Pope encourages pastoral approach to love and marriage

By Savi Hensman
April 16, 2016

Pope Francis’ new document on love, marriage and the family involves no change in core doctrine, to the dismay of many. However it does call for pastoral sensitivity, local flexibility and respect for all, opening the door to greater inclusion.

Numerous people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) or divorced have long been frustrated by Vatican teaching. Even couples using contraception are going against official doctrine.

Roman Catholic theologians and ordinary churchgoers have often pointed out that too narrow a vision of sexuality and family life is not in keeping with the essence of the Gospel. The church hierarchy has held firm, sometimes suppressing dissent.

However over the years there has been a sometimes subtle shift, with more emphasis on how loving intimacy brings benefits beyond procreation. Pope Francis has opened up discussion, holding two synods on the family.

The new 'apostolic exhortation', Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), encourages this process to continue, stating that “not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled” by Vatican intervention and that the Holy Spirit continues to guide the church towards the entire truth (citing John 16.13).

Also “Each country or region” can “seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs.” This may prove helpful to those leaders who have made efforts to be more welcoming, for instance by backing LGBT-friendly ministries.

In a chapter on the Bible, Jesus’ radical break with the mainstream 'family values' and emphasis on fertility of his society is not acknowledged. Important aspects of experience, including of women ground down physically, financially and emotionally by constant childbearing, are not adequately recognised.

The Pope also repeats an earlier baffling Synod claim that “the decline in population, due to a mentality against having children and promoted by the world politics of reproductive health, creates not only a situation in which the relationship between generations is no longer ensured but also the danger that, over time, this decline will lead to economic impoverishment and a loss of hope in the future.” The global population continues to soar.

In general, the document takes at face value some of the earlier claims which have bolstered the “traditional” position but which theologians and social scientists have called into question.

More positively the impact on families of such factors as lack of adequate housing, employment and healthcare is acknowledged and violence against women condemned. The importance of love, in its various aspects, is examined, not simply physical fertility, including the outward-facing facets: “A married couple who experience the power of love know that this love is called to bind the wounds of the outcast, to foster a culture of encounter and to fight for justice.”

In addition “It is important that the divorced who have entered a new union should be made to feel part of the Church. ‘They are not excommunicated’ and they should not be treated as such, since they remain part of the ecclesial community.”

With regard to LGBT people, “We would like before all else to reaffirm that every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration, while ‘every sign of unjust discrimination’ is to be carefully avoided, particularly any form of aggression and violence” (though it would be good to see firmer action internationally against criminalisation).

In general “Some forms of union... realise [the ideal of marriage] in at least a partial and analogous way. The Synod Fathers stated that the Church does not disregard the constructive elements in those situations.” Responsiveness to real people in real situations is emphasised: there is a need “to avoid judgements which do not take into account the complexity of various situations.”

An enlightened conscience “can do more than recognise that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognise with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal.”

A “cold bureaucratic morality” is rejected, in favour of “a pastoral discernment filled with merciful love, which is ever ready to understand, forgive, accompany, hope, and above all integrate.” Pastors are urged to listen to those in “complicated situations” with “sensitivity and serenity, with a sincere desire to understand their plight and their point of view.”

Similarly while this document might not be ideal, given the fine work of so many Roman Catholic and other theologians over the past half-century, what it does achieve deserves to be affirmed. It opens the door to inclusion at a practical level and moves the universal church a step further towards recognising the connections between divine and human love.

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© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on these issues. She is  author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22613

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.