It is often believed that doctrine and spirituality do not always go hand in hand. The former seems to care about maintaining the principles of the faith while the latter is concerned about the human person. In the apostolic exhortation Amoris Latitiae—the two seem to have juxtaposed beautifully; that’s almost an unprecedented move. It captures the attitude of our Lord who while he set forth a demanding ideal yet never failed to show compassion and closeness to the frailty of individuals. The way he treated the Samaritan woman and the woman caught in adultery are two illustrating examples.
Of course, the Church has always been aware of that attitude. John Paul II proposed the “law of gradualness” in the document Familiaris Consortium. It’s the understanding that the human person “knows, loves and accomplishes moral good by different stages of growth” (34). Just like a teacher would not teach his students Calculus until he goes through all the lower math levels, we should not impose the high idealism of the spiritual life until a person is ready to understand, interiorize, and embrace the full truth of Jesus’ teachings. It is prudent to gradually teach a person, accompany him/her until that person is in the position to fully carry out the objective demands of the law. We must say like St. Paul, “I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it.” (1 Cor. 3:2). When will we know the person is ready to embrace the full teaching depends on the pastor’s relationship with the Holy Spirit who reveals the truth to his shepherd. Not black or white! What if the person is never ready? That’s a fair question.
The church is in the business of reintegration not casting off. She is always ready to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart (Amoris Laetitia 296). So, if someone exhibits a way of life incompatible with the Christian ideal, that person needs to let the gospel penetrates his life so he can experience conversion. Pastors of souls are there to help through that process. that simply means there will be a lot of new beginnings and fall start. The church’s role is simple to patiently stand alongside each person as they keep on trying. Again, this is the first time a church document dealing with doctrine is juxtaposing doctrine and spiritual growth.
Remarkably, the document mentions that despite the struggles, a person can take part in the social service of the church like Knight of Columbus, Legion of Mary, St. Vincent de Paul, prayer meetings together with the discernment of the parish priest. That’s a way to avoid the person from feeling separated from the community. The goal is to help “people feel not an excommunicated member of the Church, but instead a living member” (299). It is important to understand that participation in the community does not always mean serving at the altar during the liturgy. I don’t think there has ever been any clearer statement on this issue until this. While no one was ever rejected, many did feel that way. The hope is that this clarification brings out some changes.
Now, in case of divorced and civilly remarried, “it is the responsibility of the church to help them understand the divine pedagogy of grace in their lives and assist them so they can reach the fullness of God’s plan for them” (Amoris Laetitia 297). Again, that’s when the law of gradualness comes handy. Pastors of souls must work with those living in an irregular marriage until they are fully integrated into the life of the Trinity. That means they must meet regularly with their pastor until they can find a solution that brings them fully into the flock of God. Currently, they are absolutely part of God’s flock, but not fully. Spiritual direction and instruction have as their ultimate goal to bring them fully into the church.
Without falling into casuistry, the document cleverly maintains that not all divorced and civilly remarried can be pigeonholed as one. There must be “a renewed encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases since the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases”. Therefore, priests have a duty to initiate a process of accompaniment and discernment in order to “guide the divorced and remarried to an awareness of their situation before God (300). A pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in “irregular” situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives (305).
The following cases cannot be treated in a general manner: A second union consolidated over time, with new children, proven fidelity, generous self giving, Christian commitment, a consciousness of its irregularity” must be treated atypically because it does not fit the general norm.
Or the case of someone who has made every effort to save her first marriage and was unjustly abandoned, and so entered into a second union for the sake of the children’s upbringing while subjectively certain in conscience that her previous and irreparably broken marriage had never been valid” deserves special attention.
Someone who has consistently failed in his obligations to the family cannot be seen as the same as the above.
The document throws light of factors at play when judging a case of divorced and civilly remarried. “ a person may know the rule full well, yet have great difficulty in understanding (notice it says understanding not accepting) “its inherent values”, or be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin.” This is an important point. It entails that a person may be living in an irregular situation yet possesses grace and charity. As Aquinas puts it, “someone may possess grace and charity, yet not be able to exercise any one of the virtues well” (ST I-II, 65, 3, ad2). This is very enlightening. That means because of the particular circumstances that surround a divorced and civilly remarried person, he/ she may not be as culpable as another person divorced and remarried couple (302). Again, not all cases can be put in the same basket. A negative judgment about an objective situation does not imply a judgment about the culpability of the person involved. So responsibility with respect to certain actions or decisions is not the same in all cases (302).
A logical question that follows from this unfamiliar teaching is: is this a departure from the mother doctrine as laid out in Familiaris Consortium, or is this part of hermeneutic of continuity? Put otherwise, is this a legitimate development of what Jesus said in Matthew 19:9 (whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery.”), or a corruption of it?
That leads to what John Henry Newman, the great towering Anglican figure who converted to Catholicism, said n his work entitled On the Development of Christian Doctrine about the criteria for a doctrine to be developed genuinely. Chapter 5 is worth your time.
For a doctrine to be developed genuinely, it must preserve the essential form and structure of what came before it. It is genuine if it retains one and the same type, the same principles, the same organization; if its beginnings anticipate its subsequent phases, and its later phenomena protect and subserve its earlier; if it has a power of assimilation and revival, and a vigorous action from first to last. By the same token, butterfly can be seen as a genuinely development of caterpillar. While butterfly is not the same as a caterpillar, it preserves the essential form and structure of a caterpillar.
An authentic development illustrates, corroborates that from which it proceeds. A child is an illustration of the parents. Christianity is a legitimate development of Judaism.
An authentic development has the power to assimilate. While it takes what is best and sound for its own development, it rejects what does not square off with its future life. Doctrines and views as they relate to man are never placed in a void; they are found in the crowded world, and make way for themselves by interpenetration, and develop by absorption. They interpenetrate people and are absorbed according to the mode of the recipient. As recipients grow into deeper understanding and gain more experiences in life, their understanding of doctrines is bound to undergo deeper and expansive development.
So does Amoris Laetitia constitute a departure from Matthew 19:9? It would serve anyone interested in answering this question to take Cardinal Newman as a mentor and companion. He could save a great deal of embarrassment.