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Watch 2022-2023 online sermons » Robert Barron » Robert Barron - Pope Francis' Amoris Laetitia

Robert Barron - Pope Francis' Amoris Laetitia

Robert Barron - Pope Francis' Amoris Laetitia

One spring day, about five years ago, when I was rector on Mundelein Seminary, Cardinal Francis George, who was my spiritual mentor, came out to speak to all the students. And he gave a talk I've never forgotten. He said: "I applaud you guys, who are known for your commitment to orthodoxy and teaching the truth of the Church". And he really meant it, he wasn't being coy. Cardinal George felt very strongly about that, that priests and seminarians knew the teaching of the Church. But then he said: "Remember always, that you can't just drop the truth on people and then walk away. In fact what we have to do is… when you place the truth on people, you have to commit yourself now to walking with them and helping them every step of the way to implement the truth you've given them".

And it was, again, five years ago, long before we get Pope Francis. Well, as I read Amoris Laetitia, the Pope's new letter on marriage and family, I thought of that speech a lot. And I thought in some ways it provides the leitmotif of the Pope's letter. The Church, and let me put it this way, is extreme in its demand and is extreme in its mercy. So it holds up a very high objective moral ideal and it has a very high sense of compassioned care for those who are struggling to integrate that high moral ideal. And it's not a zero sum game. That's the trouble. And even a lot of readers of this letter fall into that trap. Is if you say mercy very strongly that means you got to dial down the ideal, or if you dial up the ideal you better dial down the mercy. It's not a zero sum game. Doesn't work that way. The logic of Catholicism is a radical both/and logic. We make an extreme demand and we express extreme mercy. That, I think, is the key to reading this letter.

So, on the one side …is Pope Francis wishy-washy when it comes to the objectivities of sex, marriage, and family? The answer is "no". Read the first two thirds of that letter. I know it's long and in some ways that's a problem. People are not going to plow through the whole thing. But read the first two thirds, and what are you going to find? You are going to find the Pope defending authentic marriage that's between a man and a woman, a lifelong commitment, open to children, the standard Catholic view. You are going to find polemics against the ideology of self-invention, which is rampant in the West today: "I am who I want to be, I'll decide the first time what I become".

The Pope is against that. The Pope is very strong against pornography and the dangers of pornography. The Pope, maybe surprisingly to some, vigorously reaffirms Pope Paul VI's controversial encyclical Humanae Vitae on the connection between sexuality and procreation. The Pope is very clear about that. The Pope couldn't be clearer that he stands athwart gay marriage. The Pope says that a gay relationship is not even analogous to what the Church means by authentic marriage. He's dead set against gender ideology, that I can sort of decide what gender I'm in. Look in this letter, you are going to find all of that in very clear, unambiguous display. The Church is extreme in its demand, it holds a very high moral ideal. Then there is kind of a neat bridge section, between that part and the more controversial section, when he talks about Paul's great hymn to love in I Corinthians.

I think it should be required reading for anyone involved in pre-Cana, anyone getting ready for marriage. The Pope goes through the famous I Corinthians thirteen passage, often read, by the way, at weddings. Love is not a feeling, but love is this densely textured act of willing the good of the other and hence it takes on all of these characteristics that Paul talks about. It's not jealous, love does not put on airs, love is kind, etc., etc. It's a wonderful meditation on the dense objectivity and demand of love, which is exactly what engaged couples need to hear. This is not a little romantic frivolity you are entering into here, but this is lifelong commitment based upon this very demanding reality of love. Ok. That's in the letter, too.

Having said all of that and not gainsaying for a second, this is not a zero sum game we are playing here, all that remains in place. The Pope as we well know is deeply sensitive to the fact that we human beings, finite and fallen as we are, have a very hard time living up always to the great high moral ideal. We are wounded, which is precisely why we need, as he has often said, a field hospital. So there's the Church, not there to condemn, so the Pope as you know is in polemics quite rightly against that. If the Church is simply a thundering policeman, we are not dealing with the wounded people coming to the field hospital. Rather now we reach out in love and compassion, forgiveness and mercy to all of us, to be honest, all of us who have a hard time living up to these very high ideals.

So, with that in mind, a couple of further observations. The one is what, he got this from John Paul II, where Pope calls the "law of gradualness". Again, this is not the gradualism of the law. It's important. It's the "law of gradualness", meaning people tend to move towards the ideal not all at once but in steady gradual steps. Might we even recognize someone who is in an irregular situation in terms of their sexual expression? That there are elements of that relationship that are nevertheless good? There are certain dimensions of it that are praiseworthy? Yeah!

And can we build on that, pastorally? Would simply a blanket condemnation of everything be called for or would an outreach to those elements of, even in an irregular situation, that are morally praiseworthy not be a better way to do it? So the "law of gradualness" which is a very good advice for anyone involved in pastoral work. The second great move he makes, under this rubric, seems to me, of mercy is to exploit the classic distinction in our tradition between "objective evil" and "subjective responsibility".

Now, I admit, this is maybe the most controversial part of the letter, but the principle is not really controversial, the principle is a classical one. When you are looking at someone's moral situation, you can assess objectively what's the case here. That the lifestyle you are leading, I would say, is objectively irregular, immoral, less than perfect, whatever term you want to use. But there's a second move though that someone who is assessing it can make, which is the degree of one's moral culpability.

Now, when you are talking about culpability, remember you are talking about, yes, the objective nature of the act, but you are also talking about the degree of knowledge that the person has and the degree of real freedom fully to acquiesce to that. Those two factors can mitigate one's culpability. There are extenuating circumstances that can mitigate one's full culpability. Now, every confessor knows this. I've been a priest for 30 years. Anyone has done confession knows about this distinction. Someone comes and describes an objectively immoral situation. Ok. But see, in confession that's not the only thing you are assessing. You are assessing culpability and so the Pope is exploiting, I don't mean in a cynical way at all, he's exploiting this classical distinction to say: pastors dealing mercifully in the field hospital with those who are failing to live up to the ideal should take into consideration this distinction between the objective assessment and subjective culpability.

And, I think, as far as it goes, that is an altogether valid and legitimate way to go about it. At the end of the day, I read the document really in one sitting. I was on an airplane. I got it the day before it was published, so I kind of plowed through it, so I can say things about it. I think it was a pretty deft balancing of all the concerns that came up in the two Synods. So this is a summary statement of the two family Synods. And as you know, there is a lot of debate and there was passionate argument on both sides. And I think the Pope actually pulled off a rather extraordinary balancing of the views that were laid out. And I do think that is in line with that distinctively Catholic logic of the both/and.
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