By giving the laity more authority over issues of family life, Pope Francis is embracing a risky strategy for reform.
In the three years since his election, Pope Francis has forcefully called the laity to action on issues like the fragility of the environment and spoken out on the dangers that capitalism poses for the poor and vulnerable. Until last week, he had not yet sought concrete change to church teaching on marriage and family — two of the most contentious issues for Catholics worldwide.
Released on March 8, Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, titled Amoris Laetitia or “Love in the Family,” is the follow-up to the two synods on the family held in Rome in 2014 and 2015, where church leaders discussed issues such as the ability to take communion for the divorced, and pastoral care of LGBT Catholics. In the document’s opening paragraphs, Francis clarified that, as the head of a church with over 1 billion followers, he knows that the issue of inculturation and individual conscience — that church teachings must be adaptable to local circumstances, and that Catholics must mature in their faith, and thus be able to think for themselves — is paramount. As the first Latin American pope, writing for a global audience, he recognized that when it comes to issues of marriage, divorce, and so-called “irregular unions … each country or region can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs.” In de-emphasizing the Vatican as the ultimate arbiter of personal decisions about marriage and family, Pope Francis offered the clergy more choices about ministering to the faithful. But he is also empowering the faithful themselves.
To be clear: This is not the bombshell some commentators have made it out to be. Amoris Laetitia does not change church doctrine on communion for the divorced. Nor does it impact its positions on same-sex marriage, abortion, or birth control. However, it does represent what might be considered a step in Francis’ larger strategy of gradualism. The pope is trying to change the structure of authority in the church but is doing so incrementally, rather than in large, sweeping shifts. The risk of this strategy, however, is that individuals have different approaches to his notions of reform. Francis could potentially wind up undermining his authority, or subjecting his broader agenda of shifting the church to regional whims.
Throughout the Amoris Laetitia, the pope re-emphasized the notion that “new pastoral methods” are needed so that pastors can “avoid judgments which do not take into account the complexity of various situations” of family life. For example, divorced and remarried Catholics should consult with pastors about communion, in what the church referred to as an “internal forum,” effectively giving them permission to prayerfully examine their consciences about participating in the sacrament rather than simply forcing them to decline it. Francis also stated that the church has sometimes foisted an “artificial theological ideal of marriage” on couples. The result: an idealized image of a nuclear family that has, at times, presented Catholics with a “tremendous burden.”
The solution proposed for the growing number of families that do not fit traditional modes is to put these decisions into the hands of the laity and their priests. Although there is sometimes a perception from non-Catholics that Catholicism is a tradition of “pray, pay, and obey,” historical precedent demonstrates that private decision-making about church teaching has long been a part of how people live out their faith. The Vatican II document Dignitatis Humanae, released under Pope Paul VI in 1965, told Catholics that they are not “to be restrained from acting in accordance with [their] conscience, especially in matters religious.” For Catholic families, that has long meant that decisions about divorce and birth control were mostly made privately, because church doctrine’s emphasis on the primacy of conscience trusted in believers’ mature discernment about these issues. Amoris Laetitia did not explicitly encourage either of these things, but instead emphasized the notion of individual discernment: In plain terms, this means that Pope Francis trusts Catholics to make their own decisions.
Francis’ emphasis on discernment reflects his Jesuit background. In his essay “Discernment: A Key to Amoris Laetitia,” Jesuit writer Father James Martin said discernment involves “prayerful decision-making” that “takes into account the richness and complexity of a person’s life.” Along those lines, Francis cautioned against “black-and-white thinking” and emphasized that moral laws are not “stones to throw at people’s lives.” For an example, “it can no longer simply be said,” according to Francis, “that all those living in any ‘irregular situation’ are living in a state of mortal sin.” Here, the pope referred to situations like couples living together before marriage and single mothers. However, he did not specifically refer to same-sex couples, although he did stress the need for compassion and sensitivity toward LGBT people.
All of this suggests that Francis understands that traditional church doctrine can often conflict with the complexities of modern life. He is a reformer who believes the church can adapt to better serve those complexities, but he knows the only realistic way to bring about change is to do so gradually and subtly.
The potential pitfalls of Francis’ strategy, however, are twofold. Handing this measure of flexibility to the clergy is a risky way of bringing about reform. The clergy are, after all, as diverse in their opinions about family life as the people they serve. Therefore, Francis’ emphasis on inculturation is doubtlessly strategic.
Indeed, the Amoris Laetitia seemed to go to great lengths to make bishops and priests from around the world feel a part of his mission of incremental change. The text included quotations from global groups of bishops, including those from Chile, who critique the “perfect families” depicted in “consumerist propaganda that has nothing to do with the realities faced by the heads of families” — echoing Francis’ attacks on consumerism as a “throwaway culture.” By making global church leaders feel included in the document, Francis again emphasized the notion of locality, and of a church that is adaptable to different cultural norms.
On the other hand, Francis is aware that nations with more draconian laws about the LGBT community may not welcome the idea that such people should be “respected in his or her dignity” and provided with “respectful pastoral guidance.” In a nation like Uganda, for example, this will be a challenge and could upset the church hierarchy there. It could, theoretically, also cause local church leaders to act more independently and harshly toward LGBT Catholics as a result of that independence — as the bishops in Malawi recently did when they denounced the government for failing to imprison LGBT citizens.
Conservatives worldwide will also likely strenuously object to the document, since they largely draw their notion of the church from a pre-Vatican II understanding of it as an unchangeable, infallible source of authority rather than an institution capable of evolution.
Many of the church leaders emphasizing the need for reform on family issues are European. Germany’s Cardinal Walter Kasper, often described as a progressive member of the hierarchy and a close confidant of the pope, has called for the church to serve as an “outstretched hand” rather than a “raised moral finger.” But European Catholics have long been leaving the church behind when it comes to decisions about family life. Italian Catholics have some of the lowest birth rates in Europe. They have also distanced themselves from the Vatican politically, and divorce is increasingly common in their country. Thus, many European and North American Catholics alike have already been following their consciences for decades by continuing to take communion after a divorce, or participating in the church while taking birth control. The statistical evidence that a large percentage of American Catholics support marriage equality, for example, means that much of the new document may turn out to be redundant.
Francis’ strategy of gradually devolving the Vatican’s authority down to priests and laypeople might be comparable to issues of states’ rights in America. When a social issue like abortion or marriage equality is complex and affected by the culture and politics of a particular region, the Supreme Court or the president is likely to kick that issue back to state leaders. It is at the more local level, therefore, that the groundswell for change can begin — this, it seems, is Francis’ attitude toward provoking change in the Catholic Church.
He is unlikely to change church teaching, however. What he is doing, instead, is emphasizing the pastoral approach to an evolving global notion of family life. And a pastoral approach requires one-on-one listening and dialogue, another of the pope’s favorite topics. There is only one pope, but there are 1 billion Catholics. Unlike the celibate, unmarried leaders of their faith, many of them have families of their own. By entrusting them to consider making their own decisions about the complexities of family life, Pope Francis has revealed that he’s playing the long game when it comes to reform. What Amoris Letitia reveals is a leader who trusts in his followers’ judgment. That, in and of itself, may be the most radical change of all.
Photo Credit: Lisa Maree Williams / Stringer