“WHO am I to fudge?” should, in the opinion of one conservative wag, be Pope Francis’s new catchphrase, after the publication of his encyclopaedic new document on love and the family, Amoris Laetitia. Rigorists who had hoped for hard-line clarity have been disappointed, as have liberals who hoped that he would approve same-sex marriage, and issue an edict permitting all Roman Catholics who had divorced and married again to receive holy communion. But all this misses what is really revolutionary about this apostolic exhortation.
Certainly, Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”) is a document of such breadth that it purposefully allows for a certain ambiguity. Conservatives can find in it unequivocal affirmation of the indissolubility of marriage. Liberals can see repeated distinctions between doctrinal ideals and pastoral compassion: condemning the sin, but loving the sinner. The Pope dismisses phrases such as “living in sin”, insisting that sin cannot be determined by a scrutiny of external circumstance. Not everything that looks “irregular” has sin in its heart.
And he deals with the communion ban only in footnotes, where he insists that “sacramental discipline”, too, must be subject to the same discernment. Conservatives assert that the Pope is spreading confusion — their thinly veiled code for anything he says that they disagree with. Liberals say that his phrase that the eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful . . . nourishment for the weak” opens the door for the communion ban to be lifted.
What all this overlooks is that Amoris Laetitia is breaking new ground in an entirely different way. The Pope’s concern is not to change the rules, but to change his Church. Previous popes have used post-synod exhortations to issue definitive new positions on the subject in hand. Pope Francis has gone out of his way not to be definitive. This document comes after a three-year process involving an unprecedented questionnaire of lay people, two synods, and a year of worldwide debate. Amoris Laetitia quotes from those synods more than 200 times, as well as from numerous documents by bishops’ conferences around the world. It quotes from Protestants and secularists, too.
Uniquely, it makes statements such as “Not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium.” It adds: “Neither the Synod nor this Exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases.” Instead, it speaks of discernment, the primacy of conscience, and the need for “each country or region” to “seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs”.
What this amounts to is the first practical application of the Second Vatican Council’s call for a return to a more collegial Church. The Pope is no longer monarch, but a bishop among bishops. As primus inter pares, he does not judge (or fudge), but rather is content to nudge. In this document, Pope Francis has shown himself to be the first true Vatican II pontiff.
He knows that this will disconcert “those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion”. But he wants a more mature spirituality. He wants a Church for grown-ups.
Paul Vallely is the author of Pope Francis: The struggle for the soul of Catholicism (Bloomsbury, 2015).