The dust is still settling on the recent papal Apostolic Exhortation The Joy of Love. For some traditionalists it is a catastrophe, evidence of the work of the anti-Christ. For some liberals it is too traditional, lacking in imagination and innovation. The traditionalists have the merit of reading between the lines, the liberals, ironically, are being too literal. Cardinal Kasper’s shrewd observation seems closer to the truth – the document ‘doesn’t change anything of church doctrine or canon law – but it changes everything’.
The positive and realistic tone of the document is refreshing. Young lovers are encouraged ‘to keep dancing towards the future with immense hope’, while children in families need to learn how to say ‘sorry, thank you and please’. With regard to ‘irregular situations’ Francis does not go the way of new rules, but stresses instead the need to accompany and discern, with a view to integration and with a focus on conscience.
Conscience, he states, helps us to understand ‘what God is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while not yet fully the objective ideal’. Even in an objective situation of sin a person can (due to mitigating circumstances) ‘be living in God’s grace…can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end’. A footnote indicates that the Church’s help may, if appropriately discerned, include the help of the sacraments, not excluding the Eucharist ‘which is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak’.
What this approach indicates is a shift away from the notion of a kind of sclerotic, rule-bound approach which uses doctrines as stones to be hurled at the imperfect. Instead, as Irish theologians like Enda McDonagh and Raphael Gallagher have often proposed, doctrine springs from a symbiosis between orthodoxy and orthopraxis, there is a mutuality and reciprocal conditioning of real life experience, the freedom of the gospel and church teaching. This theological equivalent of the dance of young lovers towards the future is helped to develop from the realization that we are all weak (Francis: first I am a sinner) and are all in need of the ‘logic of mercy’. The liturgical notion of ‘happy fault’, when speaking of the sin of Adam, is a poetic way of indicating Christian confidence that where sin abounds, grace is even more abundant.
None of this is by way of condoning wrong-doing or diluting the challenge of the gospel. But it is by way of allowing for the complexity of human situations, the presence of good in even less than ideal situations, the ultimate responsibility of personal conscience and – because we are also social beings, as Christians living in a church- the process of discernment within the church community (Francis refers to the local priest but also other lay people as partners in this process).
This way of proceeding implies several realities which for the most part are dormant in the current practice of the Catholic Church, not least in Ireland. It implies respect for the ‘sense of the faith’ of the baptised faithful: the words of Francis come out of widespread consultation among the faithful, and it is clear, for him, that ‘thinking with the Church’ includes the faithful, theologians and bishops.
Secondly it implies the means by which the faithful may be consulted – and so, elsewhere, he has said that a synodal church is ‘what God expects from the Church in the Third Millennium’. This is part of his project of a ‘healthy decentralisation’ – he notes in this address too that not all issues need to be addressed by the central Magisterium, that each country and region needs to seek solutions best suited to their own needs. He also notes the need for ‘continued open discussion of doctrinal, moral, spiritual and pastoral questions’ in the complex area of family life. Not all issues are primarily disciplinary in nature (like the admission of divorced and remarried people to Communion). Some bear on the teaching itself – is contraception intrinsically disordered, is a homosexual orientation disordered, are there good reasons why women cannot be ordained? The way to answer these questions with integrity will be by means of a three-fold conversation between the faithful, theologians and bishops.
Are we in Ireland ready to take up this challenge of a more collegial, synodal church? Limerick has led the way here – a very well prepared gathering, inclusive, with a real sense of church renewal. There have been some similar if once-off developments in other dioceses. But it is clear that Francis is inviting us to something more regular, general and normative, a new way of being church: this is a real moment of opportunity for the Irish Episcopal Conference.
Lampedusa and Lesbos, care of our common home the earth, critique of unjust economic systems, concern with family life and in particular those in difficult situations – this is all of one piece in the approach of Francis towards the mission of the church. This mission will be more effectively carried out if church reform takes place. The reform required is a synodal, inclusive church. Everything has changed – Francis is pointing the way, but can’t do it on his own. Can we run with this in Ireland?