As is stated in our mission, this blog started among theological friends who were disappointed with polarization in the Church, and especially in discussions of difficult moral questions on the Web. At the time, in 2011, that bridging appeared to be a gradual operation that could be built over time. It was easier to write then. When Francis became pope almost five years ago, it seemed that the times for such charitable discussion across disagreement would grow. And yet, here we are, not blogging… hmmm…

One of the narrative threads of Ross Douthat’s forthcoming book chronicling the Francis papacy is that there are really two papacies. One was a potential bringing together of the uneasy lack of reconciliation between the Catholic Left and Right, as Francis went out of his way to foster a more visibly pastoral style, a constant awareness of “the smell of the sheep,” and a needed rebalancing of the fullness of the Catholic moral vision that did not let up on the life-and-death urgency of so-called “social justice” issues. The other was (is?) the potentially church-fracturing debates leading up to and coming out of the Synods on the Family. One was the Pope of Laudato Si’, the poor, and the Congress; the other was (is?) the Pope of… “the new paradigm,” of non-stop Amoris-driven moral theology.

So it is with great joy that I saw something from church leadership on Amoris… that actually brings people together! From my own ordinary! Cardinal Donald Wuerl has issued a detailed “pastoral plan” for implementing Amoris Laetitia in the Archdiocese of Washington. The plan has already earned praise, pretty lavish praise, from people typically on different sides of current church debates. Here is NCR’s Michael Sean Winters:

This text makes an important step towards moving the church beyond the controversies generated by the document, controversies largely confined to the pages of the Catholic press, and focuses on what Amoris Laetitia is really about, revitalizing the church’s ministry to families, married couples, those preparing for marriage, and those whose marital situation has led them to feel like they no longer belong within the fold. … On virtually every page of the plan, we see that the shift is not in what the church teaches about marriage and family life. The shift is in how the church ministers to the people of God. The word that dominates this pastoral plan is accompaniment.

And here is the Dean of DC’s Dominican House of Studies, Fr. Thomas Petri, OP, writing at CNA:

Cardinal Wuerl has … captured the passion of Pope Francis’ insistence that because we are all in need of it, we must also go out and give God’s mercy and truth to those who do not know it, who are not living it, and who are desperate to receive it. … Cardinal Wuerl’s plan focuses not specifically on couples in irregular situations but on all marriages. That’s why it focuses on preparing youth to give and to love, on developing a culture supporting the self-offering of marriage, on formation during the engagement period, and on supporting families in unique situations such as those with children who have special needs or those families with immigrant members. After so much polarization, we finally now have a local implementation of Amoris Laetitia that sees the larger picture of Pope Francis’ challenge and vision. It’s a plan that doesn’t get bogged down in a question that was neither asked nor answered in the exhortation…

This praise alone should make church leaders and theologians flock to read this plan, since so many other implementation plans have proven only to exacerbate our sad divisions. What’s Cardinal Wuerl’s secret sauce here? (And, the real question: can it be spread around Catholic members of Congress? Alas…)

In my view, there are three key elements:

  1. The first and last word – and most of the words in the middle – commit the Church, pure and simple, to helping people live out the vocation of family life. Which most people want. And many of those same people struggle with. This overcomes the tendency to pitch the document as about “who’s in and who’s out.” The core audience is people who want the vision the Church teaches, and yet genuinely struggle to live it. This is the most fundamental “accompaniment” recommended by the plan, and it suggests a realistic, lights-and-shadows perspective on the ups and downs of marriage and family that nicely captures Amoris’s own treatment. It is not romanticized, but it is passionate about the good of families. That’s perfect. Or to put it another way, when I was home for Christmas and met up with my sister for dinner and a movie, we chatted about work, and I mentioned I was writing papers for summer conference. “On what?” she asked. I reeled off a list, and said, “of course, I had to do one on Amoris.” “What’s Amoris?” she asked (see, MSW was right….). She had never heard Pope Francis even issued such a document, and her family is in church every week at their suburban parish. Cardinal Wuerl’s pastoral plan recognizes that my sister is the majority, and the Church needs to accompany her.
  2. But of course if one gets this accompaniment right, it should rather naturally flow to people with more complicated difficulties. Thus, DC’s plan approaches the challenges of more difficult situations with a kind of “gradualism” that recognizes a whole range of difficulties and challenges for families. Put another way, it doesn’t allow “difficulties” to become equated with “canonical difficulties.” By rooting the challenges to all marriages in the cultural tendencies toward “secularism, materialism, and individualism”, he STARTS with everyone in the same boat, with the same root challenges. (In another excellent touch, this trio is taken from a 2008 address of Pope Benedict!) These challenges, however, affect different people in different ways. And so he is able to dive deeper into the challenges faced in accompanying “the hurting” and “the distracted” and “the anonymous.” Again, the categories here elegantly and powerfully cut through the typical inside/outside classifications. It also marginalizes the typical framing narratives for Amoris which put everything in terms of a battle between rigorists and laxists.
  3. So does it just avoid the controversial stuff? No. The document makes three really important decisions, in my view, about how to handle the questions that typically divide. (a) It really does contextualize them in much, much broader ways, so that “reaching out to the hurting” or “the excluded” can’t simply be reduced to “reaching out to the people who are excluded by existing norms.” These cases are important, but they sometimes (on Left and Right) dominate the discussion to an extent that simply outruns their importance. Put another way, being “welcoming” or “excluding” as a parish community is about a lot more than implicit or even explicit “stands” on contested issues. In fact, getting accompaniment right on the contested issues – in actual on-the-ground ways, not politically-signalling ways – is likely a consequence of getting accompaniment right overall. (b) The treatment of the (non-)change of teaching and the primacy of conscience are placed together, on the same page of the document. The document does not seem embarrassed by this; indeed, the effect is to appear proud of affirming both things. This ought to invite people to think more deeply about the Catholic vision of the moral life! And what they will find on this page is very carefully done. There is a deft (and wholly correct) claim that there simply is NOT any actual “living out of the Church’s moral principles” apart from individual appropriation by conscience. Everyone must do the work of “applying.” Yet the work of applying is sometimes hard and challenging. Sometimes it is made hard and challenging by larger cultural formation that is not simply a matter of “inadequate catechesis.” As a teacher of undergraduate moral theology, let me tell you that among the least of our problems is that students do not know what the Church teaches on this or that topic. Arguably, the deeper problem is now a culture that has made it hard for them to understand any deep, mature moral conviction; the now-all-digital world presents a non-stop stream of manipulative images and propaganda (on both sides) that crowds out mature commitment. Too often, students either screen the whole mess out or plunge in wholeheartedly. Moral quietists or moral fanatics. Not morally-mature people. The invitation in the pastoral plan is clearly to the work of developing deeper reflective capacities for all. (c) And finally, it drives this home by reminding us what (I fear) is often not noted in discussions about conscience, but is crucial (and is frankly something I learned very early in my Catholic education): the primacy of conscience comes with the responsibility of conscience:

Pastoral dialogue and accompaniment involve the development of conscience and also the expression of a level of support or confirmation for the judgment the individual is making about the state of his soul or her soul. That judgment is the act of the individual and is the basis for their accountability before God.

I would really like to meet the person who wrote this, because it is about as good on the seriousness of conscience as I’ve seen. Note well that genuine “accompaniment” includes an appropriate “expression of a level of support” – meaning, it seems to me, that genuine pastoral accompaniment is positive in tone, but not always at the same level. Pastors must (and usually do, I hope!) discern with an individual and try insightfully to help the individual see where they are doing good work, but also where they might want to reflect more. Because ultimately, the pastoral guidance is helping people undertake a most serious act: responsibility before God. The Catholic teaching on conscience is not first and foremost about affirming individual autonomy – that simply is the culture’s individualism and secularism. It’s about affirming individual responsibility of exactly this sort. It’s about saying at the end of the day, we are accountable to God for our lives. Really and truly. I sometimes wonder if those who argue on the extremes of these questions, trying to pull the Church “their way,” end up over-committing to the ecclesiastical battle because they’ve lost sight that the real stakes will be worked out by God.

Anyway, let’s hope this Lent that we can follow Cardinal Wuerl’s lead, come back to the Lord, and figure out how to get that first version of Francis’s papacy back in the driver’s seat.