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Pope Francis’s love letter to the family

Robert Sirico

As it should be obvious now to anyone who has read Pope Francis’ recently released apostolic exhortation, the great doctrine-shattering earthquake anticipated by many traditionalists and progressives alike has not occurred. When it comes to the indissolubility of marriage, abortion, the prohibition of contraception and the recognition of same-sex unions, the Catholic Church holds today what it did yesterday.

What the pope has brought forth is honest, timely and sensitive. Amoris Laetitia explores some complicated pastoral situations that any confessor will know all too well: challenges of how weak and fallen people can authentically live the faith. The pope’s reflections are aimed at how to make a solid moral discernment in the midst of life’s complexities, guided by the objective moral teaching of the Church. There are some points of ambiguity, but its compassion is evident.

The document is drenched in mercy and urges pastors to lead their flock by maintaining a sense of welcome to those undergoing the sometimes arduous process of discerning and doing God’s will. It urges us to encourage — and include in parish life — those working toward living in accord with the Church’s teaching.

The pope did not, as predicted and hoped for by some, drop the prohibition regarding the reception of Holy Communion for those in “irregular” unions; the current discipline remains in place. The pope does attempt to make as much room as possible for those in complex situations to remain close the faith without contradicting the received moral teaching of the Church.

As has often been the case in documents like these, debates will ensue surrounding the more ambiguous passages. One example is the reiteration of the pope’s previous admonition that “the confessional is not a torture chamber” but an encounter with the Lord’s mercy. Some will spin this to mean that the pain of acknowledging failures and subsequent repentance should be eliminated in the name of an understanding of mercy disconnected from moral truth. But this can never happen in Catholic theology, and the pope, above all, knows it.

Pope Francis knows that the moral teaching is not something he invented. It is something he received and is solemnly obliged to instantiate. But he must also help create the conditions under which it is most possible for people to embrace the challenge of those teachings. He must present those teachings in a way that is so beautiful and inviting that people will somehow relinquish what they are presently holding on to, and fall in love with something greater, more fulfilling and more beautiful, even if it is also more difficult.

Perhaps a better way to understand what the pope is attempting to do in Amoris Laetitia is to read through the lens of Jesus’ own encounter with complex moral situations wherein He was able to “square the circle” of maintaining received moral doctrine and teach it with great love for one who finds such standards difficult.

I am thinking of the story of the woman caught in the very act of adultery as recorded in the eighth chapter of John’s gospel. The accusers of the woman found Jesus’ posture toward sinners ambiguous — else why would they have sought to “test” him?

Jesus dealt with the adulteress with great warmth, respect and even protection, but admonished her to “sin no more.” His unambiguous love is probably what enabled her to adjust her life. That’s not a bad pastoral approach.

The Rev. Robert Sirico, author of “Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy,” is president of the Acton Institute.