As many of our readers are already aware, on October 7, 2016 (the Memorial of Our Lady of the Rosary) I issued my first pastoral letter to the Archdiocese of Portland. The letter concerns how we will read and apply Pope Francis’ Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (AL), here in our local Church in western Oregon. My pastoral letter, entitled “A True and Living Icon”, can be found at http://www.archdpdx.org.
So what is a pastoral letter? As the name implies, it is a letter from the “pastor” (shepherd) of the diocese to the people (flock) entrusted to his care. My letter is addressed to all of the clergy, religious and lay faithful of the Archdiocese. It is an exercise of the office of bishop to teach, encourage, exhort, console, direct, correct, etc. Bishops have been writing to their flocks since the time of the Apostles (e.g. the letters of St. Paul and the “pastoral epistles” of the New Testament).
My first pastoral letter is concerned with how Amoris Laetitia (AL) can be read in no other way but within the context of the whole body of Catholic doctrine and practice. As I said when AL was first released:
“…this exhortation cannot be read in isolation. That is a danger that I frequently see when the Church issues a new document, even by the Pope. Some people will latch on to the new, thinking that this is we need to read or know. Amoris Laetitia, like any Church document, must be read within the broader body of teaching that the Church has developed over the last 2000 years, going back to the very words of Jesus himself.”
“So Amoris Laetitia must be read, understood and interpreted within this broader context of teaching. I would especially recommend that it be read in relation to the profound teaching of St. John Paul II on marriage, family and human sexuality. Pope Benedict XVI also gave us some very relevant teaching in this regard.” (Catholic Sentinel, 5/19/2016)
I along with many other bishops have the concern that some are misusing AL in ways that are not consistent with this broader context of Catholic teaching on faith and morals and sacramental practice. It is this that I am addressing primarily in “A True and Living Icon.” Allow me to give a thumbnail sketch of my letter, not meant to replace an actual reading of it.
I begin with emphasizing that the covenant of marriage is a true and living icon (image), capable of revealing to us the triune God whom we love, serve and worship. This is Pope Francis’ image taken from AL. The permanent indissoluble covenant of marriage reflects the inner life of the Holy Trinity and also God’s eternal covenant with us in his Son, Jesus Christ.
Next there is a discussion of how the Church always teaches in continuity with Sacred Scripture and with Sacred Tradition, which is the fullness of divine revelation and the deposit of faith God has revealed to us. The Church always teaches in continuity, and never in rupture from what has gone before. She does this under the promised guidance of the Holy Spirit. Doctrine can develop, but never be altered. The indissolubility of the marriage bond is part of this perennial teaching of the Church, going back to the very words of Jesus himself.
What then follows is a serious discussion of three primary misuses of AL that have arisen in the wake of its publication. These misuses constitute a violation of the very principle that is stated above, namely that the Church must always teach and practically live in continuity with the living Tradition of what has gone before.
The first misuse of some passages of AL by some is that individual conscience can make legitimate actions that go against a divine commandment. While recognizing the dignity and importance of an individual’s conscience, the judgement of conscience is not a law unto itself, nor can conscience rightly disregard or supplant the commandments of God as taught by the Church. A person must obey the voice of conscience, but conscience can err, and therefore must be properly formed.
The second misuse of some passages of AL is to imply that under certain circumstances or conditions, God’s commandments do not apply. The Church has soundly rejected this moral position. When God commands a prohibition (“Thou shall not kill”, “Thou shall not commit adultery”, etc.), they do not admit of exceptions. While a person’s culpability for a sinful action can be diminished or even eliminated due to, for example, ignorance or lack of freedom, the divine prohibition remains.
The third misuse of passages from AL that is troublesome is to imply that some people are too weak to fulfill the divine commandments, and are therefore exempted from them. This is a very disturbing position because it in effect denies the power of God’s grace and empties the Cross of its power to transform lives.
The Church must be ready and willing, as Pope Francis has exhorted us, to accompany people on their spiritual journey. She must be like a field hospital helping the fragile and the wounded. She must recognize that people struggle to fully live up to the supreme call to holiness, and fall short of the mark. We all do. I do. But the Church must always remain faithful to her mission and to her Savior in proposing the path that leads to true happiness, holiness, peace and joy.
Please read my pastoral letter in full. It is not the only and final word in the Archdiocese of Portland on Amoris Laetitia, but it provides the foundation and framework with which AL will be understood and applied. Stay tuned!