|Photo by Michael Makri, sdb.|
I have to admit, though, that there were things in the document that took me aback, too. Like this:
In such difficult situations of need, the Church must be particularly concerned to offer understanding, comfort and acceptance, rather than imposing straightaway a set of rules that only lead people to feel judged and abandoned by the very Mother called to show them God’s mercy. Rather than offering the healing power of grace and the light of the Gospel message, some would “indoctrinate” that message, turning it into “dead stones to be hurled at others” (Amoris Laetitia, n. 49; the context is dire poverty).Yowzers! Who is he talking about? I don't really know anybody who would do that! Come on, Francis, lighten up!
And then this weekend I heard a story that gave me a very different perspective. It wasn't a marriage situation. It wasn't even within the past twenty or thirty or forty years. In this case, which took place over sixty years ago, an entire family and all their future generations was alienated from the Catholic Church because of the inflexibility of a single person, a Sister, in finding a way to accommodate an expectant mother in a life-or-death situation. That sister's undue attachment to rules and regulations took precedence over the desperate need of a family who was unable to pay for the prescribed treatment. (Their Jewish doctor paid from his own pocket, saving both lives.) The parents are now dead, but families' memories of harsh treatment or intemperate words can live on for decades.
This is the sort of thing Francis has to address: not just people currently in "irregular marriages," but all those couples and families and grandchildren from decades past, from a time when shunning was the accepted response to a situation of divorce and remarriage (or of single motherhood).
I think Francis also has to deal with an even more insidious set of beliefs: the "beliefs" people receive from the mass media when it attempts to put Catholic teachings into headline-length snippets or sound bytes:
- How many divorced Catholics who have not remarried still abstain from Holy Communion, because the media (and not the Church or its ministers) convinced them that divorce is a sin, or against Church doctrine? (Here's the real teaching on divorce, from the US Bishops website.)
- How many Catholics who experience same-sex attraction fall away from the Church because the media tell them that the Catholic Church teaches that homosexuality is a sin (it isn't and the Church doesn't teach that it is); that they are therefore unwelcome in the Catholic Church? How many parents of gay sons and daughters have left the sacraments in the belief (a belief primarily communicated through secular media) that the Church rejects their children?
- How many Catholics suffering infertility do not even attempt to find an approach to this problem that might be in accord with Church teaching because the media told them that the only way to resolve infertility is IVF--and that the Catholic Church disapproves of this? (Meanwhile, here is an approach to infertility--and other reproductive problems--that is truly healing, and profoundly respectful of the mystery of human life.)
- And likewise, how many Catholics who have divorced and remarried do not even go to Sunday Mass because the media have told them they are excommunicated or otherwise unwelcome, since they are unable to receive Communion?
My two cents: I believe that it is because Catholic life has in our day been reduced to the once-a-week observance of the Sunday precept that exclusion from sacramental Communion seems to be exclusion from the Church itself. Pope Francis is, in Amoris Laetitiae, inviting all of us to expand our notion of what it means to be an active Catholic: it goes way beyond Sunday Mass, which is, as it were, the foundation or wellspring from which all the other expressions of faith come forth.
In Amoris Laetitiae, Francis is asking all of us to broaden our understanding of the life of the Church; to open our doors to the marginal members, or to those who still feel there is no room for them in the assembly of the presumedly perfect. One way we can begin to do that is to extend our parish life outside the hours of Mass and the property lines of the Church--to "go out" as Francis keeps insisting. And to go out together: those in the Communion line and those working on getting there through a profound journey of discernment, spiritual direction and prayer. He also (repeatedly) urges families to pray together daily; to develop a genuine family spirituality and make their homes real domestic churches where the one Church of Christ is present, manifest and active.
Just a reminder: You can read the whole lengthy document online so that you do not depend on others to tell you what Francis said; you can also sign up to reserve your copy of the paperback edition from Pauline Books & Media (it will cost $11.95 and ship--God willing--on May 2).