Blog Post

The Two Synods and the Exhortation that Followed Them

Amoris Laetitia is very much a document of the two synods from which it sprung. Mary Jo Anderson

In this Oct. 20, 2014, file photo, cardinals gather in the Synod Hall at the Vatican. Church experts say synods should get more input from lay faithful. (CNS photo/Maria Grazia Picciarella, Pool) See SYNOD-BISHOPS-LAY Feb. 18, 2016. In this Oct. 20, 2014, file photo, cardinals gather in the Synod Hall at the Vatican. Church experts say synods should get more input from lay faithful. (CNS photo/Maria Grazia Picciarella, Pool)

There has been great frenzy the last several days following the presentation of Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”), Pope Francis’ post-synodal exhortation on the family. The quick take is this: it’s a draw. That collective exhale heard around the world last Friday was the sound of a pause before the next round—maybe in the next pontificate. The orthodox and progressive camps are looking at a glass half-full but also half-empty. Meanwhile, canon lawyers have a collective headache. 

The document is long—200-plus pages, which almost forbids a fair reading by lay Catholics. And that’s unfortunate, because many Catholics will hear only sound-bites from the document; snips carefully chosen to support “new openings” in Catholic practice. John Allen of Crux speculated days before the document’s release that Pope Francis might “side with the progressives on some contentious matters regarding family life.” Cardinal Wuerl of Washington DC offered a more nuanced expectation of pastoral changes, “If this document says, look, there’s a lot of space—we have to be aware that the teaching doesn’t change, but pastoral practice has to be compassionate…and there’s space to try to put all of that together.”

Despite the confident posture and verbiage of progressive factions, most notably those who support pastoral laxity over doctrinal truth concerning marriage, the exhortation falls far short of a progressive victory. Their long fought battle fizzled—the document does not deliver new horizons in theology. That battle was most prominent during the synodal process, a year of world-wide consultation and two consecutive years of synods that gathered bishops in Rome. The Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, assured the media each day of the 2014 synod that a fraternal atmosphere reigned in the synod hall. Journalists still reported the clear fractures that threatened collegiality. Manipulation of the process snagged the headlines throughout the preliminary Synod on the Family in 2014.

Prelates gathered again a year later. Reports of the African bishops’ resolve to defend orthodoxy and a “secret letter” from 13 cardinals to Pope Francis dominated the news cycle. Clearly, the orthodox bishops parried well: “Thou shalt not cross this line.” At the close if the three-week 2015 synod, the line held, the world’s bishops avoided open confrontation and delivered a final report to Pope Francis. Some in the liberal media took comfort in the scolding tenor of Pope Francis’ closing statement that decried “inflexible hostility” toward compassionate pastoral paths. And it must be said that a similar note is present in Amoris Laetitia, where Pope Francis warns that “the confessional must not become a torture chamber” (footnote #351). Still, on the final day of the synod, Cardinal Wilfred Napier of Durban, South Africa told a reporter that he expected that the exhortation would faithfully reflect the consensus of the synod.

That prediction held true. Those of the Kasper persuasion cannot point to any specific paragraph in the exhortation that invites civilly remarried Catholics back to Communion. The only solace progressive factions will find are in tone—no mention of “adultery”—and in the few footnotes that refer those living in “irregular” situations to their pastors and bishops.

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn presented the exhortation at a Vatican press conference on April 8 with the observation that the Pope had followed the prudential tradition of the Church. Many tradition-minded Catholics are hesitant to agree. The exhortation is squishy in parts, lacking clarity of intent that leaves plenty of room for episcopal novelty. A skewed presentation of Amoris Laetitia in the secular media is unsurprising. The goal of media has long been to edge the Church closer to the precipice, an alignment with modern state secularism. The emphasis of both secular media and liberal Catholic media has been on the compassionate, non-judgmental approach of Pope Francis. Catholics in the pews face an uneven reception when they approach their own pastors and find that the “new rules” are not as loose as they had heard.

Such confusion is regrettable, because Pope Francis clearly desires to enfold many suffering Catholics in the arms of the Church. Chapter Eight of Amoris Laetitia opens with an acknowledgment that the Church is “conscious of the frailty of many of her children.” Illumined by the gaze of Jesus Christ, “she turns with love to those who participate in her life in an incomplete manner, recognizing that the grace of God works also in their lives by giving them the courage to do good, to care for one another in love and to be of service to the community in which they live and work.” This approach is also confirmed by our celebration of this Jubilee Year devoted to mercy. Although she constantly holds up the call to perfection and asks for a fuller response to God, “the Church must accompany with attention and care the weakest of her children, who show signs of a wounded and troubled love, by restoring in them hope and confidence, like the beacon of a lighthouse in a port or a torch carried among the people to enlighten those who have lost their way” (AL 291).

The entire message is aimed at addressing not only the concrete consequence of sin on family life, but the spiritual alienation of the individual Catholic. In every circumstance where Catholics can be integrated into the life of the parish, they should be. All ought to feel welcome in the family. No one should feel marginalized, even in circumstances short of full sacramental participation.

The rub comes where imprecise language may be perceived as permission for pastoral practice that stretches so far as to accommodate human weakness rather than work patiently toward reconciliation to truth. This gap is theological territory. In the days to come theologians will analyze segments of the document that bear upon the universality of Catholic teaching and any decentralized application of that teaching under the veil of pastoral practice. Theologians are sure to review the concept of “internal forum” as regards conscience (AL footnote #364). Some quibbles will surface with citations that don't seem to fit, such as in the section “The Logic of Pastoral Mercy” (AL 307-312). In those paragraphs the nature and quality of God’s mercy toward believers who perhaps live in mortally sinful patterns is supported with a citation of a document that addressed the hope of God’s mercy for unbaptized infants, who are not guilty of any personal sin (AL footnote #365).

Other areas that will attract scrutiny in the coming months include the meaning of sacramentality as limitation for pastoral discretion. That the Synod Fathers intended a consensus limitation, a “no-go zone” is well expressed in this statement by New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan, “There’s a clarity and precision in the message of Jesus that we can’t tamper with, and that I don’t want to tamper with, nor do I believe Pope Francis wants to.”

But others do. Raymond Arroyo of EWTN News said the Church could be headed into “perilous times.” His comments on Fox News, just minutes after the document was released, pointed out that even though there were no changes to doctrine, the Pope apparently opened the door to pastoral practices that could have the effect of a change in doctrine. More cynical speculation lit up social media in the first hours after Amoris Laetitia became public. “So, no doctrinal change, ok, but what all this rubbery language amounts to is room for the next pope to push it further. Maybe, God willing, the next pope will slam the door on ‘creative’ pastoral care.”

Catholics in most circumstances have access to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Digital technology increases ease of access for all manner of Church documents, including the exhortation. Pope Francis has much to say in Amoris Laetitia that will rarely be reported or taught—the intimate beauty of Christian marriage, children, and extended family, the virtues of perseverance, tenderness, and mercy, and the dangers of pornography, gender ideology, and more. Committed Catholics need not be content with the secular media filter in matters that impact their faith.

Originally printed in The Catholic World Report.  Reprinted with permission of Mary Jo Anderson.

Mary Jo Anderson is a Catholic journalist and speaker whose articles and commentaries on politics, religion, and culture appear in a variety of publications. She is a frequent guest on EWTN's “Abundant Life,” and her monthly “Global Watch” radio program is heard on EWTN radio affiliates nationwide. She was appointed to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops National Advisory Council (NAC), 2010-2014 and served as member of the NAC Executive Committee in 2011. Follow her on Twitter @maryjoanderson3.