A few days ago we published a short Q&A with Bishop Barron on Pope Francis’ new exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love). Today, we share a few more follow-up questions about themes in the document, including spiritual idealism, the internal forum, the law of gradualness, and more.
In his exhoration, the Pope seems to distinguish between the ideal of faithful, fruitful, permanent Christian marriage and the actual, imperfect state of many unions. While the ideal is praiseworthy and something to aim for, he suggests, it’s not always attainable and therefore we shouldn’t chastise couples for failing to meet it. Is this a helpful dichotomy? Is this approach unique to him or does it reflect a particular theological milieu?
Bishop Barron: Some have suggested that the language of “the ideal” is not helpful in the measure that it gives the impression that the normative teaching of the Church is something to which only the spiritually heroic can aspire. I am somewhat sympathetic with this concern. One thinks, for example, of John Paul II’s exegesis of the rich young man episode, according to which Jesus boldly summons the young seeker to a radical embrace of the life of discipleship. The Lord does not dismiss the ideal as something essentially unattainable, but rather calls the man to it. I don’t think that Pope Francis means to imply that the Church’s teaching on marriage is only for spiritual athletes, but I do understand how his language, interpreted casually, might give that impression. It is up to priests, religious, catechists, and formators on the ground to ward off this false reading.
The Pope mentions an “internal forum” as a possible solution to the divorce-and-remarriage problem. What is this and how would it work?
Bishop Barron: The internal forum, which is to say, a private conversation between one’s confessor or spiritual director, can be the place where questions of subjective culpability can be adjudicated. The matter of objective good and evil can and should be handled in the public forum. This distinction, in point of fact, helps enormously to clarify Pope Francis’s most famous line, “who am I to judge?” He didn’t mean that he couldn’t pronounce on the objective dysfunction of homosexual acts; he meant that he couldn’t reach into the privacy of a particular man’s conscience and determine, without further ado, whether he was in the state of mortal sin.
Citing St. John Paul II, the Pope also mentions the “law of gradualness.” What does this mean?
Bishop Barron: The so-called law of gradualness is the frank acknowledgement that people often come to the full appropriation of the Church’s moral teaching by steps and degrees, and not all at once. In light of this principle, Pope Benedict, some years ago, made the observation that a male prostitute, who uses a condom in order to prevent the spread of sexually-transmitted disease, is taking a positive step in the direction of moral integration. The Pope, of course, was not “condoning” condom use or adopting an “anything goes” attitude toward sexual morality, far from it. He was taking seriously the law of gradualness in regard to the journey toward full sexual integration.
Many people in “irregular unions” feel unwelcome in the Church. They’re convinced the Church has shunned them and wants nothing to do with them. How can we integrate such people into the parish, even if they are still remain unable to receive communion?
Bishop Barron: I suppose this might be a case of the glass half-empty or half-full. One could focus exclusively on the prohibition of communion and see only “shunning.” Or one could see that there are myriad ways—working with kids, reaching out to the elderly, serving at parish functions, etc.—that people in irregular situations could be involved. And nothing whatsoever would prevent such folks from coming to Mass and sharing in its many riches and participating in the community gathered around the altar.
In Amoris Laetitia, the Pope writes, “I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion. But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness.” What’s the Pope referring to here? Are these two sides of the same coin?
Bishop Barron: I suppose it’s a matter of emphasis. Obviously, both clarity of teaching and tenderness of pastoral care are necessary. How the two are realized and applied is up to the prudential judgment of the Church’s ministers. I think it’s eminently clear that Pope Francis has discerned a greater need right now in the life of the Church for mercy and pastoral sensitivity, but Amoris Laetitia itself indicates that he has by no means placed into question the necessity of clear and forceful teaching.