Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’ recent publication on family issues, is a real cliffhanger. It reads like a Wild West thriller.
It’s the pope’s answer to the Episcopal Synod which met in Rome over the last two years, tasked with responding to the contemporary crises of the family.
Here’s the plot: A backward town has been taken over by a gang of crooks, frauds, and patriarchal chauvinists. They’re well-entrenched. And the Black Hats have all the locals cowering behind locked doors. Unexpectedly however, a new sheriff shows up with his shiny star and white hat. The gangsters try to bribe him to join up with them. Sheriff Frank is clearly tempted. But then in the final chapter, he utterly defeats the Black Hats calling on a secret weapon no one foresaw.
That’s roughly the tale of Pope Francis, his Vatican adversaries, the Episcopal Synod and Amoris Laetitia.
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Beforehand, observers knew that many of the Synod’s participants comprised a dark gang stubbornly opposed to any changes in church doctrine. They would surely uphold moralist positions like Nancy Reagan’s famous “Just say No.” Reaffirm the law and expect the faithful meekly to obey.
At the same time, everyone was aware that Pope Francis’ leanings were in the opposite direction.
The early chapters of Amoris Laetitia reveal a titanic struggle. They are like listening to the backroom argument between Sheriff Frank and those tempting him to cross over to their dark side. It’s a back-and-forth that has readers wondering where the pope will eventually land.
The Black Hat Gang insists on doing things “the way they’ve always been done around here, Mr. Sheriff.” This means no change in the church’s positions on contraception, abortion, extra-marital sex, transgender identifications, same-sex marriage, divorce, euthanasia and assisted suicide.
Sheriff Frank seems confused at first. He asks in effect: “What about the example of Jesus, his universal love and his prohibition about judging others?”
Of course, he says much more. Amoris Laetitia runs to 260 pages.
What’s important is where the new sheriff comes down. To defeat his opponents, he calls upon his version of “situation ethics” and fires his “silver bullet” — mercy. It saves the day. In the end, he argues, mercy and sensitivity to situations dictate that:
▪ The Black Hat Gang is correct that the objective demands of God’s law must be recognized as applying to everyone without exception.
▪ Human beings only gradually integrate the law’s requirements over the course of their entire lives.
▪ This means that circumstances such as immaturity, pace of moral development, lack of knowledge, appreciation of the law, along with a whole host of mitigating circumstances often excuse subjects from the law’s requirements, at least temporarily.
▪ In the end, conscience, love and mercy (recognition of life’s “wonderful complications”) are the most reliable guides we humans have.
That’s the pope’s final word on the contemporary crises of the family and human sexuality, including contraception, abortion, divorce and same-sex marriages.
That, after all, is about as much as Sheriff Frank or anyone can do for Catholics, isn’t it?
The rest, as he says, is up to us — and the sovereignty of our consciences.
Mike Rivage-Seul of Berea is a former priest and a retired professor.
At issue: April 9 Associated Press article, “Pope emphasizes flexibility over rules for modern families”