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When Roman Catholics ask 'Is the Pope Catholic?'

07 April 2017

The Pope’s exhortation on marriage and the family is meeting fierce resistance, says Jonathan Luxmoore


Matters of style or substance? Most commentators say that Pope Francis is changing not RC teaching, but its implementation

Matters of style or substance? Most commentators say that Pope Francis is changing not RC teaching, but its implementation

THE House of Bishops’ report on sexuality, which was rebuffed by the General Synod (News, 17 February), brought to the surface tensions within the Church of England. Roman Catholics are also divided over a key document from Pope Francis which updates their Church’s approach to marriage and family issues.

The outcome could be important for ecumenical relations, by indicating possible changes to RC attitudes in this key area.

Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”), a 324-point apostolic exhortation, was published last April in response to debates at a Rome synod of bishops in 2014-15 (Comment, 15 April 2016). It recommends “a healthy dose of self-criticism” and “honest, realistic and creative thinking” by priests and theologians.

Not all doctrinal and moral issues can be “settled by interventions of the magisterium”, the exhortation makes clear. Merely imposing rules “by sheer authority” can lead to an “intolerable casuistry”.

A year on, disagreement is still raging over the document’s most controversial section, chapter eight. This deals with the vexed question whether holy communion can be given to Roman Catholic divorcees who are living in new unions without a church annulment.

Amoris Laetitia reaffirms the traditional RC position: that marriage is for life, and those who cohabit more uxorio while still bound sacramentally to others are living in a state of sin.

But it also counsels against a “far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage” which bears little relation to “the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families”.

De facto or same-sex unions” cannot be “equated with marriage”, the document asserts. But stability can nevertheless be provided by a “great variety of family situations”, whereas “older forms of the traditional family” are often marked by authoritarianism and violence.

As for the divorced and repartnered, they should be “made to feel part of the Church” rather than “pigeonholed or fitted into overly rigid classifications”. In some cases, at least, personal conscience should be “better incorporated into the Church’s praxis”.

“It can no longer simply be said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin and deprived of sanctifying grace,” Amoris Laetitia continues. “This offers us a framework and a setting which help us avoid a cold bureaucratic morality in dealing with more sensitive issues. Instead, it sets us in the context of a pastoral discernment filled with merciful love, which is ever ready to understand, forgive, accompany, hope, and, above all, integrate”.


THE question that Roman Catholic commentators are asking is this: is Pope Francis changing Catholic teaching? The answer most commonly offered — that he is not changing the teaching, just its implementation — has not convinced everyone.

In the Pope’s own diocese of Rome, guidelines issued last September suggested that some cohabiting couples could receive communion “in a discreet manner”, as part of “an itinerary of long, patient conversion, made of small steps and progressive verifications” with their priest. Similar guidance has been published by the Pope’s home Church in Argentina.

Such guidance has been vigorously contested, however, by dozens of bishops worldwide, besides four semi-retired cardinals, who have demanded that Francis correct the “grave disorientation” caused by his exhortation.

Last November, the cardinals — Raymond Burke, Joachim Meisner, Walter Brandmüller, and Carlo Caffarra — went public with five formal doubts about chapter eight, counterposing Amoris Laetitia with earlier exhortations by Pope St John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

John Paul’s great 1993 encyclical on truth, Veritatis Splendor, excluded any “creative interpretation of the role of conscience”, they noted. If Francis failed to respond, they themselves might well table a “fraternal correction”.

Since then, while some bishops’ conferences have endorsed the Pope’s reformist stance, others have stood firm, indicating that they will resist attempts to modify the Roman Catholic Church’s sacramental order.

Germany’s bishops’ conference went ahead with a pastoral letter in February which supported Amoris Laetitia. It highlighted the exhortation’s “pastoral and theological benefits” in bringing “the triangle of accompaniment, distinction and integration into conversation”, and quoted Pope Francis’s stipulation that no one should be “condemned for ever” or made to “feel excommunicated”.

“The indissolubility of marriage is part of the Church’s indispensable deposit of faith,” the Germans acknowledged. “But not all faithful with broken marriages, who have been civilly divorced and remarried, can be excluded from the sacraments. Much more differentiated solutions are needed in response to individual circumstances.”

The German guidelines were the second by a European bishops’ conference after Malta’s, whose similar conclusions were republished in the Vatican’s L’Osservatore Romano in an evident sign of approval.

They have been contested, however, by Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the German prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who has argued that Amoris Laetitia should not be used to justify departures from established doctrine.

Those who cohabited after a civil divorce were committing the “mortal sin of adultery”, Müller warned in February. Any bishops now “creating confusion” over the issue should take the time to “study church doctrine”.

The German and Maltese statements have also been countered by others, notably from the Polish bishops’ conference, which has warned that couples in new unions can receive communion only if “they refrain from marital relations, repair the damage and injustice inflicted during their marriage, and cause no scandal”.

These have been qualified in turn, however, by Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, the president of the pontifical council that officially interprets canon law.

People living in “irregular marriage situations” who believe that separating or forgoing sex might “cause harm”, notably to their children, can receive communion, Cardinal Coccopalmerio declared in a Vatican booklet — provided that they recognise that their situation is sinful and wish to change it.

It was that intention to change, even if change was not immediately possible, which allowed “absolution and access to the eucharist”, he wrote.

The strength of feeling over Amoris Laetitia was highlighted when posters appeared on Rome billboards in February, accusing the Pope of “lacking mercy”, along with a fake edition of L’Osservatore Romano that satirically gave an equivocal papal answer to Cardinal Burke and his fellow critics.

Messages of fidelity to Pope Francis duly poured in from bishops in Italy, as well as from his nine-member International Council of Cardinals.

But now that battle is joined between RC modernisers and traditionalists, most bishops’ conferences are biding their time before declaring themselves.

In Britain, where conservative clergy have fiercely criticised the German and Maltese guidelines, the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales has published new instructions for marriage preparation. But it was still busy “discussing and discerning” Amoris Laetitia, a spokesman said.

Bishops in Spain have said little, if anything, about the exhortation, while in France, the Church’s Family and Society Council has conceded that Amoris Laetitia’s lack of “clear and precise prescriptive norms” is causing “a certain confusion”.


DEVOUT Roman Catholics, many of whom have made lifelong sacrifices to comply with their Church’s injunctions, could be forgiven for sharing that confusion.

So, is the Pope just altering his Church’s style of teaching — or is he changing the substance as well?

On the face of it, an outright revision of doctrine looks improbable. RC social teaching represents a continuum, in which popes build on their predecessors’ pronouncements without repealing or reversing them; and marriage and family doctrine reflects a pro-life ideal, which cannot be changed in part without consequences for the whole.

That many church members fall short of that ideal is not an argument for abandoning the ideal; and there is no real sign in Amoris Laetitia that this is being attempted. The Church needs a “unity of teaching and practice”, Francis makes clear from the outset.

But this should not preclude “interpreting some aspects of that teaching, or drawing certain consequences from it”. The “cold bureaucratic morality” with which clergy at all levels promulgate the RC position is what most causes offence and hurt.

Since his first exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, in 2013, Pope Francis has made clear that he intends to change this, by applying his Church’s teachings in a more sympathetic way that draws people back to the faith — a priority reflected in his statements on homosexuality, and, recently, on the possibility of allowing older married men (viri probati) to become priests.

The reaction will inevitably vary between predominantly RC countries, such as Poland, where the Church has plenty of members and therefore sees no need to change anything, and countries such as Germany, where the Church’s sharp decline has fuelled an urgent search for new approaches.

But even the former great Primate of Poland, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski (1901-81) conceded in his time that principles and values were often best defended by an intelligent flexibility.

The real challenge for Pope Francis — as for Pope John XXIII, another reformer who wrestled with questions of theory and practice — will be to ensure that flexibility is applied sensibly, and that the “practical and effective initiatives” summoned forth by Amoris Laetitia faithfully reflect essential church teachings.

As some enthusiastically applaud, and others indignantly resist, the outcome remains uncertain. Anglicans are not the only ones struggling to come to terms with a changing world.


Jonathan Luxmoore’s two-volume study of Communist-era martyrs, The God of the Gulag, is published by Gracewing.

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