Accompanying, discerning and integrating in Pope Francis’ proposal for "irregular" marriages

The eighth chapter of ‘Amoris Laetitia’ is dedicated to family situations that do not fit Church doctrine. The way forward is not one of casuistry but one of discernment on a case by case basis. Access to the sacraments is mentioned only in a footnote, but doors are open for different ecclesial services. Pastors are invited to listen "with a sincere desire to understand” people’s plight.

Vatican City (AsiaNews) – The Vatican today published Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation on the family. In chapter eight, the pontiff focuses on irregular situations, suggesting that whilst moral laws are not like stones, the Church should not or could not obscure the greatness of Christ's teaching on marriage as indissoluble sacrament.

What the Church needs is greater mercy towards "irregular" situations, which can be applied through three key verbs: accompany, discern and integrate. “These attitudes are essen­tial for avoiding the grave danger of misunder­standings, such as the notion that any priest can quickly grant ‘exceptions’, or that some people can obtain sacramental privileges in exchange for favours” (n. 300).

The exhortation starts with a general view that responds somehow to the myriad of controversies that accompanied the two Synods dedicated to the family (October 2014 and October 2015). On paragraph 2, the pope writes, “The debates carried on in the media, in certain publications and even among the Church’s ministers, range from an immoderate desire for total change without suf­ficient reflection or grounding, to an attitude that would solve everything by applying general rules or deriving undue conclusions from particular theological considerations.”

Still, this does not change the sense of the "multifaceted" richness of the debate within the Church. “I must also say that the Synod process proved both impressive and illuminating. I am grateful for the many contributions that helped me to appreciate more fully the problems faced by families throughout the world. The various interventions of the Synod Fathers, to which I paid close heed, made up, as it were, a multifacet­ed gem reflecting many legitimate concerns and honest questions” (n. 4).

Paragraphs 296 to 312 are dedicated to "irregular" situations. Except for one footnote, access to the Eucharist is not mentioned. In paragraph 305, the pope writes “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.”

According to footnote 351, “In certain cases, this can 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” (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium). Likewise, the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (ibid.).

The chapter clearly explains that general rules applicable to all are not possible. The way forward is not one of casuistry but one of discernment on a case by case basis. For the pope, “there is a need ‘to avoid judgements that do not take into account the complexity of various situations’ and ‘to be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience distress be­cause of their condition’” (n. 296).

In addition, “It is a matter of reaching out to everyone, of needing to help each person find his or her proper way of participating in the ecclesial com­munity and thus to experience being touched by an ‘unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous’ mercy” (n. 297). Indeed, “The divorced who have entered a new un­ion, for example, can find themselves in a variety of situations, which should not be pigeonholed or fit into overly rigid classifications leaving no room for a suitable personal and pastoral dis­cernment” (n. 298).

As he says in the beginning of Amoris Laetitia, the pontiff noted, “As for the way of dealing with different ‘irreg­ular’ situations, the Synod Fathers reached a general consensus, which I support: ‘In con­sidering a pastoral approach towards people who have contracted a civil marriage, who are divorced and remarried, or simply living togeth­er, the Church has the responsibility of helping them understand the divine pedagogy of grace in their lives and offering them assistance so they can reach the fullness of God’s plan for them’, something which is always possible by the power of the Holy Spirit” (n. 297).

“Their participation can be expressed in differ­ent ecclesial services, which necessarily requires discerning which of the various forms of exclu­sion currently practised in the liturgical, pastoral, educational and institutional framework, can be surmounted. Such persons need to feel not as excommunicated members of the Church, but instead as living members, able to live and grow in the Church and experience her as a mother who welcomes them always, who takes care of them with affection and encourages them along the path of life and the Gospel. This integration is also needed in the care and Christian upbring­ing of their children, who ought to be considered most important” (n. 299).

The Exhortation’s orientation and meaning are found in paragraph 300. “If we consider the immense variety of con­crete situations [. . .] it is understandable that neither the Synod nor this Exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases. What is possible is simply a renewed encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases, one which would recognize that, 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.”

The needs and characteristics of the journey of accompaniment and discernment find explanation in the extensive dialogue between the faithful and the pastors. For this reason, Francis noted the Church’s reflection on “mitigating factors and situations” with respect to imputability and responsibility for actions. “It is true that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations. At the same time, it must be said that, precisely for that reason, what is part of a practical discernment in particular circumstanc­es cannot be elevated to the level of a rule” (304).

Before ending the chapter, Francis forcefully stressed the need “To show understanding in the face of exceptional situa­tions never implies dimming the light of the fuller ideal, or proposing less than what Jesus offers to the human being. Today, more important than the pastoral care of failures is the pastoral effort to strengthen marriages and thus to prevent their breakdown (n. 307).”