There are many issues pertaining to justice and mercy in relation to Catholic doctrine, Church law and pastoral practices regarding marriage and divorce that have arisen from Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, “Amoris Laetita,” on love in the family, issued on the Solemnity of Saint Joseph, March 19, 2016.

In understanding these issues, it’s essential to see that law in the Church is not just a question of “following rules,” but how the law guides our free moral choices between right and wrong as disciples of Jesus and stewards of God’s creation. There is a famous saying that “law follows theology,” that is, law does not emerge out of nothing, nor does it exist in a vacuum isolated from its moral and theological underpinnings. If we can see a connection between law, morality, discipleship and stewardship, we can begin to understand their relationship to justice and mercy, for Jesus in the Gospel stated in no uncertain terms that we would be judged on how we treat the least of our brothers and sisters, for the way we treat them in fact is how we treat Christ (Mt. 25:31-46). Those who, in their lifetime, didn’t care for the least of their brothers and sisters will go to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. This is how Christians understand God’s just judgment as described by Jesus.

But Jesus didn’t speak only of the justice of God’s judgment; He also spoke of God’s mercy. Perhaps the passage where God’s mercy is described most directly was the parable of the Prodigal Son. Although the traditional title of the parable refers to the son who demanded and squandered his inheritance in dissolute living, the real focus of the story is the father who shows great mercy in receiving his repentant son back into his loving arms. This, of course, points to God the Father, and the merciful embrace that he extends to all of his wayward children who turn back to Him. So, is God the Just Judge or the Merciful Father???
The Catholic answer to such a question, of course, is not either/or, but both. These attributes of God are not contradictory, inconsistent or incompatible. God is all merciful as well as all just. It may be difficult for us from our human perspective to understand how that can be, but God doesn’t have to diminish one of His attributes in order to manifest another. Just as Jesus is true God and true man without either nature canceling or detracting from the other, God is always merciful and always just. All of this must be kept in mind, then, when looking at a practical application of mercy, law and justice.

Some have questioned whether the Holy Father’s Apostolic Exhortation is an exercise in papal magisterium (papal teaching authority). As an exhortation is an official exercise of the papal magisterium by the Pope in carrying out his office of teaching, this form of teaching exhorts the faithful to act according to established doctrine and canon law. An exhortation doesn’t establish new doctrine or laws. It doesn’t overrule existing doctrine or laws, but urges people to follow existing doctrine and laws.

In reading “Amoris Laetitia,” I found plenty of solid material for thoughtful and prayerful reflection. The Holy Father’s great love of the family is foremost in his mind and heart, in particular, his pastoral empathy as a Shepherd of souls for people in irregular marital arrangements. The Church doesn’t seek to exclude anyone and wishes to welcome everyone honestly seeking God. The good intentions of people who want a change in the Church’s Eucharistic discipline and teachings are understandable; but the law is a ‘yes’, not a ‘no’. In other words, the law exists to positively sustain and protect the sacraments and the believing community, not to push anyone out. But it does need to reinforce and support Church teachings on both marriage and the Eucharist; and so, existing Church teaching and discipline continue to make good sense. Having read the document again, patiently and carefully, I find that, despite claims to the contrary from some commentators, there are no changes to Canon law or Church doctrine introduced in this document. As the basis for my statement, I cite Pope Francis himself, who said in the document: “neither the Synod nor this Exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases.” But some people are citing other passages of the document which they claim contradict this statement, notably footnote #351, in which the Pope says with reference to persons living in an objective situation of sin, “In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments.” The key here is the phrase, “in certain cases,” so it’s necessary to consider which cases those might be.

So, what are we to make of all this? The starting point for interpreting papal statements and Church documents is to remember that they don’t all carry the same authoritative weight. They bear different names because they carry varying levels of importance and authority. They are: apostolic constitutions, encyclicals, apostolic exhortations, apostolic letters, motu proprios, homilies, letters, messages, speeches, etc. In terms of importance and authority, at the top of the list are apostolic constitutions, highest in significance because they constitute papal legislation defining laws and doctrines. Among the lowest levels would be extemporaneous answers, such as those given in response to impromptu questions during an in-flight press conference on an airplane. Footnotes in an apostolic exhortation would also rank low in significance, since apostolic exhortations themselves, as a rule, simply exhort, encourage and urge the faithful to follow existing Church laws and teachings. Apostolic exhortations, therefore, usually aren’t vehicles for introducing or amending legislation or making dogmatic pronouncements. So, if the Pope wished to use this type of text, by necessity, he would need to establish that with manifest certitude.
Now, with regard to the question of Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried, the Catechism says clearly in paragraph #1665, “The remarriage of persons divorced from a living, lawful spouse contravenes the plan and law of God as taught by Christ. They are not separated from the Church, but they cannot receive Eucharistic Communion. They are to lead Christian lives especially by educating their children in the faith.” There is nothing in “Amoris Laetitia” that changes, amends or repeals this doctrine.

Moreover, the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which remains currently in force, was promulgated by Pope St. John Paul II on January 25, 1983, by means of an Apostolic Constitution. Canon 915 of this Code of Canon Law says that those “who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.” There is nothing in Amoris Laetitia that changes, amends or repeals this canon. While we cannot judge people’s consciences, we can judge external situations to determine if they are manifestly gravely sinful and whether there is obstinate persistence from an objective perspective. This is relevant to the reception of Holy Communion, which is an external, public act as well. The question of the proper disposition of the soul while receiving Holy Communion is eminently pastoral. It has long standing in the Church going back to the early centuries.

The Bible clearly teaches about the proper disposition to receive Holy Communion when, in St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians [11-27], he wrote, “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.” This teaching is reflected in canons 915-916 of the Catholic Church’s Code of Canon Law. As mentioned earlier, canon 915 addresses the situation where the minister of Holy Communion is not to admit individual persons to the Sacrament under the circumstances that are clearly defined in that canon. Canon 916, on the other hand, says that a “person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or to receive the Body of the Lord without prior sacramental confession unless a grave reason is present and there is no opportunity of confessing; in this case the person is to be mindful of the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition, including the intention of confessing as soon as possible.” So, while canon 915 puts the burden of discernment on the minister of Holy Communion, canon 916 places the responsibility for self-discernment on the person who desires to receive the Sacrament. These principles for the proper disposition for receiving or being admitted to Holy Communion are in keeping with the maxim that “law follows theology,” i.e., the laws of the Church are not created in a vacuum, but are practical applications of biblical and theological truths in real situations. So, the Catholic Church respects freedom of conscience in that no one is coerced into believing or accepting what the Church teaches, but those who reject Church teaching should also have the integrity to respect the Church’s responsibility to safeguard the integrity of its teachings and sacramental practices. One of the unfortunate distractions about the debate surrounding “Amoris Laetitia is that it puts the focus on the question of who can receive Holy Communion. The real question isn’t so much access to Holy Communion, but getting to heaven. The sacraments are means to that end. Receiving the sacraments unworthily only compounds the problem, since to do so is a sacrilege. That is why St. Thomas Aquinas in his Prayer of Thanksgiving after Mass wrote, “I pray that this Holy Communion may not be for me an offense to be punished, but a saving plea for forgiveness.” If one doesn’t understand the notion of a sacrilegious Communion, this prayer makes no sense. A proper disposition is necessary for the recipient of Holy Communion in order to receive any spiritual benefit from the sacrament.

I agree with the Pope that the gravest problems of marriage and the family in the 21st century have to do with the harsh fact that these Church teachings are in crisis. The Pope wants everyone to realize that “the family throughout the world is in crisis.” I think the best way for us to help families and to show justice, mercy and love is to speak the truth, and act accordingly.