PROVIDENCE — The night before the official release to the public of Pope Francis’ highly anticipated reflection on the last two sessions of the Synod of Bishops, “Amoris Laetitia,” Bishop Thomas J. Tobin read curiously through much of the 256-page apostolic exhortation.
“I haven’t read this much since I was in college,” he chuckled, referencing the thick, but sometimes sparsely filled pages of the document, which he described as a blueprint for the pope’s vision of what the Church needs to do.
But unlike the spin that some news outlets have sought to apply to the pope’s vision of the Church going forward from the synods — which discussed topics of marriage and the family — the bishop said that nothing outlined in the exhortation proposes any change to Church teaching.
“It doesn’t recast the moral teachings of the Church,” Bishop Tobin said Friday, although he acknowledged that the document “has a unique ability to please or disappoint everyone who reads it.”
“Amoris Laetitia” focuses on process and discernment and advocates prayerful discretion when considering such hot button topics as welcoming the divorced and civilly remarried and those of same-sex attraction seeking full communion with the Church.
In September 2014, a month before the first synod was called in Rome to consider pastoral changes to the family in the context of evangelization, Bishop Tobin penned a “Without a Doubt” column entitled “Divorced and Remarried Catholics — We’ve Got to Do Something!”
In his column, he advocated for the church leaders to determine what, if anything, could be done to help the many divorced and remarried Catholics — whom he referred to as “valued members of the Church” — who would once again like to receive holy Communion. He noted at the end of his column that the status quo is
“For the spiritual well-being of the divorced and remarried members of our Catholic Family, for the salvation of their souls, we’ve got to do something!” he wrote.
So does “Amoris Laetitia” resolve this issue of Communion for the divorced?
“It’s a beginning,” Bishop Tobin said in an interview with Rhode Island Catholic Friday.
While the document does not advocate that the church offer holy Communion to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, Pope Francis does call upon the leaders of individual flocks throughout the world to be more understanding and welcoming of those living in situations not sanctioned by Church teaching, and try to draw them closer to the core of their faith rather than hold them at arm’s length.
“It gives them some hope; it takes a spiritual approach,” he said.
A local Roman Catholic woman who says she had no choice but to pursue a divorce from an abusive husband, despite living in a very devout Catholic home, said Friday she had anxiously been awaiting the release of “Amoris Laetitia,” to see if it contained a message of hope for someone in her situation, someone with children who may one day wish to be remarried.
The woman, who asked not to be identified, but wished to offer her perspective on the apostolic exhortation, said she appreciated the pope’s call for clergy to be more compassionate of the needs of those like her, who are separated from the church for reasons beyond their control.
“God does not want you to be in harm’s way. You have to remove yourself from that situation,” she said.
“The pope is opening his heart and asking priests ‘What is your mission as a pastor?’”
Deacon Stephen Cote, coordinator of the diocesan Office of Marriage Preparation and Enrichment, said that it is especially important for today’s Church to show compassion — as Pope Francis has called for in “Amoris Laetitia” — as technology and social media have made an impact on human society that has forever changed individuals and families to an extent we may never fully realize.
In the diocese, the Marriage Preparation Advisory Board strives to be inclusive with representation of both clergy and laypersons from all walks of life. This, he said, is a great help to the marriage prep teams so that they are better prepared to reach out and evangelize engaged couples, all of whom come with stories of their own.
“His Holiness, Pope Francis, gifted with the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, is asking all of us to rediscover the fundamental teachings of Christ Himself, simply by reaching out to the marginalized or broken. Whether it was the woman at the well in Jesus’ time or the stressed single mother at the Walmart parking lot trying to make ends meet,” he said.