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​Accompanying, Discerning, Integrating Weakness

Should we be worried that a Jesuit Pope is offering, as a pastoral approach for the whole Church, the experience of the charism of accompaniment and discernment developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises ? This charism, which has been widely recognized and celebrated for centuries, is implemented effectively in the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, especially in chapter 8 dealing with the journeys of persons in situations deemed “irregular”. [1] For us bishops we find here a vast open field for the “pastoral conversion” that Francis has promoted since his flagship Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium of 2013 which sought an effective “missionary transformation of the Church” (EG 19-49).

I am convinced that AL is a prime example of the Ignatian charism in practice, according to a pastoral approach that unreservedly presupposes the ideal of the “Gospel of the family” (AL 60, 200) but that begins solidly with people’s lived experience, relying above all on the grace that is at work in them; an approach that accompanies their discernment with attention to a rightly ordered conscience and affections so that discernment, both personal and ecclesial, might truly lead to a decision that favours the good and that is possible here and now - even if, in the case of objectively irregular situations, there is still progress to be made towards the full attainment of God’s will in their lives, and full integration into the sacramental life of the community. This very brief description of the dynamic of the Spiritual Exercises as applied to the family in AL is based on a concrete and personalist anthropology that refers back to the general guidelines of the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium.

Indeed, when we re-read AL in the light of EG, we realize that the Ignatian practice of pastoral discernment in AL implements a basic approach whose principles were set out in EG in the context of “the Church’s missionary transformation” (ch. 1), which implies a “pastoral conversion” all the way from the “papacy” to the “parish” in a spirit of missionary openness, of mercy, and of attention to the very poorest. Let us not forget that the charism of the Society of Jesus is missionary above all, both in the sense that it extends the geographical borders of the Church and in the sense that it pushes the Church to “go out” not only to the geographical but also to the cultural and existential frontiers of a humanity in profound transformation.

The general principles of such a missionary pastoral conversion were set out as a kind of preamble in the Encyclical Lumen Fidei (LF 55, 57), inherited to a large extent from Francis’ predecessor, His Holiness Benedict XVI. They are extensively and comprehensively developed in the section on “the social dimension of evangelization” (ch. 4, 217-237). Here we need only recall these principles to establish that the Pope’s thought is expressed in deeply theological and philosophical terms, inspired in part by Romano Guardini but also by his experience in his own country [2]: “time is greater than space” hence “it is more important to start processes than to dominate spaces” (EG 223, taken up anew by AL 261); “unity prevails over conflict” (EG 226-230), which presupposes a courageous way of facing and resolving social or family conflicts (AL 232-240); “realities are more important than ideas”, which opposes conceptual idealisms by seeking a grounding in the mystery of the Incarnation and on the putting into practice of the Word (EG 231-233; AL 36); “the whole is greater than the part” (EG 234-237), which provides guidance for the balance to be sought between globalization and inculturation, keeping the big picture always in view and maintaining hope in the midst of experiences of limits and setbacks. These general principles are applicable to the accompaniment that the Church offers “standing by people at every step of the way” (EG 24), and especially to the accompaniment of couples and families in AL, to the Christian education of children as well as to the training of “missionary disciples”, that all might learn to discern and act in keeping with the Spirit of their baptism and at the service of the Church’s missionary communion.

Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia is an especially important example of putting these principles into practice in an Ignatian pastoral accompaniment of persons in situations deemed “irregular” (296). The Pope takes note first of all of the anthropological and cultural transformations underway which call for a new pastoral approach to persons living in circumstances that are so much more complex and fragmented than they were at one time (31-57) (293-294). Christians in our day are living a difficult transition between Christendom and the secularized, multicultural, multireligious societies of today which leave many people far from ecclesial institutions, and thus less formed in their faith and more susceptible to surrounding cultural influences: privatization of the religious sphere, a democratic and individualistic mentality, the ideological imposition of gender theory, crises in marriage and family, and living conditions that are contrary to human dignity (40-47).

In this new situation, it is no longer adequate to just go on restating doctrine and discipline for we run the risk of widening the gap between the community of the faithful and the many families in difficulty which no longer correspond to the usual norms of conjugal and family life. Two opposing attitudes confront each other and divide communities in large swaths of the Church since Vatican II. On the one hand, the more or less openly dissenting attitude of a significant segment who demand doctrinal and disciplinary changes in order to modernize things and make them more acceptable to the families of today. This attitude has entered the life of the Church in the form of a passive or even active resistance that raises obstacles to the reception and pastoral implementation of magisterial teaching in the realm of the family [3] . The other attitude, of opposite polarity from dissent, is to reaffirm doctrine and discipline authoritatively, without paying close enough attention to its pastoral ineffectiveness and to the widening gap with the prevailing culture. What is needed is to seek and propose a way of reconciliation between these two attitudes in order to re-establish unity and renew the mission.

We must therefore take up the disputed question of marriage and family from a new point of view, one that is entirely pastoral but in continuity with the doctrinal givens of the past, confirming them explicitly and proposing a new pastoral method. Hence Francis’ call for a “pastoral conversion” which demands first of all a change in our attitude towards and our way of seeing this sinful world, beginning with a deeper contemplation of Jesus the Good Shepherd, who converses with the Samaritan woman to lead her to the truth of her life and of the Gospel (294). This change in one’s way of seeing is expressed in AL as a genuine dialogue between pastors and their communities, where “irregular” situations “require a constructive response seeking to transform them into opportunities that can lead to the full reality of marriage and family in conformity with the Gospel” (294). This constructive perspective is founded, moreover, on the “law of gradualness” (295) which governs the growth of persons, and on a merciful attitude (297) which weds the gaze of Jesus to the action of the Holy Spirit in every situation, even the most extreme. It is in this Spirit and in the context of the Jubilee of Mercy that Pope Francis had the courage and audacity to put disputed questions back on the table and to open a process of dialogue defined by the three verbs that summarize his pastoral approach: accompanying, discerning, and integrating.

Those who lived through the Synods will have noted that the process was difficult, continually hampered by pressure from the media which tended to set bishops up in opposition to one another along superficial political lines, intensifying the anxiety and resistance of some and deflecting the pressure of others, around the single question of communion for the divorced and remarried. Despite it all, the Holy Spirit brought the whole process to a good completion and allowed the Synod to wrap up with neither victors nor vanquished, but with a major task to carry out, which it was easy to see would not be any easier than the synodal debates. The interpretation of AL proves, an interpretation that remains difficult on the infamous question of access to the sacraments for the divorced and remarried, a question that remained on the back-burner at the Synod but which Francis advanced in AL with certain prudent overtures that require reflection, conversion, and a more refined apprenticeship in pastoral discernment [4] .

Such is the task the lies with every bishop since the publication of AL, a task which presupposes real fidelity to the papal teaching and an equally necessary solidarity among bishops in order to journey together toward the full acceptance of this magisterial document’s guidelines – a document that, for all its pastoral nature, is nonetheless doctrinally framed in continuity with Vatican II and previous Pontiffs. To minimize its significance under the pretext of doctrinal uncertainty or pastoral confusion only sows mistrust, and makes it more difficult to be faithful to the Holy Spirit who enlivens and guides the discernment of the whole Church cum et sub Petro .


Let us acknowledge from the outset that chapter 8 is liable to diverging interpretations depending on whether one shares or not the perspective of a law of gradualness (AL 293-295) that would extend the openings initiated by His Holiness John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (FC 34). Some made it impossible for themselves to appreciate anything of the new papal document because they first checked whether this chapter confirmed their pre-existing views or not. The allusion to discernment as to whether “in certain cases” divorced and remarried persons might receive the help of the sacraments (note 351) triggered either superficial enthusiasm or outright rejection, both of these attitudes missing the deeper meaning of AL and the pastoral conversion insisted on by Pope Francis. Certain immediate statements, even those of bishops’ assemblies, either opening the door broadly to communion or opposing the direction taken by the Pontiff, must be recalibrated on the basis of the Holy Father’s own text which seeks a genuine formation in the truth of the Gospel, one which certainly gives greater importance to individual conscience (AL 303), but not for all that encouraging the risk that “the exception might become the rule” [5]. Indeed, the basic issue in AL is not access to the sacraments, but the true accompaniment and integration, by virtue of a genuine path of conversion and spiritual growth, of persons in irregular situations, according to their state and their capacities.

Francis does not seek to change the doctrine of the Church nor its age-old discipline in the area of sacramental practice. His explicit intention in AL is not to propose “a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases” but rather a “renewed encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases” (300). In this sense, Francis desires that pastors should devote themselves to listening compassionately as they acknowledge the diversity of circumstances with “an approach which carefully discerns situations” (AL 298). He wishes pastors and the faithful who are affected by these problems to meet each other, to speak, and to help each other understand and apply more adequately the canonical norms as they rely on the Holy Spirit who is at work in every person’s life, even those living in a sinful situation. This point of view, one of a renewed pastoral dialogue, presupposes a real accompaniment of persons seeking conversion and reconciliation, taking into account above all the person with a conscience marked by a history of sin and disruption who must arrive at an enlightened judgment of their own situation (303).

Of what should this process of accompaniment and dialogue consist? According to AL, one must start with the fact, well before the problem of the divorced and remarried, that “the choice of a civil marriage or, in many cases, of simple cohabitation, is often not motivated by prejudice or resistance to a sacramental union, but by cultural or contingent situations” (294). Hence the importance of a respectful dialogue with these individuals who are often unaware of their failings in order “to distinguish elements in their lives that can lead to a greater openness to the Gospel of marriage in its fullness” (293).

With respect to the case of divorced and remarried persons, situations vary widely and demand a suitable discernment that is sensitive to the sufferings of persons and is respectful in its way of judging their situation (296). Given the cultural factors in their decisions, one must be aware of the uncertainty that looms over many marriages as to their sacramental validity. Indeed, pastors run into the most widely varied situations, recognizing that people are not always interested in undertaking a juridical process to clarify their status as a couple. They also recognize on occasion that certain of the faithful may have doubts as to the validity of their first marriage but without any real possibility of verifying it juridically. Pastors often encounter breakdowns of genuine marriages but with degrees of guilt that can vary widely, depending on whether someone, whether repentant or not, caused the break and its consequences and established stable but adulterous unions; or they meet with faithful who are victims of abandonment and who remarried out of “necessity”, remaining practicing and even fervent in their faith (294). All these observations are in addition to the many situations of loneliness and cohabitation that may arise for all sorts of reasons: poverty, indifference, or immaturity.

In a context of such diversity, pastoral dialogue is unmistakably a grace that can open a path of conversion and growth, if carried out with patience, mercy, and respect for consciences. It begins with “pastoral agents”, pastors, and lay or religious collaborators listening patiently and attentively to individuals and couples; such listening makes it more possible for people to discern their own circumstances before God by assisting their examination of conscience (300) to assess their culpability, their repentance, and their firm purpose of changing their lives to the extent that it is possible. In this exercise of shedding light on and gradually forming consciences, we must recall the conditions that determine in general the morality of an act and the imputability of shortcomings: adequate knowledge of the matter in question, and free adherence to the thing chosen, along with the influence of circumstances that affect the judgments of conscience [6]. In our day it is striking that so many factors affect awareness of sin and amount to so many “extenuating circumstances” (301-303) which reduce the subjective imputability of faults committed. AL highlights this particularly in order to help pastors to evaluate the complexity of cases of conscience among the faithful who would wish very much to change their objective situation of sin but who fear committing “new sins” (298) whether by abandoning their commitments and responsibilities in the blended family, or by causing new sufferings to the persons affected by the decisions. Francis notes the observation made by the Synod Fathers: “factors may exist which limit the ability to make a decision” [7]. Hence the sensitive nature of accompaniment of such persons in the internal as in the external forum, so as to enlighten their consciences gradually without rushing them as concerns decisions hic et nunc, and while respecting their decisions which may require time to adjust fully to the demands of canonical norms. These norms, whose value is better understood thanks to such accompaniment, will be adopted more and more integrally as guides for individual conscience and lead to fuller adherence to the ideal of marriage according to the sacramental discipline of the Church.

It is in this context of promoting a pastoral dialogue as a fruit in turn (and indeed above all) of a pastoral conversion on the part of pastors and their collaborators that we must situate the infamous footnote 351 of paragraph 305, the one that authorizes a certain openness to the help of the sacraments for the divorced and remarried in certain undefined cases. A number of people immediately worried - not without some reason, given already existing practices - that this would result in a general provision and a trivialization of Communion in many cases. Certain hasty statements by bishops may have given such an impression. This is neither the spirit nor the letter of the text. Anyone who uses this fear as a criterion has not understood the meaning of the Pope’s general direction and is in danger of getting bogged down in bitter and sterile criticism. Anyone who, conversely, in effect liberalizes access to the sacraments, thinking that they are following in the Pope’s line, equally misunderstands his mind (if not more so) because it remains in a permissive attitude that has little that is pastoral about it, sparing itself the hard but necessary work of accompanying and discerning with a view to real spiritual growth and a genuine integration into the community. What is really at stake in a right pastoral attitude is the genuine integration of seekers in a manner that conforms to the truth of the sacraments and to the coherent testimony of the ecclesial community. This integration depends on a creative fidelity to genuine tradition, and not in a liberalized participation in the sacraments that does not help the divorced and remarried to grow and does not honour Christ’s witnessing to His love for the Church.

Thus it falls to us as bishops to invest ourselves and our limited human resources in a new pastoral dialogue based on the confirmation of the Magisterium of previous Pontiffs and on an integration of what is new in AL. Let us become more aware of this novelty in order to find the balance of a greater pastoral flexibility that remains in unbroken continuity with the Church’s canonical norms. Bishops have a great responsibility in this respect, lest priests take the liberty of thoughtlessly multiplying “exceptions” for reasons that are not always seemly and are always harmful to the Church’s witness (300).


The great novelty of AL is to observe and acknowledge that by virtue of “a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and can no longer simply be said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace.” (301). This observation is based on the principles of moral theology that we set out above and they determine the varying degrees of imputability for faults committed. It is relatively easy to classify persons in the external forum on the basis of an objective norm. It is much harder to measure the degree of subjective imputability which the Church recognizes from the outset to be highly variable, depending on the case, and to be open to positive developments. A person may be deeply penitent for their sins and their current situation but not yet able to change their objective situation effectively because an immediate decision to that effect, while theoretically possible, seems to them in conscience to entail other moral failings, whether this judgment be shaped by a mistaken conscience or not. For example, the care of children born in a new union may significantly limit a person’s capacity to satisfy the requirement to separate.

These sorts of psychological, moral, or sociological limitations are extenuating circumstances which affect the way someone perceives what is really at stake and the decisions that follow from that, and this may diminish the subjective imputability of one’s state of life in an objective situation of sin. The degree of imputability may be complete, partial, or nonexistent, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. A pastoral dialogue can thus enlighten the conscience of the faithful who are seeking God’s will to discern the options available in concrete situations; for example, measuring the value of their judgment in conscience with respect to the sacraments of which they are deprived but which they might legitimately desire from a moral point of view if they were not in a state of mortal sin. Does this mean that “in certain cases” they might be allowed, or rather it might be left to their conscience the freedom to choose? AL does not settle this question. Certain bishops have replied in the affirmative [8] while recalling that there is the problem of scandal, given that a community that does not know a person’s internal forum might be led to doubt that marriage is indissoluble and that the Church is faithful to the Gospel. AL is aware of this objection which takes up the teaching of Saint John Paul II in FC 84, and its discrete instructions to pastors or confessors knowing these cases in the internal forum to suggest to such persons that they receive Communion in another parish or chapel. However, AL seems to go farther by broadcasting the matter in a manner that is discreet but open to a latitude of interpretation that can be difficult to pin down.

“In certain cases” (footnote 351). We ask ourselves spontaneously, Which ones? AL does not give a clear and precise answer to this, other than to maintain the traditional discipline in a way that is open to exceptional cases. The main reason for this indeterminacy is obviously to avoid a new casuistry that would spell out precisely how to apply the norm, without any change in pastoral mentality. Indeed, Francis’ whole effort towards promoting a pastoral conversion consists in making pastors more sensitive to cultural changes and to the complex situations of our time, situations that must be considered in themselves and not merely in terms of a fine-tuning of norms. Thus, beyond granting or withholding permission according to clearly defined cases, pastoral accompaniment seeks to help persons who are in the process of growth to form their consciences and to discern the possible choices available in their situation here and now, without losing sight of the ideal even if it has not yet been reached. Given the complexity of circumstances and the factors that can affect decisions in conscience, it is possible that a collaborative decision between a pastor and a couple in the internal forum, overseen in some fashion by the bishop of the place, might provide access in certain cases to the help of the sacraments of Penance and Eucharist. This guideline is not new for it has always been practiced to a limited extent in the internal forum. What is new, as I have noted, is the broadening of cases that are exceptional by virtue of the degree of subjective imputability of an objective fault, a degree influenced by the reasons noted above, especially unawareness of sin, and the weight of extenuating circumstances.

I would add, even if this is implicit in the text of AL, that the help of the sacraments in “certain cases” may have a provisional character depending on the maturity of the couple who are seeking reintegration in the Church. It may well be that such help might be granted for a period where individuals discern that this help is necessary for them in conscience. The same individuals may then give these up later in their journey, not out of rigorism but as a free choice, by virtue of the fact that, with competent and respectful help, they have arrived at a better understanding that the help of the sacraments for their growth in grace does not resolve the contradiction between their public state of life and the sacramental meaning of Eucharistic communion. In such a case they might refrain, not above all for fear of scandal (an ecclesiological motive) but out of respect for the divine companion whose ecclesial witness they do not wish to sully (a theological motive) by a sacramental communion that is subjectively compatible with their state of grace, but objectively incompatible with their state of life. Such a spiritual attitude, aware of the ecclesial meaning of sacramental communion, goes beyond the subjective desire for one’s own sacramental benefit and favours an objective service to offer to the divine witness expressed in the sacramental communion of Christ and the Church [9].

Having clarified this point about a sacramental discipline that remains valid but is more flexible in its application, let us return to the pastoral practice of discernment in the spirit of AL. Journeying with someone who is seeking the will of God and discerning with them their decisions in conscience means that we help them to judge and to decide but that we do not substitute ourselves for them in their choice which they have judged in conscience to be good (37, 303). Pastoral help must encourage people to aim for the ideal to be followed but also to follow their own conscience in the process of discernment, which may mean (as far as access to the sacraments is concerned) a “yes” at one point in time that becomes an “informed no” later on according to the person’s maturity. I recall a group of divorced and remarried persons who invariably began the conversation with demands and criticisms of the Church’s sacramental discipline. After a certain time absorbing the underlying values of the Church’s discipline, a certain number among them understood its consistency and wisdom and subsequently refrained in good conscience from receiving Communion, suggesting not that the Church change its teachings but that it express it more aptly to the faithful.

In the practice of pastoral discernment, it is important to keep together the two dimensions of choices made in conscience for which help and formation must be provided: the moral dimension spelled out by AL, which tends to open out towards exceptional cases, and the sacramental dimension stated by FC, which highlights the objective contradiction between a state of life and the truth of the sacrament. One may receive Communion or not for a moral reason, that is to say, because one is or is not subjectively in a state of mortal sin. Nevertheless, even if certain divorced and remarried persons are in a state of grace, there is a sacramental reason that hinders them from receiving if their consciences are correctly formed, because of the meaning of Eucharistic communion as an Amen to the Love of Christ for the Church which is publicly contradicted by their objective situation as divorced and remarried persons. They may have subjectively repented and may desire deeply to make a change that is compatible with the truth of the sacrament, for example by making the decision to live as “brother and sister” as John Paul II recalled. However, if this does not seem possible, what direction can we give to their decisions in conscience? With all due respect to the norm, can the pastor prudently advise to limit oneself to certain exceptional circumstances?

Some do exactly that, holding that a sincere intention of changing, even if it is not yet carried out because of limits in a person’s capacity for decisions, is enough to allow them to be admitted to the sacraments of Penance and Eucharist, on condition however of avoiding scandal [10]. Such openness may be discerned in certain cases in the internal forum but must not be elevated to a general rule. I am personally hesitant about this approach because I am sensitive to the sacramental logic which demands sacramental coherence of persons who are communing with the faithfulness of Christ the Bridegroom giving Himself to His Bride the Church.

The novelty of AL consists in offering benchmarks to assess extenuating circumstances that diminish the subjective imputability of an objective state of sin and thus lift an obstacle to sacramental life. This marked progress on the moral front requires bishops and parish communities to integrate this forward step in a spirit of pastoral mercy and respect for consciences. Integrating the sacramental dimension may take longer in terms of perception of the values that are at stake and may therefore give rise to different ways of journeying. Consequently, some provisional or intermediate decisions, while not always in keeping with the discipline, may be tolerated so to speak for a time while a greater maturity is awaited. Tolerated not because of a change to the norm but because of a more flexible application of it, out of charity for a conscience that is not yet fully formed with respect to the decision to be taken, but that is respected in its decision which the pastor accompanies while shedding light little by little towards a more coherent decision in good conscience.

The simple application of an array of clearly defined cases would be simpler and more practical but would not be enough to allow progress for so many families who are caught up in complex situations for which there are no “easy recipes” [11]. The progress of AL and its novelty consist in taking real life into account as a path for growth and progressive integration of the values that influence decisions in conscience. All of this demands more from pastors, a deeper attitude of listening, a keener gaze, fostering a new solidarity in the ecclesial community. The community in turn must be formed to greater humanity, mercy, and patience; that is, to a solidarity that respects the consciences and decisions of others without losing sight the “ideal” of total fidelity to the Gospel. The ideal is not an abstraction hovering far above people and situations, but refers ultimately to the Person of Christ with whom each person is in a covenant by virtue of their baptism and marriage, and which demands therefore a faithfulness that is deeply respectful of His own Gift of Love.


Having said all that, let us look at a few examples of situations which could justify the pastor’s agreement with the divorced and remarried person’s desire to be absolved of sin and to participate in Communion. These examples are not normative, of course, but are meant simply to guide the reflection of pastors who are the first to have to integrate as well as possible experiences of weakness. Integrating is, first of all, a positive pastoral attitude that is opposed to marginalizing or excluding in words or deeds those who are living in “irregular” situations. Francis insists strongly on the Gospel logic of mercy which always seeks the integration or reintegration of the sinner, even after a period of excommunication. Integration must however take place in respect for the truth and always with a care to avoid scandal, which presupposes a forming of the community to respect consciences whose decisions in the internal forum cannot be known in the external forum.

The pastoral discernment of pastors thus seeks integration by first of all encouraging the divorced and remarried to avail themselves of the official tribunal to clarify the canonical status of the first marriage. Beyond these situations which are easier to resolve nowadays, there are instances where the first marriage may be judged to be subjectively invalid but impossible to clarify juridically. The bishop who shares this judgment might then authorize the exception on the basis of a moral certainty. The obligation remains, however, to seek to avoid scandal, just as the exception for persons who are known in the internal forum to live as “brother and sister” demands discretion in their way of conducting themselves in the community.

As for the cases laid out above, of persons who have once again set out on a path towards full reconciliation and integration with normal sacramental practice, they cannot be seen as a useful template as individual journeys are too different, and the processes are too complex to be captured in the rigid categories of “allowed and forbidden” (300). Where someone finds himself on the margins of a community because of his distant attitude or his state of life, the mere fact of being in touch with the pastor or with a group of faithful is already an act of integration, a relief, a factor for growth and reconciliation. If, better still, contact of great quality takes place in truth and love, people can benefit their whole lives even if they are not able to manage a total adherence, respecting all the sacramental requirements and values. In other words, integration into the community is a matter of communion and not of conformity of discipline managed by bureaucrats. A warm welcome, a listening ear, respectful questions, and encouragement to take a step forward - all this counts more than we realize in the process of ecclesial reintegration of people who are guilty or are victims of matrimonial breakdowns.

AL makes an appeal to go beyond, as much possible, exclusions and prohibitions related to functions and services in the community, on the one hand; on the other hand, it encourages a greater participation in the charitable or cultural activities of the community. To this end, the pastor’s encouragement is not enough; a warm welcome from the whole community is needed, and the community in turn thus needs to be formed and corrected so as to witness to a sincere openness to the Lord who comes to meet them through the most disparate needs of the men and women of today. A community spirituality of integration must allow each person to be welcomed and to give of themselves, whatever their status, their faults or their limits (312). If the Lord reigns at the heart of the community, integration will take place by a deep and open sense of belonging, and not merely by disciplinary conformity.

A spirituality of merciful integration with respect to persons in irregular situations cannot do without a preventive strategy and thus, even before a pastoral approach to situations of marriage breakdowns, we must develop an approach to pastoral care of the marriage bond (307) with solid marriage preparation that begins always with the witness of Christian families who are true domestic Churches. Moreover, AL encourages a well-articulated catechumenal process that allows engaged couples to dialogue, that urges cohabiting couples to regularize their state, that encourages young people to marry despite economic and cultural challenges, and that can continue to accompany young couples with the help of other couples, redoubling resources for mutual help and support among families. “Today, more important than the pastoral care of failures is the pastoral effort to strengthen marriages and thus to prevent their breakdown” (307).

There is no domestic church without the sacramental celebration of marriage, for it is the creation of the conjugal bond through the sacramental exchange of consent that is the very principle of the domestic church, with the initial and ongoing daily mutual self-gift of the spouses sealed and sanctified by the presence of Christ and the Spirit. As AL affirms so beautifully, “today we can add that the Trinity is present in the temple of marital communion” (314). Let us never lose sight of the value of the couple’s sacramental commitment and its fruit in grace which is Christ’s own presence in the midst of the couple, making them the basic unit of the Church, temple of the Spirit, and fruitful hearth of holiness and hope for the world.


Accompanying, discerning, and integrating weakness. As much as this chapter has caused much ink to flow, it ought just as much to further a pastoral conversion which demands a missionary transformation of the Church with respect to the poor, the marginalized, and irregular marriage situations, so as to open for all a path towards the joy of the Gospel. This strong orientation of Pope Francis, inspired by his Jesuit charism, is destined to bear much fruit among families if the pastoral conversion that it implies on the part of pastors and communities takes shape around these three basic attitudes, by the grace of a merciful charity that can listen and advise with goodness yet without any complacency, without the laxity of the lazy nor the rigorism of the Pharisees. More than ever, the Church must evangelize “by attraction” (EG 15, 132) by means of a merciful welcome and a generous integration of forgiven sinners in the multifaceted richness of its missionary communion.

by Marc Ouellet

[1]Cf. my little work Famille deviens ce que tu es! Parole et Silence, 2016, pp. 7-23. See in particular Juan Carlos Scannone SJ, “Un discernement spirituel enraciné dans la tradition de saint Ignace”, in Divorcés remariés with P. Bordeyne, Salvator, Paris, 2017, pp. 113-137.

[2]Cf. Juan Carlos Scannone, Cuatro principios para la construccion de un pueblo segun Papa Francisco, Stromata 71, 2015, pp. 13-27; also I. Quiles, S.I., Filosofia de la educacion personalista, ed. Depalma, Buenos Aires, 1981, quoted in AL 229.

[3] This attitude has become more pronounced under the pressures of a contraceptive culture that inhibited the reception of Paul VI’s Encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968 and other magisterial pronouncements in a similar vein, including the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio in 1981.

[4]Cf. Antonio Spadaro, Conversazione con il Cardinale Schönborn sull’Amoris Laetitia , La Civiltà cattolica, 2016 III 132-152 (July 23, 2016); Francisco Card. Coccopalmerio, Il capitolo ottavo della Esortazione Apostolica Post-sinodale Amoris Laetitia,Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2017, 52p.

[5] Let us set aside right from the start the objection taken from the Encyclical Veritatis Splendor and its reassertion that there are “intrinsically evil acts” that can never admit of “exceptions” since they are prohibitions in the divine law that are always binding and cannot be evaded with a “creative” notion of moral conscience (VS 54-64). AL does not distance itself from VS with respect to the question of determining the objective morality of human acts and of the fundamental role of conscience as a “witness” to the divine law inscribed in the sacred depths of each person. AL complements VS by noting the way this conscience can be clouded by factors that influence one’s knowledge of moral norms and one’s will to follow them, thus, according to Church doctrine, affecting the subjective imputability of wrong acts (AL 301-306). Adultery is always objectively a grave sin, according to the divine law, but it cannot be perceived as such by a conscience that has been led into error by multiple factors which a magisterial declaration alone cannot dispel. It is thus necessary to “discern” the actual state of conscience of the concrete person, in a real pastoral dialogue, and not simply to stop at communicating the objective truths which ought ideally to determine their moral choices, as if these truths were perfectly obvious things which they ought in some way already to know. VS reaffirms a basic doctrinal point, whereas AL teaches us how to accompany, discern, and shape decisions in conscience in the concrete circumstances of life.

[6] Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 1749-1761, and especially paras. 1735 and 2352.

[7] Relatio finalis 2015, no. 51; AL 301.

[8] Cf. the bishops of the province of Buenos Aires, confirmed by a personal letter from Pope Francis in which he affirms that theirs is the authentic and even sole interpretation: “... The document is very good and thoroughly specifies the meaning of chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia. There are no further interpretations. I am confident that it will do much good ” (translation of Spanish from Cf. in a similar vein Coccopalmerio, the Maltese, the Belgian and German bishops etc.

[9] I would refer again here to my little work Famille deviens ce que tu es ! Parole et Silence, 2016, pp. 143-160; see also Fr. Thomas Michelet OP, “Amoris Laetitia, Note de théologie sacramentaire sur la communion des divorcés remariés”, Revue thomiste 116, October-December 2016, T CXVI—n.IV, pp. 619-645.

[10]Cf. F. Coccopalmerio, op. cit., p. 29.

[11] Benedict XVI, Address to the Seventh World Meeting of Families in Milan (June 2, 2012), Response n. 5: Insegnamenti VIII/1 (2012), p. 691, quoted in AL 298.




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 27, 2020