Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Amoris Laetitia - "Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness"

Chapter eight's tone is set immediately with the opening observation, following the Synod, that, although the Church realizes that any breach of the marriage bond "is against the will of God," she is also "conscious of the frailty of many of her children" (AL 291). While that is hardly controversial, the Exhortation moves into more contentious territory when it observes that, while some forms of union radically contradict the ideal of Christian marriage, others realize it in at least a partial and analogous way and that the Church does not disregard the constructive elements in those situations which do not yet or no longer correspond to her teaching on marriage (AL 292). 

What the Exhortation is dealing with here is what I tend to think of analogously to how different churches, ecclesial communities, and other religions are connected in varying ways and at different levels with the Body of Christ in its fullness. Likewise, within the Church itself, different people at different times find themselves connected in varying ways and at different levels with the fullness of the Church's communal and sacramental life.

The first such situation it tackles is those in a merely civil marriage or, with due distinction, even simple cohabitation. Depending on the circumstances, such situations can provide occasions for pastoral care with a view to the eventual celebration of the sacrament of marriage. What is being called for here is not an affirmation of contemporary cultural tendencies but rather pastoral discernment to discover what in someone's situation can lead to a greater openness to the Gospel of marriage in its fullness and can foster evangelization and human and spiritual growth (AL 293). 

The Exhortation invokes Pope Saint John Paul II's "Law of gradualness," which in this context means a gradualness in the prudential exercise of free acts on the part of subjects who are not in a position to understand, appreciate, or fully carry out the objective demands of the law.(AL 295). When I was writing my sabbatical paper 11 years ago, the traditional language that seemed most suitable to me in this regard was that of "invincible ignorance." Can we speak today of a kind of social "invincible ignorance" - false and impartial understandings of moral requirements that are so widespread in contemporary culture that it is plausible that sincere people in good faith simply cannot comprehend traditional moral requirements? I think we can - and must - think and speak that way. As the Exhortation itself notes, one may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding "its inherent values" (AL 301). In this regard in speaking of morally mitigating factors, the Exhortations acknowledges forms of conditioning (AL 305).

With this in mind, the Exhortation turns to the discernment of Irregular Situations. (Critics have noted that the Exhortation puts the traditional term "Irregular" in quotes, which is obviously odd at best, and possibly troubling at worst.).

The Church's way, the Pope proposes is not to condemn anyone for ever; it is to pour out the balm of God's mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart (AL 296). But what of one who does not sincerely seek God's mercy? Naturally, if someone flaunts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal, or wants to impose something other than what the Church teaches,he or she can in no way presume to teach or preach to others; this is a case of something which separates from the community (cf. Mt. 18:17). Yet even in such a case the Exhortation hopes there can be some way of taking part in the life of the community, whether in social service, prayer meetings, or another way that his or her own initiative, together with the discernment of the parish priest, may suggest (AL 297). The logic of integration is the key to their pastoral care (AL 299).

Clearly the Pope prefers to avoid being expected to provide  a new set of general rules. He relies on the idea that differing degrees of subjective moral responsibility should result in differing consequences or effects of a rule (AL 300). In fact, discernment can recognize that in a particular situation no grave fault exists (AL n. 336). On the other hand, the Pope also strongly wants to avoid 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 favors (AL 300).

The Exhortation's treatment of factors which may diminish culpability and responsibility is traditional and recalls Saint Thomas Aquinas' Aristotelian teaching that the more we descend to matters of detail, the more frequently we encounter defects (AL 304).

To an ordinary reader, it must seem as if the Exhortation in this section keeps see-sawing back and forth between upholding principle and being merciful to human weakness. 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 (AL 307). But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a church attentive to the goodness which the Holy spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, a Mother who, while clearly expressing her objective teaching, "always does what good she can, even if int he process, her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street" (AL 308). This highly personal statement by the Pope gives it all away, so to speak, in terms of his pastoral priorities and strategy. This is what has made his ministry of merciful outreach so popularly attractive, while at the same time also causing concerns.

The Pope concludes this section by referencing the current Year of Mercy, which we might consider the institutional expression of his pastoral strategy. The Year of Mercy, as he has already reminded us, is not just about experiencing and accepting God's mercy toward us, but is also about expressing and showing mercy toward others. Mercy is not only the working of the Father; it becomes a criterion for knowing who his true children are (AL 310). Perhaps the prime interpretive key to the Pope's approach in this section is a shift from preoccupation with how God judges a person's act or situation to how we in the Church respond to and treat the particular person who finds him or herself in that situation.

All of which brings us to the topic of the next post - the issue of how this Exhortation has been and will be received within the Church and the kinds of problems which may arise in this process.

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