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The long-awaited Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia – The Joy of Love -is now available on line. For those of us who have had sight of it only now, it will take time to digest – 264 pages are not to be understood on a skim read. The Catholic Herald has a good summary here. What is already clear is that this is not going to stop the entirely predictable reactions. On the liberal side, we are already hearing the false dichotomy – ‘less dogma, more love’. Quite what any Catholic who believes dogma and love are opposites is thinking with is unclear; one can see why an uncomprehending secularist might leap to such a conclusion – it fits, presumably, with their view that the Church is a hypocritical organisation more concerned with rules than with reality; but why a believing Catholic would join them is not clear. It might, perhaps, be something to do with the other entirely predictable reaction from self-styled traditionalists, who deplore what they see as a watering down of dogma and and gut reaction against any call for ‘greater acceptance of non-traditional families’. One thing alone is clear – neither extreme in this discussion is going to like this document – it not only does not give them what they want, it exhorts them to think again; people often dislike that most of all. We have, they tend to think, clear cut views and here they are – why is this man asking us to rethink things we have already decided are settled? The document explains why.

When, in paragraph 3, the Pope says that “not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium”, and indeed, that for some questions, “each country or region … can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs. For ‘cultures are in fact quite diverse and every general principle… needs to be inculturated, if it is to be respected and applied’” (AL 3), that will dismay some who want a simple and clear theoretical line which can be applied in all cases; such people should go back and read why the Pope says this:

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. This will always be the case as the Spirit guides us towards the entire truth (cf. Jn 16:13), until he leads us fully into the mystery of Christ and enables us to see all things as he does

This is a document grounded in the difficult and practical business of trying to apply God’s love to the mess that so many of us make of our lives in this area. In recognising that one size does not fit all, the Pope is trying to avoid to avoid a sterile contest between demands for change and the general application of abstract norms. He writes:

“The debates carried on in the media, in certain publications and even among the Church’s ministers, range from an immoderate desire for total change without sufficient reflection or grounding, to an attitude that would solve everything by applying general rules or deriving undue conclusions from particular theological considerations” (AL 2)

In real life in these areas, things are messy and seldom, if ever, reducible to black and white (AL305), and the church cannot apply moral laws as if they were “stones to throw at people’s lives” (AL305). The Holy Father calls, instead, for a pastoral approach marked by understanding, compassion and accompaniment. This last word, which will, I suspect be met with snorts of incredulity from some, refers back to an approach made familiar by St John Paul II, who reminded us that Christ himself had accompanied us into the most extreme of the situations we can encounter – a cruel and unjust death by torture, and that as the alter Christus it is the job of the priest to accompany us on our journeys so we can be better guided and come to understand what it is God wants of us.

There is, it seems to me on a first reading, much wisdom here, but it will, as is the case in such matters, satisfy neither those who insist black and white is black and white, or those who want to turn the Catholic Church into the Anglican Church. The words of the final paragraph need to be heeded:

no family drops down from heaven perfectly formed; families need constantly to grow and mature in the ability to love. This is a never ending vocation born of the full communion of the Trinity, the profound unity between Christ and his Church, the loving community which is the Holy Family of Nazareth, and the pure fraternity existing among the saints of heaven. Our contemplation of the fulfilment which we have yet to attain also allows us to see in proper perspective the historical journey which we make as families, and in this way to stop demanding of our interpersonal relationships a perfection, a purity of intentions and a consistency which we will only encounter in the Kingdom to come. It also keeps us from judging harshly those who live in situations of frailty. (AL325)

Those who insist dialogue is a tool to wear down the faithful (a direct quotation from something posted recently) should hesitate before taking on themselves sole responsibility for being ‘the faithful’, and they might also ask at what point we sinners stop talking to each other, and Holy Mother Church stops talking to us. Yes, for sure, it is easier if a Father simply says here are the rules, obey them or go, but that looks terribly like a form of child abuse, and seems far from the way of Jesus with sinners. The religious authorities of his day were, from their own point of view, right to condemn him for keeping fellowship with whores and tax collectors and other sinners, but Jesus knew where he was needed most – as does his Church. I daresay, on closer inspection, there will be much to be mulled over and discussed – and from a constructive dialogue, much good can come. From a dialogue of the deaf, from those determined to reduce this rich document to a few bullet points to ‘prove’ either that the Pope is not a Catholic, or that he is not really a liberal, little that is good will come.

This is a rich, stimulating and illuminating document, which we should read with prayer for better understanding, both of it, and of how the Church can accompany all of us on our journeys. Am I going to agree with all of it? Am I going to find some of it ‘too vague’? I suspect the answers are ‘no’ to the first, and ‘yes’ to the second. But I am not going to fail to do what the Pope wants, which is to read it carefully and reflect on it and to learn from it too. As the Pope says:

“I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion. But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness.”

If that is what the Spirit is leading the Holy Father to believe, we should, I think, reflect prayerfully before we reject that approach for the certainties we think we have.

There is a good summary here by Dr Stephen Bullivant of St Mary’s, Twickenham.

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