Share truth of family with mercy, help those struggling, pope says

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The same mercy and patience that are
essential for building a strong family must be shown to those whose families
are in trouble or have broken up, Pope Francis said in his highly anticipated
postsynodal apostolic exhortation.

The document, “‘Amoris Laetitia’ (The Joy of Love), on Love
in the Family,” released April 8, contains no new rules or norms. However,
it encourages careful review of everything related to family ministry and,
particularly, much greater attention to the language and attitude used when
explaining church teaching and ministering to those who do not fully live that

“No family drops down from heaven perfectly formed;
families need constantly to grow and mature in the ability to love,” Pope
Francis wrote. People grow in holiness, and the church must be there to give
them a helping hand rather than turn them away because they have not attained
some degree of perfection.

The exhortation was Pope Francis’ reflection on the discussion,
debate and suggestions raised during the 2014 and 2015 meetings of the Synod of
Bishops on the family. Like synod members did, the pope insisted that God’s
plan for the family is that it be built on the lifelong union of one man and
one woman open to having children.

Synod members, including priests, religious and laypeople
serving as experts and observers, talked about everything from varied cultural
forms of courtship to marriage preparation and from the impact of migration on
families to care for elderly parents.

Pope Francis’ document touches on all the issues raised at
the synods and gives practical advice on raising children, urges a revision of
sex-education programs and decries the many ways the “disposable
culture” has infiltrated family life and sexuality to the point that many
people feel free to use and then walk away from others.

“Everyone uses and throws away, takes and breaks,
exploits and squeezes to the last drop. Then, goodbye,” he wrote.

Much of the document is tied to the theme of God’s mercy,
including Pope Francis’ discussion of welcoming the vulnerable.

“Dedication and concern shown to migrants and to
persons with special needs alike is a sign of the Spirit,” he wrote. Both
are “a test of our commitment to show mercy in welcoming others and to
help the vulnerable to be fully a part of our communities.”

The synod issues that garnered the most headlines revolved
around the question of Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried, as
well as Catholic attitudes toward homosexuality.

“In no way must the church desist from proposing the
full ideal of marriage, God’s plan in all its grandeur,” Pope Francis

He repeated his and the synod’s insistence that the church
cannot consider same-sex unions to be a marriage, but also insisted, “every
person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her

On the question of families experiencing difficulties, separation
or even divorce and remarriage, Pope Francis said responses to the
questionnaires sent around the world before the synod “showed that most
people in difficult or critical situations do not seek pastoral assistance,
since they do not find it sympathetic, realistic or concerned for individual

The responses, he wrote, call on the church “to try to
approach marriage crises with greater sensitivity to their burden of hurt and

Particularly in ministry to divorced and civilly remarried
Catholics, Pope Francis said, pastors must help each couple look at their
actions and circumstances, recognize their share of responsibility for the
breakup of their marriage, acknowledge church teaching that marriage is
indissoluble and prayerfully discern what God is calling them to.

Pope Francis said it would be a “grave danger” to
give people the impression that “any priest can quickly grant ‘exceptions’
or that some people can obtain sacramental privileges in exchange for favors.”

At the same time, he insisted, “the way of the church
is not to condemn anyone forever; it is to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on
all those who ask for it with a sincere heart.”

Divorced and civilly remarried couples, especially those
with children, must be welcomed in Catholic parishes and supported in efforts
to raise their children in the faith.

Generally, without an annulment of their sacramental
marriage, such a couple would not be able to receive Communion or absolution of
their sins unless they promised to live as “brother and sister.” But
every situation is different, the pope said, which is why the church does not
need new rules, but a new commitment on the part of pastors to provide
spiritual guidance and assistance with discernment.

The diversity of situations — for example, that of a spouse
who was abandoned versus being the one who left — makes it unwise to issue
“a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all
cases,” the pope wrote. Quoting St. John Paul II, he said, “‘since the
degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases,’ the consequences or
effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same.”

Pope Francis used the document’s footnotes to specify that
the consequences include whether or not the couple might eventually be able to
receive Communion: “This is also the case with regard to sacramental
discipline, since discernment can recognize that in a particular situation no
grave fault exists,” he wrote. Those who are in a state of serious sin are
not to receive Communion.

Another footnote commented on the church’s request that remarried
couples who had not received an annulment and who want to receive the
sacraments forego sexual relations. “In such situations, many people,
knowing and accepting the possibility of living ‘as brothers and sisters’ which
the church offers them, point out that if certain expressions of intimacy are
lacking, ‘it often happens that faithfulness is endangered and the good of the
children suffers,'” he wrote.

Pope Francis wrote that he understood those “who prefer
a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion. But I
sincerely believe that Jesus wants a church attentive to the goodness which the
Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, a mother who, while clearly
expressing her objective teaching, always does what good she can, even if in
the process, her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street.”

Turning to those who believe allowing divorced and remarried
Catholics to receive Communion waters down church teaching on the
indissolubility of marriage, the pope said, “we put so many conditions on
mercy that we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance. That is
the worst way of watering down the Gospel.”

In many respects, Pope Francis wrote, church members
themselves have presented and promoted such a dreary picture of married life
that many people want nothing to do with it even though they dream of a love
that will last a lifetime and be faithful.

“We have long thought that simply by stressing
doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace,
we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage
bond and giving meaning to marital life,” he wrote. “We find it
difficult to present marriage more as a dynamic path to personal development
and fulfillment than as a lifelong burden.

“We also find it hard to make room for the consciences
of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid
their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in
complex situations,” the pope wrote. Yet, “we have been called to
form consciences, not to replace them.”

The role of an individual’s conscience made frequent
appearances in the document, not only regarding the situation of those who may
determine their new union is best for their family, but also regarding
decisions over how many children to have.

Pope Francis praised Blessed Paul VI’s encyclical “Humanae
Vitae,” which insisted every sexual act in a marriage must be open to the
possibility of pregnancy, and included a large section reiterating what has
become known as St. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body.”

The saintly pope definitively opposed an old idea that
considered “the erotic dimension of love simply as a permissible evil or a
burden to be tolerated for the good of the family,” Pope Francis said.
“Rather, it must be seen as gift from God that enriches the relationship
of the spouses.”

Pope Francis called for church leaders to ensure more
married couples are involved as leaders in designing and carrying out pastoral
programs for families. Their witness is key, he said.

“Marital love is not defended primarily by presenting
indissolubility as a duty, or by repeating doctrine, but by helping it to grow
ever stronger under the impulse of grace,” he said. “A love that
fails to grow is at risk. Growth can only occur if we respond to God’s grace
through constant acts of love, acts of kindness that become ever more frequent,
intense, generous, tender and cheerful.”

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Follow Wooden on Twitter @Cindy_Wooden.

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