The Church’s pastoral care of the family demands neither excuses nor condemnation, but Christ’s path of compassion
by Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson
Carl A. Anderson
The past year has been a remarkable time in the life of the Church. Pope Francis has captured the world’s attention not by great gestures, but by simple ones: riding a bus, kissing persons with disabilities, washing the feet of poor women, embracing prisoners and meeting with penniless immigrants.
As I said soon after his election, it was as if the cardinals had been reading Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Deus Caritas Est when they elected Pope Francis. And in the months that have followed, we have seen in his personal witness the wisdom of St. John Paul II’s call for Christians to practice “a charity that evangelizes.”
Many have been attracted by the candor and willingness of Pope Francis to face hard questions especially in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. In this document, he reminds us that there are areas where we can do better as Christians, both as individuals and as a community. It is clear that the pope’s directness arises from a confidence that is grounded firmly in the “joy of the Gospel.”
One of the pope’s most important actions so far has been scheduling a synod of bishops in 2015 for the pastoral care of the family. Like St. John Paul II, Pope Francis has decided to center his first synod on the family, reflecting both his confidence and pastoral spirit.
In 1994, John Paul II recalled in his Letter to Families: “In the first days of my ministry … I wrote that man is the way of the Church. With these words I wanted first of all to evoke the many paths along which man walks and at the same time to emphasize how deeply the Church desires to stand at his side” (1).
He continued, “Among these many paths, the family is the first and most important. It is a path common to all, yet one which is particular, unique and unrepeatable, just as every individual is unrepeatable” (2, emphasis in original).
Pope Francis has also recently spoken in such terms, urging priests to “accompany” those in failed marriages. “Do not condemn,” he said. “Walk with them and don’t practice casuistry on their situation.”
Pope Francis’ reference to “casuistry” is thought-provoking. During the 17th century, in his famous Provincial Letters, Blaise Pascal criticized the Jesuit casuistry of his day that attempted to excuse homicide, abortion, lying and a variety of sexual and other misconduct. It was argued that the moral norms taught by the Church could be modified by individual circumstances and, therefore, such actions might not always be sinful.
News media reported on Pope Francis’ remarks with headlines like, “Accompany, don’t condemn those in failed marriages.” But because of his reference to casuistry, they may have missed the pope’s full meaning. It might have been more accurate to say, “Accompany, don’t condemn but don’t excuse, either.”
A legalistic mentality tends to reduce a choice to two extremes: condemn or excuse. This was the choice the Pharisees presented Jesus in the case of the woman caught in adultery. Jesus chose a different way: forgiveness, and the truth spoken in love.
We might ask another question: What does it mean to “accompany”?
In Familiaris Consortio, John Paul II followed up on the work of the 1980 Synod on the Family by urging greater pastoral care of Catholics in failed marriages. He also gave us a comprehensive pastoral blueprint for the evangelization of all Catholic couples.
By announcing a new synod, Pope Francis has again called on the universal Church to confront the extraordinary challenges facing families today. Certainly, more must be done to accompany families, but we must also be candid. Too often during the last 30 years the message of Familiaris Consortio has been ignored or forgotten. As a result, millions of Catholics have never received the catechesis, preparation for marriage and pastoral care envisioned by this great document. If they had been “accompanied” in this way, who knows how many marriages might have been strengthened and saved?
In the days ahead, let us all take more seriously the call of these two great popes to accompany our families more closely with candor and compassion.