When an “immense variety of concrete situations” is elevated over “general principles,” a revolution is implicit
I could have used Pope Francis’s latest apostolic exhortation, “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”), when I served as a Catholic priest, almost half a century ago. I was ordained in early 1969, a few months after the promulgation of “Humanae Vitae,” the Vatican’s resounding condemnation of “artificial birth control,” which would define my future. I was a chaplain at a university where, true to the era, the norms of sexual morality had been upended. I certainly saw the need, in those wild days, for a humane and ethical analysis of the state of sexual intimacy, personal commitment, erotic longing, and gender rights. But, believe me, the triumphalist salvo from Rome made the moral condition worse, not better. Like many priests of my generation, I declined to affirm the birth-control teaching. On the contrary, I encouraged the young people who sought my advice to be sexually responsible, especially since the mature use of contraceptives could avoid a later choice about abortion.
Oddly, perhaps, this approach did not make me an outlaw renegade. Priests like me, in counselling our fellow-Catholics, operated under the rubric of the so-called pastoral solution, which allowed us to quietly defy Vatican dogma when the situation seemed to call for it. In the confessional booth or the rectory parlor, we could encourage our parishioners to decide for themselves, by examining their own consciences, whether the doctrine of the Church applied to them in their particular circumstance. (We cited the lessons of the Second Vatican Council, which, taking up the theme of responsible parenthood, only three years before, had said, “The parents themselves, and no one else, should ultimately make this judgment in the sight of God.”)
The fact that, a generation later, the vast majority of Catholics disregard “Humanae Vitae” shows how effective the pastoral solution has been. But this solution has always been offered as an option in the shadowy private forum—in those off-the-record consultations between confessor and penitent. Preachers never addressed the subject from the pulpit. Everybody in the Church knew that “Humanae Vitae” was a moral teaching with no center, but that, too, was treated like a secret. Popes did not speak of the encyclical’s being ignored, nor did bishops or priests. Catholic lay people have made their declaration mainly by having about two children, like everybody else, and going regularly to Communion, with no questions asked. There has been a tacit understanding, as if the seal of the confessional itself applied, that this nearly universal choice to disobey the Church not be spoken of. Why? To protect the myth of the immutability of doctrine.
Pope Francis has now brought the pastoral solution out of the Catholic shadows. “The Joy of Love” is his concluding exhortation after the Synod on the Family, which unfolded in the course of the past two years. Comparable in scope, compassion, and eloquent wisdom to last spring’s climate-change document, “Laudato Si’,” this new statement is, in effect, the Pope’s summary and conclusion about the questions raised at the Synod, which found itself focussed on whether divorced and remarried Catholics can receive Communion. Francis takes that up. He says, all but explicitly, yes they can. But it is how he does so that lends this declaration its revolutionary significance.
Formerly, in accordance with the Catholic doctrine of the “indissolubility” of marriage, the divorced and remarried were officially shunned. They remained in the pew while most others in the church went forward to the Communion rail. But that shunning is history. “It is important that the divorced who have entered a new union should be made to feel part of the Church,” Francis declares. How that feeling is expressed in practice is to be determined, he writes, not by “a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases,” but by “a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases.”
The Pope—to the disappointment of many liberals, no doubt—is not replacing an old set of harsh and restrictive rules with a new set of flexible and merciful rules. Rules, actually, are not the point. It is true that this document does little explicitly to uproot the structures of misogyny and homophobia that have long corrupted the Catholic tradition, but it does give a fresh impetus to change on these issues. Francis’s watchword is mercy, but mercy adheres, first, not in alterations of doctrine but in the new way that Catholics are invited to think of doctrine. When human experience, with all of what the Pope calls its “immense variety of concrete situations,” is elevated over “general principles,” a revolution is implicit. Francis explains: “It is true that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations.”
The pastoral solution lives in this realm of “particular situations,” where, as Francis insists, “constant love” must prevail over judgmentalism. Every situation is different, and a subtle moral discernment is required to see how general principles apply to it. For centuries, the assumption of the Catholic hierarchy was that lay people were not capable of such discernment, but, with Francis, that is no longer true. “The Joy of Love” is directly addressed to the laity, who are encouraged to pursue conscientious moral discernment by consulting not only pastors but one another. Who knows the ins and outs of married life better than married people?
Conservatives have long warned of the dangers involved in a forthright, public acknowledgment that moral complexity requires flexibility. Rules and doctrines, they worry, will be undermined if absolutist attitudes about their meaning are mitigated. The conservatives are right, and they will surely see this new exhortation as a further source of concern. Pope Francis’s emphasis on mercy toward the divorced and remarried doesn’t only mean that those people will more freely partake of Communion. It also means that the doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage, however much it is still held up as an ideal, will not grip the moral imagination of the Church as it once did.
Such a progression has already occurred in Catholic attitudes about contraception. Once the vast majority of the faithful took for granted their right and duty to weigh situation against principle—and decided, mostly, that the principle didn’t apply—it was only a matter of time before the hierarchy itself did the same. That is the significance of Pope Francis’s own conclusion, offered in February on his plane ride back from Mexico, that the Zika-virus pandemic requires a change in the Church’s policies on contraception. In that drastic situation, the principle of “Humanae Vitae” simply does not apply. As has happened before, the private forum had become public. Official Church teaching on birth control may never change, but its meaning will never be the same. Moral discernment belongs to the people.
The change that Francis has wrought on the Catholic imagination is one that I, for one, all those years ago, never imagined would come from the top, where order was taken to be holy, and the moral confusion an uncertain young priest might feel was expressly forbidden. Better late than never. Pope Francis is calling many of us home, while sending no one away. “I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion,” he writes. “But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness.” The point, of course, is that the Church, too, is marked by human weakness, as this halting progress toward reform so clearly shows. But here, again, the goodness is what counts. Francis is inviting the Church to leave behind the tidy moralism of the pulpit and the sacristy in order to do “what good she can, even if in the process, her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street.”
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