Pope Francis finally came out last week with his much awaited guidance to the Catholic world on all things related to marriage, divorce, sex and family life titled Amoris Laetitia (On Love in the Family). There were high expectations from the laity that the Catholic Church would finally loosen up on some of its reactionary dogma that is becoming increasingly out of step with the actual practices of its 1.25 billion adherents across the globe.
In contrast to the stern and stringent conservativism of his two predecessors, Pope Francis has been a refreshing change with his down to earth personal charisma and much more relaxed and tolerant approach towards the natural foibles of mankind. It was highly anticipated that this document would herald some long overdue reforms to the way the church regulates what Catholics can and cannot do in their personal lives.
Regrettably, Amoris Laetitia, is tellingly and ironically titled in a long dead language far removed from common usage, and in keeping with this unfortunate symbolism, it too is equally far removed from today’s society and its prevailing ethos. The document is very well written and does not lack in love and compassion for those Catholics faced with the challenges of birth control, abortion, divorce, same-sex marriage and other personal issues that are common to our day and age. However, the document does not change or remove any of the age old strictures and restrictions imposed by church fathers centuries ago. All it says is that the clergy should deal with more understanding and compassion with those caught up with these difficult moral circumstances.
As one example, it is long-standing Catholic Church doctrine that divorced couples, who have not gone through the difficult and expensive annulment process, cannot receive communion. It had been hoped that this restriction would have been justifiably shelved by this document. Such was not the case. Instead there is some warm and fuzzy language that, as an article in the Globe and Mail newspaper states, “the Pope suggested that priests close to the couples should be flexible in enforcing the rules about communion for the divorced.” In other words, the rule still stands, but the Vatican will wink and look the other way if a local priest in good conscience ignores the rule. What is the point of having a rule or law, if you immediately let it be known that it is ok if you ignore it? Why not get rid of the rule and just provide advice or guidance as to what is preferred behavior. It makes a mockery of church law and undermines its validity in total.
The document deals in a similar manner with all the other pressing “family” issues that have been a sore point with Catholics for generations. There is no change on the ban on birth control. There is no change on the church’s stand on homosexuality, gay marriage or abortion. In fact, there is no substantive change on any of the church’s positions in the broad area of sex, family and interpersonal relations. The only real difference in what Pope Francis says is that priests should be more compassionate and less judgmental with those caught up in these common moral dilemmas.
I would hazard a guess that the Pope would have preferred to have gone further and instituted real reform, but was faced with strong resistance from an entrenched and regressive Curia. As a result he is forced to take baby steps towards dragging the Catholic Church into the 21st century lest he stir up open rebellion or worse from the Cardinals and Bishops that are still living in the Middle Ages and are inflexibly resistant to any change whatsoever.
Amongst other things, the Church is also a political institution, and it is obvious that Pope Francis will have to aggressively pursue replacing the entrenched power brokers with Bishops and Cardinals that are more realistic and progressive and more in tune with Christ’s teachings rather than man-made church doctrine. After all, when Jesus Christ instituted the first Eucharist in the form of sharing of bread and wine at the last supper, and told his followers to “do this in memory of me”, he did not stipulate “except for those of you who are divorced.”