Conclusions were expected. But, instead, Amoris Laetitia – Pope Francis’ post-synodal apostolic exhortation, published finally after two years of a synodal journey concerning the family – leaves everything open. Even the thorny issue of access to sacramental Communion for the civilly divorced and remarried is left open. The Pope introduces the issue by saying it is understandable that neither the synod nor the present apostolic exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases. In the end, even the issue of conscience, and the need to discern case by case – that is, a common praxis for the Church – has become a hot issue. Nevertheless, looking at the way the exhortation is set out, we can tell that the teaching of the Church is more represented in the text than are the doctrinal openings. Just notice the praise in it of Blessed Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae and the theology of the body of St. John Paul II.
Rather than on details, we should focus on Pope Francis’ modus operandi. This much is clear: the Pope wants a Church in a state of permanent Synod, living a sort of perpetual discussion that does not take anything for granted. When the exhortation turns to a normative casuistry, Pope Francis’ tune is cold. When the exhortation is about the casuistry of life’s situation, the Pope warms up. “Realities are more than ideas,” is one of the four criteria Pope Francis provided in the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, and it is certainly the criterion most employed in this apostolic exhortation. However, this criterion is never mentioned in Amoris Laetitia. Instead, another one is mentioned often: “Time is greater than space.”
That is: we cannot impose any novelty, the Church’s teaching remains untouched, but in the end people will understand. Pope Francis calls everything into question in order to ponder the various positions. However, he always stresses what he thinks. But, as a Jesuit, he does not close any possibility, and leaves every pastoral line open.
That Amoris Laetitia is an open text is spelled out clearly in the introduction. “The complexity of the issues that arose – the Pope writes – revealed the need for continued open discussion of a number of doctrinal, moral, spiritual, and pastoral questions.” And then the Pope stresses: “Since “time is greater than space” I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium.” That means that the Synod time is not over. But the compasses provided by Pope Francis come directly from the Church’s tradition.
Even the much-acclaimed opening of access to sacramental Communion for civilly divorced and remarried is, in fact, suggested in a footnote between paragraphs 300 to 310. The footnote is number 366, and it talks about “sacramental discipline” without, however, an explicit mention of Eucharistic communion for the divorced and remarried. This is the way Pope Francis acted with caution.
The apostolic exhortation, in the end, is a wonderful tool for understanding Pope Francis’ rationale. He is described as being everything and its opposite: he is a liberal Pope, he is a revolutionary Pope; but he is a conservative Pope, an old-fashioned Pope.
In fact, Pope Francis is probably both. For in regard to access to Communion for the civilly divorced and remarried, for example, Pope Francis – in a footnote in the exhortation – quotes a 2000 declaration by the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, thus confirming that teaching. Then, when he touches on some hard hitting points, he offers a long explanation of case by case discernment, thus explaining in the end that there are no norms without exceptions. This way, he seems to contradict other papal documents. For example, it might be that he contradicts St. John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor which insists on the existence of intrinsic evil. Or it may only be that he contradicts Benedict XVI’s 2007 post-synodal apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, whose paragraph 29 clearly explained the conditions under which the civilly divorced and remarried may have access to Communion. There is also need for a further reconciliation between Amoris Laetitia, numbers 297-312 and St. John Paul II’s 1981 post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Familiaris Consortio, number 84.
However, frequently in the apostolic exhortation Pope Francis stresses that nothing has changed in doctrine. He also underscores that there is something per se evil, when he explains to the divorced and remarried “never, ever take hostage your child”, with a tone that shows that he believes it is intrinsically evil.
In the end, what does all of this mean? Simply that Pope Francis apparently believes that pastoral care can be completely detached from doctrine. The apostolic exhortation is rich in recommendations to spouses, mothers, fathers. There are important moments, such as the condemnation of gender ideology, of abortion, of euthanasia – all issues strongly anchored to the Church’s tradition.
However, Pope Francis wants priests to “smell like sheep,” and this is something more important to him than systematic reasoning in doctrine. Probably, Pope Francis does not want to veer from the Church’s teaching: he simply does not consider doctrinal continuity pivotal.
As already said, the exhortation is cold when talking about norms and it is warmer when talking about sentiments and people. From this we can note another characteristic of Pope Francis’ pontificate: he wants priests who are perceived as being close to people, no matter what their doctrinal orientation is.
This is what Edward Pentin analyzed well in a two–article length analysis in the National Catholic Register. In the end, whenever Pope Francis perceives that a priest tends to be close to people, he automatically feels sympathetic to that priest. This is probably one of the reasons behind the fluctuating appointments of bishops, swinging from conservatives to progressives: sometimes Francis makes choices in continuity with his predecessors (like the appointment of Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki as Archbishop of Cologne); in some other cases, the appointments mark a break with predecessors (like the appointment of Blaise Cupich as Archbishop of Chicago).
In the end, doctrinal issues matter less to Pope Francis. His style is an informal one: he does not definitely love institutional issues.
This informality leads to thinking that Pope Francis is going to dismantle the Church’s teaching, as an accompaniment to his dismantling of the Holy See, or at least the so-called Vatican Bank. But he has not done any of this. Instead, he tends simply to ignore the institutional side of his job. His agenda is filled with meetings that are not in his secretaries’ hands. His best ideas are those he produces suddenly.
One of the latest ideas he had was to travel to Lesbos, Greece, to show closeness to refugees that are reaching the small Greek island. The trip is scheduled to take place April 16. There were many signals that the Pope wanted to go to the refugees. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, went to Macedonia and then again to the Balkans, and his constant presence there led to thinking about a possible papal trip to Kosovo. Then, the Orthodox Bishop of Greece – Orthodoxy is the state religion in Greece – intensified his efforts for refugees, attempting to show the European spirit of his people and in this way he also opposed the secularist Greek government, the first in Greek history that had not sworn its oath of office in the presence of the Archbishop.
Hence, the idea to launch an invitation to the Pope to visit the so-called “Lampedusa of Greece.” The Holy Synod of the Greek Orthodox Church agreed, and it seems that the suggestion came from the Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I. Bartholomew was also invited. And he obviously accepted.
He accepted because of politics, on both sides. The Orthodox Archbishop of Greece wants Bartholomew to be at the meeting because the latter lives in Turkey, the country that is most involved with Greece in the exchange of refugees. At the same time, Bartholomew wants to meet the Pope before the Holy and Great Pan-Orthodox Synod takes place. After the meeting between Pope Francis and Kirill, the Patriarchate of Constantinople needs to show the Moscow Patriarchate that they still have a privileged channel of communication with the Pope.
This way Francis risks being pulled from one side the other in a struggle internal to the Orthodox world. He does not care. He just described the February 12 joint declaration with Patriarch Kirill as a “pastoral declaration”, and then he quickly multiplied initiatives for the Ukraine, as if he had to balance his gestures. In his view, even the visit to Lesbos is a pastoral visit, since the Pope goes where he can show his commitment at its best.
The word “pastoral” is one of Pope Francis’ favorite, as it allows him to stay open on questions. He hardly ever makes straightforward decisions, and when he does he always leaves open an emergency exit. A Council of Cardinals was given the duty to design a major curial reform, and when some of them proved determined to do just that, some slight changes were introduced. Pope Francis backed the Secretariat for the Economy proposed by Cardinal George Pell, and he praised the establishment of a Secretariat for Communications led by Msgr. Dario Edoardo Viganò. Likewise, he did not oppose the establishment of a Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.
However, the great majority of reforms is stalled. Even though the Pope always makes the final decision, the Council of Cardinals is entrusted with discussing every possible reform. They actually live this “state of permanent Synod” that soon emerged as one of the ways this pontificate exercises its governing duties.
By focusing on bioethical and moral themes, “Amoris Laetitia” underscores the importance of the social commitment of families. This commitment is even considered more important than the others, as Pope Francis deems it a sort of enlargement of the concept of family toward the poor, the orphan and the widow.
Francis does not think through big themes, but through concrete data. When he hears about political or diplomatic issues, he instinctively acts with caution (this is probably one of the reasons why he made no public appeal to save Asia Bibi, the Pakistani mother sentenced to death and imprisoned because of her faith).
However, he acts strongly when his “diplomatic / political” role enables him to make gestures that break with certain scenarios that have been crystallized for centuries (as represented in the meeting with Patriarch Kirill and the consequent relations with the Moscow patriarchate) or to show closeness to the poor and to the periferies (as in the upcoming trip to Lesbos and the papal trip to Armenia, which will be followed by a trip to Georgia and Azerbaijan). No matter what the consequences may be, the Pope will act.
This is his way to go “outward bound” in order to creat new spaces for evangelization. The problem is that anyone can exploit the Pope’s openness in order to back his own agenda. Who knows whether this part of Pope Francis’ persona was already prepared during the pre-conclave meetings prior to the conclave? Who knows whether this persona is being exploited whenever anyone tries to force Pope Francis’ words by interpreting them outside of tradition?
Certainly, Francis helps others to think that it is he who is creating the breach. After all it was he who insisted that “Communion is not a right.” On the other hand, he showed some openness to discernment over access to Communion for the civilly divorced and remarried, though he does not directly mention it in the apostolic exhortation. In this way he deconstructed the narrative about his pontificate, and showed continuity with his predecessors. But the same apostolic exhortation praises some of the Pope’s decisions (especially for the simplification of the procedures for causes of nullity) and shows the need for a conversion in language.
In the end, these discussions are part of a wider and shifting discussion. Pope Francis is still a priest with pastoral concerns and a bishop who pays great attention to people’s pragmatic problems. He is a man of government: he collects opinions and emphasizes them when needed. He makes his decisions when needed.
However, the Pope is a Jesuit, and knows how to mess things up: he does not provide final responses to questions.
This is the reason why we can consider the synod of bishops still ongoing. The closing address has become an open discussion, part of a path that everyone must tread. In this, it is similar to Pope Francis’ pontificate: a path open to anything new. This is the model of the Church as a “field hospital” that approaches everyone and takes care of everyone immediately. Even with the risk that the project has yet to be defined.