When Pope Francis published Amoris Laetitia five months ago, I predicted that the discussion of the document and its implications for Catholic teaching on marriage and the family would be lively and sometimes acrimonious. So it has turned out. The debate took a fresh turn last week with the publication of theoretically private correspondence between the Pope and the bishops of his native Argentina concerning the interpretation of a central point.
Before looking at the contents of the leaked letters, it may be useful to refresh our memories about Amoris Laetitia and why it is controversial. Vatican documents rarely hold the public’s attention for long – though the number of impassioned pundits seems to have increased during the current papacy.
Early in his pontificate Pope Francis made clear that he wanted the Synod of Bishops – a worldwide body which since Vatican II has met periodically to discuss topical issues – to discuss the place of the family in the world today and its repercussions for the Church. As a sign of the importance of the issue, the debate would take place over two synods in successive years.
It is usual for each synod to be followed by the publication of a “post-synodal exhortation” where the Pope sums up the bishops’ findings and adds reflections of his own. Amoris Laetitia, the exhortation following these two synods, was the longest papal document in history, reflecting the complexity of the issues involved and the Church’s desire to shed light on the crisis confronting the modern family.
But the issue which grabbed most attention was the possibility that Pope Francis might change the discipline on Communion for the divorced and remarried. The Pope had given strong hints from the first months of his pontificate that he wished to relax the traditional discipline, which regards marriages contracted by Catholics after divorce and without annulment of the first marriage as adulterous, constituting a bar to reception of the Eucharist.
The synod debates proved inconclusive. There was fierce opposition from many bishops to any relaxing of the discipline, which had been reaffirmed energetically by Pope St John Paul II. In the end, a compromise formula was found, which spoke of re-integrating these Catholics into the full life of the Church under the guidance of clergy but did not specify whether this included Communion. All eyes were on Francis. Would he fling open the door which his favoured theologians had managed to prise ajar?
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