I used to respect greatly the Roman Catholic Church for having very high moral standards but — through the confessional and the care of pastors — being quite compassionate, forgiving and understanding to those of us (all of us!) who cannot live up to those standards. This seems to be the approach of Pope Francis in the new apostolic exhortation: “Amoris Laetitia;” The Joy of Love.
So, divorced persons married contrary to the discipline of the church may perhaps now be admitted to holy communion on a case-by-case basis, more on the discretion of local bishops and parish priests than annulment proceedings from the Vatican half a world away. This may, in fact, be the most important and most progressive proclamation in the document. But, while people who happen to be gay and others living in “irregular situations” may now be formally “welcomed” by the local church, will they really feel that way?
Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Austria calls this “a classic example of the organic development of doctrine.” But is it really? It seems to me to be a restatement of traditional doctrine albeit wrapped in more compassionate and merciful language (which, of course, is surely to be applauded). But the question remains: does doctrine actually develop or is it unchanging, merely to be expressed in different ways for each generation.
For example: while it made perfect sense for Jesus to outlaw divorce in a society where divorced women would be forced into the streets, destitute or even worse, does it make sense today? And, while it made perfect sense for Jesus to choose only male apostles in the patriarchal culture in which he lived, does it make sense today? And finally, while it made sense for Paul to be horrified at homosexuality when it was thought to be a “choice” engaged in by heterosexual pagans because of their unbridled lust, does it make sense today when the science of homosexuality and the example of so many faithful gay couples are before us?
I believe the answer to those questions is “No.” I have the utmost respect for the Bishop of Rome and the church he serves. But I believe that they — and other Christian communions including my own — have much more work to do in understanding how church doctrine can and does indeed develop, how it always has, and how the church can best minister to and with all people today, holding on to the principles of love and compassion Jesus taught, but living them out in different ways in the very different societies in which we live.