Monday, March 6, 2017

“Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness” (AL, ch. 8)

Chapter Eight of Amoris Laetitia is the hot-button chapter. Dubia and discord hover over it like a cloud, along with vastly divergent interpretations by Bishops around the world. Plus threats of schism.

The controversies should be no surprise, given that Pope Francis had declared in the introduction, “everyone should feel challenged by Chapter Eight” (n. 7). But amid such lingering turmoil, I suspect that Pope Francis may himself be challenged by the questions which surround this section of his Apostolic Exhortation.

Readers who have followed this blog's comments on previous chapters of "The Joy of Love" have likely noted that I see this document as an exercise in creative fidelity: Pope Francis seems to be not only stretching those who want fidelity to the truths of the faith ("let's get more creative pastorally"), but also grounding those who want more pastoral creativity ("let's keep rooted in the unchanging truths of the faith"). Unfortunately, Chapter Eight contains enough ambiguous passages--or even apparent contradictions--that both traditionalists and progressives have much they could latch on to.

Identifying the challenges.  Perhaps the most helpful way to enter into Chapter Eight is to use it as an opportunity for self-examination: As a reader, what do I find most challenging in the passages that follow? Is it feeling that the Holy Father is going too far, or not far enough?

  • Pope Francis writes, "If someone flaunts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal, or wants to impose something other than what the Church teaches, he or she can in no way presume to teach or preach to others; this is case of something which separates from the community" (n. 297).
  • The Holy Father advocates a process of accompaniment and discernment for those who are divorced and remarried ("Conversation with the priest, in the internal forum..."), even as he specifies the following necessary conditions for such discernment--"humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching, in a sincere search for God's will..." (n. 300).
  • He writes, "Hence it can no longer simply be said that all those in any 'irregular' situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace....As the Synod Fathers put it, 'factors may exist which limit the ability to make a decision'" (n. 301).
  • Pope Francis advocates making small steps in the midst of great human limitations and writes that "it is possible that in an objective situation of sin--which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such--a person can be living in God's grace, can love and can also growing the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church's help to this end" (n. 305).
  • Finally, regarding the logic of pastoral mercy, he states that "In order to avoid all misunderstanding, I would point out that in no way must the Church desist from proposing the full ideal of marriage, God's plan in all its grandeur...A lukewarm attitude, any kind of relativism, or an undue reticence in proposing that ideal, would be a lack of fidelity to the Gospel and also of love on the part of the Church for young people themselves" (n. 307).

The Holy Father's namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, sought to rebuild the Church through a radical imitation of Jesus: evangelical poverty and preferential love of the poor; self-emptying asceticism and communion with creation; preaching God's merciful love and witnessing to its cost with the stigmata. St. Francis was not a theologian, but a revolution. And yet he was not a founder of a new religion, but a humble follower of Jesus the Lord.

Waiting on a Bonaventure?  In the 13th Century, it took St. Bonaventure to make sense of St. Francis within the context of Jesus' mission for the Church. Like his namesake, Pope Francis seems to be either unable or unwilling to resolve the paradoxes of his pontificate, so perhaps his successor will be destined to sort out some of the confusion.

This is not a call for a new pope, needless to say, but a historical sign of hope. Just as an epochal figure such as St. Francis came to be integrated into the living tradition of the Church, so might Pope Francis' passionate plea for "accompanying, discerning and integrating weaknesses."

Time and God's good grace will tell, of course. In the meantime, let's remember Jesus' high priestly prayer for unity: "that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you" (Jn 17:21).