Thoughts on the "Amoris Laetitia" Controversy

There is a lovely Talmudic story that says, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, even God prays!  He prays that his justice may be tempered by his mercy!  In unpacking the recent controversy over the criticism by 4 Cardinals of the Church (3 retired and 1 now deceased) of Pope Francis’ post Synodal Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, perhaps that saying can provide a helpful point of reference in understanding what is going on here.

First of all, controversy of this nature is not new in the Church.  As the French say, the more things change, the more they remain the same!  One need only think of the controversy between Peter and Paul in the early Church over the question of whether one had to fulfill the requirements of the Mosaic Law before becoming a Christian.  Critique of authority can be the catalyst for new insight into our understanding of the mysteries of the faith.  However, it can also be demoralizing and destructive of the harmony that hopefully should characterize the household of believers. 

One of the thorny pastoral questions that continues to fester in our church is how to pastorally tend to those whose marriages have failed and are now living in second or subsequent marriages and desire to remain sacramentally active in the Church. 

In the perfect world, one would have recourse to those pastoral aids that the church has established from its very early existence and have developed over the centuries to address this question in a public fashion – namely, the church’s annulment process.  The annulment process is a declaration by church authority that after thorough formal and external or public investigation, the necessary elements that make a marriage to be a true and valid marriage from the church’s perspective, were defective or missing – thus, rendering the marriage invalid because marital consent – the ‘yes’ of marriage - could not build on a foundation that was missing. 

However, ask any priest involved with parish work and he will tell you, that there are always situations that fall outside of the ‘perfect world.’  One of the major challenges can be lack of adequate witnesses to substantiate the allegations of defective consent that are required by the matrimonial juris-prudence of the church.  This is especially the case in second marriages that have existed for decades and the parties’ first marriage may have taken place decades before.  Joe and Mary, now in their 50’s, 60’s or 70’s, who have been faithfully going to mass for decades but not receiving communion, knowing that the sunset years are ‘setting,’ desire to receive the Eucharist.  To presume that they have been living in adultery all these years is a tad bit harsh not to mention judgmental!  While mistakes indeed might have been made, one would think that a church whose ‘justice is tempered by mercy’ might find a reasonable accommodation for these folks who hunger for the Eucharist. 

The provisions of Amoris Laetitia, particularly # 300-305, attempt to provide an extraordinary path for these exceptional cases out of the church’s perennial ‘care for souls.’  It was not the objective of AL to change doctrine, specifically the church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, but rather to apply a time honored pastoral approach that would put the mercy and care of the individual’s spiritual need and hunger above that of the letter of the law so that the spirit of the law might flourish.  

This is not new in the Church.  Eastern and Orthodox Christians have practiced this approach for centuries, applying what they refer to as oikonomia or the ‘harmonious ordering of the household of believers’ applied to second marriages.  While the West has tended to be somewhat myopically focused on the virtually exceptionalness legality of the validity of first marriages, precluding the possibility of second marriages unless there is a process leading to a declaration of nullity – The East puts priority on the person and their spiritual hunger for sacramental wholeness over the rigidity of the law.  They permit a second and in some cases a third marriage with a ritual that is of a penitential character that opens the door toward reception of the Eucharist.

AL possesses something of the ‘flavor’ of this approach.  It also brings in the time-honored principle of conscience as the final determiner of how one stands before God.  While it is true that we are talking about a ‘well-formed’ conscience, this can occur in a variety of ways including wrestling with the moral conundrum of acknowledging the values that stand behind the law of the unbreakableness of marriage in the face of the existential reality of a time tested second marriage and the subjective desire for spiritual and sacramental wholeness with the Church.  AL speaks of an exceptional way in which the ministers of the church ‘accompany’ these individuals gradually through a penitential process leading to the eventual sacramental embrace of the church via the internal forum, or forum of conscience.  This is not some ‘snap’ decision undermining the church’s teaching from the Lord on the indissolubility of marriage but rather the application of the mercy of the Father toward his prodigal sons and daughters!

It is important to keep in mind that Cardinal Burke who is leading the charge of the critics, is a brilliant ecclesiastical jurist – the law is his world.  In all candor, his years as a front-line pastor in a parish were few.  Francis, on the other hand, is a pastor par excellence.  He knows first-hand the pain that individuals have felt alienated from the sacramental life of the church.  Each of these men speak and lead out of the world views that have shaped their perspectives.

However, one is Peter and the other is not!  It is a tragedy that Cardinal Burke has made public this critique that can undermine the solidarity of the household of believers by questioning the orthodoxy of the Universal Pastor of the Church.  As Catholics, despite what this Cardinal or any Cardinal may posit, as Catholics it is the voice of Peter and his successors that continues to be the criterion by which the deposit of faith is maintained and developed for the good of the church and the care of souls.

The following short video by Bishop Robert Barron, presents an insightful summary of the approach taken by Pope Francis in Amores Laetitia as he upholds our belief in the integrity of marriage while reaching out with a shepherds love and mercy to those who have experienced the pain and heartache of marital failure.