In a letter to the Roman Catholic Church released on Friday, Pope Francis encouraged an attitude of humility and grace in the Church toward married couples and reiterated the Catholic doctrines of the goodness of sex and the church’s inability to accept homosexual unions as marriage.
Media reports will focus on the more liberal side of his message, how Francis pushed for more acceptance of gays and lesbians, Catholics who have divorced and remarried, and those in other “irregular situations.” This is true — Francis did ask the Church to be more forgiving and graceful, but he did not alter doctrine. The Catholic Church still condemns homosexual unions, as it affirms the goodness of sex within marriage.
As would be expected, CNN’s David Wright reported the more liberal side. “In the letter, the pope urged more common sense and less unthinking following of rules — what he calls ‘discernment’ — and writes, ‘by thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and growth.'”
Francis did write this, but in the context of how the Roman Catholic Church applies the rules already in existence. This Church is a global body, with about 1.2 billion members. The rules must be steady, but each parish priest and deacon should have discretion in sharing these strictures, and the primary goal of any Christian church is to preach the love and mercy of Jesus Christ. This grace must overshadow any legalism, and this is the right Christian spirit which Francis is applying to these issues.
“The way of the Church is not to condemn anyone forever; it is to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart,” the pontiff penned.
In this spirit, Francis encouraged priests and church leaders “to try to approach marriage crises with greater sensitivity to their burden of hurt and anxiety.” This is Christian charity, something all churches need to work on portraying. After all, Jesus came to serve, not to be served — the body of believers which represents him on earth needs to have that same spirit, even while we hold fast to his teachings on morality.
The Catholic Church has always taken a stringent line against divorce and remarriage, since it considers marriage a “sacrament,” one of the seven holy means of God’s grace, and since it follows Jesus’ teaching that divorce should only be considered for matters of marital infidelity. Francis did not abandon this doctrine, but he did encourage priests to help each couple look at their actions and circumstances, recognize their own responsibility for the divorce, and acknowledge the teaching that marriage is indissoluble.
In this careful, compassionate way, the priests should ask the couple to prayerfully discern God’s calling to them.
Francis insisted that it would be a “grave danger” to give the impression that “any priest can quickly grant ‘exceptions’ or that some people can obtain sacramental privileges for favors.” Couples who have divorced and civilly remarried must be welcomed in the Church, but without an annulment of a previous sacramental marriage, such a couple would not be able to receive communion or absolution of their sins unless they promised to live as “brother and sister.”
Nevertheless, the pope acknowledged that blame for divorce is not always equal, and argued that “the effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same.”
Next Page: Sex and Gay Marriage
The letter was not all about rules, however. Francis also encouraged married couples to let their love grow and to consider marital sex as a good gift from God.
The pontiff openly opposed the old idea which considered “the erotic dimension of love simply as a permissible evil or a burden to be tolerated for the good of the family.” “Rather,” Francis wrote, “it must be seen as a gift from God that enriches the relationship of the spouses.”
“Marital love is not defended primarily by presenting indissolubility as a duty, or by repeating doctrine, but by helping it to grow ever stronger under the impulse of grace,” the pontiff added. “A love that fails to grow is at risk. Growth can only occur if we respond to God’s grace through constant acts of love, acts of kindness that become ever more frequent, intense, generous, tender and cheerful.”
The pope reiterated that “in no way must the Church desist from opposing the full ideal of marriage, God’s plan in all its grandeur.” This includes the wonders of sex, but it also means an inability to accept gay unions as marriage.
Francis repeated his insistence that the Roman Catholic Church cannot consider same-sex unions to be a marriage, partially because of the wonders of male-female sexuality (a view which many secular Americans would likely find ironic).
Nevertheless, the pontiff was equally insistent that Catholics welcome gays and lesbians, and treat them with Christian charity. “Every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity,” Francis wrote. All Christians should heartily agree to that.
The liberal image of Pope Francis tells only half of the story. On social issues, the pontiff is as conservative as Rick Santorum, even if he speaks a bit like Barack Obama. It’s only on the economic issues that Francis comes off as rather liberal, and on those grounds, he will be welcoming Bernie Sanders to the Vatican.