By Father John Bayer
Special to The Texas Catholic
Pope Francis’ post-synodal exhortation, The Joy of Love, is an exciting and challenging document. It was, of course, eagerly anticipated for what it would say about participation in the sacraments by Catholics who for the moment find themselves in openly irregular situations. Pope Francis addressed this issue, among others, insisting that we strive to integrate all members of the Body of Christ into the life of the church in every way possible, and that we refuse simplistic solutions to complex and vital pastoral questions.
The text clearly shows that he rejects two such solutions. On the one hand, he rejects a “rigidity” that ignores the depth of the theological and legal tradition of the church. This solution pretends as though the best pastoral practice were to ignore the particularities of each situation for the sake of a “clear” proclamation of the Gospel, even at the risk of twisting that proclamation into something heartless and off-putting. On the other hand, he also rejects a “laxity” that ignores the absolute value Catholics place on the truth of the Gospel and the unity of the church. This solution pretends as though the best pastoral practice were to dissolve all tensions with a vague notion of “individual conscience,” even at the risk of rejecting the Gospel call to conversion and fracturing our solidarity in the quest for holiness.
The pope rejects these as two false solutions. Instead, he calls us to the Catholic adventure: to listen together to the voice of the Spirit, who in every age leads us deeper into the truth of Christ (John 16:12-15), who is “the same yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). Thus in the opening paragraphs he extends an invitation to think and work together: “The complexity of the issues that arose [at the synod] revealed the need for continued open discussion of a number of doctrinal, moral, spiritual, and pastoral questions. The thinking of pastors and theologians, if faithful to the church, honest, realistic and creative, will help us to achieve greater clarity” (The Joy of Love, 2). Recent debates provoked by apparent tensions within the document confirm the need to read the text carefully and to work together with patience and fidelity.
Concretely, this means that Catholics, and especially pastors, are being called to serious study, prayer and dialogue. Pope Francis did not want to offer “a new set of general rules” to replace those that exist but rather to encourage us “to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases” (300). In other words, the existing norms are still valid; but we are being called to examine them more deeply and to apply them with greater discernment. The paragraphs that describe this discernment reveal how much confidence the pope has in us all: that we will discern with humility, creativity and fidelity to the Gospel (300-312).
It may come as a surprise to some, but not all situations can be easily resolved by a general norm. For example, how is a pastor to respond to a request for the sacraments by a member of a second union who wishes to live as brother and sister but is not allowed to do so by his or her partner? Or how should a pastor respond to a poor woman and her children, who, abandoned by her husband, does not wish to expose her children to the dangers of growing up fatherless and in serious poverty? I think a thoughtful person could legitimately doubt their freedom, and therefore their culpability (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1734-1737), should they fail to witness to the full truth of marriage. But that forces us to ask a rather difficult question: Should we withhold the sacraments from someone who, though caught in an objectively immoral situation, subjectively bears little or no guilt? If we should withhold them, what must we do instead in order to offer the mercy of God authentically and credibly? If we should not withhold them, which sacraments can be given and under what conditions? One could ask a lot of similarly challenging questions, since the pope is searching for creative ways to encourage all Catholics and to prevent those who cannot receive the sacraments from feeling excommunicated.
As we think about such difficult questions, let us keep in mind that this document is about so much more. After all, it is called The Joy of Love! We would be doing Pope Francis and ourselves a grave injustice if we read this text selectively or as a weapon to wage a private campaign. Many paragraphs are clear and beautiful, as Pope Francis shares his insights into the challenges and joys of marriage and family life, revealing how much an elderly and contemplative celibate can see. With his characteristic style — concrete, accessible, honest and powerful — he offers bite-sized meditations throughout the document, and especially in chapters four and five. There should be no family too busy to read them together, taking just one or two paragraphs before a meal or in the car on the way to church. Husbands and wives hungry to feed the fire of their vocation can find here a powerful kindling. Young couples, full of good will but not certain about the teaching of the church on marriage and family life, can find in this text a source of inspiration and conviction.
I propose we take the challenge of The Joy of Love seriously. Let us be “faithful to the church, honest, realistic and creative” (2) as we seek to promote a family spirit in our homes, parishes and church. What an exciting adventure! “Let us make this journey as families, let us keep walking together. What we have been promised is greater than we can imagine. May we never lose heart because of our limitations, or ever stop seeking that fullness of love and communion which God holds out before us” (325).
Father John Bayer, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column appears occasionally in The Texas Catholic.