Pope Francis wants the Roman Catholic Church to accept that the lives of Catholics are often spiritually imperfect and untidy, and urged his priests and bishops to take a flexible approach to bring worshippers closer to an institution that is often seen as cold, disciplinarian and exclusionary.
The message was reflected in a footnote to Catholic priests around the world in his 260-page document on the family, released Friday, which said: "I would also point out that the Eucharist is 'not a prize for the perfect, but powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.' "
The document, Amoris Laetitia: On Love in the Family, was Francis's highly anticipated response to the two synods – meetings of bishops – in 2014 and 2015 that examined family life and all its frailties and challenges in the 21st century.
In the document, written in simple, elegant language, Francis, who is 79 and was elected Pope three years ago, reinforces his reputation as a reformist but does not reverse traditional doctrine and avoids establishing new classes of winners and losers among the world's 1.2-billion Catholics.
There is no revolutionary message in the text. Instead, the Pope urges empathy and discernment in dealing with codes of conduct.
In Toronto, Cardinal Thomas Collins compared Francis's style with "grandfatherly advice … that sort of homey approach."
The overriding message of the document is that the church's days of outright exclusion are over and that the church must move closer to Catholics regardless of their personal circumstances. It strikes a delicate balance between acceptance of what it calls "irregular" situations and the defence of traditional doctrine on such issues as abortion, which is not condoned. He mentions that Catholics who live in an "objective situation of sin … can also grow in the life of grace."
Specifically, Francis pried open the door somewhat to offering holy communion for remarried couples. Amoris Laetitia does not actually say that divorced Catholics who remarry in civil ceremonies will be allowed to receive communion, but the Pope suggested that priests close to the couples should be flexible in enforcing the rule against communion for the divorced. "The divorced who have entered a new union … should not be pigeonholed or fit into overly rigid classifications," he said.
He added that "the baptized who are divorced and civilly remarried need to be more fully integrated into Christian communities in the variety of ways possible."
Father Thomas Rosica, CEO of Toronto's Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation and the Vatican's English-language spokesman, said the document recognizes that the Vatican now accepts that marriages and relationships cannot be perfect or adhere strictly to the highest aspirations, doctrine and traditions of the Catholic Church. "The document does not distance itself from messy situations," he said. "Francis uses the analogy of the church as a field hospital where no one is excluded."
Father Rosica said the chapter that urges the church to "avoid cold bureaucratic morality" in dealing with Catholics with sensitive personal issues was influenced by Quebec bishop and moral theologian Noël Simard.
Giuseppina de Simone, a professor of religious philosophy and ethics in Rome, said the Pope's language – the Vatican says he was the sole author of the document – shows that "this is a street church, really, extending into people's lives."
Overall, the document extended the themes of the synods on the family and contained no real surprises.
Liberal Catholics who were expecting black-and-white responses to hot-button issues, such as gay marriage and communion for the divorced, will be disappointed, suggesting that the Pope felt pressure from conservative bishops pushing for careful and slow changes, not the overhaul of doctrine. The LGBT community saw no progress beyond the documents produced by the synods. Francis merely reiterated that gays should not be subject to "unjust discrimination" but also reinforced the church's stance against same-sex marriage.
The document does not make definitive new pronouncements on these issues even as it offers messages of hope and inclusion. "Amoris Laetitia is an epic bid to convert the church worldwide to a mission to rescue the family, not by finger-wagging or table-thumping, nor even by persuasion, but by a concrete strategy of rebuilding from the ground up," Austen Ivereigh, a biographer of Pope Francis, wrote on the Catholic website, Crux. "It will shape the church's actions and attitudes for generations to come."
Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, who is seen as a progressive voice among the leading cardinals, said at a Vatican news conference that, in his view, the Pope did break new ground by speaking about families with a rare simplicity and compassion. "Pope Francis speaks about families with a clarity that is not easy to find in the magisterial documents of the church," he said. "Pope Francis has succeeded in speaking about all situations without cataloguing them, without categorizing, with that outlook of fundamental benevolence that is associated with the heart of God."
While the Pope recognized that erotic love "must be seen as a gift from God that enriches the relationship of the spouses," he took a negative view of formal sex education in schools and its discussion of safe sex. "Such expressions convey a negative attitude toward the natural procreative finality of sexuality, as if an eventual child were an enemy to be protected against," he said.
Picking up on one of his main themes since he became the first pontiff from Latin America in 2013, Pope Francis highlighted the stresses on the family imposed by poverty, industrialization, lack of health care, rampant consumerism, war and migration. He noted: "The lack of dignified and affordable housing often leads to the postponement of formal relationships" and he called for governments to fight climate change.
Father Thomas Reese, a senior analyst in Washington with the National Catholic Reporter, agreed that the document was tempered in content but praised some of its chapters.
He called the fourth chapter, on love in marriage, "a masterpiece." It quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. and St. Thomas Aquinas and refers to the 1987 film Babette's Feast in its examination of all forms of love, including erotic love, marriage and virginity. "The tone is pastoral and inspirational, not nagging or judgmental," Father Reese said. "One can only conclude that, as a priest and bishop, he spent countless hours listening and dialoguing with couples about lived experience."
He added that "parts [of the document] are dull; parts inspire and delight; parts will give hope; and parts will infuriate. If it brings the conversation about families out of the synodal hall and down to the parish and families themselves, then it will be a success."