WASHINGTON — The Archdiocese of Washington has released a pastoral plan aiming to implement Amoris Laetitia within the archdiocese.

Amoris Laetitia is the post-synodal apostolic exhortation published by Pope Francis in April of 2016 following two episcopal synods on the family.

The archdiocesan pastoral plan focuses primarily on encouraging marriages are open to life; fostering the ministry of accompaniment; building welcoming parish communities; and combating challenges posed by modern culture.

This, Catholic University of America professor Chad Pecknold told CNA, is a “breath of fresh air.”

Pecknold praised Cardinal Donald Wuerl for his clarity in maintaining that Church teaching has not changed and that objective truth exists.

“One of the most important things that the cardinal stresses —relying as much on St. John Paul’s Veritatis Splendor as on Amoris Laetitia — is that the Church must not only proclaim the objective moral truths, but also attend to how people can experience and be formed by these truths,” said Pecknold.

Amoris Laetitia has been the subject of controversy because, among other things, some theologians have questioned its treatment of Catholics who have been divorced and civilly remarried without an annulment from the Catholic Church.

A widely criticized footnote in the exhortation’s eighth chapter seemed to some critics to suggest that there could be a path for couples in “irregular unions” to partake in the Eucharist following an examination of conscience. This has become a subject of considerable debate, and some cardinals have requested that Pope Francis clarify certain elements of the exhortation.

Cardinal Wuerl’s pastoral plan includes a subsection emphasizing that Amoris Laetitia did not change what the Church teaches on any topic. While Catholics should use their own consciences to make decisions, the cardinal states plainly, “Prudential judgments of individuals about their own situation do not set aside the objective moral order.”

Dominican Father Thomas Petri, vice president and academic dean of the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies, echoed Pecknold’s praise.

Father Petri told CNA that he was pleased with the majority of the plan and was encouraged that it focused on the larger context of Amoris Laetitia as a whole.

“The pastoral plan is much more concerned with the pastoral encounter between priests, the Church and those who are struggling to live the Christian life in marriage. This is what I think Amoris Laetitia was always about,” Father Petri said.

Father Petri also noted that, despite the frequent mention of the challenges of modernity and current culture for the modern family, the plan says nothing about a potential path for allowing the divorced and remarried to receive Communion.

“On the contrary, finding ways to meet people [where they are and] help them grow in faith and closer to the Lord is what is key in this pastoral implementation of Amoris Laetitia,” he said.

“In fact, I would say, that part of the mercy of God is sometimes helping people slowly learn the truth of their situation in the sight of God and with his grace, taking steps to reconcile what has gone wrong in their past.”

The plan stresses the importance of a strong parish community that is welcoming to all, including those it terms the “anonymous.” These “anonymous” included the poor, infertile couples, the disabled, ethnic minorities and those with a “lack of authentic friendships, sneaking in and out of church without notice, young people church-hopping Sunday after Sunday without belonging to a parish community.”
The plan emphasizes that these groups should be made to feel welcome by a Church community, because “the Church must live up to its identity as a ‘family of families’ (202), where each person is recognized, cared for and loved.”

Cardinal Wuerl identified secularism, materialism and individualism as three challenges facing people today. These challenges, he said, impede the proper formation of consciences, which results in the necessity of “the ministry for encountering and accompanying families through a process of discernment and growth in the faith” as part of the New Evangelization.

Pecknold agreed with this sentiment and lauded the plan as a way for parishes to assist people with both the proper formation of their consciences and to better understand their faith.

“Instead of highlighting ambiguous phrases of Amoris Laetitia to teach new things,” he said, “this pastoral plan looks at how the Church can help people experience and understand the objective truths of the faith even in the midst of their own failures, challenges and hopes.”