Pope: Conscience, not rules, must guide faithful

Nicole Winfield
Associated Press

Vatican City — In a sweeping document on family life that opened a door to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, Pope Francis insisted Friday that church doctrine cannot be the final word in answering tricky moral questions and that Catholics must be guided by their own informed consciences.

Francis didn’t create a churchwide admission to Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics as some progressives had wanted. But in the document “The Joy of Love,” he suggested that bishops and priests could do so on a case-by-case basis in what could become a significant development in church practice.

The pope also strongly upheld the church’s opposition to same-sex marriage.

The 256-page document, two years in the making and the product of an unprecedented canvassing of ordinary Catholics and senior churchmen, is a plea from Francis’ heart for the church to stop hectoring Catholics about how to live their lives and instead find the redeeming value in their imperfect relationships.

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

The document is cleverly worded: Francis selectively cited his predecessors, making clear he is working within their tradition but omitting the sometimes harsh, definitive language that is an anathema to his mercy over moral priorities. He cited himself repeatedly, making some of his most significant points in strategically placed footnotes, rather than the text itself.

“It’s the classic case of an organic development of doctrine,” said Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, the archbishop of Vienna who presented the document at a Vatican news conference. “There is innovation and continuity. There are true novelties in this document, but no ruptures.”

‘Removed ... from reality’

In a statement Friday, Archbishop of Detroit Allen Vigneron called the document “eloquent testimony to the Creator’s plan for marriage and family.”

“The Holy Father frankly acknowledges the challenges that the men and women of our age face in conforming their lives to Jesus’s good news about family and marriage. And so, like a good shepherd, Pope Francis calls all us pastors (especially in our parishes) to work all the more zealously to accompany Christ’s disciples in their efforts to respond to his call to ‘be perfected as the heavenly Father is perfect,’ ” the statement read.

Gay Catholics were highly critical, saying Francis had failed them. The document offered nothing significant beyond existing church teaching that gays are not to be discriminated against and are to be welcomed into the church with respect and dignity. It repeated the church’s position that same-sex unions can in no way be equivalent to marriage between a man and woman.

“It dramatizes how far removed the church is from reality,” said Tom Nelson of Farmington Hills, who along with wife Linda Karle-Nelson, lead a support group of Catholics with gay family members.

“The church has made many mistakes in the past. We’re still making mistakes. This has nothing to so with the message of Jesus, which is love.”

Karle-Nelson said they were hoping to hear something more positive.

“It’s pretty much a reiteration of the same old language to describe LGBT, the way of looking at them as not being complete whole persons not able to love just as heterosexual people,” she said. “We feel it’s kind of disappointing. The LGBT were certainly among groups who were considered as outcast families. We really don’t see any changes in the church’s official doctrine on this.”

On thorny issues such as contraception, Francis stressed that a couple’s individual conscience educated in church teaching — and not just dogmatic rules imposed on them across the board from above — must guide their decisions and the church’s pastoral practice.

“We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them,” he said.

He insisted the church’s aim is to reintegrate and welcome all its members. He called for a new language to help Catholic families cope with today’s problems. And he said pastors must take into account mitigating factors — fear, ignorance, habits and duress — in counseling Catholics who fail to live up to the ideal.

“It can no longer simply be said that all those in any irregular situations are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace,” he wrote. Even those in an “objective situation of sin” can be in a state of grace, and can even be more pleasing to God by trying to improve, he said.

Taking the next step

The document’s release marks the culmination of a divisive consultation of ordinary Catholics and the church hierarchy that Francis initiated in hopes of understanding the modern problems facing Catholic families and providing them with better pastoral care.

Francis took a unilateral step last year and changed church law to make it easier to get an annulment. On Friday, he said the rigorous response proposed by the conservatives was inconsistent with Jesus’ message of mercy.

“By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God,” he said. “Let us remember that a small step in the midst of great human limitations can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties.”

The Rev. James Bretzke, a Boston College theologian, said the document will give cover to and empower those priests and bishops who want to apply a broader understanding of the confidential discussions between priests and divorced and civilly remarried Catholics — a concept known as the “internal forum solution.”

“He does not outlaw that, whereas John Paul II specifically outlawed (it),” he said.

Recourse to the use of a “well-formed conscience” and the internal forum in negotiating moral issues is not new by any means. But it has been de-emphasized by the past two popes.

“This is not about a reform of rules. It’s about reform of the church,” Cupich said.

Detroit News Staff Writer Candice Williams contributed.