POPE Francis’ recent apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia continues to be the subject of considerable controversy, both locally and globally.
There appears to be fear among some that the “infamous”chapter 8 is an attempt, among other things, to weaken the indissolubility of marriage.
It would seem for some that the whole text boils down to two positions – either that mercy is shown to the divorced and remarried and the indissolubility of marriage is destroyed, or that the indissolubility of marriage is retained, but mercy is not shown to the divorced and remarried.
C.S. Lewis addresses this kind of polarisation in Mere Christianity:
“I feel a strong desire to tell you – and I expect you feel a strong desire to tell me – which of these two errors is the worse.
“That is the devil getting at us.
“He always sends errors into the world in pairs – pairs of opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking which is the worse.
“You see why, of course? He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one.
“But don’t let us be fooled.
“We’ve got to keep our eyes on the goal and go bang through between both errors.
“We have no other concern than that with either of them.”
Is it possible to show mercy while retaining the indissolubility of marriage?
I would propose that this is precisely what Pope Francis is suggesting.
In paragraph 62 the Pope reminds us that the indissolubility of marriage is a “gift” granted to those joined in marriage.
In paragraph 299 he writes, “I am in agreement with the many Synod Fathers who observed that ‘the baptised who are divorced and civilly remarried need to be more fully integrated into Christian communities in the variety of ways possible, while avoiding any occasion of scandal’”.
This difference between doctrine – what the Church teaches – and its pastoral practice, is as orthodox as Jesus Christ.
Jesus condemned divorce and remarriage (Mark 10:1-12) but offered “living water” to the woman who had had five husbands (John 4:1- 42).
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus condemns adultery (Matthew 5:27- 30) but later protects the adulterous woman from being stoned – the lawful punishment for adultery at the time (John 8:1- 11).
Jesus condemns lying (Matthew 5:37) but then invites himself to dinner with Zacchaeus who was known for his dishonesty (Luke 19:1-10).
Jesus’ engagement with pastoral situations was not simply to restate his teachings.
In all three examples he gives mercy, grace and the gift of himself to these “sinners”.
All of this is to say that while the Church has clear doctrines – many of which come straight from the mouth of Christ, the challenge – and the current discussion – has to do with how these age-old truths can be applied in vastly differing situations.
In the same way that Christ engaged in pastoral situations in varied ways, so the Church – Christ’s body – must do the same.
This is not a simple problem that can be easily addressed by reciting Church teaching, rather it requires a genuine listening to the many varied situations that people find themselves in today.
An openness to rigorous discussion about pastoral practice should not be interpreted as a threat to the Church’s teaching; it is rather an attempt to find new ways of engaging humanity with the truth, beauty and goodness of the gospel of Christ in a world that continues to change.
The world needs the truth, but it can only hear it through love; the world needs Jesus, but can only receive him through mercy.