The world has worked itself into a tizzy over the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, the Joy of Love. This is a theme of the Pope's, as we can see from his first apostolic exhortation, the Joy of the Gospel. For many non-believers today, as well as some Christians, the Christian life fully lived is often painted as a miserable, restricted, unhappy life compared to the wild joys of the secular world; after all, the Scriptures and our pastors often remind us that a Christian isn't supposed to live a life of crazy parties, drunkenness, acquisition of wealth and possessions, fornication, and other such things - so, what's left? What is left is Jesus Christ, who is the person - the joy - that we're trying to seek when we fool ourselves into thinking that parties, drinking, sex, etc. will give us a lasting happiness; quite often, none of that does, and we're always looking for a replacement for those things because "the thrill is gone". So, a theme of Francis' pontificate seems to want to emphasize to Christians and non-Christians that to live our faith fully will bring us everlasting joy.
What is an apostolic exhortation? In the simplest terms, it is a pastoral teaching of a pope, which tends to summarize the discussions held by the bishops of the West. Prior to this exhortation, there were two long meetings in Rome by the Catholic bishops of the world, where they listened to lay people talk about the joys and challenges of marriage. They discussed the results of questionnaires that many bishops sent to their flock, asking them to answer truthfully about their marriages, divorces, re-marriages, etc. The media focused on two hot-button topics - Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried, and homosexuality - but those were very tiny parts of the entire discussion.
A challenge of this document is its length - it's 264 pages - and I am still working on it. But from what I've read so far, I've read nothing that would justify the negative reaction the document is getting from Catholics (nor the giddy reaction I've seen by some non-Catholics). For many Catholics, they see that Pope Francis is rejecting Church teaching on sin and marriage because at one point in the document, he explains something that the Church has done for quite a while now, and that's using the Eucharist as "strength for the journey" for *SOME* Catholics who are in irregular marriages and sinful situations - sometimes we need "the big guns" so that grace can grow in us, and some priests decide that the person needs to receive our Lord in the Eucharist to get HIS help in our battle; this isn't an acceptance of the person's sin, but a way in which a priest may pastorally help a member of their flock to change their sinful behaviour and grow in holiness.
For many outraged Catholics, this seems to be a change in the teaching that we can only receive the Lord in a state of grace - it is NOT a change in that teaching - because when Pope Francis speaks of this option, it is within the context of a person's culpability. We are taught that for a sin to be mortal (and, therefore, in need of confessing because we are endangering our souls), three conditions must be present: 1) Grave Matter: The act itself is intrinsically evil and immoral; 2) Full Knowledge: The person must know that what they're doing or planning to do is evil and immoral; and 3) Deliberate Consent: The person must freely choose to commit the act or plan to do it. If any of these conditions are not met, then the sin is venial and not mortal. For many pastors - including a very orthodox priest that I know - they see that some people, due to terrible formation or traumatic events in their lives, may not meet some (or any) of the conditions. What Pope Francis is explaining to the entire Church is that a priest should feel free to discern these things and feel that ONE of the "tools" he may use to help a member of his flock is allowing them to receive the Eucharist due to the fact that they may not be in a state of mortal sin, whereas someone else under the same conditions would be.
The only "revolution" this document has unleashed is that now it is more general knowledge that the Church does not operate in areas of black and white, even though for most Catholics and non-Catholics, we wish she would - it's so much easier in black and white. However, the pope - just like those before him - are trying to get us to understand that God meets us where we are, and none of us are perfect; all of us are sinners. But the Church needs to meet us where we are, take us by the hand, and help lead us to the Promised Land like Moses did. The goal isn't to die in the Wilderness, but to make it to the Promised Land, to Heaven. Some of us are going to be holier than others. Some of us are going to be saintly and others will need Confession every week (or a couple times a week). None of that should matter (in the sense of comparing ourselves to each other). To paraphrase St. Augustine, the truth is that Jesus loves each one of us as if we were the only person in the world, and what matters is our relationship with Him and His Body, the Church.
So, going with Pope Francis' call for "the shepherds to smell like the sheep", he wants our priests to journey with us and we with them. Our priests are called to help us form our conscience - that's another item the media cherry-picked and distorted, pretending that Pope Francis said that our conscience trumps Church teaching. Our conscience is supposed to be properly formed through the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church so that, without having a priest on speed dial, we are able to make the proper life choices.
We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life. We find it difficult to present marriage more as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfilment than as a lifelong burden. We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them (37).
As the Catechism explains:
Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . His conscience is man's most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths (1776); this is the kind of conscience the Church asks us to follow, not the one that decides it knows better than what God has revealed to His Church - nor is it someone forcing us to do things against our will (like having us pay for a person's contraception or abortion).
I think about the Christians of Japan in the 17th Century; every single priest had been expelled from the country and thousands of Christians were tortured or executed for their faith. After 250 years, missionaries were allowed back into Japan and they were shocked to see many Catholics still practicing the faith, albeit in secret, but without any priests to guide them; this was because they had properly-formed consciences, which allowed God's grace to guide them in how to live a Christian life, and they successfully taught this way of life to their children. The same could be said about the US, as well. When the US was first formed, there was only one diocese and that covered the entire country. There were many Catholics who would go months (even a year) before a priest would ride into town, hear confessions, offer the Mass, assist the faithful as best he could, and then he'd have to ride off to the next area that needed him. I also think of North Korea; they haven't had a bishop (and therefore, no priests) since 1949. There are an estimated 800 to 3,000 Catholics still in North Korea and a typical Sunday is spent in the cathedral in Pyongyang, singing hymns and reading the Bible, but no Mass. It wasn't until 2015 that North Korea decided to allow South Korean priests access to Pyongyang to offer Mass for North Korean Catholics; since 1949, they've had no other option but to live their lives under brutal dictatorship, somehow keeping their faith due to God's graces and a proper formation of their conscience, and then passing that faith on to the next generation.
Quite honestly, I didn't find anything that Pope Francis wrote about as a big deal, even though plenty of Catholics were angry because they thought he was rejecting Church teachings and the Scriptures, while some non-Catholics were rejoicing for those same, misconceived reasons. No, the Pope is clearly holding to Church teaching, but trying to explain a merciful way of applying those teachings. The document goes through great lengths to show the importance of family and marriage. The document decries abortion and "gender ideology" (like trying to force North Carolina and Mississippi to accept that a man can call himself a woman and therefore use a women's room). The document explains the theological beauty that exists within marriage, sexuality, and child-bearing, along with the challenges against them that our modern life presents.
Ultimately, it is easy nowadays to confuse genuine freedom with the idea that each individual can act arbitrarily, as if there were no truths, values and principles to provide guidance, and everything were possible and permissible. The ideal of marriage, marked by a commitment to exclusivity and stability, is swept aside whenever it proves inconvenient or tiresome. The fear of loneliness and the desire for stability and fidelity exist side by side with a growing fear of entrapment in a relationship that could hamper the achievement of one’s personal goals (34).
The document also acknowledges that life isn't perfect; there are broken marriages, abuse in marriages and families, infidelity, abandonment, addictions. There are "modern families" of single parents, remarried spouses, cohabiting couples with children, and homosexual unions; the document tries to put these into perspective, highlighting the aspects of them that are moments of grace, but also showing them in the light that these situations are not the norm, nor are they the ideal, however they have a place in the Church in the sense that - far from accepting sinful behaviour or from putting these relationships on the same level as marriage - we are all called to conversion and God wills that all be saved, if we would just let him work in us to make us holy (which many times means abandoning our particular lifestyles). Again, the Pope is not condoning sin, but explaining that Christ the doctor came for the sick, not for the healthy; we all need Jesus and the Church doesn't reject anyone (which is different than rejecting sinful behaviour).
So, to my fellow Catholics who are upset over what they *think* the Pope said, just chill out. And to my fellow non-Catholics who are rejoicing because they *think* the Pope is changing the Church's teachings, sorry to disappoint you. The Pope is not changing anything, except that he wants to change our hearts to be more merciful and joyful about the faith. Instead of pointing fingers at each other, we need to start worrying about ourselves and how we live our life (and how we raise our family). Our best evangelization to each other and to an unbelieving world is through the way in which we love, in the way in which we glorify the Lord through the way we live our life, 24 hours a day. We don't need to out-quote Scripture to each other. We don't need to condemn each other. We don't need to shun each other. We're called to love the sinner, but hate the sin. And we're called to rejoice in the Lord. The Pope's document is trying to help us learn how to do both of those things. It's a defense of marriage and of true love (not the disordered love the world is trying to sell to us these days, but a Godly love, a love that gives until it hurts).
That's what the document is about, not about changing teachings or accepting sinful lifestyles. It's expressing the joyous, loving truth of the Christian faith, highlighted by the Church's teachings: No matter where we are in life, God is with us. No matter how dark our lives may be, there is a Light named Jesus to lighten our darkness. No matter how sinful our lives have become, there is no sin greater than the mercy of God. And we, the People of God, are in this together and we need to learn a way in which we can defend the Church's teachings, but not by doing so at the expense of giving people the impression that they are no longer welcome because they are not living up to the ideal; that's what the Pope is trying to explain to us.