A top cardinal who was closely connected to Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia, has again affirmed the exhortation’s authoritative status, and said it evolves understandings and expressions of Catholic doctrine.
Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, a Dominican, made these remarks and others in an extensive interview with Jesuit Fr. Antonio Spadaro of the Vatican-reviewed Italian journal, La Civita Cattolica. Excerpts, available here, have been translated into English.
Amoris Laetitia is “the great text of moral theology” the church has awaited since Vatican II, America quoted Schönborn as saying. It is moving the church from ” ‘a defensive pastoral style in which evil becomes an obsession’ toward one that focuses on recognizing the value of encouraging what is good.” Asked about the exhortation’s authority and the exhortation’s relation to Catholic doctrine–in light of criticisms that it is a minor document, or even only the pope’s opinion, as Cardinal Raymond Burke claimed–Schönborn said:
“It is obvious that this is an act of the magisterium. . .I have no doubt that it must be said that this is a pontifical document of great quality, an authentic teaching of sacra doctrina, which leads us back to the contemporary relevance of the Word of God. . .
“In this sphere of human realities, the Holy Father has fundamentally renewed the discourse of the Church – certainly along the lines of Evangelii gaudium, but also of Gaudium et spes, which presents doctrinal principles and reflections on human beings today that are in a continuous evolution. There is a profound openness to accept reality.”
Schönborn said Pope Francis rejected doctrine which is “abstract pronouncements that are separated from the subject who lives,” saying the exhortation’s “bedrock” is understanding that families are not ideals but rather are journeying. He continued:
“The complexity of family situations, which goes far beyond what was customary in our Western societies even a few decades ago, has made it necessary to look in a more nuanced way at the complexity of these situations. To a greater degree than in the past, the objective situation of a person does not tell us everything about that person in relation to God and in relation to the Church. This evolution compels us urgently to rethink what we meant when we spoke of objective situations of sin. And this implicitly entails a homogeneous evolution in the understanding and in the expression of the doctrine.”
In short, Schönborn clarified, “There is no general norm that can cover all the particular cases.”
Other bishops have affirmed Amoris Laetitia‘s authority as they consider how it should be implemented. Bishop Mario Grech of Gozo, Malta, called church ministers to exercise “cautious discernment and respect” when encountering people in irregular situations, reported the Independent. Naming LGBT Catholics in civil unions, Grech said:
“Our pastoral activity should be based on four actions – accepting, accompanying, discerning and integrating. The Pope tells us it is important that we help divorced people who are in a new relationship to feel part of the church, that they are not excommunicated or regarded as such, because they also form part of the ecclesiastical communion.”
Grech, whose record on LGBT issues is generally positive, encouraged church ministers not to make the Sacrament of Reconciliation a “torture chamber.” Instead, he said the church must engage people as people, not situations, and to “[be] mindful of the language you use.”
Yet despite Schönborn and others’ insistence that Amoris Laetitia represents a development of doctrine, especially in its respect for the complexities of family life today, not all bishops have treated it as such.
Bondings 2.0 reported yesterday on new guidelines from Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput establishing general norms in the archdiocese that ban LGBT people from parish ministries and seek to deny Communion to Catholics in non-traditional families. You can read New Ways Ministry’s statement on these guidelines here.
Debates about Amoris Laetitia will certainly continue for months, if not years. What is important for LGBT Catholics and their advocates, however, is the growing admission by church leaders that doctrine can and has developed when it comes to family life. Opponents of same-gender sexual activity, relationships, and marriage equality frequently say church teaching is unchanging. But Cardinal Schönborn’s interview makes clear such a view is false, and that beyond the clear pastoral recommendations there are doctrinal implications, too. His voice possesses tremendous weight. He was the spokesperson at the April press conference that made Amoris Laetitia available to the public. He appeared alongside a married Italian couple and Cardinal Lorenzo Baldiserri, the Synod of Bishops’ secretary general. In the 1990s, Schönborn oversaw publication of the most recent edition of the Catechism.
The progressive changes sought by many Catholics on gender and sexuality issues were not accomplished in or by Amoris Laetitia. And Archbishop Chaput’s guidelines are evidence the document can and will be misinterpreted by church leaders who wish to suppress pastoral and doctrinal evolution. But there is tremendous hope in the reality that a growing number of church leaders are admitting change is possible, and even needed.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry