TRUMAU, Austria — Pope Francis chose Cardinal Christoph Schönborn to be the main presenter of his post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) last week.
In this brief April 9 interview with the Register in Trumau, Austria, given after a grueling series of interviews in Rome, the archbishop of Vienna responded to criticism that the summary document on the synods on the family is ambiguous and without the usual clarity of moral teaching found in previous papal documents.
He also shared what, to him, are the most valuable elements of the document and why he thinks the distinction between “irregular” and “regular” relationships between people needs to be less clearly defined. The cardinal further responded to criticism that the document is not in continuity with John Paul II’s teaching on remarried divorcees receiving holy Communion.
What, to you, are the most valuable elements of this document that are most helpful to families and those who minister to them?
It’s an enormous encouragement to believe in the power of love. Amoris Laetitia, “The Joy of Love,” St. John the Apostle says: “We believe in love.” Pope Francis says: “Yes, we believe in love.” He is convinced that there is no stronger motivation for marriage and family life; there is no stronger help for family life than love — but love not in an abstract way. He’s very realistic, down to earth, heart in heaven and a foot on the earth.
It’s very much about application of the Church’s teaching, would you say?
It’s a continuation of what John Paul II made in his catechesis on marriage and family. In St. John Paul’s catechesis, it’s very much focused on the couple. Pope Francis has the couple in view, but he doesn’t repeat what John Paul II has already taught in his lengthy catechesis. Pope Francis talks a lot about the family relations, parents and children, the relation of the parents to the children, children to the parents, the larger family, the grandparents, the stepmothers, the uncles and aunts and cousins, and the daily life of the family, forgiveness, patience, endurance, the attention to each other. All these basic attitudes I would say, in classical terms, are the virtues that make a family a real Christian family.
The document is very wide-ranging, covering the complexity of the family today. Do you think that makes it a very nuanced document, and, consequently, that there’s not the clarity there that some people want because of its complexity? Would you say that’s the reason for the criticism that it’s perhaps a little too ambiguous?
The Holy Father, first of all, wants to focus on the positive aspects because he’s convinced the family is [crucial] to the survival of society. So he does not, first of all, speak about the difficulties and crisis of family and marriage, but what they contribute to life. But then, of course, he also has a long chapter about education in the family, on emotional life in the family, on sexuality between the couple. He has a beautiful chapter on aging, which is a very important topic today. And then, in the seventh and eighth chapters, he speaks at length about the crises couples and families can go through and how to help them, how to be with them, a pastoral [approach] to helping the family.
Amoris Laetitia talks about, and you mentioned this in your presentation at the Vatican, about “irregular” and “regular” situations. This is a distinction that you say needs to be broken down a bit. Would you like to explain that a little more?
Of course, he speaks about “irregular” situations because, objectively, there are irregular situations: When people live together without marriage, it’s irregular. When people divorce and remarry, it’s an irregular situation; but this is one side.
What Pope Francis shows very clearly is that all families, even those that are “regular,” need God’s mercy, need God’s help. All families, whether regular or in difficult situations, are on the way to perfection, on the way to holiness; all need steps, all need perfection, all need pardon and forgiveness. He tries to show that there’s not, on the one side, the good families and on the other side the bad families, but I think it comes very much from his experience with poor families. Poor families are very often heroic in their efforts, in their struggles in daily life, in their exhausting struggles for survival, leading difficult lives, and he has great empathy for them. There’s a beautiful thing that he says: A little effort, a little step done in difficult situations can be more valuable than a great achievement in a very comfortable situation. So this is typical for Pope Francis: Have a merciful, attentive look to what people are going through, in daily difficulties, and admire the heroism of so many poor people in standing together, in holding together, as families under difficult circumstances.
So I would say, to conclude, that Amoris Laetitia is a great hymn to love and the healing and the comforting and the strengthening power of family love. So it’s an encouragement; it’s an invitation — an invitation when many seem not to believe any longer in the family.
You have said there is continuity between Familiaris Consortio (84) and Amoris Laetitia, but critics argue this is not the case when it comes to the nature of the second marriage, which relates to the objective fact that it constitutes adultery, as the Lord teaches. John Paul, therefore, proposed that the couple live in continence as brother and sister, not as an exception, but as a total solution, so they can receive holy Communion. This doesn’t seem to be the case in Amoris Laetitia, which for some people is of a completely different order (some believe footnote 351 advocates holy Communion for remarried divorcees living in potentially adulterous situations), so is there a discontinuity?
Pope Francis doesn’t enter into casuistry (resolve moral problems by applying theoretical rules) because his main point is the formation of discernment, of the right conscience, and the acceptance of responsibilities. That applies not only to the second-marriage situation. There are many other faulty situations we have entered, but the sinful — this new situation that had a sinful origin — nevertheless creates obligations. The pastoral question is how to help these people who have, through a sinful beginning, come to a situation that contains obligations.
I’m very close to a farmer’s family: They have eight children and abstained from receiving the sacraments, but not from marital life [sexual relations]. She was divorced, but they are an exemplary family, despite the sinful origins. Now, you could say, of course, it’s better if they had never married civilly, but they live what John Paul II describes exactly in 84: a life of faith. They have eight children now who are deeply educated in faith. Every Sunday at Mass, beautifully, the children of the mother or the father say: “Today I go to Communion for you.” So that’s a powerful witness to the Church’s teaching. But a rigorist could say: “They should have abstained from having children, live as brother and sister, and go and receive Communion.” Now they continue to abstain from receiving Communion but have eight children who are well educated in the faith.
So you see the complexity Pope Francis speaks about, the infinite complexity of situations. Therefore, Cardinal [Georges] Cottier, who died recently, said we should abstain from speaking about the divorced and remarried as a category because the situations are so diverse. And so, therefore, Pope Francis, as a good Jesuit, does not do casuistry, but tries to show principles for good Christian action.
Some people are concerned that the ambiguous language in the document could result in confusion and that the moral teachings are no longer crystal clear in the document, compared to previous Vatican or papal documents.
First of all, let’s take time to read the document and to see precisely whether there are … It’s a document of the Holy Father; it’s not just somebody writing. In the Catholic Church, the Pope has an important role, I would say, and so the first attitude has to be not where can we find a critical point, but what does the Holy Father want to tell us? [We have to] listen to him and to listen with an open heart and not immediately jump on what might hurt me in my attitude or in my preconception, but be open. He’s the Pope, and we are Catholic.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.