NEW YORK (AP) — In his new exhortation on the family, Pope Francis brings his emphasis on mercy over rules to the particular situation of Catholics whose relationships fail to meet the church’s ideal — because of divorce, single parenthood or separation.
The document, “The Joy of Love,” fully affirms church teaching that marriage should be a lifelong bond between a man and a woman who are open to having children. But Francis says simply repeating doctrine won’t strengthen marriage or ease suffering in Catholics’ personal lives. Instead, priests and bishops must look at “concrete situations” facing parishioners, find the “grace” in their current circumstances and help them find ways to more fully participate in the church, the pope says.
Here are some key sections from the document:
Francis says “we need a healthy dose of self-criticism,” over how the church has presented its teaching on marriage. One fault, he says has been that church leaders have focused too much on the ideal, not the reality, of married life.
“At times we have also proposed a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families,” the pope writes. “This excessive idealization, especially when we have failed to inspire trust in God’s grace, has not helped to make marriage more desirable and attractive, but quite the opposite.”
Francis says church leaders have faced formidable challenges in holding up marriage for Catholics, citing a wide range of issues including poverty, violence, unemployment and individualism.
He indicates support for gay marriage is another obstacle. “Many countries are witnessing a legal deconstruction of the family, tending to adopt models based almost exclusively on the autonomy of the individual will,” he writes.
Still, he says laments over such developments would be “nothing more than the defense of a dry and lifeless doctrine.” Only a “message of love and tenderness” will work, he says.
Francis says repeatedly that condemnation of those who fail to meet the standards set in doctrine won’t be effective. He calls for an end to blanket judgments of such parishioners and suggests priests should instead find ways to include them.
“A pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in ‘irregular’ situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives,” Francis writes.
In another section, he writes, “It can no longer simply be said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace.”
The pope says church leaders should “make room” for parishioners, under the guidance of a priest and with knowledge of Catholic teaching, to prayerfully consider the right path for them in the church. He says clergy should avoid “overly rigid classifications” as they deal with the complexities of peoples’ lives.
“By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth,” Francis writes.
Parishioners are “capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations,” Francis writes. “We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.”
In some individual cases, that could lead to allowing Holy Communion for divorced Catholics who remarried without receiving an annulment, or declaration that their previous marriage was invalid in the eyes of the church.
Francis emphasizes that individual conscience over blanket rules should be used to make decisions about regulating childbirth. Francis has frequently stressed the need for “responsible parenthood,” and repeated that need in his document Friday.
He refers once to the church-sanctioned family planning method of abstaining from sex during a woman’s fertile time, but says only that such practices are to be “promoted” — not that other methods are forbidden.
“The clear teaching of the Second Vatican Council still holds: (The couple) will make decisions by common counsel and effort. Let them thoughtfully take into account both their own welfare and that of their children, those already born and those which the future may bring. … The parents themselves and no one else should ultimately make this judgment in the sight of God,” he says.