Dear Archbishop, how does Pope Francis propose that we help couples in irregular unions?
I would begin with another question: How did Jesus treat people in irregular situations—tax collectors, prostitutes, adulterers? Jesus’ engagement must always be our starting point.
In the text of the woman caught in the very act of committing adultery (Jn 8:1–11) the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees put a dubium to Jesus: Is it permissible according to Moses to stone her, yes or no? Jesus neither condemns her for immorality, nor tells her it is OK to continue doing wrong.
St John Paul II in a homily on the text says: “Accused even of opposing the Law, Jesus is ‘put to the test’: if he absolves the woman caught in flagrant adultery, it will be said that he has transgressed the precepts of Moses; if he condemns her, it will be said that he is inconsistent with his message of mercy towards sinners” (April 2001).
Jesus’ response to the question about the woman and the Law, which permits stoning, is a paradox. He loves her; he allows for silence and raises the question about sin in the heart of each accuser and asks: “Where are those who accuse you?” He leaves open the option for repentance and conversion of heart. Unlike the teachers and the Pharisees, Jesus did not act as the judge; neither should we.
Most of Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia (AL) is spent dealing with the art of accompaniment, which Pope Francis proposed in Evangelii Gaudium (169–173). It is a process of discernment that requires humility, holding both the objective ideal and the concrete situation of the person, seeking steps for growth and development. He gives a framework for discernment in 308:
I understand 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’.
Leaving no room for confusion may also leave no room for the human person to grow. Judgement closes the door to discernment, growth of conscience and in virtue, and makes moral responsibility unnecessary. It may result in keeping the person morally stunted. How do we present people with the truth and facilitate their capacity for moral growth? This, too, is essential to a virtue ethic.
Elsewhere in AL, Pope Francis calls for greater inclusion of all Catholics in the life of the Church (299). He does not explicitly say they should be admitted to communion but he leaves the way open. What is clear is that the pastoral burden is upon priests to find appropriate ways to include all people in the life of the Church, as fully as possible.
Pope Francis does not envision a new set of laws, canonical in nature, since the particular circumstances are so varied (300). He proposes: “What is possible is simply a renewed encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases.”
The Holy Father addresses discernment directly: “For this reason, 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” (305). He continues:
Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, 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 grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end. Discernment must help to find possible ways of responding to God and growing in the midst of limits.
Pope Francis has used a concept that St John Paul II relied upon in his exhortation, Familiaris Consortio, 34. I will interpret St John Paul’s law of gradualness through an older and now well-established theological paradigm of ‘Authentic Integral Human Development’, offered by Pope Paul VI in On Development of Peoples (21–22) and retrieved by Pope Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate, 16. The notion is that development is a pilgrimage or process from less human conditions to more human conditions. Development becomes a vocation, the way we answer God’s call.
We all begin from wherever we are making steps towards more human conditions. A person may objectively be in a state of sin, but in so far as he/she is making consistent and deliberate steps to more human conditions and more responsible ethical choices, that person is following his/her vocation, which is authentic, integral, human development. This concept can be broken into two interlocking ideas: (1) incremental growth and (2) consistent improvement towards God’s call, so becoming the best version of oneself—a saint (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2012–3). This is at the heart of the art of accompanying.
What is critical is that the person’s conscience must lead: the role of the pastor is to accompany and assist the person in growing their conscience so they make significant steps along the journey to God.
The Holy Father opens a way of mercy and development. Rather than throwing stones, he encourages the Church to adopt the way of Jesus and proposes mercy as the unalterable foundation of the gospel. Acting as conduit of mercy rather than judge, the priest accompanies the penitent, while guiding the person towards more fruitful moral choices through a more informed conscience.
Key message: Mercy is the unalterable foundation of the gospel, which must be our disposition in accompanying people, especially those in irregular situations. Jesus did not judge the weak, nor should we. He opened a way for conversion and discipleship.
Action Step: Reflect upon your disposition towards those in irregular situations. What is your disposition—mercy or judgement? Consciously, choose mercy.
Scripture: Read and meditate upon John 8:1–11
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