis has issued his long awaited apostolic exhortation, following the two Synods of Bishops held in Rome during the past two years. Entitled "Amoris Laetitia," or "The Joy of Love," Pope Francis takes this opportunity to summarize his thoughts and reflections about the deliberations of both Synods, especially the gathering of 2015. As Bishop of the Diocese of Trenton, I would like to share some of my own thoughts with you.
To read the Holy Father's thoughts on 'Amoris Laetitia," click here.
An apostolic exhortation is a papal document addressed to the Catholic Church to encourage the action of the faithful on a particular topic. It does not have the weight of a papal encyclical but it is more significant in authority than lesser letters, homilies and so forth.
The theme of "Amoris Laetitia" is "love in the family," a love that is experienced as the "joy of the Church." Despite contemporary crises in the family, "there is still good news" to be proclaimed.
Pope Francis writes in simple, clear language accessible to a wide audience. Contrary to the expectations of some, the Holy Father does not blaze new doctrinal trails here. He is, however, intensely pastoral in his comments. That is the point I wish to emphasize and underscore. "Pastoral," however is not used here to negate scripture, doctrine/tradition and Church law/practice. These aspects of our experience in the Church support and guide our pastoral approach.
Pope Francis notes that "not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need be settled by the interventions of the magisterium. Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it."
In other words, Francis is encouraging deep and careful thought on everyone's part about what the Church has to offer the faithful from its treasury of revelation and grace, what they mean and how they apply to real life. Catholics are not starting the Christian life from scratch. We need to be clear on that point.
Here in "the hallways of Rome," there did not seem to be too much conversation on the publication of the document other than the Vatican press conference. Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, O.P., Archbishop of Vienna, was one of the presenters and reflected, "I think the key message is: 'don't speak first about problems, speak about the achievement of the family' ... Pope Francis wants us to say, 'please just look first at the enormous gift that is marriage and the family.'"
I had the occasion to speak with Cardinal Schönborn about the exhortation in St. Peter's Basilica after the Papal Mass last Sunday. He shared his thoughts that the document would make a "real contribution to moral theology" and to the Christian understanding of family life, "its joys as well as its crises."
The exhortation is a long document. Rather than address it paragraph by paragraph, I encourage Catholics to read it for themselves rather than simply take the word of the secular media. Watching and reading U.S. media coverage here in Rome, I can already hear and see some inaccurate or exaggerated "spin" on this document being promoted. I do think this might be countered more easily if the Holy See made such publications available to bishops under embargo for a few days before its release. We only had 24 hours to prepare comments before it became publicly available. We need more time to help the faithful hear first from us, the Church's official teachers, rather than secular news outlets.
Pope Francis, however, does not tell bishops and priests how to react in some concrete pastoral situations.
Let me cut to the chase:
- On readmission to the Eucharist of the divorced and civilly re-married without an annulment, there is no change in current Church practice. As Cardinal Schönborn said here today, when Pope Francis discusses the possibility of admitting people in irregular marriage situations to the sacraments, he is speaking first and foremost about confession. "I think it is very clear ... these people need sacramental absolution even if their general situation cannot be satisfied."
- On individual conscience, Pope Francis writes that "discernment is dynamic" and that "conscience needs to be better incorporated" into Church practice in certain situations, among them, marriage, seeking "what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God."
- On same-sex marriage, there is no change in current Church practice. Pope Francis writes, "Same-sex unions may not simply be equated with marriage ... there are no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be similar or even remotely analogous to God's plan for marriage and family." There is at the same time no condemnation of homosexual persons as disordered or evil.
- On abortion, there is no change in current Church practice. Pope Francis writes, "No alleged right to one's own body can justify a decision to terminate that life which is an end in itself and can never be considered the 'property' of another human being."
- On contraception, there is no change in current Church practice. "Love refuses every impulse to close in on itself; it is open to a fruitfulness that draws it beyond itself. Hence, no genital act of husband or wife can refuse this meaning, even when for various reasons it may not always in fact beget a new life."
I choose these particular "hot button issues" precisely because they are "hot button issues." The exhortation offers much, much more than this very simplified statement of conclusions to very complicated human matters.
Please read the text! It is rich with scripture and tradition; references to St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Paul II, the Documents of Vatican II and the Catechism of the Catholic Church; Pope Francis own writings. I do not do the text justice here in this brief overview, so spare the criticism. At the same time, as Diocesan Bishop, I felt that it was necessary to identify some key points for the education of the faithful.
Pope Francis is a strong advocate for pastoral mercy, not harsh judgment. He does not, however, reject truth in the process. He writes about the importance of the Church accompanying people in their many and varied experiences of human life, especially marriage and family. He does not, however, reject truth in the process. He promotes inclusion, dialogue and encounter rather than isolating, labeling or pushing people away. He does not, however, reject truth in the process.
In my own pastoral letter, "Mercy and Truth Shall Meet," I wrote about the essential relationship between both. I highlighted the Gospel story of the woman caught in the act of adultery where Jesus says to her, "neither do I condemn you. Go, now, and sin no more."
Mercy is offered her while truth is not ignored, rejected or replaced. As we read the apostolic exhortation "Amoris Laetitia," let's keep that Gospel story in mind so that the "joy of love" may be ours and may truly enrich marriage, family, human and Christian life in our world.