Amoris Laetitia Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation
Cardinal Donald Wuerl
Cardinal Wuerl to the Canon Law Society of America
In Amoris Laetitia specifically, we find long-held, theologically sound teaching that displays the reality of practical, pastoral guidance that is offered to someone who, like all of us, is struggling to live up to the fullness of the norm, but within the circumstances and situations in which they find themselves.
In many ways the document’s teaching is a further response to the Second Vatican Council’s call for a renewal of Catholic moral teaching and practice and the response to this call by the subsequent papal magisterium.
The assertion of the primacy of love does not in any way diminish the role of law. What the Exhortation is calling us to is a recognition that the starting point or principle from which our pastoral actions flow must be the revelation of God’s love and mercy. Church law certainly has great importance but it is not the only point of reference in pastoral ministry.
The document clearly sounds important notes of its own, and significantly contributes to and applies these hallmarks of post-conciliar renewal. The focus on the person and his or her dignity is carried forward in the Holy Father’s critique of what he calls “a culture of the ephemeral”1 — a culture which views and treats others as sources of affective or sexual pleasure to be discarded when this pleasure runs dry. This pursuit of a shallow happiness falls short of the joy of which the Exhortation speaks. As was true for the Council, the dignity of the human person is fully disclosed in Christ but in this case especially in Christ’s embrace of families with their struggles, in children and other vulnerable persons, and in sinners.
One can say that Amoris Laetitia is itself the fruit of very intensive LISTENING on the part of Pope Francis. The two synods on family called by the Holy Father were themselves preceded by consultation of local churches throughout the world on the lived situation of families, their challenges, and their experience.
Pope Francis understands the process of listening to the faithful and to his brother bishops to be a key part of his own teaching and pastoral ministry. It is part of the “synodality” or “journeying together” which he sees as essential to the Church at every level. The fruit of this listening is reflected in the generous citation and engagement of the reports of the two synods in this Exhortation.
Another activity on which the document focuses is ACCOMPANYING, the pastoral accompaniment of all who seek to find a way closer to God. In many ways this is an extension of listening and of the synodality to which it gives rise. The journeying together of all of the members of the Church implies this accompaniment. But it also calls for a change in pastoral style and intensity.
Pope Francis calls pastors to do more than teach the Church’s doctrine — though they clearly must do that. Pastors must “take on the ‘smell of the sheep’” whom they serve so that “the sheep are willing to hear their voice.”2 This requires a more careful and intensive formation of all who minister — all who invite people to renew their faith.
The Church’s pastoral ministry is intended to help the faithful to grow in the art of DISCERNING. A key part of discernment is the formation of conscience. The Holy Father insists that the Church’s pastors must “make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.”3
Part of this formation requires presenting the teaching of the Church in its fullness and without compromise4 though in language which is welcoming rather than defensive or one-sided.5 But it is families themselves who must be invited to understand how to apply and begin to live out this teaching in the particularity of their situations. Those in seriously challenging situations, such as the divorced and civilly remarried, should be invited to deeper inclusion in the life of the Church. But the Holy Father is clear that he is in no way changing the Church’s doctrine nor making general changes to its sacramental practice or Canon Law.6 He is inviting such families and the pastors who accompany them to discern what it means for them to walk the path of conversion.
Even in the midst of their challenges and imperfections, families are called to respond to the Holy Spirit’s promptings.
Admittedly, this individual process of discernment may not be easy. A person may know full well Church teaching, Pope Francis notes, yet have great difficulty in either understanding its inherent positive value, or in being able to fully embrace it right away because of circumstances.7 Yet, the underlying moral principle which should inform both that personal discernment and the priest's ministry is that a person whose situation in life is objectively contrary to moral teaching can still love and grow in the faith, he or she can still take steps in the right direction and benefit from God’s mercy and grace while receiving the assistance of the Church.8
The Exhortation does not create some sort of internal forum process where, for example, a marriage can be annulled or where the objective moral order can be changed. The teachings of the Church on marriage and family, and on conscience and moral decision-making, remain unchanged. The role of the priest in listening and offering affirmation or challenge to persons as they work through their own understanding of their situation, is not the same as absolving from the law or annulling a marriage.
Instead, pastoral dialogue, accompaniment and integration involve the development of conscience and also the expression of a level of support or confirmation for the judgment that the individual is making about the state of his soul or her soul. That judgment is the act of the individual and is the basis for their accountability before God.
Amoris Laetitia is not a list of answers to each individual human issue. Rather, it is a call to compassionate accompaniment in helping all to experience Christ’s love and mercy. To the extent that our ministry does this, it is also an EVANGELIZING action. As we recall the challenge to go out, to encounter, and to accompany, we also recognize that this is at its heart an act of the evangelizing disciple.
In the action of going out, encountering, sharing and accompanying, we also recognize that in the journey we, ourselves, are also drawing closer to the Lord. In all of our action of evangelizing, teaching, catechizing, counseling, admonishing, instructing, we also remember both God’s liberating truth and saving mercy. None of us can claim yet to be perfect as is our heavenly Father. But we can grow closer to the Lord who will by his grace heal us so that we can have the life he wants for us.
1 Pope Francis, Post-Synodal Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (2016), 39.
2Ibid., Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (2013), 24.
3Ibid., Post-Synodal Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (2016), 37.
5Ibid., 36, 38.
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27 January 2017, page 11
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