Pope Francis’ “Amoris Laetitia” (or “Joy of Love”), published today, does not change any Catholic dogma, and has sent mixed messages to LGBTI people, on the one hand speaking firmly against equal marriage and on the other a call for tolerance and acceptance.
In the Joy of Love, the rules of the Church in relation to the family, marriage, divorce, contraception, abortion, transgender and homosexuality remain as they were. Indeed, it would have been surprising if any dogma had changed. So Francis states clearly that same sex marriage can not be the equivalent of heterosexual marriage, that gender is not a choice, that marriage is for life and that artificial barriers to conception diminish marriage.
Pope Francis wrote: “In discussing the dignity and mission of the family, the Synod Fathers observed that, as for proposals to place unions between homosexual persons on the same level as marriage, there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.”
He also appears to be warning against LGBTI activism trying to change this dogma or affect pressure internationally on countries that reject equality, stating: “It is unacceptable that local Churches should be subjected to pressure in this matter and that international bodies should make financial aid to poor countries dependent on the introduction of laws to establish ‘marriage’ between persons of the same sex.”
With regards to gender identity some have taken the following statement to be against transgender people: “It is one thing to be understanding of human weakness and the complexities of life, and another to accept ideologies that attempt to sunder what are inseparable aspects of reality.
“Let us not fall into the sin of trying to replace the Creator. We are creatures, and not omnipotent. Creation is prior to us and must be received as a gift,” he wrote, in a manner that is open to interpretation.
The conflict between his belief in the Catholic dogma and acceptance was made all the more apparent when he wrote that “families whose members include persons who experience same-sex attraction … should be given respectful pastoral guidance, so that those who manifest a homosexual orientation can receive the assistance they need to understand and fully carry out God’s will in their lives.”
However, this is not the whole story. Crucially, as in much that Francis has written and stated since his elevation to the papacy (and indeed before he became Pope), he sees dogma on its own as being a part of the problem, and he spends a whole chapter looking at what he calls “discernment”. By this he means understanding and relating to those things in people’s lives, relationships and physical and psychological make up that impact on their willingness or ability to live within church rules. There is even a section within this chapter entitled “Rules and Discernment”.
In this chapter he emphasises that parish priests should take people as they are, not as the church would want them to be. He makes it clear this is not about diluting the theology of the church. He writes: “…general rules… can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations.” In his discussion on this, he devolves responsibility for balancing dogma and mercy, rules and inclusion on local churches, and particularly on parish priests. However, he makes it clear that uppermost in the hearts and minds of pastors must be mercy. He also makes clear that no two people, no two situations are ever the same.
This becomes more apparent when he specifically talks about LGBTI families saying: “There is no stereotype of the ideal family, but rather a challenging mosaic made up of many different realities, with all their joys, hopes and problems.
“Every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration,” he wrote.
Francis is quite clear, early on in the document, when refers to sexuality as “a gift from God”.
It is in this respect that his vision of dogma becomes apparent: “A pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws … as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives,” he writes.
“By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and growth,” he added.
He also emphasised that “unjust discrimination” against LGBTI people is unacceptable and plays down the idea of “living in sin” and suggests that priests should use their own discretion.
The Pope tells priests that they should make decisions appropriate to their local conditions, hinting perhaps that the Catholic churches may apply more autonomy and discretion according to their locality in relation to LGBTI issues.
“Each country or region … can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs,” he writes in a possible effort to satisfy both liberals and conservatives by decentralising authority.
He further acknowledges that many priests do not have either the training or the experience to provide this sort of flexible, more open pastoral care. He also hints that the Catholic church can learn from its “oriental” cousins (that is, the Orthodox churches, where priests are married). He also calls for more intensive training for seminarians in issues relating to sex, sexuality and the family, and involving lay members in assisting in pastoral care. He appears to be opening the door for at least some divorced and remarried Catholics to be able to play a full part in the church, as well as for those who are living together and not married and those in same sex relationships. In reality, in many parishes at least some of these things are already happening.
“Joy of Love” is over 300 pages long and contains complex and detailed theological argument, as well as trying to satisfy both liberal and conservative wings of the church. As such, it is not possible to provide a detailed analysis after only the briefest of readings. KaleidoScot will be closely examining the document and writing a fuller analysis in a week’s time for next Friday’s “Belief Matters” column.
What we can say immediately is that, whereas there is much in “Joy of Love” that will disappoint us, there is also much that gives LGBTI Catholics hope.