Vatican’s new guidance on marriage, divorce and families strikes a pragmatic, centrist balance, VCU expert says

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The Vatican published today Pope Francis’ long-awaited apostolic exhortation on the family – titled ‘Amoris Laetitia’, or ‘The Joy of Love’ – that calls on the Roman Catholic Church to be more welcoming and less judgmental when it comes to matters on marriage and family.

The document urges priests to provide pastoral care to Catholic couples, rather than judging them based on dogmatic rules governing topics such as divorce, single parenthood, homosexuality and unmarried couples living together.

R. Andrew Chesnut, Ph.D., the Bishop Walter Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies and professor of religious studies in the School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences, said the document strikes a centrist balance that confronts a changing world.

“‘The Joy of Love’ is classic Pope Francis – a masterful mix of doctrinal traditionalism with pastoral innovation. Catholic doctrine on family matters is reaffirmed as the Argentine pontiff calls for new pastoral outreach based on mercy and discernment of individual, concrete realities. Perhaps the cornerstone of the document is found in his quotation of St. Thomas Aquinas, ‘It is true that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations. At the same time, it must be said that, precisely for that reason, what is part of a practical discernment in particular circumstances cannot be elevated to the level of a rule.’

“Faced with the daunting task of balancing pressures for liberal reform from Europe and the Americas with more traditionalist views on family life in Africa and Asia, the only regions where Catholicism is actually growing, the pragmatic pope returns to the concept of inculturation, which seeks to contextualize the Gospel according to national and regional cultural norms. Conservatives will denounce the exhortation for being ‘modernistic’ in its ‘moral relativism,’ while some liberals will criticize the lack of doctrinal reform explicitly allowing for communion for those in ‘irregular’ situations.

“In the end, ‘the Pope of Pragmatism’ steers a centrist course designed to preserve the unity of a church of 1.3 billion challenged by serious theological, pastoral and cultural cleavages. In an intriguing development that symbolizes the declining influence of the church on family matters, Colombia, long considered one of the world's most devoutly Catholic nations, yesterday joined several other Catholic-majority nations in Latin America and Europe in legalizing same-sex marriage.”