The start of a new year fuels speculation about what it will hold.
The election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States (some say he is the 44th since Grover Cleveland was both the 22nd and 24th) already challenges prediction.
The surprises in Pope Francis’ leadership of the Catholic Church are likely to continue as he promotes a less legalistic and more pastoral approach to the Church’s mission and ministry.
One of the certain challenges for episcopal conferences and individual dioceses will be how to implement Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia, his exhortation on family life, especially chapter eight, commonly entitled “Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness.”
Most of this apostolic exhortation focuses on the gift of married love and the blessings of family life. Pope Francis and the bishops of the two synods on family wanted to offer support and encouragement to husbands, wives and their children in light of God’s plan and the Church’s teaching. At the same time they also addressed the trials, troubles and failures which threaten this basic building block of Church and society.
Having affirmed that breaking the marriage bond “is against the will of God,” Pope Francis’ exhortation also acknowledged the weakness of many members of the Church. He confirmed that “the Church must accompany with attention and care the weakest of her children” by restoring in them both hope and confidence. The Church’s task, he said, “is often like that of a field hospital” (# 291).
He noted that the bishops who participated in the Synod on the Family (the 14th ordinary general assembly of the synod of bishops, October 4-25, 2015) did not fail to acknowledge that even in civil marital situations which do not correspond to the Church’s teaching on marriage the grace of God can be found in such constructive elements as the courage to do good, to be caring toward one another in love, to be of service to the community around them (## 291-92).
The synod bishops and the pope’s exhortation recall Pope John Paul II’s teaching on the “law of gradualness,” which acknowledges that people grow at different rates in their understanding, appreciation and implementation of the objective demands of the law (# 295).
It is in awareness of this phenomenon and in the light of divine mercy that the Church chooses to take the path not of rejecting but reinstating people in situations of weakness and imperfection.
The synod and the pope agree that the Church has the responsibility to help people in marital or cohabiting situations outside its teaching to come to an understanding about grace in their lives and offer them assistance toward the fullness of God’s plan for them (cf # 297).
Even more challenging for the Church and her ministers is to acknowledge situations “where, for serious reasons, such as the upbringing of the children, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate” (# 298).
There is in some cases, of course, the possibility of a Church-granted declaration of nullity. Or, as the exhortation suggests, there can be situations calling for the application of “the discernment of pastors,” perhaps a reference to the unnamed but sometimes used “internal forum” (cf # 298).
The exhortation cautions against making those in such situations to feel that they are excommunicated. Catholics who divorce are not excommunicated, nor are Catholics who divorce and remarry under excommunication.
Pope Francis explained, “If we consider the immense variety of concrete situations such as those I have mentioned, it is understandable that neither the Synod nor the Exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases” (# 300).
Bishop Robert McElroy met the challenge of implementing Amoris Laetitia for his San Diego, California diocese by calling for a local synod and responding to recommendations raised during the six months of meetings and discussions.
According to the report in the National Catholic Reporter (Nov18-Dec 1, 2016), the San Diego synod issued 15 recommendations, offering support for family life and a response to those who are divorced and remarried. Among the recommendations are creation of a diocesan office for family spirituality which would develop resources for ministering to families, including “the divorced, single-parent, widowed, deployed, deported, special needs, multi-generational households and LGBT.”
In his own pastoral letter “Embracing the Joy of Love” (which set the stage for the diocesan synod), Bishop McElroy challenged San Diego Catholics to develop a culture of invitation, welcoming, and hospitality for families of all kinds, and to offer support to those who are divorced.
Other dioceses across the country and around the world will likewise read, study and embrace Amoris Laetitia and develop ways to help families, as Pope Francis put it, “to grow and mature in the ability to love” (# 325).