So the pope is a Catholic. Surprise, surprise. Anyone who expected otherwise from Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) has not been paying attention there at the back.
It was never on the cards that Pope Francis was going to change Catholic Church teaching, even had he the will or powers to do so.
Those familiar with the man’s background in Argentina and who had been observing proceedings at the synods of bishops in Rome last year and in 2014 would know that when it came to the grand issues Pope Francis is not for turning.
And so abortion, same-sex marriage, divorce, contraception remain “out”. No surprise there then.
However, the great difference where Pope Francis is concerned is not in the church’s teaching, which he clearly states, but in its application to real, living, suffering human beings and their context.
His is a world of overwhelming consolation for sinners like himself.
Amoris Laetitia is a prescription for gentle application of church teaching in situations where the all-too-human fall short. Pastors “while clearly stating the church’s teaching”, were “to avoid judgments that do not take into account the complexity of various situations, and they are to be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience and endure distress because of their condition,” he says.
He warns against “wasting pastoral energy on denouncing a decadent world without being proactive in proposing ways of finding true happiness.”
Instead, the church should “reflect the preaching and attitudes of Jesus, who set forth a demanding ideal yet never failed to show compassion and closeness to the frailty of individuals like the Samaritan woman or the woman caught in adultery.”
The church “must be particularly concerned to offer understanding, comfort and acceptance, rather than imposing straightaway a set of rules that only lead people to feel judged and abandoned.”
When it comes to the divorced who have entered a new union, they “can find themselves in a variety of situations, which should not be pigeonholed or fit into overly rigid classifications leaving no room for a suitable personal and pastoral discernment,” he said.
“It was important they should be made to feel part of the church. ‘They are not excommunicated’ and they should not be treated as such, since they remain part of the ecclesial community.”
“Language or conduct that might lead them to feel discriminated against should be avoided, and they should be encouraged to participate in the life of the community,” he said.
On same-sex unions he is unequivocal. “There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.” However, he qualifies this by saying: “We would like before all else to reaffirm that every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration, while ‘every sign of unjust discrimination’ is to be carefully avoided, particularly any form of aggression and violence”.
Single parents “must receive encouragement and support from other families in the Christian community, and from the parish’s pastoral outreach”.
In such situations, and where cohabiting couples, are concerned “there is a need ‘to avoid judgments which do not take into account the complexity of various situations’ and ‘to be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience distress because of their condition’.”
“A pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in ‘irregular’ situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives.
“This would bespeak the closed heart of one used to hiding behind the church’s teachings.”
Where sex itself is concerned he is refreshingly positive. “In no way”, he says, “can we consider the erotic dimension of love simply as a permissible evil or a burden to be tolerated for the good of the family.
Rather, it must be seen as gift from God that enriches the relationship of the spouses.” Women in particular will welcome his dismissal of an interpretation of that infamous line from St Paul.
He says: “Every form of sexual submission must be clearly rejected.
This includes all improper interpretations of the passage in the Letter to the Ephesians where Paul tells women to ‘be subject to your husbands’. (Eph 5:22).”
And in a statement that may yet have wider application in church teaching he continues: “This passage mirrors the cultural categories of the time, but our concern is not with its cultural matrix but with the revealed message that it conveys.”
Women in the home
On women in the home he seems in two minds. “Nowadays we acknowledge as legitimate and indeed desirable that women wish to study, work, develop their skills and have personal goals.
“At the same time, we cannot ignore the need that children have for a mother’s presence, especially in the first months of life.”
He continues: “The weakening of this maternal presence with its feminine qualities poses a grave risk to our world.
“I certainly value feminism, but one that does not demand uniformity or negate motherhood.”
In general church pastors “in proposing to the faithful the full ideal of the Gospel and the church’s teaching, must also help them to treat the weak with compassion, avoiding aggravation or unduly harsh or hasty judgements,” he says.
What Amoris Laetitia does is to reaffirm a view of Pope Francis as not so much a lover of the law as a lover of the spirit of the law and, in particular, of flawed humanity to which it applies.