Amoris Laetitia – The Great Debate

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin
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If you follow news about the Catholic Church at all, you’re already aware of an historic debate taking place in the Church right now concerning Amoris Laetitia, “The Joy of Love,” the letter Pope Francis wrote last year about marriage and the family. While the conversation has been going on since the letter was published, it has certainly become more vocal and visceral in the last couple of months, and there’s no sign of it abating any time soon.

The most intense discussion centers around Chapter Eight of the document, the one dealing with “irregular” marriages, and the particular question of whether or not Catholics who are divorced and civilly remarried may receive Holy Communion. In the past this was clearly prohibited, and some argue that it still is. Others, however, point to the Pope’s intriguing comment that because of “forms of conditioning and mitigating factors” the pastoral accompaniment of these couples might include “the help of the sacraments.” The Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak,” the Holy Father writes, invoking a phrase he used previously but now repeats in a new context.

The debate has become pretty intense in some quarters. Those who support a change in the longstanding practice of the Church are labeled heretics and schismatics. Those who oppose a more “pastoral approach” are called rigid and legalistic.

It’s not at all unusual for Church statements and papal letters to cause discussion and even division. It happened with the documents of the Second Vatican Council; it happened with the promulgation of Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI; and it happened in response to any number of letters and policies produced by St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI over the years.

What is unique about the Amoris Laetitia debate, though, is that it has publicly divided the hierarchy – bishops conferences taking differing positions, one bishop against another, and even cardinals on opposite sides of the divide – an unseemly turn of events, unprecedented really, at least in modern times. Without a doubt there are intelligent, sincere, and holy people on both sides of the issue.

But the challenge reached new heights a few months ago when four cardinals of the Church submitted five formal questions, “dubia,” to the Pope himself seeking clarification on specific issues. Thus far the Holy Father has declined to respond, the cardinals have hinted at further action, and the drama continues to build.

Some personal thoughts . . .

First, as the Church debates the neuralgic issues of Amoris Laetitia, we should agree that in this sweeping document, Pope Francis has provided a comprehensive and challenging blueprint for the pastoral care of marriage and the family in our time. It’s about so much more than Holy Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. The Pope has sparked a new awareness of the challenges and potential of Christian family life today, and for that we should all be grateful.

Secondly, I do think it’s important that we have a more definitive answer to this specific, charged question: Is it lawful for Catholics who are divorced and civilly remarried to receive Holy Communion or not?

I confess that my desire for clarity comes, at least in part, from my personal preference and administrative style. My desk is clean, my files are organized, my home is uncluttered, and I live my life in well-planned fifteen-minute segments. Some would say I’m compulsive, and I can’t disagree.

But far more important than my personal preference is the fact that when we talk about essential elements such as the teachings of Christ, the moral law, and the nature of the sacraments, it’s necessary that we have clarity and unity if the Church is to have any credibility at all. No one responds to the sound of an “uncertain trumpet,” the Scriptures remind us (I Cor 14:8), and “If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand,” Jesus himself taught. (Mk 3:25)

Should the Holy Father respond to the “dubia” submitted by the cardinals, and perhaps even meet with them to discuss their concerns? That’s absolutely not my call, but I’m sure the Holy Father has very good reasons for proceeding as he has. We need to trust and respect that. And perhaps there are some behind-the-scenes dynamics taking place that you and I are not privy to. There always are.

I do recall, though, the words that Pope Francis spoke to the American Bishops in September of 2015 during his Apostolic Visit: “I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly . . . Otherwise, we fail to understand the thinking of others, or to realize deep down that the brother or sister we wish to reach and redeem, with the power and the closeness of love, counts more than their positions.” I hope and pray that the Holy Father and the questioning cardinals will bring this spirit of fearless dialogue to the current impasse.

In the meantime, while prelates and pundits debate the merits of Amoris Laetitia, those of us in the trenches should continue doing what we do best. That is, to preach the Gospel, celebrate the sacraments, pray with and for our people, and serve them with sacrificial love.

If we do that, the very simple but profound aspiration contained in the opening words of Amoris Laetitia will be realized: “The joy of love, experienced by families, is also the joy of the Church . . . The Christian proclamation on the family is good news indeed.”