On 19 March 2021, the Feast of Saint Joseph, the Church celebrated five years since the publication of the papal exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love). Pope Francis has invited the Church to reflect upon this document five years on and to celebrate family over the coming year. This comes shortly after the announcement by the Irish Bishops of a synodal process leading to a National Synod within five years. Further to this, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published its formal response to the question regarding the blessing of the unions of same sex couples. I have been reflecting upon this moment in the life of the Church and the challenge it poses for all who care for the Church’s position but are also aware of the complex nature of life and love.
In October 2015, the Synod on Marriage and the Family took place in Rome. Out of this came Pope Francis’ exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love). In it he outlines the vocation of the family according to the Gospel which has been affirmed by the Church over time. The Pope’s teaching stresses the themes of indissolubility, the sacramental nature of marriage, the transmission of life and the education of children. However, the Pope also acknowledges that not all situations meet the ideal proposed by the Church and the need to avoid judgements which do not take into account the complexity of various situations.
Following the publication of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s response to the question of blessing unions of people in same sex relationships, many have expressed their anger, disappointment and disillusionment with the Church. This has been experienced as another hurtful response from the Church to people with same sex orientation. In an article published on 16 March 2021, Bishop Johann Bonny of Antwerp, who attended the Synod on Marriage and the Family in 2015, stated that during the synod,
“there were frequent discussions about appropriate rituals and gestures to include homosexual couples, including in the liturgical sphere. Naturally, this occurred with respect for the theologically and pastoral distinction between a sacramental marriage and the blessing of a relationship. The majority of the synod fathers did not choose a black and white liturgical approach or an all-or-nothing model.”
To understand the bigger picture of how the Church arrives at its teaching we must turn to Scripture and Tradition. The Church studies and interprets the Scriptures and Tradition and from this teaches what it believes is the truth given to us by God. If we apply this to the Church’s understanding of marriage, which is fundamental, it believes in and teaches the unitive and procreative ends of marriage. In my assessment of the current situation, it seems people can understand the position that the Church has a duty and responsibility to proclaim its message, whether one believes it or not is another matter. Some agree with what the Church proclaims as truth, others do not. The deeper problem arises in the sphere of language, at best it is experienced as cold and distant, at worst hurtful and offensive. The statement that the Church “cannot bless sin” is seen as targeting or treating same sex couples in a way that others are not targeted or treated in the Church. Many have found this deeply offensive. As a result some feel they are not welcome and have no place in the Catholic Church. There is a great sadness in this as no one should feel that they are not welcome in the Church, which is the Body of Christ. Further to this, so many people in same sex relationships have enriched the life of the Church and continue to do so in parishes across the world.
In one of his first interviews after becoming Pontiff, Pope Francis was asked how he would describe himself. His response was “I am a sinner.” We all find ourselves in this category. In my own life as a Christian I strive to live the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but knowing my sinful nature, I all too often fail at reaching that ideal. However, I do need the truth of the Gospel to aim for, knowing that when I do fail, God’s mercy awaits me. God’s mercy is more powerful than my sinfulness. Pope Francis has reminded us that another name for God is mercy! This is the approach I have tried to use in my pastoral ministry as a priest over the past twenty-three years and now as bishop. It is something I am very conscious of when I celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation as a confessor, but also as a penitent seeking forgiveness.
So where do we go from here, what can we learn? Firstly, the Church needs to hear what is being said in relation to language. The Church must reflect upon how its language is heard and interpreted by people in today’s complex world.
Secondly, even though many are disillusioned by the statement from the Congregation, there are important points that may have been overshadowed in the commentary. For instance, the document talks about “positive elements” in same sex relationships which are “to be valued and appreciated.” This may seem insignificant, but to my knowledge, I do not recall the Church making such a statement before.
Thirdly, the Irish Church has recently embarked upon a “synodal journey.” Synod means “walking together,” it is at the heart of Pope Francis’ model and understanding of Church and ministry. The Irish Bishops have emphasised that this synodal journey must reach out to everyone, including those who feel they are not part of the Church. A synodal path is not about changing the doctrine of the Church, it is about how we apply it more pastorally. The journey involves prayerfully listening to the Spirit and discerning what God wants of us as a Church in the modern world. This will not be an easy journey, the chaotic “field hospital” image of Pope Francis comes to mind, an image that many can identify with today.
Perhaps this struggle, this unease is at the very heart of the synodal way. We would all like for it to be “neat and tidy” and to be in control. This is not the way of synodality which requires humility to allow the Spirit to take charge. Pope Francis reminds us of this call to humility when says: “Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators.” (Evangelii Gaudium 47). May we have the courage to “walk together” as a community of disciples with our minds and hearts open to where the Lord is calling us at this critical moment.
- Bishop Paul Dempsey is Bishop of Achonry.
- On the 19 March 2021, the fifth anniversary of the publication of Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia on the joy and beauty of family love, Pope Francis inaugurated the year ‘Amoris Laetitia Family’, and this will conclude on 26 June 2022 on the occasion of the X World Meeting of Families in Rome. The IX World Meeting of Families took place in Ireland during August 2018, and this included a visit by Pope Francis.
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