The Pope’s new apostolic exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), is a puzzling document. In fact, at times, it seems two different documents.

One explores almost every threat to marriage in the modern world — as well as how to deal with them, both in the public square and in the intimate recesses of the human heart. The Holy Father writes beautifully of education, formation, accompaniment and friendship, all in the service of love, both human and divine, truth and goodness that call to us and ennoble our lives.

The other document (primarily Chapter Eight), much more hesitantly and ambivalently, would like to depart from the Church’s constant teaching since the beginning on Communion for the divorced and remarried. (Whether it does or does not actually do so is likely to remain unclear unless Pope Francis chooses to go further than he has in these already-long 256 pages.)

He brings forward a myriad of explanations and excuses for why people — some of them, in some circumstances, anyway — may not be responsible for the “irregular” or “imperfect” situations in which they find themselves and may, perhaps, in God’s mercy, remain in their second marriages and be welcomed back to Communion.

There’s more. In Chapters Three and Four of the exhortation, he offers winsome, folksy advice on how, in our troubled times, parents, teachers, pastors and others need to prepare people for marriage and help them stay married, and he even engages in what is almost “advice for the lovelorn” as to how to learn to love your imperfect spouse and be loved despite your own imperfections.

But when he turns to the tentative change in pastoral practice, he takes a harsh tone towards those he considers coldly rigid. For instance, “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.” The image here is clearly intended to suggest that dutifully following traditional teaching is akin to stoning the woman taken in adultery; as if Our Lord’s own words on indissolubility — and his warning that divorce/remarriage is adultery (not mere “imperfection” or “irregularity”) — were somehow rendered null and void by mercy (Luke 16:18; Matthew 19:9; Mark 10:11, 1 Corinthians 7:10, etc.).

He has done this before in other contexts; his harsh reaction to what he considers legalism and lack of real love must correspond to something in the Pope’s experience. But what that may be is not entirely clear. When you come to the one passage — only a footnote — where he explicitly hints that change in pastoral practice may include sacraments, he puts that, too, in an odd way:

351. In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, “I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy” (apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium [Nov. 24, 2013], 44: AAS 105 [2013], 1038). I would also point out that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”

Fair enough, but where today is the confessional a torture chamber or are people taught that the Eucharist is only for the “perfect”? When straw men like these are set up, it’s usually because it’s hard to make the real argument.

From the beginning of this controversy, since Pope Francis first invited Cardinal Walter Kasper, two years ago, to make the case to the bishops on Communion for the divorced/remarrieds, it has obviously involved more than a debate about crude or rigid applications of moral principles. For many people, the question has been: Can we ignore or manipulate Christ’s stark words that divorce and remarriage is adultery? Our whole Tradition has taught that it’s not enough to regret that it happened. If we want to return to God, we must change our lives.

Amoris Laetitia, following the suggestion of some bishops at the two synods, uses less “offensive” language than Christ did, only speaking of situations that are imperfect, or irregular, or less than the Christian ideal — not adultery.

Vienna’s Cardinal Christoph Schönborn gave a very heartfelt account of the exhortation at the press conference Friday that presented the text. A child of divorced parents himself, he seems to have been particularly struck by the way the Pope has bridged the old distinction between people in “regular” and in “irregular” relationships. We are all on the same pilgrimage towards God, he said, and the Church excludes no one.

He also provided an interesting interpretive key to the whole document, saying (as a Dominican) he was happy to find it profoundly Thomistic in the way it embodies the truth that only the good attracts. Instead of merely stating the teaching on marriage, deploring failures and thinking it has done its duty, the Church has to show the positive side of the teaching and lead people into a fuller reality of God’s love.

That seems to be a definite gain, but the Pope and Cardinal Schönborn also invoke St. Thomas in ways that will inevitably lead to controversy. One comes near the point when the possible, if limited, change in pastoral practice is being introduced. The Holy Father points out that even the Angelic Doctor taught that general principles can fail us when they come down to having to judge actual, concrete cases.

The point seems to be that if we are too rigid and abstract we stay at a level of principle that doesn’t really engage the reality of people’s lives. Cardinal Schönborn also remarked that it’s possible to err in the opposite direction by being too lax in proposing the fullness of truth. This means that in difficult cases there are “no simple recipes.” We have to follow a process of “discernment” in which we don’t merely take people as instances of some general rule, but evaluate them and their circumstances, face to face, one by one.

There are opportunities, but also dangers lurking here, and this approach will no doubt lead to many controversies, and not only among the Thomists. It’s true that every case is unique, but is it so unique that general norms do not come into play, as they have since the earliest days of the Church on divorce and remarriage?

And so is this a new outpouring of God’s mercy or an acceptance of an all-too-common attitude in the modern world that such matters are not deeply sinful, calling for repentance and change of life, but are mere irregularities and imperfections? And what is sin, which gets little attention in Amoris Laetitia? And who’s regular or perfect anyway?

Among the contrasts in the exhortation, Pope Francis openly and vigorously defends Church teaching on contraception, abortion, homosexuality, reproductive technologies, the education of children and much more.

It’s only on the divorced and remarried that he’s tentative, if persistent. There’s much that will give rise to much-needed dialogue in this text, but also much that will vex the Church for no little time to come.

Robert Royal, Ph.D., is the founder and president

of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington

and editor in chief of The Catholic Thing website.