Austin Ivereigh has a fantastic, extremely helpful “preview” of what to expect in Pope Francis’s document on marriage and the family, due to arrive tomorrow. The piece is helpful because it already gets beyond the “did he change anything or didn’t he?” binary spin that we will inevitably see. In fact, the document will undoubtedly be spun in both ways. As Ivereigh notes, the basic teaching of the Church on marriage and divorce will be reiterated. There will be continuity. What changes, Ivereigh notes, is a “new attitude.” He frames this in terms of a recognition of new and disturbing threats to the family, which need a response that is not “idealistic finger-wagging,” but one of accompaniment and mercy.
I won’t try here to sum up the piece, but as I was reading it, I ran across the photo of the current Argentinian president, who became the example of the first leader who was divorced and remarried (indeed, his third marriage) to be received with their spouse by the pope. Ivereigh connects this to Francis’s insistence that the Church must be willing to eat with prostitutes and sinners. He writes:
Pope Francis has been at constant pains to stress that no one should ever feel excluded or judged, and that the Church is not in the business of condemning anyone, but of bringing them to an encounter with God’s mercy. This is a message that will be triple-underlined in Amoris Laetitia, which may well have harsh words for pastors and parishes that view the divorced and remarried as a threat from which the Christian community must be protected.
I think there are two complexities here that need to be unpacked. The first is what is meant by the Church not making people feel “judged” or “condemned.” This must be understood properly. I recently did a parish seminar on Laudato Si’, and it’s pretty difficult to read that text without feeling judged. Of course, many people who “feel judged” when reading Catholic social teaching feel perfectly comfortable coming to Church anyways, whereas people who “feel judged” by the Church’s teaching on divorce and remarriage feel excluded… because in systematic ways, they are.
Furthermore, claiming that the Church does not condemn, while superficially attractive, surely is not literally the case. Who does not agree that the Church should have been more outspoken about slavery and Nazism? Who does not think that the church should be more forceful in condemning racism? We must be making some kind of a distinction here. It would be helpful for us to clarify the distinction.
Which brings me to my second complexity. It seems to me that we would ordinarily distinguish – and it is certainly not always possible to distinguish – among different sorts of public sin. We can use the example of public bigotry . First, there are repentant bigots. These are people who have held false beliefs and done bad things, but who have recognized their sin and repented. Often, public repentant sinners in our culture do not receive mercy; they are forever tagged with their transgression. It is most clearly and obviously the case that the Church should be a place of welcome for repentant sinners.
A different group: people who participate, in real ways, in racist structures, and they don’t make the kinds of radical changes some might want, but they feel trapped by circumstances. These sorts of cases are ones Catholic moral theology has not handled well, precisely because they are muddled and ambiguous. Perhaps an easier example is the ways I feel condemned by the economy I’m in and the lifestyle I lead. If I’m honest, I don’t think I’ve fully embraced the Gospel on these issues. I’m not even always sure what that would look like in our time and place. So, Pope Francis is asking us to imagine that this is exactly how people may feel about their sexual lives. Because of many, complicated circumstances, they find themselves living in ways that seem contrary to the ideals of the Gospel. They may even accept the ideal union proposed by the Church. But they don’t know how to get there. This is behind the calls for “gradualism” of various sorts, and a more candid recognition that, like social issues, the struggle to live a good life in the realm of sexual relationships is constrained by circumstances.
But there’s a third group here: the complacent bigot. Now, the complacent bigot is not necessarily the person who goes out and joins a white supremacist group. The complacent bigot is more likely the person who succeeds in explaining away their bigotry. Their bigotry is not, in fact, really bigotry at all. It’s just the way the world works. There’s nothing you can do about it. Their own choices are innocent, even praiseworthy. Again, for some of us, perhaps economics provides a better example. This is a person who, in fact, does not really even pretend that the Gospel is an ideal, or if they do, then the Gospel is “just an ideal,” and there is no expectation of actual choice attached to it.
I think the Church has a stake in distinguishing between the struggling and the complacent. As I said, it is not as if I think we should go out and have small faith group meetings and call people out according to these categories. It is not always easy to discern, for oneself or for others, whether one is struggling or complacent. But my worry is that, if we do not distinguish between these, we really do fail. In his pre-game commentary on the encyclical, Thomas Reese rightly reminds readers that Pope Francis is always thinking about the global South. The problems there are different. That’s entirely right. And moreover, the multiple problems of dislocation, drugs, and poverty make some parts of our culture look much, much more like a fragile place. The foot forward here should definitely be mercy.
But it would be foolish and dangerous to ignore the condemnations often necessary, condemnations, for example, of sexual violence, of irresponsibility toward children, of unapologetic pornographication of culture. Moreover, it would be less obvious but clearer to recognize that, at least for some, divorce and remarriage is seen as a positive, a modern freedom to be appreciated. The Church must comfort the afflicted. But let’s not delude ourselves that, when it comes to marriage and family, there are also comfortable who might need to be afflicted. Let’s hope Pope Francis’s exhortation leads us closer to getting this balance right.