The Pope's words will reassure conservatives and delight liberals
Published 09/04/2016 | 02:30
Anyone who has ever lived as part of a family knows that life is lived not in black and white, but in various shades of grey. Pope Francis knows that too, and his new 60,000-word document 'The Joy of Love' is an appeal to Church leaders to set aside narrow judgementalism in favour of an approach that is more welcoming and understanding of the situations in which people find themselves.
The Pope is frank in his assessment. "Many people feel the Church's message on marriage and the family does not clearly reflect the preaching and attitudes of Jesus," he writes. And he's right. Which is not to say the Pope is insisting the Church is wrong in what it says, but his message is that the Church is often wrong in the way it says it.
Those hopeful that Francis was about to dismantle 2,000 years of Catholic teaching will be disappointed. But that was never going to happen. Despite the hype, Pope Francis is a Catholic and is unapologetic in proposing a traditional Catholic understanding of marriage and sexuality. In Catholic tradition, the role of the Pope is to confirm the faith, not turn it on its head. But make no mistake, there is a revolution in this document.
One of the remarkable things about Pope Francis is his ability to hold things in tension. In one section he urges Catholics to look to Jesus, Mary and Joseph as an icon of the perfect family. But a few sentences later he rails against the "excessive idealisation" of the perfect family. He praises the Church's ban on artificial birth control, before admitting that we "often present marriage in such a way that its unitive meaning, its call to grow in love... are overshadowed by an almost exclusive insistence on the duty of procreation".
When dealing with couples who live together without getting married or couples in a gay relationship, the Pope refers to these as "imperfect situations". Some will find this language judgemental. In reality, it's a theological way of saying life is complicated.
Pope Francis knows there is no such thing as the perfect family. And for him, that's okay. But this does not mean setting aside the idyllic; he makes it clear the ideal is something to strive for, but not something to be idolised.
In language that will challenge many, Francis goes further. He says the Church must not "disregard the constructive elements in those situations which do not yet or no longer correspond to her teaching on marriage". That's code for an acknowledgement that, for example, same-sex marriage may not be something the Church can ever accept, but the Church does need to acknowledge there may be things in that relationship that are good for people.
On the vexed issue of whether or not Catholics who are divorced and civilly remarried should be allowed to receive Communion, Francis is vague. He says people in this situation must be "more fully integrated into Christian communities" without elaborating on what he means. However, crucially, he does make it clear "they are not excommunicated".
His ambiguity recognises the divisions there are within the Church on the issue.
The challenge from the Pope is to build a Church that is more understanding of the complexity of human sexuality. He also wants a Church that is willing to journey with people rather than just laying down the law. He urges the faithful to remember that the Church must act as a "field hospital" for the wounded rather than a museum for the saintly.
Overall, the document will reassure conservatives who feared Francis wanted to give the shop away. At the same time, liberals will be delighted that the Pope is downplaying the rigid language of sterility. For a Pope charged with bringing unity to a diverse Church, that's quite the achievement.
Michael Kelly is editor of 'The Irish Catholic' newspaper