How Pope Francis’ ‘Amoris Laetitia’ Could Affect Families and the Church

By LAURIE GOODSTEIN and JIM YARDLEY
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Pope Francis arriving for his weekly audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on Wednesday. On Friday, he is expected to issue a long-awaited statement on the family. Credit Andrew Medichini/Associated Press       
 
 
In what could be an important moment for his leadership of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis is scheduled to issue a major document on Friday regarding family issues. It is titled “Amoris Laetitia,” Latin for “The Joy of Love.”
 
In the document, known as an apostolic exhortation, the pope could change church practice on thorny subjects like whether divorced Catholics who remarry without having obtained annulments can receive holy communion. He might address debates over same-sex relationships, cohabitation and polygamy, an issue in Africa. Or, he could sidestep such divisive topics and stick to broader philosophical statements.

How Long Did This Take?

For the past two years, Francis has guided the church through a sweeping exercise of self-examination that some scholars have compared to the Second Vatican Council. Catholics around the world filled out detailed questionnaires about whether the church meets their families’ needs. Bishops and other church officials spent two tumultuous meetings at the Vatican, known as synods, debating and arguing.
 
The broad topic was whether the Catholic Church should reposition itself, and how. Francis listened, prodded and sometimes steered the process, but he mostly kept his own counsel. Until now.

What’s at Stake?

Having led Catholics into such delicate terrain, Francis has stirred hope and fear. Some religious conservatives warn he could destabilize the church and undermine Catholic doctrine. Some liberals, though, are hoping Francis will directly address same-sex marriage and contraception in a way that would make the church more responsive to today’s realities.

“I’m sure he knew he would touch some nerves,” said John Thavis, a longtime Vatican analyst and the author of “The Vatican Diaries.” “He may not have appreciated how much opposition there could be.”

But both sides might be disappointed.

Some who study Francis predict the apostolic exhortation will be a broad statement on universal problems affecting families, like poverty, migration, domestic violence, health care, youth unemployment and the neglect of children and the elderly. Francis’ encyclical on the environment, “Laudato Si’,” released in June, was an enormous study in connecting the dots, and experts are expecting a similar sweep in “Amoris Laetitia.

“This document is meant for Catholics all over the world, some of whom are in desperate straits because of poverty and war and other crises that make having a family life almost impossible,” said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a senior analyst for the American newspaper The National Catholic Reporter. “This pope, his heart aches for these people who are so marginalized. I’m sure this document will address that.”


Francis arriving at a morning session of the synod at the Vatican in October 2015. Credit Alessandra Tarantino/Associated Press

So What’s All the Fuss About?

Francis signaled early on that he wanted the church to re-examine its ministry to those who feel excluded, calling bishops to two synod meetings on the family, in 2014 and 2015. One of the major issues debated was the church policy that bars divorced Catholics who have remarried without seeking a church annulment of their first union from receiving the sacrament of holy communion, a centerpiece of Mass.
 
(How strictly this ban is observed varies widely, depending on local priests and bishops; plenty of remarried Catholics receive holy communion regularly.)
 
Getting an annulment requires appearances before a church tribunal and a fee, and it can take years. Francis streamlined the annulment process last year, but for many, it is still an insurmountable obstacle to full participation in the church. Some dioceses, especially in developing countries, do not have such tribunals, which require judges trained in the church’s canon law.
 
At the synods, many bishops insisted that giving communion to divorced Catholics would undermine a core church doctrine that marriage is indissoluble. But other bishops were intent on finding a way to welcome back the divorced.
 
The second synod ended by essentially allowing both sides to declare victory. However, the dispute reverberated among Catholic intellectuals in the United States, with conservatives warning of an intrachurch civil war.
 
Now, everyone is looking to Francis to settle the matter. But he may sidestep it, some experts said, by reaffirming church teaching that marriage is permanent, while encouraging flexibility in pastoral practice toward the remarried.
 
A guide that the Vatican sent to Catholic bishops before the release of “Amoris Laetitia” offered only hints like this: “The pope’s concern is therefore to re-contextualize doctrine at the service of the pastoral mission of the church.”
 
M. Cathleen Kaveny, a professor at Boston College who focuses on the relationship between law, religion and morality, said she was expecting “some sort of movement.”
 
“If there is no shift at all, it would have been better had the whole discussion not been opened,” she said. “I think that people are looking to Francis to provide some way forward in these intractable personal situations.”                             

The Last Word?

This type of document is a post-synodal apostolic exhortation. The first one to be issued in response to a synod of bishops was in 1967, by Pope Paul VI.
 
Apostolic exhortations are not as authoritative as papal encyclicals, and they do not normally change church doctrine. But there is doctrine, and there is practice, and the pope’s instruction can influence how priests and bishops apply doctrine.
 
This is Francis’ second apostolic exhortation. The first, “Evangelii Gaudium,” or “The Joy of the Gospel,” was released in 2013, Francis’ first year as pope, and it is considered his manifesto. In it, he proclaims that the church must be open and humble to people’s real needs, and not too rigidly fixed on doctrine. Many expect to see those themes echoed in the new document.

The Francis Effect?

Francis is one of the world’s most popular and influential figures, with a public persona that blends humility with boldness. From the first moments of his papacy, Francis challenged the Vatican hierarchy and took strong stances on issues such as capitalism, poverty, migration and climate change.
 
But Francis is also deeply pragmatic, particularly regarding internal church politics. Francis may want to be a bold reformer, but he knows the church can be pushed only so far, so quickly, especially given differing opinions among church leaders. He needs the world’s bishops to be unified behind him if he wants changes to filter to the parish level.
 

When Can We Read It?

The document will be published at noon on Friday in Rome, or 6 a.m. in New York. The New York Times will highlight excerpts.
 
 

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