Since the beginning of the debate on whether Chapter 8 of Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) permits the divorced and civilly married to receive Holy Communion, Cardinal Donald Wuerl has lamented that the exhortation has been co-opted by that single issue and that, really, the Holy Father’s concern is much broader than that debate suggests.     

Some people, though, have suggested that the synods and Amoris Laetitia were simply a cover to change the practice of not giving Holy Communion to the divorced and civilly married. In a newly released pastoral plan for the Archdiocese of Washington, Cardinal Wuerl has taken a decided step away from such a cynical view and captured the passion of Pope Francis’ insistence that because we are all in need of it, we must also go out and give God’s mercy and truth to those who do not know it, who are not living it, and who are desperate to receive it.

“Sharing in the Joy of Love in Marriage and Family,” the Archdiocese of Washington’s pastoral plan, focuses the implementation of the exhortation not on questions of sacramental doctrine and practice, since these truths have been definitively taught and Church teaching has not changed.
Rather, echoing a cornerstone in the thought of Pope Francis, Pope St. John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI, Wuerl’s plan begins with the principle that “the desire to love and to be loved is a deep, enduring part of our human experience.” This desire is part of God’s providential care for us and his plan for marriage. Echoing a reflection on our need for God that Joseph Ratzinger once made in his Introduction to Christianity, Cardinal Wuerl notes that the joy of love in this life “gives us an invitation to experience Christian hope in the love of God that never ends.”

It’s somewhat surprising that it was thought necessary to hold two synods and to issue an apostolic exhortation to encourage priests and parish leaders to reach out to people living in irregular situations. In the United States I’ve certainly not noticed priests turning people away who struggle to live the Christian life. If anything, I think many priests are loathe to challenge people to strive for holiness and virtue by living in the grace of Jesus Christ. Perhaps that’s another story about our own weaknesses as priests and pastors.

But in a culture given over to secularism, materialism and individualism, it’s indisputable that many people do not experience marriage as a force of life-giving joy. Moreover, in at least two generations, the majority of Catholics have not been catechized or given the teaching of the Church in a meaningful way. There are many reasons for that, but the question before us is what to do with those who live in irregular situations.

There are two extreme responses we could make to persons who aren’t living in the truth of Christ’s teaching about marriage. We could simply ignore the situation and let them continue on as they have been. Some may be living with a sort of resentment of the Church’s teaching, and some may be ignoring it (and receiving Holy Communion in the meantime). Or we could, upon learning of people’s sins and struggles, simply exhort them to live in a way consistent with Church teaching (and in those cases to refrain from Holy Communion until they do). Neither of these solutions seem aligned with a pastoral sensibility. The former is passively laxist, and the latter will likely have no effect on persons unaccustomed to receiving difficult truths from ecclesial authority.

Despite the ambiguity of various passages in Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia, I think that the Holy Father asks us to choose neither of these paths. In his pastoral plan for the Archdiocese of Washington, Cardinal Wuerl avoids the question of Holy Communion for the divorced and civilly married, even though he repeatedly asserts the need for the formation of conscience and explains that personal judgement does not supersede the objective moral order. Rather, noting that “each one of us is in an ‘irregular situation’ when it comes to our relationship with the true God,” the cardinal reminds his priests and pastoral leaders that the “Church offers the love and mercy of God as the sure path to fulfill the human desire for love, walks with those who bear and try to overcome the trials and difficulties that too often mark marriage and family as they do life in general.”

The thrust of the pastoral plan and the majority of the text, therefore, focuses on meeting people where they are and finding ways that priests, parish staff and youth leaders can work to form the consciences of the faithful in order to invite those who are struggling in marriage and irregular relationships to come to know the mercy, love and liberating truth that Jesus Christ offers.

Encouraging individual meetings between priest and parishioner, developing comprehensive formation in marriage with the assistance of mentor couples, offering retreats for couples, and teaching families to pray together are just some of the suggestions the pastoral plan makes.

Cardinal Wuerl’s plan focuses not specifically on couples in irregular situations, but on all marriages. That’s why it focuses on preparing youth to give and to love, on developing a culture supporting the self-offering of marriage, on formation during the engagement period, and on supporting families in unique situations, such as those with children who have special needs or those families with immigrant members.

After so much polarization, we finally now have a local implementation of Amoris Laeitia that sees the larger picture of Pope Francis’ challenge and vision. It’s a plan that doesn’t get bogged down in a question that was neither asked nor answered in the exhortation: whether divorced and civilly remarried can receive Holy Communion. That question was already answered by Pope St. John Paul II in his 1981 exhortation on the family, Familiaris Consortio, and has been reaffirmed repeatedly by the Holy See.

Some will, no doubt, be disappointed that Cardinal Wuerl did not repeat the Church’s teaching on the matter. Yet it seems to me that to do so would be to continue the tired arguments of the last few years to the detriment of a vision that seeks to encounter the faithful and to help them not only to know the doctrines of our faith but to experience the liberating truth of what we believe.

The cardinal understands that “many adult Catholics do not know the fullness of what the Church teaches and have never experienced it lived out. Some know Church teaching, but citing the primacy of individual conscience (which is sometimes a misinformed conscience), they simply pick and choose which teachings they will practice or not follow.” He is also well aware of the pressures Catholics face from the culture not to take seriously the demands of Christ and his Gospel.

All of this being the case, Cardinal Wuerl’s pastoral plan recognizes that many people have great difficulty in grasping the positive value of the Church’s teaching or have difficulty in embracing it fully. Nevertheless, he is clear: “The underlying moral principle which should inform both that personal discernment and the priest’s ministry is that a person whose situation in life is objectively contrary to moral teaching can still love and grow in the faith; he or she can still take steps in the right direction and benefit from God’s mercy and grace while receiving assistance from the Church.”

We are not permitted to claim that any situation in this life is irredeemable or that any person is lost until they die in a state of mortal sin (which is something that only God can know definitively). So we have to believe that listening to, forgiving, loving, teaching and accompanying those who struggle can by God’s grace initiate positives steps that move them in the right direction toward a normalized relationship with God: to reconcile with loved ones, to live chastely when necessary, and to live with integrity as children of God.

Some may insist that Cardinal Wuerl leaves too much to personal judgment and conscience. I point out that his pastoral plan clearly states that “prudential judgments of individuals about their own situation do not set aside the objective moral order.” Additionally, it states, “In Catholic pastoral ministry there is an interaction of objective moral directives and the effort to live them according to one’s ability to grasp them and thus make prudential judgments.”

While it is true that every person is bound to follow his or her conscience, the conscience must be well-formed. That people often act because their conscience is either ignorant of or deadened to the Divine Law does not lessen our responsibility not only to teach but also to evangelize and to accompany. Indeed, the mere statement of truth is not the goal of a disciple’s mission, but, rather, the liberation and conversion of those caught in sorrow, addiction and sin is.

Dominican Father Thomas Petri is vice president and academic dean

 of the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies.