THE JOY OF LOVE
“…neither do I condemn you”.
I don’t know whether you have every attempted to read a papal encyclical – I tried to digest a couple of Pope John-Paul’s early ones but found them very hard going to be honest. Since then I have to say I have tended to rely on summaries in the Catholic press. I’m not saying they should read like the latest John le Carré novel, but the style does tend to be off-putting. There’s a nice story that Pope John XXIII, when asked if he had written every word of his ground-breaking encyclical Pacem in Terris, replied: “No, but at least I have read it”.
With Pope Francis, it’s different. I recently read his Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) (Technically an Apostolic Exhortation but we’ll not split hairs) and there is a wonderful freshness and attractiveness about the style and content that compelled me to try and write something about it.
I find a long walk helps me to organise my thoughts and I went for a stroll to mull things over. For some reason, that beautiful gospel narrative of the woman caught in adultery (John 8: 1-11) came urgently to mind. You know the story – The Pharisees drag before Jesus a (no doubt) terrified woman who they say has been discovered in the very act of adultery. What is his view? If he tells them to pardon her he is going against the unambiguous teaching of Moses. If he says she should be stoned in conformity with Mosaic Law, he would contradict his own clear teaching of compassion and mercy, and therefore be revealed as a hypocrite. Either way, he loses his authority.
Jesus then does something remarkable – he begins to write on the ground with his finger. How much ink has been expended by gospel commentators trying to imagine what he wrote! My guess is that it simply gave him a few moments to think – after all there did not appear to be any acceptable answer to this question, and a woman’s life, and his future mission, probably depended on his response. In any case, he came up with the perfect response – “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone”. What Jesus did was to look beyond the yes/no alternatives and see directly into the heart of the problem. (He did the same when he was asked should taxes be paid to Caesar or not). The core of his answer was this: all men and women are sinful, we all need mercy not judgment. But he expressed it in an ingenious way, driving the message home without denying the need to follow appropriate ethical and religious laws. The men when home, the lady was released. Then Jesus said something very beautiful:
Woman, has no-one condemned you?
“Then neither do I condemn you. Go, and sin no more”.
Jesus, though without sin, understood the hearts of sinful men better than anyone. Here he shows that he was fully man and fully God. He knew we were all sinners, longing for forgiveness. He also knew, like none other, that the heart of God was forgiveness and mercy.
Woman, where are they? Has no-one condemned you?
It was then that I realised why this gospel story had parachuted into my mind. Amoris Laetitia (AL) is about mercy, not condemnation.
Pope Francis describes the document as “especially timely in the Year of Mercy. First, because it represents an invitation to Christian families to value the gifts of marriage and the family and to persevere in a love strengthened by the virtues of generosity, commitment, fidelity and patience”. But second, and crucially, “because it seeks to encourage everyone to be a sign of mercy and closeness wherever family life remains imperfect or lacks peace and joy”. (AL para 5)
It is impossible to discuss the whole document in this blog – it is primarily a beautiful hymn to the wonder and joy of married life and its unique ability to be life-giving. Very few are the voices these days in support of fidelity in relationships and this document is the most eloquent one I know:
“Marriage is a precious sign, for when a man and woman celebrate the sacrament of marriage God is, as it were, “mirrored” in them; he impresses in them His own features and the indelible character of this love. Marriage is the icon of God’s love for us”. (AL 121).
He goes on to say that marriage is the best image we have of Heavenly love:
“All the mystics have affirmed that supernatural love and Heavenly love find the symbols which they seek in marital love rather than in friendship, filial devotion or devotion to a cause. And the reason is to be found precisely in its totality”. (AL142).
I want in this blog, however, to focus on one specific aspect of the document– on the area, incidentally, that has aroused the most hostility from Pope Francis’s critics: How should the Church approach the question of those who are in “irregular “ relationships, usually following divorce. For example, currently, and in general terms, the position strongly supported by the conservatives in the College of Bishops, is that those who are divorced and in “irregular” relationships should not be allowed to receive Holy Communion.
There can be little doubt that “no pope in the last 100 years has had to face such opposition amidst the bishops and the clergy…” (Andrea Riccardi – church historian). During the two synods on Marriage and the Family, in 2014 and 2015 it became clear that a majority of the bishops were not prepared to support a clear strategy of reform. Francis however has not shied away from standing up to this unflinchingly. In 2017 he spoke of the existence within the Curia of an ”unbalanced and debased mind- set of plots and small cliques” and referred to the danger of persons chosen to support and implement reforms who instead “let themselves be corrupted by ambition or vainglory”. (Pope Francis, 2016 pre-Christmas meeting with the Curia).
I can see Francis writing with his finger on the ground before penning Amoris Laetitia. The result is very like Jesus’ approach to the accusers in the gospel narrative. His guiding principle is mercy and love. Listen to this:
“It is important that the divorced who have entered into a new union should be made to feel part of the Church. They are not excommunicated and they should not be treated as such, since they remain part of the ecclesial community” (AL 243)
He advocates not condemnation but careful discernment and respect at a local level:
“…the bishop himself, in the church over which he has been appointed shepherd and head, is by that very fact the judge of those faithful entrusted to his care””(AL 244)
“The way of the Church is not to condemn anyone for ever; it is to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for It with a sincere heart…For true charity is always unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous. Consequently there is a need to avoid judgements which do not take into account the complexity of various situations and to be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience distress because of their condition”
So, like the Lord, he is not for one moment saying that anything goes, or that Church teaching and tradition should be ignored. No, but he stresses that the heart of God is mercy and that the Church, and every one of us, must have that at the forefront of our minds in all our dealings with our brothers and sisters, especially those on the margins of society..
So I would urge you to read Amoris Laetitia. It is the heart of revelation.