Catholics and others, reading accounts in the mainstream media of the Pope's most recent document on the family (released April 8), might easily conclude that the statement is a major disappointment, a setback for those wanting changes in the church's handling of divorce and remarriage, among other issues.
In fact, the document is radically important since it calls on those of us who are Catholics to act like adults. It indicates that the individual is more important than rules. Francis does not believe he has all the answers or that the church should dictate rules for moral behavior or tell people what to do. Rather, the emphasis is on pastors giving guidance on a case by case basis so that individuals can make their own private decisions.
Although I have only read excerpts of the 260-page treatise, I have read the comments of John Thavis, a veteran Vatican observer, as well as Michael Sean Winters, Thomas Reese, and James Martin (among others) in America, Commonweal, and the National Catholic Reporter.
The key take-aways (for me) from what Pope Francis says, in summarizing two years of deliberations by the world's bishops, are inclusiveness, conscience, discernment, and collegiality.
One term at a time: collegiality is crucial because the Pope states clearly that many issues are to be settled at the local level, by the individual and his or her pastor--not by Rome. The bishops and other clergy are being reminded of their role as guides.
Discernment: people are capable of their own moral choices in complex situations, as Chicago Archbishop Cupich said yesterday. Discernment re-states a key idea from the Second Vatican Council: that the individual conscience is the final arbiter of the moral life.
As Pope Francis states, the church has been "called to form consciences, not to replace them." Each pastor is called upon to accompany people so they develop spiritual maturity. As Winters states in NCR, "Francis is calling the church to a deeper conversion than a mere change in rules." He is reaching out to the unchurched, disaffected, seemingly excommunicated members to reassure them they are welcome.
He wants Catholic lay people to have an adult discussion of doctrines, which many of us have thought were beyond discussion, such as can a divorced and re-married person receive Communion? The answer (as Fr. Martin sums it up): the final decision about "the degree of participation" in the church is left to a person's conscience.
The Pope deftly avoids mentioning receiving Communion specifically just as his overall document deftly avoids coming down on the side of the liberal or the conservative wing of the church. He is, after all, a Jesuit.
This strikes Ross Douthat of the New York Times (today's Op-Ed) as disturbingly ambiguous: he prefers clear, authoritative regulations since he worries about a "deeply divided" church and a Pope who is "licensing innovation" and relativism. There is no mention in Douthat's column of the primacy of conscience or of the welcoming, inclusive attitude of "Amoris Laetitia," as the document is called (the Joy of Love).
So while conservatives like Douthat worry about a church becoming soft, the rest of us rejoice that, in preparing this major document, Pope Francis has thoughtfully listened to all sides on the moral issues involved and has done something more radical than change the rules: he has challenged us to think in Gospel terms, in terms of mercy, not judgment.
If all this sounds complicated, Francis sees complication as "wonderful" since, as he writes, "no easy recipes exist." Amen.