Humanae Vitae and the Words of Christ in Scripture

“God did not make death, nor does He rejoice in the destruction of the living.  For He fashioned all things that they might have being; and the creatures of the world are wholesome, and there is not a destructive drug among them…”  (From this month’s first liturgical reading, Wisdom 1:13-14).  Hmm….

Today marks the 50th year anniversary of the encyclical Humanae Vitae, written by Blessed Pope Paul VI, 1968, about which the U.S. Catholic Bishops state that it “provides beautiful and clear teaching about God’s plan for married love and the transmission of life.”  That it does, including reaffirmation of the Church’s constant and arguably infallible teaching (according to the Ordinary Magisterium, the conditions for infallibility of which are presented in Lumen Gentium 25) concerning its condemnation of abortion, sterilization, and contraception.  In addition, Humanae Vitae foretells that, if the Church’s teaching on contraception is ignored, then we, society, would see the following.  First, widespread contraceptive use will “lead to conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality.”  Second, men will lose respect for women and treat them selfishly.  Third, widespread contraceptive use will be a dangerous weapon among those public authorities who are unconcerned with moral vision and obligation.  Fourth, increased use of contraception will lead people to think that they have unlimited dominion over their bodies.

Of course, with the exception of couples who reaped the benefits of fidelity to the teachings of Christ’s Church on sexuality (of which Pope Paul VI also spoke), the world—including many in the Church—dismissed the wisdom of Humanae Vitae and plunged more deeply into the darkness of corruption and sin.

“What came to be through Him was life, and this life was the light of the human race.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:3-4).

So what does the Light of the world, Jesus Christ, have to say about contraception and abortion in Scripture?  Surprisingly to many, and strikingly, some very strong words. Dei Verbum and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (110) assert that to discover in Scripture the sacred author’s intention, “the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture,” among other things.  Perhaps in error in ascertaining these conditions, a common mistranslation in the Bible occurs in Saint Paul’s Letter to the Galatians 5:20 and the Book of Revelation 9:21, 18:23, 21:8, and 22:15, in which the word pharmakeia or its cognate is most often rendered sorcery, witchcraft, magic spell, or magic arts.

Pennyroyal

In the ancient Greco-Roman world—not unlike the Ancient Near East—practicing magic was prevalent.  It involved the use of evil spells, curse tablets, contraceptive and abortive potions (specifically, often herbal drinks, pastes) and, less often, generally deadly poisons (all called pharmakeia), amulets, and love potions.  The contraceptive and abortive potions were numerous and highly demanded; examples were silphium and acacia to contracept, and pennyroyal tea to abort.  Written documentation of contraception and abortion go back to nearly 2,000 B.C.  In Scripture, one example of a sterilized, contraceptive act apart from pharmakeia is in Genesis 38:6-11.

In antiquity, pharmakeia was the Greek word for these potions, and their users typically distinguished between contraceptive and abortive blends, although they both were categorized as pharmakeia.  These were commonly and more effectively used methods to contracept and abort, and so were representative of contraception and abortion in Scripture.  Church Fathers and early ecclesial documents, such as The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, also refer to and condemn these anti-fertility practices.

In Scripture, to refer to this as generic magic or sorcery misses the specificity for which pharmakeia was intended.  In the Old Testament, contraception and abortion also were practiced in this way.  In the reading from Wisdom above, the Greek words for “destructive drug” are pharmakon olethru.  This may refer to both deadly poison and abortive potion, since its immediate context refers to the integrity of creation and generation of life, over and against death.  Exodus 22:17, because of its feminine identification and overall context, and Malachi 3:5, because of its context, also are likely references to contraception and abortion, or at least to sorcerous activity (keshef in Hebrew) that includes them.

The immediate context of the above references to Galatians and Revelation was condemnation of common sins that centered around sexual immorality, murder, and idolatry.  Idolatry was frequently associated with temple prostitution and its consequences.  So, in Galatians, Saint Paul condemns acts of sinful nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lewdness, idolatry, pharmakeia, and several more.  The context here, and in the following, does not favor pharmakeia meaning the much less frequented administering of deadly poison to members of the general population, and this overtly homicidal meaning would be particularly redundant on those lists that include murder.  Pharmakeia may have been that broadly intended—referring to contraceptive and abortive potions and occasional administration of poison—but probably meant the former restrictively.  An exception is Revelation 18:23, in which pharmakeia seems to refer specifically and metaphorically to deadly poison.

So, the translation probably should read as follows in Revelation.  Rev 9:21 lists murders, contraceptive and abortive potions (pharmakeion), sexual immorality, and thefts.  In Rev 21:8 and 22:15, the risen Jesus Himself condemns certain representative sins.  Rev 21:8: “But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the sexually immoral, the ones using contraceptive and abortive potions, the idolators, and all practicing falsehood—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning Sulphur.  This is the second death.”  Rev 22:15: After pronouncing eternal blessing on the righteous (see 22:11 and 22:14), Jesus, the Alpha and Omega, declares, “Outside are the dogs, the ones using contraceptive and abortive potions, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolators, and all who love and practice falsehood.”

Why would Christ condemn contraceptive and abortive potions?  Simply, I think He does so because marriage is a profound, intimate union (Genesis 2:24), procreation is a divine blessing and mandate of this union (Genesis 1:28) for those who are able, children are a gift (e.g., Psalm 127:3), and children in the womb are acknowledged as really alive and sacred (e.g., Psalm 139:13-15, Jeremiah 1:15, Luke:1:39-45).  To deliberately sterilize sex, or worse—murder an unborn child—is a serious offense against God and the human person.  I think Humanae Vitae is just beautifully and boldly echoing the divine and exalted plan for married love and the transmission of human life.

 

Mark Koehne teaches Sacred Scripture for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Programs,

Love in Marriage (Magnificat Booklet): A Review

Love is patient, love is kind… yet, despite St. Paul’s clear enumeration of its characteristics, love is – for most of us – somewhat elusive. We try to describe it, we try to live and experience it – but it’s not as easily apprehended by us as we’d like.  Love thrills us, confuses and disappoints us, warms our hearts and speaks to our deepest longings. We think we know what Love is, how it should guide our lives and inform how we treat each other; but we don’t know the half of it. Reading St. Paul’s beautiful First Letter to the Corinthians won’t help our understanding unless we’re willing to take a deep dive into Love’s mystery, and reflect on it honestly and with purpose. But how can we do that, especially if we’re not used to reading the Scriptures, or if Biblical language doesn’t always “hit home” with us? Enter Pope Francis and his Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia: The Joy of LoveThis sweeping document explores the Scriptural, Magisterial and Pastoral implications for living andloving authentically, especially in the context of marriage and family life. It’s an important document, and one that will be studied by theologians and those involved in ministry to families for years to come. For the average layperson in the pew, however, reading any Papal document (especially one over 200 pages long) is a daunting task. Thankfully, that task is made easier with Magnificat’s companion booklet, 

Love in Marriage, Pope Francis on living and growing in love. At a little more than 100 pages, this tiny booklet makes the Pope’s thought and words accessible to everyone. It also unpacks one particular aspect of the Papal document and makes it manageable: the meaning of Love.

Love in Marriage focuses specifically on Chapter 4 of Amoris Laetitia, in which the Pope fleshes out St. Paul’s “characteristics” of Love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, and its implications for how we love as married couples, children, priests and religious, and single people. He begins by acknowledging that the passage is “lyrical” – and certainly its poetic beauty probably leads many Roman Catholic couples to choose it as one of their wedding readings. But a closer look reveals that the Apostle isn’t peddling poetry or “pretty words.” As Pope Francis goes through the brief passage line-by-line, he breaks open its words and introduces us to their deeper meaning for our lives. We learn that the words Paul uses to describe love (patient, kind, not irritable or resentful, hopeful, etc.) go far beyond the “surface reading” we often give them, challenging us to consider our relationships with those close to us as well as people we don’t know, and learning to love everyone as God loves. This reflection on Love is given in the context of a document focused on marriage and family; but Love is our common, human experience, and a way in which we image God. The Pope’s words call us to a deeper understanding of Love, and how each of us can love generously and well, whatever our state in life. For this reason, Magnificat’s companion booklet is an invaluable resource for anyone seeking to follow Christ by learning to love as He does.

The booklet unpacks each section of Chapter 4 by reproducing the Pope’s words, and offering opportunities for reflection. It takes Paul’s characteristics of Love word by word, as the Pope does, and offers readers the opportunity to more fully understand Paul’s meaning. Each section of the booklet begins with the papal text, then provides three modes of reflection: On The Text, About My Life, and To Conclude. Each area of reflection asks specific questions about the meaning of the Pope’s teaching on that section of Paul’s letter, how it applies to my life and relationships, and where Paul’s (and the Pope’s) words about Love lead me in prayer, and in taking positive steps toward acting on Love in my life. Some of the questions are specifically directed toward one’s relationship with a spouse, but can be easily adapted for all of our relationships: between friends, family members, co-workers, and people we meet in the course of our everyday lives. (For example, one question asks “Do I make an effort to think and speak positively about my spouse?” We can easily replace the word spouse with boss, co-worker, best friend – or that person we find it especially hard to love.) The questions help readers to more deeply consider the demands of Love, and identify the areas where we need God’s help to love each other better. Each time for reflection ends with a moment for prayer, first inviting readers to pray with one’s spouse, or within the quiet of one’s own heart – “I want to say: I thank you…I’m sorry…Please…” – and then providing a brief prayer to say alone or together.

Whether one is married, single, widowed, or a priest/religious, the act of speaking a thought or prayer aloud (or in our hearts) is powerful. Every one of us wants to say – needs to say – I thank you…I’m sorry…Please. In our world of noise, distractions, and rough-and-tumble interactions on social media, this moment of reflection on gratitude, sorrow and forgiveness, and asking for what we need – or how we can help another – is a welcome respite. For those of us for whom saying any of these words is difficult, their repetition throughout the booklet (after having reflected deeply on each aspect of Love) is helpful in breaking down our interior walls and leading us toward the healing God wants to give us (and to others through us) with His Love.

Despite its title, Love in Marriage is for anyone who wants to grow in their experience of God’s love, and learn how to better give and receive Love in their relationships. The booklet can be utilized in a number of ways, and would be an excellent diocesan/parish resource for both marriage preparation and enrichment programs. Its study of Love is ideal for young adults discerning their vocation to marriage or priesthood/religious life. It can be used in parish study groups, or by individuals who want to “dip their toe” into the water of Papal documents, and get a feel for how to read Scripture with a reflective heart. The booklet can help each of us to appreciate the call to Love found in every state in life, and how it is lived in marriage and family, consecrated life, and in the lives of those who are unmarried. Love in Marriage is a book for everyone, and it will help its readers to learn to love more openly, more fully, and with greater reliance on God.

In the end, Love isGod Himself, and He’s calling each one of us to follow Him in the way of Love that leads us to an abundant life (Cf. John 10:10 ) here and now – and on the path to an eternal life of Love with Him.

Ann Koshute teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.

Reflections on Saint Joseph in St. John Paul II’s Redemptoris Custos

In 1989, Pope John Paul II (a recently canonized saint in the Roman Catholic Church) promulgated Redemptoris Custos, an apostolic exhortation “On the Person and Mission of Saint Joseph in the Life of Christ and of the Church.”  In the Introduction of this document, the Pope notes that, in composing the exhortation, he wished to highlight the centenary of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Quamquam Pluries by offering reflections regarding St. Joseph, into whose guardianship the Father entrusted the precious treasures of the Virgin Mary and her son, Jesus.  Additionally, the Pope hoped that his thoughts would evoke greater devotion to St. Joseph, the Patron of the Universal Church and the one who served the Savior in an outstanding way.  

Section I of Redemptoris Custos, which is entitled “The Gospel Portrait”, focuses on Joseph’s marriage to Mary.  The Pope refers to the angel’s annunciation to Joseph that he need not fear to take Mary as his wife, that she is pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit, and that Joseph should name the child to be born – Jesus, that is, God saves. (See Mt. 1:20 – 21)  The Pope notes that Mary was already betrothed, that is, married to Joseph so that the angel’s words to Joseph that he “not fear to take Mary as his wife” meant that Joseph should not hesitate to take Mary into his home, which was, at the time, Jewish practice after a year of betrothal. The Pope explains that before the angel’s annunciation to Joseph in a dream, Joseph was faced with the possibility that Mary had committed adultery.  If this were the case, Jewish Law demanded that Mary be stoned to death and, since Joseph was legally her husband, he would have to cast the first stone at his wife. Before the angel’s appearance to Joseph in a dream, Joseph had resolved his dilemma: he would quietly divorce Mary. However, when Joseph awoke from his dream, he acted in faith; he settled Mary into his home in Nazareth (though this was before the year of betrothal was completed) and awaited the unfolding of the mystery of her astonishing maternity.   

In Section II of his apostolic exhortation, the Pope discusses Joseph as the “Guardian of the Mystery of God.”  With Mary, Joseph assented to the revelation he received concerning the Incarnation of the Word of God and the mission of Redemption associated with it.  The Pope stresses that, by virtue of his marriage to Mary, Joseph was able to enjoy great intimacy with her son Jesus and that, in the shared life of Jesus, Joseph, and Mary, the true meaning of family which is  “to guard, reveal, and communicate love” (p. 5*) was eminently evidenced. As the head of his family, Joseph provided for his wife and exercised great fatherly care of Jesus. In regard to Joseph’s latter role, the Pope states

Since it is inconceivable that such a sublime task would not be matched by the necessary qualities to adequately fulfill it, we must recognize that Joseph showed Jesus all the love, all the affectionate solicitude that a father’s heart can know. (p. 6)

Section II of the apostolic exhortation also includes reflections on  the census, the birth at Bethlehem, the circumcision, the presentation in the Temple, the flight into Egypt,  Jesus’ stay in the Temple, and the support and education of Jesus. Because Caesar Augustus had declared an empire-wide census, Joseph and Mary journeyed to Bethlehem, Joseph’s home town.  It was here that Joseph became an eyewitness to Jesus’ birth, which took place, as the Pope describes “in conditions that, humanly speaking, were embarrassing – a first announcement of that ‘self-emptying’ (cf. Phil. 2:5 – 8) which Christ freely accepted for the forgiveness of sins.” (p.7) Also, in Bethlehem, along with Mary, Joseph watched shepherds adore the newborn baby and later witnessed magi from the East pay homage to him. Of note is the fact, as the Pope explains, after Jesus’ birth, Joseph officially inserted the name Jesus, son of Joseph of Nazareth (cf. Jn. 1:45) into the registry of the Roman Empire. In effect, in this civil way, Joseph secured the legitimacy of Mary’s son.   

Eight days after Jesus’ birth, Joseph met his religious obligation to have his adopted son circumcised.  During the ceremony, Joseph declared that the boy’s name was Jesus. In his exhortation, the Pope explains that “In conferring the name, Joseph declares his own legal fatherhood over Jesus, and, in speaking the name, he proclaims the child’s mission as Savior.” (p. 8) Forty days after Jesus’ birth, Joseph met his fatherly obligation to present his son in the Temple in Jerusalem.  According to the Pope, in this Jewish rite, “Represented in the first-born is the people of the covenant, ransomed from slavery in order to belong to God.” (p. 8) As the Pope notes, since Jesus already belonged to God by virtue of his being the Word of God, while formally fulfilling the Jewish rite, in actuality Jesus transcended it.

After the presentation in the Temple, in a dream Joseph received a message from an angel that King Herod, in fear that the newborn child would usurp his throne, had ordered the mass murder of all boys in Bethlehem two years old or under that age. Given the angel’s instruction to flee to safety in Egypt, Joseph immediately departed from Bethlehem with his family, where he sought asylum until after Herod died.  As the Pope indicates, this experience fulfilled the words of the Old Testament prophet Hosea: “Out of Egypt have I called my son.” (Hos. 11: 1)

After returning to their homeland, Joseph settled his family in Nazareth, a quiet village wherein it was improbable that Herod’s son, Achelous, who, like his father sought to kill Jesus, would succeed in his plot. When Jesus was twelve years old, as was customary in the Jewish religion, Joseph arranged for his family to travel to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover feast.  After a day’s travel back to Nazareth after the feast, realizing that Jesus was nowhere to be found, Mary and Joseph returned to Jerusalem. Three days later, they discovered Jesus in the Temple conversing with learned Jewish teachers. Jesus’ reply to his mother’s statement that she and Joseph had anxiously been searching for him: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Lk. 2:49 – 50) was Jesus’ way of communicating to his parents that he understood that his Father in heaven had sent him to earth to fulfill the messianic mission of redemption. After this Temple encounter, Jesus returned to Nazareth and was obedient to Joseph and Mary.  With his wife, Joseph raised Jesus to adulthood. In keeping with a father’s responsibilities, Joseph made sure Jesus was educated in the Law and apprenticed his son as a tekton, a highly skilled artisan who worked in wood, iron and, perhaps, stone.

Section III of the Pope’s apostolic exhortation is entitled “A Just Man, A Husband”.  As the Pope indicates, that Joseph was a just man is most evident in his decision to take his pregnant wife Mary into his home.  In so doing, Joseph chose to protect his wife’s honor and to honor her virginity as communicated to him by an angel who explained Mary’s mysterious pregnancy.  According to the Pope, as a spouse “Through his complete self-sacrifice, Joseph expressed his generous love for the Mother of God and gave her a husband’s ‘gift of self.’” (p. 11) Just as Mary’s motherhood was taken up in the mystery of Christ’s incarnation, so, too, was Joseph’s fatherhood and, as the Pope notes, this was possible as a consequence of the hypostatic union, that is, “humanity taken up into the unity of the Divine Person of the Word-Son, Jesus Christ.” (p. 12)

Section IV of the apostolic exhortation is entitled “Work as an Expression of Love”. Here, the Pope stresses that Joseph’s work as a tekton gave expression to the sanctification of daily life through his labor of love in support of the life of his family at Nazareth.  Referring to Joseph and Jesus’ co-laboring in the carpenter/artisan trade, the Pope asserts:

Along with the humanity of the Son of God, work too has been taken up in the mystery of the Incarnation, and has also been redeemed in a special way.  At the workbench where he plied his trade together with Jesus, Joseph brought human work closer to the mystery of the Redemption. (p. 12)

In Section V of his exhortation, “The Primacy of the Interior Life”, the Pope discusses Joseph’s mature spirituality that enabled him to consistently respond positively to the graces he received in his life as Mary’s husband and Jesus’ father.  In regard to Joseph’s latter role, the Pope stresses that “Joseph experienced … that pure contemplative love of the divine Truth which radiated from the humanity of Christ and the demands of love … required for his [Joseph’s] vocation to safeguard and develop the humanity of Jesus, which was inseparably linked to his divinity.” (p. 14) Furthermore, the Pope reflects upon the fatherly love of Joseph and Jesus’ filial love as mutually beneficial in the ongoing deepening of their relationship.  

In the final section (Section VI) of Redemptoris Custos, the Pope highlights Joseph as the “Patron of the Church in Our Day”. Just as Joseph kept watch over the Holy Family so, too,  he safeguards the Church in its ongoing history. Referring to Joseph’s role in the “economy of salvation” and to him as a model for all Christians, the Pope writes:

Recalling that God wished to entrust the beginnings of our redemption to the faithful care of St. Joseph, she asks God to grant that she [Church] may faithfully cooperate in the work of salvation; that she may receive the same faithfulness and purity of heart that inspired Joseph in serving the Incarnate Word; and that she may walk before God in the ways of holiness and justice, following Joseph’s example and through his intercession. (p. 15)

Conclusion:  

In Redemptoris Custos, Pope St. John Paul II depicts St. Joseph as an icon of faith, that is, one whose life exemplifies what it means to listen to God’s words and, in an unwavering way, act courageously upon them.  Redemptoris Custos marks a watershed moment in reflection on the role of St. Joseph in the history of Christianity.  In this document, the Pope interweaves biblical exegesis and profound theological insights regarding Joseph’s pivotal role in God’s plan of salvation.   In an outstanding way, the Pope highlights St. Joseph as loving father, faithful spouse, laborer, and patron of the universal Church. It is most fitting that the Pope concludes his exhortation with the following prayer:  “May St. Joseph obtain for the Church and for the world, as well as for each of us, the blessing of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

Dr. Marilyn Sunderman, RSM, is Professor of Theology and Chair of the on-campus Theology Department of Saint Joseph’s College of Maine.

In this essay, all references to Redemptoris Custos (August 15, 1989) – John Paul II are taken from the online document at http://w.2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_15 retrieved on 1.22.2018.

Bibliography:  Gary Caster, Joseph, The Man Who Raised Jesus, Servant Books, 2013; Francis L. Filas, Joseph Most Just: Theological Questions About St. Joseph, The Bruce Publishing Co, 1956; J. . . B. Midgley, Companion to Saint Joseph, CTS Publication, 2002; Pope Leo XIII, Quamquam Pluries: Encyclical on Devotion to St. Joseph, 1889,  Libreria Editrice Vaticana; Joseph, The Silent Saint [DVD], Art and Design, 2008, A&E Television Networks. (Note: In composing the above essay, the author read all texts in this listing and watched the DVD.  Hence, the essay reflects the author’s study of Redemptoris Custos viewed through the lens of insights gained from these other sources.)

 

 

 

Why Consecrate to the Immaculate Heart of Mary?

In celebration of 100th anniversary of Our Lady’s apparitions in Fatima, Portugal, several bishops across the country have decided to consecrate their dioceses to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.  This act might leave some people scratching their heads, wondering “What good will that do?” or shrugging their shoulders saying “That’s nice. What’s the NFL schedule that day?”

But if our eyes and hearts are opened to God’s wisdom, we will see that this consecration is the most powerful aid that a diocese could receive.  Marian consecration makes all the difference in the world!

“My Immaculate Heart will be your refuge and the way that will lead you to God.”  This is what Our Lady said to Lucia dos Santos, one of the three seers of Fatima.  The Blessed Virgin told Lucia that Our Lord wished Lucia to spend her life promoting devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary so that humanity could avoid turmoil and suffering on earth and, more importantly, be guided to everlasting salvation in the arms of Christ.

But why would Our Lord request consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary?  What does it all mean?

To consecrate yourself to someone is to give yourself, or, as St. Pope John Paul II would say, to “entrust” yourself entirely to someone.  Strictly speaking, we can only consecrate ourselves to God because we are His.  However, when the Church speaks of consecration to Mary, it means that we are giving ourselves to God through Mary.  St. Louis de Montfort, who was arguably the most famous promoter of Marian consecration (and the person from whom St. Pope John Paul II took his motto, Totus Tuus, “Totally Yours”), coined the phrase, “To Jesus through Mary!”

Mary’s relationship with her Son and with us is unique.  She is the woman who said “Yes” at the Annunciation, giving herself without reservation to the Father so that she could give her humanity to the Son, and she is the mother who stood at the foot of the cross, heartbroken, but freely offering her only beloved Son to God for all the world.  In return for this great sacrifice, God extended her divine maternity to include all of His adopted sons and daughters.  She is now Queen of the Universe, our Heavenly Mother and Advocate.

Mary’s life and Jesus’s life are uniquely intertwined for all eternity.  Her will is His will and, as mother of all God’s adopted sons and daughters, she has been entrusted with the formation of souls.  The Son entered the world through Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit and the world is drawn to the Son through Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Does it seem strange that God would choose to draw us to Himself through a creature?  While I would not pretend to be able to explain the great mysteries of God’s wisdom, I would point out that this seems to be the way that God works throughout history.  He comes to us through prophets, saints, objects like the burning bush, and the material elements of the sacraments.  We give ourselves to Him through the manmade words of prayers and hymns, acts of corporal and spiritual mercy, and reception of the sacraments.  God has always used the material realm to commune with His children who are of the material realm.  When we consider this, it does not seem so strange that He would commune with us through the Son’s Beloved Mother.

God created Our Lady with her special motherhood in mind.  This is why she was and is the Immaculate Conception—the one born without sin, who was, is and always shall be in communion with the Holy Trinity.  She shows us the glory of God’s plans for humanity and she is His greatest instrument for making those plans happen.

If our earthly parents, priests and teachers can form us in the faith, how much more can our Heavenly Mother whose heart and mind are perfected and whose life has always been so intimately intertwined with her Son’s do for our salvation?

This year, many are choosing to consecrate themselves to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.  To the extent that we entrust ourselves to her motherly care and conform to her immaculate example, we will receive great graces.  We enter this consecration knowing that it is not magic.  There will still be times when we will falter and fail.  But we will persevere in faith, remembering that Our Lady of Fatima promised, “In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph.”

Maura Hearden Fehlner teaches Mariology for Saint Joseph’s College Online. She and her husband Deacon John Fehlner are the founders of Light of Truth Ministries, a Catholic radio station broadcasting at 98.3 FM in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Proper Alignment in a Crazy World

In case you missed it, there was a presidential election earlier this month.  The outcome surprised almost everybody—certainly the “experts,” including theologians—and the aftermath has been decidedly traumatic.  What will happen over the next two to four years? Which policies will be reversed and which new ones will be established?  Like many Americans, I stayed up late watching the election returns.  The national media scrutinized every bit of available data.  I found myself learning more about counties in other states christ-kingthan I had known before.  Due to an unavoidably early work schedule, I went to sleep with the election undecided.  I woke to a new president-elect, a result very few anticipated.  Juggling that news with my regular routine, I ran across a reminder for this blog post’s deadline.  A glance at the liturgical calendar told me all I needed to know:  today is the Feast of Christ the King.

This knowledge made all the difference as the nation continues to struggle with the election’s aftermath.  Before, during, and after any human, earthly endeavor, Jesus Christ is Lord.  Stating this does not, despite the Marxist criticisms, relegate one to the realm of naïve spirituality and blithe indifference to the world’s problems.  No, God calls us simultaneously to the Church and thus into the world, too.  Vatican II states clearly: “God’s plan for the world is that men should work together to renew and constantly perfect the temporal order” (Apostolicam Actuositatem #7).  Politics is not some necessarily dirty, utilitarian struggle for hegemony.  Rather, political activity along with the whole gamut of economic, social, and aesthetic pursuits can and should foster and advance the good.  We need each other to come anywhere near accomplishing that goal.

Here we must always remember today’s feast.  Christ’s sovereign kingship transcends the created realm.  Our best accomplishments and worst failures occur therein.  St. John the Evangelist reminds us:  “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (1:5).  Therefore, regardless of who wins a presidential election or how shocked we are at such results, no human creation—political, social, or otherwise—enjoys ultimate status.  We cannot conflate Christ’s reign with our temporary politics.  We cannot become, as Rod Dreher puts it, a people who make politics their religion.  Christ is king, not us.

This reality holds true forever, of course, but we enjoy this reminder at the very end of the liturgical year.  Next Sunday begins Advent, and so once again we prepare for the arrival and birth of that very King we celebrate today. This feast appeared rather late, historically speaking.  Pius XI instituted the Feast of Christ the King in 1925.  As blogged earlier here, I think Pius XI’s pontificate offers remarkable resources, both spiritual and political, for our twenty-first century reality.  This plenitude concerns us especially today:

Pius XI himself recognized the shift [towards secular totalitarianism] in 1925 with his encyclical Quas Primas. Released on December 11, 1925, the encyclical established the Feast of Christ the King, now celebrated on the last Sunday of the liturgical year. In so doing Pius XI returned to his papal motto and asserted Christ’s spiritual and temporal authority (see #s 15 & 17). Christian faith is necessarily embodied, and thus the Church stands in the world, but free from control by the secular state (see #31). The laity especially stand to benefit from meditation upon Christ’s kingship. If Christ died for all, then, Pius concludes, “it must be clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire” (#33). Christ must reign in our minds, wills, hearts, and bodies. Each faculty contributes to both spiritual sanctification and social justice, and serves, Pius XI prays, as evangelical examples to all non-Catholics. The peace that passes understanding, if authentic, moves beyond the individual to include others, not just Catholics but all peoples. After all, each person possesses intrinsic dignity given by God alone.

Christ’s kingship lays claim to our entire selves—and this includes our relationships with all others:  marital, parental, emotional, social, economic, political, etc.  Today’s readings spell this out in great detail:  David’s ascendency, Psalm 122’s celebration of royal Jerusalem, and then St. Paul’s exhortation to the Colossians that Christ

He is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn of all creation.
For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth,
the visible and the invisible,
whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers;
all things were created through him and for him.
He is before all things,
and in him all things hold together.
He is the head of the body, the church.
He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead,
that in all things he himself might be preeminent.
For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell,
and through him to reconcile all things for him,
making peace by the blood of his cross
through him, whether those on earth or those in heaven.

The Gospel passage from St. Luke (23:35-43) depicts this in the most graphic terms. From the cross Jesus promises the repentant criminal they both will enjoy paradise that very day.  Interestingly, the Extraordinary Form readings—the ones Pius XI worked with himself when he declared the Christ the King feast—take a different path with St. Matthew 24: 13-25.  After prophesying apocalyptic signs of His return, Christ reassures the disciples: “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but My words will not pass away.” Following this presidential election, this passage might speak to some believing voters more immediately!  Exemplifying the well-known Catholic “both/and,” these readings together draw out fully the immanence and transcendence of Christ’s kingship.  In proclaiming the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis speaks to this balance:

We will entrust the life of the Church, all humanity, and the entire cosmos to the Lordship of Christ, asking him to pour out his mercy upon us like the morning dew, so that everyone may work together to build a brighter future. How much I desire that the year to come will be steeped in mercy, so that we can go out to every man and woman, bringing the goodness and tenderness of God! May the balm of mercy reach everyone, both believers and those far away, as a sign that the Kingdom of God is already present in our midst! (Misericordiae Vultus #5)

The Feast of Christ the King concludes the Year of Mercy, one in which we have sought to realize our spiritual convictions where we find ourselves.  This itself requires mercy, for we will make mistakes. Our sovereign Lord’s presence in the Church and the Eucharist repairs these errors.

God calls us to, and we should always seek, this proper alignment.  Then the wins and losses of our lives—personally and politically—regain proper perspective. After the inauguration the nation will see new endeavors and probably others continued from the previous administration. Just as with Obama, the Trump presidency will offer several opportunities to work with all people of good will to build and defend the common good.  Sometimes that pursuit will involve cooperating with government, sometimes perhaps not.  Regardless, we would do well to remember today’s solemn feast and readings and thereby recognize that only Christ reigns supreme. All other political claims are, ultimately, temporary.  To paraphrase St. Thomas More, we are the president’s loyal citizens—but God’s subjects first.

Guest blogger Jeffrey Marlett blogs at Spiritual Diabetes.

Technocratic Model vs. An Integral and Integrated Vision

Chapter Three of Laudato Sí is entitled “The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis;” it could well be called “Original Sin, Reprise.” Once again, humans have participated with God in creating things with enormous potential for good, in this case all that falls under the term “modern technology,” then proceeded to spend an inordinate amount of time distorting that potential goodness.  We have done it now to the point that we worship (there is hardly another word for it) “an undifferentiated and one-dimensional technocratic paradigm” [italics his], increasing the tendency of the scientific method as “a technique of possession, mastery and transformation” (L.S. 107) to the point that this paradigm devastatingly dominates the world economy. “The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings” (L.S. 109).

As if that critique were not disturbing enough, the Holy Father goes on to strike at the very root of the distortion, “an inadequate presentation of Christian anthropology” that has resulted in an “anthropocentrism” of mastery over rather than stewardship of the rest of Creation (L.S. 115-6).  (Notice how deeply ingrained the distortion is: we tend to say “creation” when we mean “everything except us.” The paradigm of dominance is woven into our everyday language.) Pope Francis wisely highlights the interconnectedness of the reality, and hence of the distortion: we cannot heal our relationship with the rest of creation in isolation, nor heal our human relationships without addressing the former: healing, like violence, is of a package (L.S. 119).

The counterpart of the technocratic model in which we are living according to Pope Francis in Chapter 3 is the need for a humanism with an integral and integrated vision, as Pope Francis explains,

We urgently need a humanism capable of bringing together the different fields of knowledge, including economics, in the service of a more integral and integrating vision. (LS, 141)

This integral and integrated vision of reality is urgently need right now because modernity img_0856based its great progress in the separation of the subject form the object. For Roberto Goizueta, theology professor at Boston College, modernity gave birth to “the autonomous agent of his or her own life” who does not just live in history but makes history. In this way “history is a product of the human activity or praxis.” The consequences of this view are reflected in our own language: “The modern subject ‘makes’ a living, ‘makes’ love, and strives to ‘make something’ of himself or herself.” This “making” of everything creates a separation of the subject from the object that Goizueta sees as a “precondition for the subject to control the object in order to manipulate it.”

The separation of the subject from the object implicit in the understanding of human activity as praxis has lead us to great advances in modernity. However, what caught Goizueta’s attention is the fact that “human beings can control and transform their natural and social environments, as well as their own lives,” which also carries with it the ideology of progress characteristic of modernity.

Thus, for Goizueta, modernity gave birth to the human subject as “maker” of history, as alienated from the object and able to “control” and “work on” his or her environment.

Human action–praxis, grounded in the separation of the subject from the object as modernity understood in Goizueta’s view has also “laid the foundation for the devastation of the environment”

This devastation of the environment which foundation was laid on by the separation of the object from the subject and that brought great progress, today is in need of an integral and  integrated  vison or what Pope Francis calls integral ecology, an approach to ecology that insist that environmental and social problems are interconnected, as Pope Francis explains,

We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature. (LS, 139)

This integral and integrated approach to ecology described by Pope Francis implies an “economic ecology” which considers that   “the protection of the environment is in fact ‘an integral part of the development process and cannot be considered in isolation from it.’” (L.S. 141). A “social ecology” that understand that” the health of a society’s institutions has consequences for the environment and the quality of human life.” Because as Pope Benedict XVI in Caritas Veritate says, “Every violation of solidarity and civic friendship harms the environment.” (51) Finally, this integral and integrated vision of ecology requires a “cultural ecology” that lead to accept that “Culture is more than what we have inherited from the past; it is also, and above all, a living, dynamic and participatory present reality, which cannot be excluded as we rethink the relationship between human beings and the environment” (L.S. 143).

Nelson Araque teaches History of Latino Catholics in the Ministry to Latino Catholics Certificate Program and Pamela Hedrick teaches Sacred Scripture and spirituality forSaint Joseph’s College Online.

Ecumenism, One of the Fruits of Laudato Si’

This is the first of a three-part series celebrating the anniversary of Laudato Si’.

We just celebrated the first anniversary of Laudato Si’ and we are still reaping it fruits. This papal letter has positioned the environmental crisis directly within the social sphere, requiring a comprehensive response and commitment from all of us. Undoubtedly, I think the most recent result of this encyclical on caring for “our common house” is ecumenism.

Unitatis Redintegratio defines ecumenism as “the initiatives and activities planned and undertaken, according to the various needs of the Church and as opportunities offer, to promote Christian unity.” (UR 4).

Clearly, one of the major concerns of our time is the environmental crisis. Pope Francis uses it as a springboard to promote the unity of Christians. He quotes Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew’s concern for “the need for each to repent of their own ways for damaging the planet “(LS 8) and the Patriarch’s view of the ethical and spiritual roots of environmental problems (LS 9).

The call of Pope Francis to ecumenism is also demonstrated in last year announcement on the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord on August 6: “I wish to inform you that I have decided to set up also in the Catholic Church, the “World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation” which, beginning this year, will be celebrated on the 1st of September, as the Orthodox Church has done for some time now.”

This time it is the Pope, the representative of the Catholic Church, who recognizes the value of this commemoration by the Orthodox Church and invites Roman Catholics to unite with them as fellow Christians to celebrate this Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation together.

The announcement of the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation and its first celebration in September, 2016, seems implied in Laudato Si’ and becomes clear when presenting the encyclical as valued by the representative of the Patriarch Bartholomew, Metropolitan Ioannis of Pergamon. The text for the institution of the World Day for Care of Creation by Pope Francis makes this point:

“Sharing with my beloved brother the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew his concerns for the future of creation (cf. Encyclical Letter. Laudato Si’, 7-9) and taking up the suggestion by his representative, the Metropolitan Ioannis of Pergamum who took part in the presentation of the Encyclical Laudato Si’ on the care of our common home, I wish to inform you that I have decided to set up also in the Catholic Church, the ‘World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation’ which, beginning this year, will be celebrated on the 1st of September, as the Orthodox Church has done for some time now.”

This ecumenical observance that will be celebrated every September 1 invites us to pray with our Orthodox brothers and sisters. It will require a deep inner conversion, as Unitatais Redintegratio says:  “There can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without a change of heart. For it is from renewal of the inner life of our minds from self-denial and an unstinted love that desires of unity take their rise and develop in a mature way. “(UR 7).

That change of heart spoken by the decree Unitatis Redintegratio also involves a constant review of the motivations fueling our passion for the care of creation and spirituality, as it is clearly expressed in 2016 Message for the World Day of Prayer for Creation: Show mercy to Our Common Home.

“The first step in this process is always an examination of conscience, which involves “gratitude and gratuitousness, a recognition that the world is God’s loving gift, and that we are called quietly to imitate his generosity in self-sacrifice and good works… It also entails a loving awareness that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion. As believers, we do not look at the world from without but from within, conscious of the bonds with which the Father has linked us to all beings.”

This examination of conscience that Pope Francis is asking us for will renew our connection with God’s creation, achieving a communion with all that surrounds us, to look for the solutions to this ecological crisis, as our Pope expressed in Laudato Si’:

“More than in ideas or concepts as such, I am interested in how such a spirituality can motivate us to a more passionate concern for the protection of our world. A commitment this lofty cannot be sustained by doctrine alone, without a spirituality capable of inspiring us, without an ‘interior impulse which encourages, motivates, nourishes and gives meaning to our individual and communal activity.’ Admittedly, Christians have not always appropriated and developed the spiritual treasures bestowed by God upon the Church, where the life of the spirit is not dissociated from the body or from nature or from worldly realities, but lived in and with them, in communion with all that surrounds us.” (LS 216)

An ecumenical gesture of openness, to universally see the good in other churches is yet another gift that Laudato Si’ offers us, and calls us to witness this in our lives. In the words of our Holy Father: “This Day of Prayer for Creation Care will be a valuable opportunity to bear witness to our growing communion with our orthodox brothers.” It is precisely by this communion in prayer and reflection that we will take important steps to overcome common challenges more easily and be more credible and effective. In the words of our Holy Father, “We live in a time where all Christians are faced with identical and important challenges and we must give common replies to these in order to appear more credible and effective.”

Nelson Araque teaches History of Latino Catholics in the Ministry to Latino Catholics Certificate Program and Pamela Hedrick teaches Sacred Scripture and spirituality for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

I Do, For Now

 

Pope Francis Coleman blogRecently, our spontaneously-tongued pontiff, Pope Francis, made comments to journalists regarding his impression of the current state of marriage in the Church (readers of Italian can find his comments here, under Terza Domanda).

“It’s [i.e., marriage is] provisional, and because of this the great majority of our sacramental marriages are null. Because they [the hypothetical couple] say, ‘Yes, for the rest of my life!’ but they don’t know what they are saying. Because they have a different culture. They say it, they have good will, but they don’t know.”

Many individuals have rightly taken issue with the Holy Father’s words here. Responses have come from canon lawyers, clerics, and lay scholars alike. I shall not wade through all of these critiques, nor attempt to clarify what the Pope “might have been trying to say” about the current state of marriage in the Church. Rather, Francis’ comments reminded me of a conversation I had with my wife regarding this same subject. At the time, she was actively involved in parish ministry and witnessed first-hand the poor catechesis and cultural deformity from which many couples seeking sacramental marriage suffered. On one occasion she voiced her concern to me in words very similar to those of Pope Francis; essentially stating that these couples had no idea what marriage means.

We ought to be very careful, however, when we play the cultural “blame game” for all of society’s ills. As a professor – and perhaps firstly as a human being – what concerns me most is the abrogating of moral responsibility. Moral responsibility comes from freedom, and freedom comes from our ability know and will. Pleading ignorance is a way of saying that I was not free to make a choice because my ability to know was substantially compromised. In many situations, of course, this happens when the truth is actively withheld from a particular party making a decision. But the culture in which we live cannot change what our bodies are, or what they do, or the nature of a promise. While Christ’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage is a part of divine revelation, the fact that marriage establishes a binding relationship – a relationship signified and consummated by a marital act – is not. To claim that “the great majority of our sacramental marriages are null” due to ignorance, therefore, undermines the human capacity to apprehend any natural moral truth or reality. Our culture, I would argue, does not prohibit us from understanding the concepts of marriage or permanence or indissolubility but, rather, facilitates in an ever more increasing fashion our desire not to live in accordance with these realities. As with original sin, it weakens our wills more than our intellects.

As a married man, I understand the temptation to say that knowledge about marriage must be gained first-hand. There is wisdom in that belief, but one cannot push that sentiment too far. Saying “I do” at the altar cannot be considered “free from ignorance” only if accompanied by the depth and breadth of knowledge about marriage that one would only possess after 10 or 20 or 30  years of married living. That is a reductio ad absurdam. So yes, Holy Father, the husband and father in me – with a half-smile – agrees: they don’t know what they’re saying. But as a freely thinking and willing human being I must disagree: they know what they’re saying, but only their cooperation with God’s grace will enable them to live what they have promised.

Anthony Coleman teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

The Ordinariness of Sainthood

Don’t call me a saint – I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.

Dorothy Day

A painting by Nicholas Brian Tsai.

A painting by Nicholas Brian Tsai.

One of Dorothy Day’s better known quotes, some interpret it to mean that she didn’t think much of the saints and of sainthood in general. Indeed, there are those in the Catholic Worker Movement that she co-founded with Peter Maurin who do not support her cause for canonization, claiming she would not want it, and that the money spent on the process should be given to the poor.

Yet, her attitude toward sainthood is exactly what makes her so relevant for us today in the post-Vatican II church. Her remark is directed at those who see sainthood as something extraordinary that can then be dismissed by the average person as something out of reach. They are happy to call her a saint for serving the poor, because then they don’t have to, since they would never presume themselves to be that holy.

But Dorothy didn’t want her work with the poor to be dismissed as something extraordinary. She understood it as simply her duty as a Christian to care for the needs of her brothers and sisters. And she wondered why all Christians didn’t feel the same way, why they all didn’t love their neighbor as themselves, and why they did not act on those feelings. Wasn’t that the message of the Gospel?

“You have heard that it was said, `You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?  You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:43-48

To be perfect, then, is to be like God. It is to love perfectly, as God loves. Only God is holy. All holiness comes from God, and it is given to humanity as a gift. A saint is one who is made holy, or sanctified. Saints are not holy by their own efforts. They are made holy by God as a gift, and their efforts are their acceptance of, appreciation of, and cooperation in this gift.

Holiness depends on one’s relationship with God. People are holy to the degree that they are united to God. By perfectly holy, then, we mean intimately united to the Trinitarian God (the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit) so much so that there is a oneness of heart, mind and will. In this intimate union, we are able to love perfectly as God loves. Pope Francis tells us of the need for a relationship with God on this road to holiness.

Being holy is not a privilege for the few, as if someone had a large inheritance; in Baptism we all have an inheritance to be able to become saints. Holiness is a vocation for everyone. Thus we are all called to walk on the path of holiness, and this path has a name and a face: the face of Jesus Christ. He teaches us to become saints.

Pope Francis, Angelus,  November 1, 2013

One who is sanctified possesses a yearning for God, an intimacy with God, perseverance in prayer, humility of heart, and a love for others. All of us are called to this holiness. Each of us is called to this intimate relationship with God. This is the beauty of relationship – each one is unique. God communicates with us uniquely. His message is the same – God will not contradict himself. He only speaks the truth. But his communication with us is so personal, so “meant just for us”.

We must strive to unite our heart, mind, and will to that of Christ – to love as Christ loves, to think as Christ thinks, and to desire as Christ desires. This seems rather extraordinary (as those who dismissed Dorothy Day as such), but it is, in fact, what is expected of every baptized person. The grace of our baptism empowers us to be like Christ. We need only to cooperate in it.

We are all called to be great saints, don’t miss the opportunity.

Mother Angelica

Carmina Chapp is Associate Director of Online Theology Programs at Saint Joseph’s College.

The Joy of Love: A Joy to Read?

“I do not recommend a rushed reading of the text” (Amoris Laetitia 7). Pope Francis gives this great advice in his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, The Joy of Love, which is certainly the most important to follow for interpreting the document as a whole. The pope encourages families to read the document “patiently and carefully” (Ibid). And it seems clear that Pope Francis desires all people to read it since, “everyone should feel challenged by Chapter Eight” (Ibid., emphasis added).

It contains an authentic vision for marriage. Pope Francis constantly challenges culturally accepted norms which have hurt family life. This document is strange in that you could find yourself saying “yes, yes yes,” in many instances. But then after reading the document in its entirety, several ambiguous points leave you feeling uneasy for their lack of clarity. Let’s start with the clarity.

The pope warns against “an extreme individualism which weakens family bonds…” (AL 33). Pope Francis thanks families who remain faithful to the Gospel. He encourages and speaks warmly about parents who raise children with special needs (cf. AL 47). The pope is clear that same-sex relationships cannot be equated to marriage because, “No union that is temporary or closed to the transmission of life can ensure the future of society” (AL 52). Later Pope Francis affirms, “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” (AL 251). The pope speaks out against “various forms of an ideology of gender that ‘denies the difference and reciprocity in nature of a man and a woman and envisages a society without sexual differences…’” (AL 56). He then says, “Let us not fall into the sin of trying to replace the Creator” (AL 56).

Pope Francis constantly refers to his predecessor, Blessed Paul VI, in citing Humanae Vitae. Spouses must respect the procreative meaning of sex and, “no genital act of husband and wife can refuse this meaning…” (AL 80). Artificial contraception is not a possibility. Similarly, the pope condemns abortion (cf. AL 83). In rather strong words he explains to parents that, “it matters little whether this new life is convenient for you, whether it has features that please you, or whether it fits into your plans and aspirations” (AL 170). The couple must respect life in all circumstances.

Chapter Four serves as an exegesis of St. Paul’s great explanation of love found in 1 Corinthians 13. The pope gives practical advice, “never to let the day end without making peace in the family” (AL 104), which calls to mind Scripture (cf. Ephesians 4:26). In this chapter he challenges how the word “love” is “commonly misused” (AL 89). This is clear in the fact that a husband could say “I love my wife and I love that song” in the same sentence. It does not require sacrifice to “love” a song, but it does require self-gift and personal sacrifice to love one’s spouse.

Joy of loveAt various points Pope Francis clearly and unambiguously reaffirms that a marriage bond is indissoluble and he also explained that this should be seen as a gift, not a burden (cf. AL 62). The pope actually quotes the Old Testament book of Malachi, “For I hate divorce, says the Lord” (Malachi 2:14-16; AL 123), and later goes on to proclaim that, “Divorce is an evil and the increasing number of divorces is very troubling” (AL 246). He minces no words when he describes the reality of divorce and also the affect it can have on children.

But there are some statements in this document that are ambiguous. Please call to mind that the pope has encouraged everyone to read Chapter Eight of Amoris Laetitia. And I propose that that is the problem, not everyone has the ability to interpret what the pope is suggesting. At times it seems you need a degree in Moral Theology or Canon Law to get at the heart of what he’s saying. There’s ambiguity around the issue of what constitutes a mortal sin. “Hence it can no longer simply be said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace. More is involved here than ignorance of the rule” (AL 301). In other words, some people who commit grave sins are not guilty of mortal sin, beyond cases of invincible ignorance. Pope Francis does cite the Catechism for this proposal: “Imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors” (CCC 1735). One problem with what the pope proposes is that he doesn’t seem to address the fact that any sin, whether venial or mortal, will affect the soul and the individual’s relationship with God, albeit in different ways. The Catechism also teaches, that venial sin, “impedes the soul’s progress in the exercise of the virtues and the practice of the moral good” (CCC 1863).

Many people were turning to the pope for clarity on whether or not civilly divorced and remarried Catholics could receive Holy Communion, even though this has been addressed by St. John Paul II (cf. Familiaris Consortio 84). The pope encourages help in the Sacraments. He reminds priests that the confessional is not a “torture chamber” and that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the week” (AL 305 [footnote 351]). However, we don’t get a clear explanation of whether or not civilly divorced and remarried persons can receive Holy Communion. And again, keep in mind that the pope encouraged all people to read this section of the document.

Amoris Laetitia is a document which provides great encouragement to families. Certain passages merit extremely close reading, such as the passages about civilly divorced and remarried Catholics. But you can’t judge the entire document based on a couple of paragraphs and footnotes. Overall it was a joy to read it and I encourage you to do so “patiently and carefully.” Let’s continue to ask the Holy Spirit to guide us as we read and unfold what Pope Francis has taught us in The Joy of Love.

Edward Trendowski is Director of the Office of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Providence and teaches pastoral theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.