In Defence of Truth and Mercy

Author: Stephen Walford

In Defence of Truth and Mercy

Stephen Walford

On the Holy Father's teachings in 'Amoris Laetitia'

"Over the course of the Exhortation, current and concrete problems are dealt with: the family in today’s world, the education of children, marriage preparation, families in difficulty, and so on: these are treated with a hermeneutic that comes from the whole document which is the magisterial hermeneutic of the Church, always in continuity (without ruptures), yet always maturing.” With these words from the Preface the Holy Father wrote for my book Pope Francis, the Family and Divorce: In Defence of Truth and Mercy (Paulist Press), the Pontiff firmly places Amoris Laetitia in the heart of a rich body of magisterial teaching on the family, stretching back to Pope Leo XIII’s Encyclical Arcanum.

Of course, since Amoris Laetitia was published in April 2016, much discussion has taken place on its meaning. This led me to write a book on the subject with two main objectives: 1) to defend the Pope and his magisterium, and 2) to encourage those souls in irregular unions to seek the maternal embrace of the Church, and to begin a journey of spiritual ascent.

One of the most significant things Pope Francis stated in his Preface is that Amoris Laetitia must be read in order, from start to finish, otherwise “it will either not be understood or it will be distorted.” Without any doubt, far too many commentators have jumped immediately to the famous chapter eight; yet to do this, is to miss a vital “development of theological reflection” that is unveiled throughout the preceding chapters.

In the first three chapters of my book, I have tried to do something similar, first, by laying the historical foundations as to why the crisis of the family has taken root so dramatically — coupled with the response of the magisterium from Leo XIII onwards, and secondly, how Pope Francis responds to the contemporary challenges with his usual crystalline, refreshing realism. For instance, it is clear to me that the Holy Father sees God as the travelling companion of each family; not as an abstract theory contained in the Word, but in the Word made Flesh who reproduces the “Road to Emmaus” for each family. Families are not problems but “are an opportunity that God places before us. An opportunity that challenges us to generate a missionary creativity capable of embracing every practical situation.”1

Amoris Laetitia is striking for several reasons: 1) It seeks to explore the truth of individual situations through discernment, recognising the myriad of problems ordinary families encounter daily. 2) It rejects an abstract application of doctrine that does not take into account the truth that only an encounter with the Risen Christ can instigate a true metanoia. 3) It moves away from a “them and us” mentality to family situations, reminding us that we are sinners and all in need of divine mercy. 4) It teaches responsibility to be sympathetic to the plight of others — especially those in second civil marriages — and as a consequence, we must “remove our sandals before the sacred ground of others” (cf. Ex 3:5).

Pope Francis underpins the entire text with a call to welcome, accompany, discern and integrate each family into the bosom of the Church. His dream is of a Church of maternal tenderness that continuously reaches out; one that imitates the love and compassion of the Blessed Virgin who is Hodegetria — the Mother who leads the way to Jesus.

So how do we see this theological development that the Holy Father speaks of? How can it help us understand the complexity of contemporary family life, and most importantly, how can it help us to open our hearts ever more to suffering and broken families?

The opening chapter of Amoris Laetitia lays the foundations by placing the family in a biblical perspective; we are invited to see the love and unity of the Most Holy Trinity mirrored (albeit in an imperfect way) in marriage, and the gift of children, as building blocks — living stones (cf. 1 Pet 5) — upon which salvation history is built. Jesus is seen as the divine physician, who touches the flesh of a bruised and wounded human family; who wills to transform it through divine grace. The Pope also reminds us that mercy, forgiveness, selflessness and tenderness are all concrete expressions of the law of love that Jesus commands us to follow, and ones which can be beautiful manifestations of parental love.

Chapter two seeks to understand the variety of problems which modern families are faced with, and which the Church — through the guidance of the Holy Spirit — must confront if she is to “be guided to a more profound understanding of the inexhaustible mystery of marriage and the family.”2 This leads to a stark and healthy dose of self-criticism in which the Holy Father suggests that for too long the Church has presented an “almost artificial theological ideal of marriage” in which too much emphasis has been placed on “stressing doctrinal bioethical and moral issues — without encouraging openness to grace.”3

Chapter three is dedicated to the Church’s teaching on marriage, seeking to reveal the entire beauty of sacramental marriage whereby the family finds a true path to sanctification and self-fulfilment. The overriding message is that the family — the “domestic church” — is intimately linked to the Church herself.

Undoubtedly, chapters four and five should be seen as the heart of the entire Exhortation and form a sparkling blueprint for all married couples and those preparing for marriage. The Holy Father displays a wisdom nurtured without doubt from decades of time spent not only in the prayerful presence of the Lord, but also in the lives of his flock in Buenos Aires. I certainly cannot do justice here to these chapters, but suffice it to say, Pope Francis teaches us what true love entails, using the great Christological vision of St Paul as his starting point. A sober and open hearted meditation on these great chapters will help all to see their own failings in humility, and serve as a summons to embrace agape, that divine love that is sacrificial and pure in nature. Read in conjunction with Gaudete et Exsultate, and it seems to me, the laity have a treasure trove of magisterial teaching that can pave the way to holiness while living “in the world.”

Chapters six and seven are where we begin to see the emergence of pastoral care in the Pope’s teaching. He is adamant that it is not enough for priests, seminarians and religious to have just a doctrinal formation, but in order to appreciate the reality of family life, they must be exposed to proper pastoral training that can open their hearts to the divergence of situations ordinary people face. Accompanying can never happen sitting behind a desk with a moral theology manual; it must come from entering the lives of the suffering; lowering oneself to their level and offering the tenderness of Jesus.

To return to our original questions, as I hope to show more thoroughly in my book, we see that Pope Francis has shown how the origins of the family emanate from the will of God, how they are struggling in a secular culture and how the Church — through the magisterium and with the divine guidance of Sacred Scripture — seeks to be at the service of the family in order that each domestic church can realise its full potential.

This takes us to the controversial chapter eight, and which for me, was the critical reason I felt compelled to enter the debate. Firstly, there can be no denying that it is a challenging text. It faces head on the most difficult cases, involving divorced and civilly remarried Catholics and the varied pastoral care that can be offered to them; it advances in a most careful manner the teaching of St John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio, which acknowledged the necessity of discernment for cases of an irregular union. There is no doubt however, that for the lax or the rigorist, there is the temptation to see an abandoning of 2000 years of Catholic teaching; but in reality neither is true. Pope Francis has simply utilised his power to bind and loose4 and — with the certain authority of Christ to do so5 — enabled pastors to discern with a person or couple the way forward which may include the “help of the Sacraments.”6 This is far removed however from a general change in sacramental discipline which is not possible due to the possibility of mortal sin and scandal.

Pope Francis’ realism and utilisation of authentic moral theology — which recognizes that the degree of imputability may be diminished greatly or even removed altogether for sins of grave matter — has led him to discern that there will be souls involved in irregular unions who will benefit from the sacraments of confession and Holy Communion as divine medicine for their spiritual healing. This will include not only those who manage to live as brother and sister, but those who — possibly because of the fear of further sin engulfing the family home and their children — cannot reach that goal yet. The Holy Father proposes as a firm foundation for these souls, the law of gradualness taught by St John Paul II which encourages them to begin a step by step growth in their spiritual life which with the grace of God can help them eventually leave the sinful element of their union.

For the rigorist held in a straightjacket of fear, this papal act of mercy cannot be possible for several reasons: 1) they reject the supreme authority of Christ’s Vicar to grant this, 2) they ignore or even reject authentic moral theology on sin and guilt as taught in the Catechism, and 3) they lack any nuance in the question of what constitutes a firm purpose of amendment. For Pope Francis, however, rigidity “grieves the Holy Spirit”7, it hides pride and insecurity and resembles the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. The rigid don’t care much for discerning individual problems and situations; they prefer to classify objectively grave sinners as one group without discerning subjective reasons for a given situation. It seems to me that in a time of great moral turmoil with so many confused and weak souls, the Holy Spirit has sent the first Jesuit Pope armed with the great Jesuitical tool of discernment in order to loosen the fetters of the Church — certainly not in a doctrinal sense — but in those ways that were detrimental to evangelising in an age of “silent apostasy.”8 The Church cannot act like a Mother if the Mother never speaks to some of her children.

In my book, I thought it important to try and address various aspects not only related to Amoris Laetitia itself, but also how the Holy Father was able to ensure his new approach was not in opposition to Tradition and the magisterium going back centuries. This I felt was essential for several reasons: 1) to answer those papal dissenters who were seeking to influence ordinary Catholics through a manufactured confusion, or in certain cases untruths, and 2) for those souls in irregular unions who were seeking through Amoris Laetitia a new stage of their spiritual journey, but were being influenced by rigorist propaganda.

Four aspects I felt were central to hopefully accomplishing this: In the first, through a Scriptural analysis, seeking ways in which God, through his mercy, had still acted in the lives of great sinners, including several notorious pagans of the Old Testament: Rahab the Prostitute being the greatest example; or Tamar, for whom St Ephraim sung of her “holy adultery.”9 In a rigorist rule book, these women, tainted not only by the stain of original sin, but also personal sin of grave matter, should not have been able to be useful for salvation history to proceed; and yet God in his mysterious and marvellous design saw things differently.

The second aspect was an exploration of moral theology and the workings of conscience, utilising magisterial teachings and the writings of St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas. I felt it very important to delve into the issue of “good intention” even when circumstances make a person feel there is no way out; for instance in the case we have already mentioned (and central to the Buenos Aires Bishops guidelines that are now “authentic magisterium”) in which a couple have tried and failed to live as brother and sister, because the stress was causing an escalation of evil in the home. Does God take their good intention to leave the sinful situation into account?

The third aspect was to look into the issue of papal primacy, and the God given authority Popes have in matters of faith and morals. Without doubt, one of the most disconcerting areas of dissent stretching back decades, but intensified in recent times has been the attempted dilution of the ordinary magisterium. The reality is that Popes cannot be corrected in matters of faith and morals; they are the beneficiaries of the “charism of assistance” given by the Holy Spirit. Along these lines, we also have the precious doctrine of indefectibility which ensures the Church will never teach false doctrine.10

The final area of real importance relates to the doctrine of doctrinal development; an area which Pope Francis has often talked about since the earliest days of his papacy, and which he was gracious enough to mention in his Preface. In truth, I had touched upon this issue in a letter I had given to the Holy Father, linking this teaching of St Vincent of Lerins with the Pope’s own principle “time is greater than space.” There is no doubt that this is an area that theologians need to explore more as a way of helping the laity appreciate how doctrines can mature through time, and why the magisterium is right to refine them, as a way of getting closer to how Jesus desires the Church to understand them. This is a process which must continue in the life of the Church until the Lord returns.

Chapter eight of Amoris Laetitia must be seen not as a rupture — as Pope Francis has now clearly taught — but in total continuity and harmony with past magisterial teaching. How can we be confident this is the case? Firstly, because no doctrine has been tampered with: the indissolubility of marriage remains, the doctrine on mortal sin remains, the horror of sacrilegious reception of Holy Communion remains (cf. 1 Cor 11:27, 29), and the gravity of all acts of adultery remain. Alongside this, we have an authentic extension and application of mercy for sinners who, recognizing their sinful situation, are conscious of the need for the Lord. They make their own the words of St John Paul II: “Were we to disregard the Eucharist, how could we overcome our own deficiency?”11 There can be no rupture when the maternal instincts of Holy Mother Church seek to rescue souls who are genuine in their desire to change, and when this maternal tenderness is manifest in the will of the “sweet Christ on earth.”12 It is simply not possible.

Pope Francis, we can say, marries three essential spiritual elements in his teaching on reintegrating the divorced and civilly remarried into the life of the Church: 1) Ignatian discernment, 2) Thomistic doctrine on morality, and 3) a Franciscan love for the (spiritually) poor. He also reveals a beautiful manifestation of the charism of Peter: he is teacher and pastor, one who, rather than allow doctrine to go stale on a shelf, utilises everything at his disposal to go in search of the lost sheep and bring them home.

To me, Amoris Laetitia is a magisterial document of great beauty and one that had to come in order for the Church to address the growing problems of family breakdown and divorce. For all of us, bishops, priests religious and laity, we must leave aside pride and hostility and humbly accept that the Holy Spirit is calling the Church to put out into the deep even more; to live this extraordinary era of divine mercy in a more radical way that speaks only of love, true love for these brothers and sisters who struggle. If we want to truly imitate Jesus — divine mercy incarnate — then we must act in full conformity with His will and His example. That includes obedience and loyalty to His Vicar and humble acceptance of his magisterium; it means avoiding judgements about the inner spiritual lives of others, and a recognition that we are all sinners, and all reliant on the mercy of God. If we can do as Pope Francis asks, and rid ourselves of hypocrisy, then we may gradually begin to see Amoris Laetitia for what it is: a summons to make each domestic church a building block of the communion of saints. It is my ardent desire that my book may help in some small way to bring that about.

1 POPE FRANCIS, Address at the Opening of the Pastoral Congress of the Diocese of Rome, 16 June 2016.

2 POPE FRANCIS, Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, 19 March 2016, n. 31.

3 Ibid., n. 37.

4 Pope Leo XIII states: “‘Whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth it shall be bound also in Heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth it shall be loosed also in Heaven.’ This metaphorical expression of binding and loosing indicates the power of making laws, of judging and of punishing; and the power is said to be of such amplitude and force that God will ratify whatever is decreed by it. Thus it is supreme and absolutely independent, so that, having no other power on earth as its superior, it embraces the whole Church and all things committed to the Church”. Encyclical Letter Satis Cognitum, 29 June 1896, n. 12.

5 “It is also to be borne in mind that all acts of the Magisterium derive from the same source, that is, from Christ who desires that His People walk in the entire truth. For this same reason, magisterial decisions in matters of discipline, even if they are not guaranteed by the charism of infallibility, are not without divine assistance and call for the adherence of the faithful”. CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH, Donum Veritatis, 24 May 1990, n. 17.

6 Amoris Laetitia, fn. 351.

7 POPE FRANCIS, Homily for Morning Mass at Casa Santa Marta, 6 October 2016.

8 St JOHN PAUL II, Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Europa, 28 June 2003, n. 9.

9 St EPHRAIM, Seventh Hymn on the Nativity,

10 Pope Pius XII wrote: “For both the juridical mission of the Church, and the power to teach, govern and administer the Sacraments, derive their supernatural efficacy and force for the building up of the Body of Christ from the fact that Jesus Christ, hanging on the Cross, opened up to His Church the fountain of those divine gifts, which prevent her from ever teaching false doctrine”. Mystici Corporis Christi, 29 June 1943, n. 31.

11 ST JOHN PAUL II, Encyclical Letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 17 April 2003, n. 60.

12 ST CATHERINE OF SIENA, Catherine of Siena, Letter CXCVI to Pope Gregory XI.

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