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Francis’ “Amoris Laetitia” goes beyond the “artificial, superficial, clear division between ‘regular’ and ‘irregular’” placing everyone under the common lens of the Gospel. This is according to the Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, who presented the Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation in the Vatican. The cardinal underlined that Francis text is “innovative and in continuity ” with John Paul II’s “Familiaris Consortio” and pointed to the “experience of the poor” as a key factor in interpreting the text. This is because poor families illustrate that “small steps along the path of virtue can be far greater than the virtuous success of those living a comfortable life”.
“Here I will take the liberty of recounting an experience I had at last October’s Synod,” said the cardinal, who is a key figure in the double – extraordinary and ordinary – assembly on the family which took place in the Vatican in 2014 and 2015: “As far as I know, two of the thirteen ‘circuli minores’ (the language-based working groups, Ed.) began their discussions by asking each participant to share their personal family situation. It soon emerged that almost all bishops or other participants of the ‘circulus minor’ face, within their family nuclei, the issues, concerns and ‘irregularities’ which we in the Synod discussed in way that was a bit too abstract. Pope Francis invites us to talk about our families ‘just as they are’.”
“In the ecclesial discussion on marriage and the family,” Schönborn said, “there is often a perhaps subconscious tendency to drive the discussion surrounding these two elements of life onto a dual track path. On the one hand are those marriages that are ‘ok’, that fulfil the norm and where everything is ‘alright’ and ‘in order’. Then there are the ‘irregular’ situations which represent a problem. The very term ‘irregular’ suggests that such a clear distinction is possible. So those who are find themselves under the ‘irregular’ umbrella must live with the fact that those who are classed as ‘regular’ cases are on the other side. I understand how difficult it is for those who come from patchwork families as my own family faced the same situation,” the cardinal said (as is widely known, his parents are divorced). “Here, the Church’s discourse could make one feel excluded.” The way I see it, the cardinal said, “Amoris Laetitia” is “first and foremost a ‘linguistic event”, as the “Evangelii Gaudium” was. Something has changed in ecclesial discourse.” The key words in the Exhortation, ‘discern and accompany’, “do not only apply to so-called irregular situations” (Pope Francis emphasises the word “so-called”!) – the Archbishop of Vienna insisted – but for all men, every marriage, every family. Indeed, everyone is on a journey and everybody is in need of ‘discernment’ and ‘accompaniment’. The reason I am so pleased with this Document,” he said, “is that is coherently goes beyond the artificial, superficial, clear division between ‘regular’ and ‘irregular’, placing everyone under the common lens of the Gospel, in accordance with the words of St. Paul: “God has consigned all to disobedience, that He may have mercy on all.”
During the press conference, which was also attended by the Secretary of the Synod, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri and the married couple Franco Miano and Giuseppina De Simone, Cardinal Schönborn, responded to some objections that may be made with regard to the Apostolic Exhortation: “This constant principle of ‘inclusion’ is naturally a cause of concern to some. Isn’t it speaking in favour of relativism? Doesn’t the constantly mentioned concept of mercy become permissivism? Where is the clarity with regard to limits that are not to be exceeded and situations that should objectively be defined as irregular, sinful? Does this Exhortation not favour a sort of laxism, an everything-goes sort of attitude? Isn’t Jesus’ mercy often a firm and demanding mercy?” The cardinal went through a number of passages in Francis’ text (“As Christians, we can hardly stop advocating marriage simply to avoid countering contemporary sensibilities, or out of a desire to be fashionable or a sense of helplessness in the face of human and moral failings”), highlighted the typically Ignatian approach of the Pope who is an “expert pedagogue”, as well as the reference to St. Thomas Aquinas, “who attributes such an important role to passions, while modern morality which is often puritan, discredits or neglects them. It is here that the title of the Pope’s Exhortation finds its fullest expression: Amoris Laetitia.” According to Schönborn “this entire document is profoundly Thomistic, I can systematically prove this!”
Schönborn was keen to underline that chapters four and five on family love are “central”, while chapter eight, which also addresses the controversial issue of communion for remarried divorcees, looking at the “wounds” of failed love has become a litmus test for working out whether the Church is really the place where one can experience God’s mercy”. On controversial issues such as communion for remarried divorcees “many expected a rule”, “they will be disappointed”. During the press conference, some asked about footnote 351, in which the Pope stresses that “the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak”. The cardinal responded by saying: “I am surprised that everyone has read this footnote! But Pope Francis wishes to present an overall picture, not focus on this unique point, without general criteria and discernment …would fall down from the sky without any connection to reality”.
Regarding the “Familiaris Consortio”, John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation on the family – which in paragraph 84 states that remarried divorcees are allowed to take communion is they agree to live “as brother and sister” –, “there is no change, but there is development” because in that paragraph, the possibility of taking part in the Eucharist was already “implicit” and now Pope Francis is introducing an “innovation” but in “continuity” with John Paul II as he himself had done with regard to his predecessors. As far as the question of mortal sin goes, Pope Francis “quotes the catechism”, elucidating “the question of imputability, one of the conditions for knowing whether there is mortal sin or not”. Schönborn also answered journalists’ questions regarding the possibility for a bishop or priest to correctly discern what to do in specific cases. “You cannot play with the sacraments, that is true,” the Austrian cardinal said, in what seemed to be a reference to a recent book by Mgr. Nicola Buz, “but neither can you play with the conscience nor with God”. Schönborn says “a key to interpreting this Exhortation is the experience of the poor because the experience of poor families is precisely this: small steps along a path of virtue can be far greater than the virtuous success of those living a comfortable life. This text communicates Pope Francis’ experience of life, having walked alongside numerous suffering and poor families. It is a call for us to convert.”