Pope rankles conservative Catholics with new family ministry plan

by Kiley Crossland
Posted 4/13/16, 12:45 pm

The pope’s much anticipated apostolic exhortation on the family has conservative Catholics calling for clarity.

The document, a 256-page commentary on matters of love and family released Friday, is the culmination of a contentious two-year process aimed at defining how the Roman Catholic Church can best minister to today’s Catholic families. The pope set out to address a number of issues, including marriage, divorce, homosexuality, contraception, and “gender ideology.”

But the resulting document, titled Amoris Laetitia, or The Joy of Love, is anything but clear, according to Voice of the Family, a pro-family and pro-life coalition of 26 global Catholic organizations. In a statement released Friday, Voice of the Family called the document “a threat to the integrity of the Catholic faith and the authentic good of the family.”

The group’s main concern is its lack of clarity. Pope Francis repeatedly avoided coming down hard on key issues in the sweeping document, preferring instead to wrap his responses in terms of love and mercy without clear doctrinal application.

“I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion,” he wrote. “But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness.”

The most contentious debates leading up to the document have centered on communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.

“It looks like the pope is opening this door that cannot be opened,” said John-Henry Westen, a Voice of the Family co-founder, addressing the communion question. Although Francis did not explicitly say divorced and civilly remarried Catholics should be allowed communion, he seemed to signal a path for priests to offer communion at their discretion. Westen called that a “grave danger.”

Traditionally, the Church has taught those who divorce and civilly remarry are committing adultery and therefore should be barred from communion. The only exceptions are if the first marriage is annulled or the remarried couple consents to live as brother and sister, not husband and wife.

When asked if the Church needs a message of mercy and love right now, Westen said absolutely.

“But it needs to come with truth,” he insisted. “When you have mercy without truth, it’s false mercy.”

Westen said Pope Francis seems to have a severe disconnect with reality, perpetuating an image painted by the mainstream media, of a Church full of “hard-hearted priests running around yelling at people.” Westen called that perception “bizarre.” Those priests who dare to speak out on homosexuality and divorce do so out of love for people and are “merciful enough to say the hard truths and take the hate of the world,” Westen said.

Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, called the pope’s exhortation “very calculated ambiguity.”

“Liberals have for a long time been demanding that the Catholic Church change its teaching on crucial sexual issues, moral issues, including the issue of divorce,” Mohler said in a podcast Monday. “And yet, as the pope released this statement on Friday, he did not change the teaching. So why is this such a transformative liberal document? It’s because without changing the teaching of his Church, the pope basically opened the door to ignore it.”

So what does the document accomplish moving forward? Westen, who closely followed the entire two-year process and was present in Rome for the two synods on the issue, notes that while some media outlets are calling the document authoritative, it’s not an infallible magisterial document and therefore should be read simply as the pope’s opinion.

Westen hopes that if enough cardinals speak out, they can convince Pope Francis to acknowledge “that some opinions he has shared are detrimental because of the lack of clarity” and to offer clarification to those points.

Is that likely? 

“No, unfortunately,” Westen admitted. “But I don’t bar a miracle.” 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Kiley Crossland

Kiley reports on marriage, family, and sexuality for WORLD Digital. Follow Kiley on Twitter @KileyCrossland.

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  • Narissara
    Posted: Thu, 04/21/2016 02:26 pm

    Classing this statement as an apostolic exhortation, by definition, is meant to put the weight of the church's authority behind it.  That family advocacy groups are seeking clarification tends to confirm that this is more than just an opinion.