|Father James Martin, SJ|
Father James Martin recently published in America magazine the top ten “takeaways” from Amoris Laetitia. I think they are worth considering and I want to make some comments on them here as Father Martin gives us some great insights into what really is a historic shift in the way we perceive the moral issues affecting contemporary family life. Here is number one.
1. The church needs to understand families and individuals in all their complexity. The church needs to meet people where they are. So pastors are to “avoid judgments which do not take into account the complexity of various situations” (296). People should not be “pigeonholed or fit into overly rigid classifications leaving no room for personal and pastoral discernment” (298). In other words, one size does not fit all. People are encouraged to live by the Gospel, but should also be welcomed into a church that appreciates their particular struggles and treats them with mercy. “Thinking that everything is black and white” is to be avoided (305). And the church cannot apply moral laws as if they were “stones to throw at people’s lives” (305). Overall, he calls for an approach of understanding, compassion and accompaniment.
There has been in the past, at least in American Catholic culture, too great an emphasis on the objective moral values without placing them in the context of the every-day-life situations in which real people find themselves. Despite the admonitions of Saint Paul both in Romans and in Galatians, we seem determined to live under the law—or at least make our neighbor live under the law—rather than under grace. The old catechism, for all its flaws, reminded us that circumstances qualified the sinfulness of our wrongdoings. In addition to the act having to be gravely wrong to be a “mortal sin,” we had to know that it was wrong and we had to give full consent of the will to it. We were conditioned to interpret “know it is wrong” and “full consent of the will” in the most narrow of senses. In fact it is not enough for a priest or a parent or a nosy neighbor to tell us something is wrong for us to know it is wrong. To know that it is wrong we must have, if not a full understanding that it is wrong at least that interior conviction of its wrongness. And full consent of the will is even more complex as a variety of exterior circumstances can seriously affect our freedom to make the best possible choice. Moral decisions are often not easy and they are even less often “black and white.” This is not to condone “situation ethics.” Wrong remains wrong; right remains right but the degree of moral culpability is not a steady quotient. Even more to the point, however, is that it is not left to us to evaluate the state of another person’s soul and to throw the stones of judgment at those with whose moral decisions we disagree.
In the first session of the Second Vatican Council Bishop Emil de Smedt of Brugge (Belgium) declared that the Church had to move away from “clericalism, legalism, and triumphalism.” Some progress on this migration had been made before the long winter’s night of John Paul II and Benedict XVI set in and now Francis seems to be returning to the previous course. I think it no coincidence that those most upset by the distinctly unjuridical tone of Amoris Laetitia are the same voices that decry the fully conscious and active participation in the Liturgy and who just get goose-bumps at the thought of a Pontifical High Mass at the Throne in the Extraordinary Form. In other words, it is all of a package. Of course this can be interpreted a number of ways. The contemporary liturgy might be watering down our moral sensibility and diminishing our sense of right and wrong whereas the rubrical rigor of the old Mass kept us all corralled into sinless lives. Or, on the other hand, perhaps the contemporary Liturgy is allowing us to perceive the Gospel in a new light: one that shows us through the Good Samaritan, through the good thief, through the Pharisee and the Publican, through Jesus having table fellowship with sinners, through the woman in the house of Simon the Pharisee, and even through those gentile magi, that in God’s sight life is not lived in the black and white. To whichever interpretation one is inclined, it is another clear indication that we have two Churches that are drifting further and further apart.