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Discerning family situations

Pastors are to avoid judgments that do not take into account the complexity of various situations, and they are to be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience and endure distress.

The Post-Synodal Exhortation on Love in the Family, issued in March this year, has been the object of heated debate among some sectors of the Catholic Church still grappling with what they consider to be a departure from the traditional teaching on the Sacrament of Communion to the remarried and divorced. This has led Cardinal Walter Kasper, former president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, to write an extensive article where he maintains that the document has not changed a dot in the doctrine of marriage; it simply puts it into a broader context. Thus, he urges people to end the wrangle and start implementing the Exhortation’s directives.

An attentive and careful reading of the text shows clearly a continuity in the magisterium of the Church. In his effort at reforming in continuity, Pope Francis, who authored Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) taking into account the discussions held during the Synod of Bishops of 2014 and 2015 dedicated to family life, highlights the need for a renewed pastoral care of families. And this is the most relevant feature of the Exhortation – a pastoral approach that has God’s mercy and compassion as the starting point and uses the art of discernment to decide upon, on a case-to-case basis, critical issues related to family life.

Delicate matters, like access to the sacraments by couples living in irregular situations and others, are left without definitive solutions. Pope Francis avoided ready-made and standard solutions for the most pressing cases. This task is left to ministers of marriage, counsellors, confessors, priests and bishops who will have to be listening more, practice discernment and dedicate time to the accompaniment of families. It is up to them to decide on each situation, after pondering the person’s/family’s context, together with their difficulties, and seeking enlightenment from the Word of God and the teaching of the Church.

In its approach to “wounded families,” the Pope recalls the following general principle: “Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations. The degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases and factors may exist which limit the ability to make a decision. Therefore, while clearly stating the Church’s teaching, pastors are to avoid judgments that do not take into account the complexity of various situations, and they are to be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience and endure distress because of their condition” (Amoris Laetitia, n. 79).

As the title Amoris Laetitia conveys, love is at the heart of family life, love that is bestowed upon the couple on their wedding day through the Sacrament of Marriage, manifesting Christ’s presence and love in the midst of that family. He continuously pours in free grace and love to the family so that they may live faithfully their solemn promises of a life together in good or in bad time. This requires a sacrificial love, an everyday commitment made up of mutual acceptance, forgiveness and enduring patience.

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