Family and faith. These are two powerful ways of belonging, one natural, and the other supernatural. But they, too, are weakened by the dissolving forces of our time. Pope Francis’s recent Apostolic Exhortation on the Family, Amoris Laetitia, represents an effort to combat this trend. The document affirms many aspects of the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage, including permanence. But it also seeks to increase scope for pastoral discretion so that those in “irregular” situations can participate as fully as possible in the Church’s sacramental life.
The effort to be more pastoral characterizes this papacy. Francis wants to emphasize the power of God’s love, even in circumstances when we’ve wavered, failed, and fallen. Unfortunately, Amoris Laetitia participates in the dissolving trends of our times rather than resisting them. This is an unwitting complicity, no doubt. But we can see it in the way in which the exhortation turns marriage into something we aspire to rather than a sacramental reality we can rely on. The Church seems to become a plastic instrument of mercy, not a stable anchor.
When the document was released, journalists fixed on chapter eight, “Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness.” There, Francis takes up the controversial question of whether those in “irregular” situations can receive Communion, including those who have been civilly divorced and remarried, but have not received an annulment.
There’s been lots of commentary on just what is implied in the often technical and sometimes muddy verbiage of the chapter. Canon lawyers and moral theologians have parsed what Francis has written in different ways. But one thing is clear: Francis makes an ill-considered conceptual move. In order to create an atmosphere of flexibility and welcome, he speaks of marriage as an “ideal” rather than a sacramental reality.
This approach makes permanence itself into an ideal. Divorce betrays this, of course. As Francis writes, “It must remain clear that this is not the ideal which the Gospel proposes for marriage and family.” Moreover, “In no way must the Church desist from proposing the full ideal of marriage, God’s plan in all its grandeur.”
These seem like decisive affirmations, but they’re not. Remarrying after divorce is an “objective situation” that the Church teaches is an impediment to the reception of Communion. The reasoning is straightforward. The Church does not recognize civil divorce, and therefore regards the first marriage as ongoing. Thus the second marriage (without an annulment) isn’t a marriage at all, but instead an adulterous relationship.
To avoid this summary judgment based on the “objective situation” of divorce and remarriage, Francis implies that what really matters is the “ideal.” The driving questions become subjective, not objective. Divorced and remarried? Yes, that presents serious difficulties. But there is a way out (perhaps). Are you appropriately penitent for the past failure to live up to the “ideal,” and now newly committed to the “ideal” in a sincere way? A person’s conscientious discernment of the answer to that question, Francis suggests, is what’s important. One’s relation to the “ideal,” determined in “conversation with the priest,” can open the way to further discernment about “what hinders full participation in the life of the Church and [about] what steps can foster it and make it grow.”
Will this process of self-examination mean that divorced and remarried Catholics will receive Communion in some circumstances? The debate goes on, and it’s an important one. Yet I find myself concluding that the most important dimension of Amoris Laetitia is found in the fact that Francis adopts and affirms what most of us now experience. This is not helpful. In our culture of divorce, permanence is only a distant ideal to which we can aspire. Marriage is no longer a trustworthy institution we can rely on.
What’s true for marriage is true for a great deal of our experience. We suffer an increasingly atomized, fluid, and vulnerable existence, because we lack institutions we can trust. We have plenty of ideals, some quite noble. But we have very few stable places to stand and little in the way of reliable permanence.
At one point, Francis writes about “the values of the Gospel.” One understands why. Values-talk is popular these days. It’s a way of signaling moral aspiration without focusing on the troublesome “thou shalt not’s.” Along with ideals, “values” allow us to imagine a moral outlook without law, moral failure without shame, and moral discernment without negative judgments.
Which is why our therapeutic age is awash with ideals and values. They’re in university mission statements. Corporations proudly tout their values, and “idealism” becomes a marketing tool. Buy these shoes or that toothpaste, and Company X will make a contribution to eradicate polio, plant a tree, or bring Internet connections to Africa. It’s a dangerous misstep for Christianity to get into the business of marketing ideals and values.
Parmenides was one of the Greek thinkers who flourished before Socrates. His philosophical task was revealed to him when the goddess Justice whispered into his ear, “Cling to that which is and cannot not be.” “Unite yourself with permanence” was her message. That’s precisely what a man and a woman seek when they make their wedding vows. They desire a covenant that is, and cannot not be.
This desire is for a reality, not an ideal. For this reason, the Church’s teaching on marriage, strict though it may be by the standards of our time, is good news, a gospel in a way ideals and values can never be. We’re finite creatures, often sabotaged by our own deformed desires and bad choices, and always vulnerable to suffering and death. The sacrament of marriage anchors us, fusing our fragile lives to something that will not be eroded, will not fail us or betray us, even if we betray it. To refuse divorce, as the Catholic Church has done, is to reassure us that permanence in marriage is not an elusive ideal, but an accessible reality.
Francis misjudges our era. He seems to think we’re enclosed within rigid institutions and beaten down by legalistic systems. To my mind, the situation is otherwise. We live in a dissolving era. The problem is not that divorce is judged harshly. It’s that young people experience marriage as a fragile institution, one incapable of protecting them from the relentless flux of life.
This is part of life without a reliable inheritance. Few institutions are trustworthy today. The endless flow of power and money rules in our fluid world. Whatever permanence is possible now depends upon steadfast personal commitments—a terrible burden for anyone with enough self-knowledge to recognize the unreliability of our fallen nature. It’s a sad irony that Francis gravitates toward notions such as “ideals” and “values.” They’re part of the contemporary toolkit for dissolving permanent truths. They serve the master-ideal of our time: the solitary individual navigating on his own toward goals of his own.
St. Augustine observed that we’re all pilgrims in this world, journeying toward our home in heaven. But he did not think us alone and homeless. In Christ, God was made man, not an ideal. His sacraments make real what they signify; they do not symbolize values. His Church is an “objective situation,” a civitas with her own cult, rites, and laws.
Pope Francis speaks often and eloquently about “accompaniment.” As so many other institutions weaken in our dissolving age, the Church’s greatest gift is to accompany us with a stubborn givenness, an inflexible permanence. Rusty R. Reno.
First Things, June/July Issue, pages 6-7.
“Food for thought as we work our way through gaining an insight into mercy, in this year of Mercy.” Editor’s Note.