It was like a cliff-hanger novel that had me on the edge of my seat. I’m talking about Pope Francis’ latest publication – his Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia: On Love in the Family (AL). In it the pope purposed to gather the contributions of bishops at their extended Episcopal Synod which met over the last two years. The meetings were tasked with responding to the contemporary crises of the family and human sexuality including contraception, abortion, divorce, and same-sex marriages (AL 4).
The Exhortation read as if it were the plot of a Wild West thriller:
A backward town has been taken over by a gang of crooks, frauds and perverts. They’re well-entrenched. And the Black Hats have all the locals cowering behind locked doors. Unexpectedly however, a new sheriff shows up with his shiny star and white hat. The gangsters try to bribe him to join up with them. Sheriff Frank is clearly tempted throughout most of the book. But then in the final chapter, without warning he shows his true and familiar colors. In concluding scenes reminiscent of “OK Corral,” the sheriff utterly defeats the Black Hats calling on a secret weapon no one foresaw.
That’s roughly the tale of Pope Francis, his Vatican adversaries, the Episcopal Synod, and Amoris Laetitia.
Beforehand, observers knew that many of the Synod’s participants comprised a dark gang – patriarchal traditionalists stubbornly opposed to any changes in church doctrine. They would surely uphold moralist positions which Nancy Reagan expressed so well: “Just say No!” Reaffirm tradition and law, and expect the faithful meekly to obey.
At the same time, everyone was also aware that Pope Francis’ leanings were in the opposite direction. As new sheriff in town he had won the hearts of the world from the moment he uttered his first papal words identifying him with St. Francis of Assisi — the 13th century friar whose humble simplicity has rendered him the most beloved saint in all of Christian history.
The early chapters of Amoris Laetitia are like listening to the backroom argument between Sheriff Frank and those tempting him to cross over to their dark side. It’s a back-and-forth that has readers wondering which side the pope is really on.
The Black Hat Gang insists on doing things “the way they’ve always been done around here, Sheriff.” This means:
- No change in the church’s position on contraception (AL 68, 80, 82, 222).
- Same with abortion (42, 83).
- Ditto for extra-marital sex (125)
- And trans gender identifications (56)
- “Marriage” between same sex partners has absolutely nothing to do with marriage as intended by God (52, 251,292).
- The divorced and remarried are objectively living in conditions of sin (292).
- Euthanasia and assisted suicide are strictly forbidden (48, 83).
Sheriff Frank seems confused at first. He retorts:
- Remember, we’re all just wounded human beings prone to mistakes and recovering within the Church’s field hospital (291).
- Poverty, immaturity and lack of education force people into apparently “sinful” choices only they can understand (201, 294, 295, 302).
- Women in particular have a tough time in this “man’s world” (54, 156). Men need to listen to them (203).
- And if we’re truly reject abortion and euthanasia, we must also firmly reject the death penalty (83).
- Moreover, objectively speaking, second marriages following divorce are often more loving and healthier than first. The divorced and remarried are not living in sin (301).
- As for same sex attractions and sexual transformations, remember we’re all male and female to some extent; it’s not simply a matter of biology (56, 286).
- And none of us needs to answer everyone’s problem (2, 38). That’s what consciences are for (37).
- Above all, remember square everything with the example of Jesus, his universal love and his prohibition about judging others (58, 79, and 250,296,308).
There’s much more to the argument. But you get the flavor.
What’s important is where the new sheriff comes down – how he defeats the Black Hat Gang in Amoris Laetitia’s happy ending. In short, he fires his “silver bullet” – MERCY. He makes an argument that can only be called a species of “Situation Ethics.” In the end, he says, mercy dictates that:
- Although the Black Hat Gang is correct that the objective demands of God’s law must be recognized as applying to everyone without exception (295),
- Human beings only gradually integrate the law’s requirements over the course of their entire lives (295).
- This means that circumstances such as immaturity, pace of moral development, lack of knowledge, appreciation of the law, along with a whole host of mitigating circumstances (302) often excuse subjects from the law’s requirements, at least temporarily (295).
- In the end, conscience, love, and mercy [recognition of life’s “wonderful complications” (308)] are the most reliable guides we humans have (295).
That’s the pope’s final word on the contemporary crises of the family and human sexuality including contraception, abortion, divorce, and same-sex marriages.
That, after all, is about as much as Sheriff Frank or anyone can do for Catholics. The rest, as he says, is up to us – and the sovereignty of our consciences.