By ZACH NOBLE
I go to church every Sunday (like a weirdo) and last Sunday, our priest preached about Pope Francis' latest missive, Amoris Laetitia. He praised it for offering a balance between tradition and mercy.
Key admission at the homily's beginning: "I haven't actually read the whole thing."
"It's like 200 pages long!" the priest, a very smart and nice guy, told me after Mass.
So I went and read it.
It's 261 pages, to be precise, and it's beautiful in parts and confusing in others and, overall, it's way too long. I feel fairly confident saying that, having spent the past three days reading the whole darn thing and finding very little closure.
The papal exhortation is ostensibly meant to address hard issues facing Catholics today, such as:
- As more people get divorced and remarried, do we hold fast to "til death do us part"?
- How can we welcome gay couples into our churches, and should we recognize some goodness in gay marriages even if, according to Catholic teaching, those marriages aren't marriages at all?
- Are we cool with abortion yet?
"No," Francis says pretty clearly on abortion.
"[T]here are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family," he says of gay unions (though he doesn't use his own words to say so).
But on the central question that sparked the whole exhortation -- can a divorced-and-civilly-remarried Catholic receive Holy Communion, despite living publicly in what the church considers to be a state of adultery? -- Francis dodges.
He doesn't even approach the issue until several hundred pages in, and when he does, he emphasizes the respectability of many second marriages.
"One thing is a second union consolidated over time, with new children, proven fidelity, generous self giving, Christian commitment, a consciousness of its irregularity and of the great difficulty of going back without feeling in conscience that one would fall into new sins," Francis writes. "[A] pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in 'irregular' situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives," he says a bit later.
The very difficult Catholic teaching here (as I understand it) would be for the couple in the second marriage to abstain from sex in order to be properly disposed to receive communion. (Catholics are pretty big on abstaining from sex across the board.)
But Francis doesn't go there.
Instead he calls repeatedly for pastors to work with the couples under their care, and then slides in a footnote that, to many readers, seems to say that the divorced-and-remarried should receive communion.
"In certain cases, this [discernment] include the help of the sacraments. Hence, 'I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy.' I would also point out that the Eucharist 'is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.'"
Maybe Francis has a specific tradition-affirming scenario in mind: A couple is trying to determine the moral way to continue their life, they both go to confession, then they receive communion as they pray.
Or maybe Francis is offering an "official invitation to sacrilege."
Mercy and love and acceptance are crucial to the Catholic faith! But so is respect for the bread and wine that, we believe, become the literal body and blood of Jesus Christ.
Is Amoris promulgating moral subsidiarity, or anarchy?
After 261 pages of reading, I'm still really not sure. How could Francis have written so much and offered so little clarity?
I tried to read the exhortation without suspicion, and I'll keep mulling it over.
There are "no easy recipes" for difficult moral problems, Francis says at one point.
Amen to that, at least.
Zach Noble is a journalist who has covered everything from the OPM hack to a rescue dog's retirement party. He's been wrestling to reconcile his bleeding heart Catholicism with his pragmatic libertarianism since that freshman year love affair with Ayn Rand. He tweets erratically as @thezachnoble.