Amoris Laetitia: The Key to the Francis Pontificate

By now many hundreds if not thousands of commentaries have been penned on Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (AL). They range from condemnations to lavish welcomes and then those analysts somewhere in the middle who praise the good and hold back criticism. In this mix there are the particularly odd responses as the one offered by Cardinal Raymond Burke who states that the document is merely what the pope “personally believes is the will of Christ for his Church, but he does not intend to impose his point of view” and dismisses AL as magisterial teaching. Then there are the most disturbing commentators who call the exhortation “ground-breaking” and even claim that Francis opened the door to Church acceptance of “gay marriage.”

This commentary hopes to get to the heart of why AL, in-particular Chapter Eight, is marked by a “studied ambiguity” (as a professor colleague of mine characterized this section)—and ultimately provides the key to Pope Francis’ entire pontificate.

As many readers may already know, Chapter Eight is the most controversial and thus most discussed portion of AL. The chapter may be divided into two sections. The first is focused on the sacrament of marriage and the pastoral need to employ the “law of gradualness” to those whose “forms of union radically contradict this ideal…” Francis calls the Church to a more inclusive, welcoming approach to those who are unable, due to a “complexity of various situations” to live the demands of the Gospel, that “even for such persons there can be some way of taking part in the life of the community…” at least for those who “are willing to listen once more to the Gospel message and its call to conversion.” This section discusses ways to integrate into the Church individuals who are divorced and civilly remarried. Even if the pope is advocating a more inclusive pastoral practice with moral ambiguities, even potential for scandal, which the pope says must be avoided, nonetheless, this section of AL is sound. Through the accompaniment of the Church, those in irregular marriages will “live and grow in the Church, and experience her as a mother, who welcomes them always” who seeks to bring her children to more fully realize the life of the Gospel.

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The controversial sections of Amoris Laetitia begin at article 300 with the headline “Mitigating Factors in Pastoral Discernment.” It is impossible to provide a full commentary here on all of the pope’s arguments presented in the second half of Chapter Eight. There are those, such as George Weigel, who believe that AL did not employ the “Kasper Proposal”—that of German Cardinal Walter Kasper who argued that under certain conditions Holy Communion may be given to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, since AL does not explicitly teach that those in irregular unions may fully participate in the Eucharist. However, Chapter Eight is completely dominated by a moral theology that rests on the primacy of conscience as the ultimate arbiter of whether a person is subjectively culpable for serious sin. It is indeed this very Kasparian reliance on the “internal forum” that can permit the Church (after discernment by a priest in particular cases) to offer Holy Communion to those in irregular unions. The point being that, those who sincerely believe they are not committing serious sin, then before God they are not culpable for sin, God thus does not count it as sin against them—and in this way such persons may receive Holy Communion.

While Francis may not endorse the entire Kasper Proposal, AL adopts it at least in part. Here are three particularly troubling passages:

302. The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly mentions these factors: “imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors.” In another paragraph, the Catechism refers once again to circumstances which mitigate moral responsibility, and mentions at length “affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen or even extenuate moral culpability.” For this reason, a negative judgment about an objective situation does not imply a judgment about the imputability or culpability of the person involved.

On its face, everything Francis states here is consistent with how the Church evaluates personal fault, and thus moral culpability. However, in article 303 Francis applies the lack of culpability in a relativistic manner:

Recognizing the influence of such concrete factors, we can add that individual conscience needs to be better incorporated into the Church’s praxis in certain situations which do not objectively embody our understanding of marriage. Naturally, every effort should be made to encourage the development of an enlightened conscience, formed and guided by the responsible and serious discernment of one’s pastor, and to encourage an ever greater trust in God’s grace. Yet conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal.

Then Article 305 states:

Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin—which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such—a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.351

At least a whisper of Kasper’s subjectivist “internal forum” can be heard here. Footnote 351 sheds light on what Francis means regarding the “Church’s help”:

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 [2013], 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). 352 Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (24 November 2013), 44: AAS 105 (2013), 1038-1039.

Francis may not have opened the door, but he has shown where one may find the key to a still locked door, the key whereby persons in “objective sin” but, judged by themselves and a “merciful” priest to be subjectively non culpable may receive Holy Communion.

The ultimate key to understanding Francis comes at the end of AL, Article 311:

We put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance. That is the worst way of watering down the Gospel. It is true, for example, that mercy does not exclude justice and truth, but first and foremost we have to say that mercy is the fullness of justice and the most radiant manifestation of God’s truth. For this reason, we should always consider “inadequate any theological conception which in the end puts in doubt the omnipotence of God and, especially, his mercy.”

Given what Francis has indicated in previous paragraphs, it is reasonable to understand him here to mean that the canonical requirement that those who have divorced and remarried should not be admitted to the Eucharist until they have received an annulment is a “condition on mercy” that waters down the Gospel. Such a “theological conception” challenges the omnipotence of God.

To understand what drives the Francis pontificate, is to appreciate his personal spiritual doctrine: the doctrinal pronouncements of the Church are subordinated to the primary value of mercy—and to insist on the practice of the demands of the Gospel (the rules) as a requirement for ecclesial membership opposes this primary value. Rather than mercy and the demands of the Gospel existing in a Christian paradox, for Francis they exist in conflict. Mercy is such a value for him that Francis states “the name of God is mercy.” I would argue that God’s name is not “mercy.” God’s name is “love.” It is love, and not mercy that is the essence of God out of which he exercises mercy toward sinners.

This emphasis on mercy first, the ethical requirements of discipleship second, explains why Francis consistently refers to moral absolutes in AL as the “ideal” with the emphasis placed on understanding the mitigating circumstances that prevent many from reaching that “ideal.” By placing mercy first in the hierarchy of spiritual values, and by subordinating to it the call to discipleship—a call which Christ himself taught involved the carrying of the cross, there is the possibility that the call to follow Christ will be muted and taken less seriously than Our Lord would wish. One may fairly conclude that in the spirituality of Francis, mercy trumps justice, love trumps truth—but without concluding that justice and truth are of no consequence.

The emphasis on mercy also explains Francis’ ecclesiology in his repeated description of the Church as “a field hospital for the wounded.” The field is mostly likely the battlefield of life itself, and in the midst of this broken, battered world, persons can come to the Church and be healed—the Church being that emergency room of welcome where wounds of personal sin and alienation are bound up. This idea of the Church is true, but only partially so. The metaphor gives the impression that Christians are not expected to perform acts of service, but to only receive acts of service—while we simply lay in hospital beds of mercy. There is no sense here that merciful healing leads to heroic fidelity to the Gospel which includes carrying heavy crosses.

Mercy is not simply important to Francis. The key to his pontificate is his insistence that mercy is the spiritual imperative of the Gospel that compels him to see as less imperative to the Christian life an insistence on the objective practice of the Gospel—a dynamic that certainly deserves deeper analysis. Let me conclude by saying that mercy is not the fullness of justice—as if to say that justice is subordinated to it. Rather, the fullness of justice is the new man recreated in the image of Christ through the grace he won for all on the Cross, a justice God wills all to possess.


  • Monica Miller

    Monica Miller, Ph.D., is the Director of Citizens for a Pro-life Society. She holds a degree in Theatre Arts from Southern Illinois University and graduate degrees in Theology from Loyola University and Marquette University. She is the author of several books including The Theology of the Passion of the Christ (Alba House) and, most recently, The Authority of Women in the Catholic Church (Emmaus Road) and Abandoned: The Untold Story of the Abortion Wars (St. Benedict Press).

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