Last week we reached the beginning of the end of the pontificate of Jorge Bergoglio — the ‘great reformer’ of the Catholic church who, it appears, has been unable to deliver the reforms that he himself favours. This despite being Pope.
On Friday, he published a 200-page ‘exhortation’ entitled Amoris Laetitia, ‘The Joy of Love’ (or ‘The Joy of Sex’, as English-speaking Catholics of a certain vintage immediately christened it). This was Francis’s long-awaited response to two Vatican synods on the family, in 2014 and last year, which descended into Anglican-style bickering between liberals and conservatives.
At the heart of the disputes lay the question of whether divorced-and-remarried Catholics could receive Holy Communion. Until now they have been banned from doing so because the Church teaches that their first marriages are still valid and therefore their current union is (though the word is diplomatically avoided) adulterous. Also, though this is one bit of the New Testament that Protestants seem to have forgotten, if there was one thing Jesus couldn’t stand it was divorce.
Even traditionalists don’t like refusing the sacrament to devout Catholic couples, when one of the pair had a disastrous ‘trial marriage’ many years earlier. But they do refuse, because they believe that is God’s teaching. Meanwhile, more easygoing priests have adopted a policy of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’.
Most cardinals at the two synods didn’t want to waste time on the ban on Communion for divorcees. But one ancient German prelate did. Cardinal Walter Kasper has been worrying away at this problem for half a century, proposing this or that ‘route’ by which the ban could be relaxed.
No one paid much attention. Then — in what I think will be seen as the defining disastrous moment of his reign — the newly elected Pope Francis decided to make Kasper’s long-forgotten plans the basis for discussion at the 2014 synod. Eighteen months of chaos followed. To cut a long story short, the 2015 synod told the Pope that the Kasper plan was unacceptable, especially to the conservative churches of Africa.
This left Francis with a fallback position that would have somehow devolved divorce-and-Communion questions to local bishops. But he’d have to impose it on the Church with no mandate from the synod. As last Friday approached, everyone was asking: will he or won’t he?
Like many Catholic journalists, I was sent a copy of Amoris Laetitia on Thursday night. I checked, several times, the bits where Francis could have dismantled the ban or devolved the power to do so to bishops’ conferences. He didn’t. Instead, we were told that priests should ‘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’.
In other words, yadda, yadda, yadda, since the Pope was just quoting existing teaching. I couldn’t resist tweeting: ‘It’s Cardinal Kasper here. Could I cancel that order for champagne tomorrow?’
When Amoris Laetitia came out at noon, there was lamentation from ‘progressive’ Catholic commentators. Christopher Lamb, Vatican correspondent of the Tablet, who instead of reporting had acted as a mouthpiece for Kasperites during last year’s synod, said it looked like Francis wanted to make changes but his bishops wouldn’t let him.
Then the conservatives made a discovery. ‘Footnote 351!’ they yelled. ‘That is where the devil lurks!’
I’d missed it, of course, and so had most of us racing through the exhortation on Thursday night. It refers to the help the Church can give people ‘in an objective situation of sin’ so they can ‘grow in the life of grace and charity’. Since it is already being referred to as ‘the infamous Footnote 351’, I’ll reproduce it in full:
In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, ‘I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy’ (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium [24 November 2013], 44: AAS 105 , 1038). I would also point out that the Eucharist ‘is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak’ (ibid., 47: 1039).
Those quotation marks and square brackets are significant. They show that Francis is quoting things he’s already said. So no change there. He does, however, juxtapose a reference to confession and one to the Eucharist in such a way that you can infer that the Pope thinks it’s OK for confessors to readmit divorced-and-remarried Catholics to Communion. But you have to read between the lines — or, rather, join two sentences that Francis chose to separate with the word ‘also’.
Step forward the hardline American conservative Michael Brendan Dougherty. He wrote an article entitled ‘The cowardice and hubris of Pope Francis’, which wins my prize for the ‘Go on, tell us what you really think’ headline of the year.
According to the article, Francis ‘strongly encourages the readmission of people in “objectively” adulterous unions to Holy Communion. He doesn’t trumpet this, of course. He buries it in the 351st footnote. For a man showing such great audacity before God, Francis certainly isn’t bold before men.’
Also, Dougherty denounced conservative ‘cowards’ who embraced what was good in the Pope’s ‘ton of verbiage’ but passed over the rest. In fact, it’s easy to ‘pass over’ Francis’s ‘strong encouragement’ of Communion for the divorced-and-remarried — because it isn’t there.
As for the Pope’s ‘cowardice’, we don’t know enough about how the document came to be written to make a judgment. But how odd that the one passage that may hint at what he really wanted to do — relax the ban — is stuffed into a footnote. You could interpret this as sneaky, or an admission of his weakness, or a bit of both.
The official line is that the Pope didn’t want to distract attention from a robust yet sensitive defence of marriage. That’s what you’d hear from Cardinal Vincent Nichols (of whom it’s sometimes said that you’ll never find out what he thinks about anything until he knows he’s risen as high as he’s going to go).
But, as one priest-theologian told me, ‘Let’s be honest, no one actually reads these documents.’
In the end, the chief effect of Amoris Laetitia is to ensure that waters Pope Francis deliberately and foolishly muddied will stay muddy. Since he first raised the subject, divorced-and-remarried Catholics haven’t known where they stand vis-à-vis Communion. Now we know that Francis isn’t going to enlighten them. He has been forced to abort his revolution, if that’s what he was planning.
In the process, he has achieved his aim of making the papacy less intimidating, though not in the way he intended. This week he looks less like a supreme pontiff and more like a prime minister who has failed to get a bill through parliament.