One of the major obstacles Jesus had to confront in spreading the Good News was the legalism of the official religious leaders of his day.
On one occasion Jesus did not do the prescribed washing before eating (Lk 11:38). On another occasion, on a Sabbath, his disciples plucked heads of grain (Mt12:2). Also on a Sabbath Jesus cured a man’s withered hand (Mk 3:2). And on any given day of the week he could be found eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners (Lk 5:30) or a Samaritan woman (Jn 4:7-9).
The Pharisees challenged Jesus and his disciples for their failure to observe the law. When Jesus responded by asking whether it was lawful to cure on the Sabbath (Lk 14:3), and then challenged their pride in seeking places of honor (Lk 14:8) and called them hypocrites and blind guides, they began to plot against him (Lk 6:11).
They made “a formal act of correction of a serious error.” They said, “There are six days when work should be done. Come on those days to be cured, not on the Sabbath day” (Lk 13:14).
Not all of the Pharisees opposed Jesus. John says that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night (3:1-2). Luke says that Joseph of Arimathea, who claimed Jesus’ dead body, was a member of the Sanhedrin (23:50). It takes, however, only a few opponents acting in bad faith to foment divisions.
We can surmise the reaction of the scribes and Pharisees who brought the woman caught in the act of adultery and made her stand in the middle only to have Jesus offer her compassion and understanding without condoning her failure (Jn 8:1-11). It must have been clear to them that Jesus was undermining Mosaic teaching and long-standing tradition.
They stood on the solid ground of irreformable moral principles. Under different circumstances they would have likely judged it their responsibility to request a clarification lest there be widespread confusion leading people into error. Jesus was causing a tremendous confusion about what is an intrinsic evil, about the state of sin and about the correct notion of conscience.
The Pharisees believed they had a responsibility before the people for whom they were religious leaders. For them to remain silent about these fundamental doubts would be a grave lack of charity. No wonder, as Jesus continued his teaching, that his opponents picked up stones to throw at him” (Jn 8:59).
It is, of course, undeniable that Pope Francis’ exhortation Amoris Laetitia (Love’s Joy) has led to much discussion, debate, and differences of interpretation. Chapter eight quickly became the focus of attention. It addresses the issue of the permanence of marriage and the frailty of people. It urges pastoral care for those in marriages not sanctioned by the Church, most especially the divorced-and- remarried.
The teaching in Amoris Laetitia is Pope Francis’ response to the discussions on “the family” which took place during the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in October of 2014 and the XIV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in October of 2015.
These Episcopal synods do not seek unanimity of thought, do not legislate, do not necessarily present infallible teaching. A synod, as Pope Francis reminded the bishops at the opening gathering, is “a protected area where the Church is experimenting with the action of the Holy Spirit.” It is an effort of the Church leadership to be open to the guidance of the Spirit so as to be faithful to the Gospel and to be Christ-like in applying the Gospel in the contemporary world.
Pope Francis wrote that he thought it appropriate to issue this exhortation in order to collect the contributions of the two synods on the family and to include “other considerations as an aid to reflection, dialogue, and pastoral practice.” This document on love in the family is presented “as a help and encouragement to families in their daily commitments and challenges.”
Amoris Laetitia re-affirms the biblical and Church teaching on the permanence of marriage. It confirms traditional teaching on marriage as a sacrament, on the necessity and characteristics of genuine love, on the erotic element of marriage, on the challenges to family life. The document does not reject former teaching nor introduce teaching that is new. It is, however, an application of the truth of the Gospel to the present age. It sometimes re-captures insights that may have been neglected.
In that critical and criticized chapter eight, Pope Francis said that when the synod bishops discussed how to deal with couples in so-called ‘irregular situations,” the synod fathers reached a general consensus which he said he supports, namely, “In considering a pastoral approach towards people who have contracted a civil marriage, who are divorced and remarried, or simply living together, the Church has the responsibility of helping them understand the divine pedagogy of grace in their lives and offering them assistance so they can reach the fullness of God’s plan for them.”
He went on to say that “the Church acknowledges situations where, for serious reasons, such as the children’s upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate.” He was referring to statements made by Pope John Paul II (for example in his Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, September, 1981) and Vatican II’s Gaudium et spes, #51, where the council fathers acknowledged that “where the intimacy of married life is broken, it often happens that faithfulness is imperiled and the good of the children suffers…”
Pope Francis also points to situations where a husband or wife unjustly abandons the spouse, and the abandoned party enters into a second marriage for the sake of the children fully convinced that “the previous and irreparably broken marriage had never been valid.” He immediately affirms that this is not the ideal which the Gospel proposes, but he notes too the statement of the Synod Fathers which insists that “the discernment of pastors must always take place ‘by adequately distinguishing,’ with an approach which ‘carefully discerns situations’” (Amoris Laetitia, # 298).
Most Catholics are aware of the possibility of a Church-sanctioned declaration of nullity when the Marriage Tribunal judges consider the circumstances of the couple and the apparent marriage and find it fatally flawed. Some Catholics are aware of the application of “internal forum” when sufficient evidence cannot be compiled to satisfy the judges and overturn the presumption that the marriage is valid. Amoris Laetitia (## 298-305) seems to be referring to this solution or one like it.
The exhortation specifically addresses the need to avoid “the notion that any priest can quickly grant ‘exceptions,’ or that some people can obtain sacramental privileges in exchange for favors” (#300). At the same time the document warns pastors to avoid simply applying moral laws to those living in ‘irregular’ situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives” (#305).
Pope Francis acknowledged that “neither the Synod not this Exhortation can be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases….Priests have the duty to ‘accompany (the divorced and remarried) in helping them to understand their situation according to the teaching of the Church and the guidelines of the bishop.”( Ibid, #300).
But more directly Pope Francis insists that “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….Therefore while upholding a general rule, it is necessary to recognize that responsibility with respect to certain actions or decisions is not the same in all cases.” (Ibid, ##301, 302).
There is, then, no template applicable to every couple or situation. Life is a lot messier than the application of law. Grey areas exist, and some critics of the pope and the exhortation cannot accept the ambiguities and discernments which must be factored into judging individual cases.
When a handful of critics among the hierarchy demands that Pope Francis answer their doubts, when they go public with their criticism, and when they threaten him with the possibility of making “a formal act of correction of a serious error,” it is possible to conclude that they are short in due discretion and humility and view the faith and moral standards through a legalistic prism . They see things simply in black and white and fail to acknowledge the grey areas and ambiguities of real life. Other hierarchs have welcomed the exhortation’s distinctions and direction. (The four prelates demanding that Pope Francis answer "yes" or "no" to their five questions concerning Amoris Laetitia are all cardinals: Carlo Caffarra, Raymond Burke, Walter Brandmiller, and Joachim Meiser.)
Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin, as cardinal-designate, said that Amoris Laetitia cannot be reduced to a question of “yes” or “no.” Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, DC, described Amoris Lateitia as a call for a compassionate pastoral approach and one that is “in continuity with the teaching of recent popes.”
A tendency toward legalism among some church-people is understandable when we consider that the Church’s law code has 1752 entries. The final entry, however, includes an acknowledgment that “the salvation of souls, which must always be the supreme law in the church, is to be kept before one’s eyes.” It is reasonable to expect that there be critics of the document’s attempt to include both dogmatic, canonical and pastoral theology. Amoris Laetitia is Pope Francis’ effort to bring a sense of balance and apply them in real life situations with orthodoxy, justice and mercy.
This supreme law echoes what the Roman philosopher and lawyer Cicero said a hundred years before the coming of Christ: "Salus populi suprema lex esto” (De legibus 3.3.8). More recently, however, critics challenged another great teacher: “…and one of them (a scholar of the law) tested him by asking, ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” And he said love of God and love of neighbor summarize all the Law and the Prophets (Cf. Mt 22:35-40).