Should Pope Francis have gone further with “Amoris Laetitia?”

Francis in 2014. (Photo by European Union/European Parliament via Martin Schulz Flickr.)
Pope Francis in 2014. (Photo by European Union/European Parliament/Martin Schulz via Flickr.)

While some view Pope Francis’ recent letter “Amoris Laetitia” — “The Joy of Love” — as a sign of a more welcoming Catholic Church, many American Catholics are disappointed that his message fails to change major institutional policies.

On April 8, the Vatican released Pope Francis’ latest apostolic exhortation (a letter to the Church following a meeting of its leadership), which discusses how Catholics, especially priests and other leaders, should treat divorced couples, single parents and gay men and lesbians.

Pope Francis emphasizes respect and dignity for those groups that have faced discrimination and judgement by the church for centuries, but in the same document he upholds the belief that same sex marriage is not considered equal to marriage between a man and a woman.

Father Michael Ryan is the pastor of St. James Cathedral, the central church of the Archdiocese of Seattle. In his homily immediately following the “Amoris Laetitia,” he said he was surprised by the document’s emphasis on flexibility and interpretation of law.

“Pope Francis is calling for something far more radical than changing rigid laws into lax and liberal laws – laws are really not the issue here,” he said. “What does surprise is his deeply compassionate tone, his avoidance of blanket condemnations, his heavy emphasis on prayerful, personal discernment, and his highlighting of the absolutely pivotal role of a free and informed conscience.”

Pope Francis hinted at small policy changes in regards to divorced couples, saying that they may be allowed to receive Communion — the bread and wine that is consecrated and distributed during Catholic church services — if their parish priests deem it appropriate. According to church teaching, a divorced person must receive a formal annulment of his or her marriage through the Church if he or she wants to receive Communion again.

Pope Francis said in the “Amoris Laetitia” that there was a need to make annulment “more accessible and less time consuming, and, if possible, free of charge.”

In a USA Today opinion piece, Michele Weldon discussed the guilt she experienced after going through a divorce and the difficulty she faced when trying to receive an annulment.

“I went through the process because my mother and the parish priest told me I needed to,” Weldon wrote. “I remember it involved a hefty payment, hours of meetings with an assigned counselor and a dissertation-worthy set of paperwork outlining the reasons for the annulment.”

Pope Francis also discussed single-parent families in “Amoris Laetitia,” recognizing the variety of circumstances that may cause parents to separate, including domestic violence. He encouraged their church communities to offer support as they “endure other hardships, such as economic difficulties, uncertain employment prospects, problems with child support and lack of housing.”

One of the most controversial aspects of the document is Pope Francis’ teaching on homosexuality. William Saletan wrote in a Slate article that “‘Amoris Laetitia’ is full of double standards” when it comes to same-sex marriage.

Pope Francis writes, “Every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration, while ‘every sign of unjust discrimination’ is to be carefully avoided, particularly any form of aggression or violence.”

Later in the document, however, he writes, “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.”

James K. Wellman, Jr., is the chair of the comparative religion program at the University of Washington and a professor of American religion, culture, and politics. Wellman said that Pope Francis must consider the varying degrees of conservatism found in Christian communities around the world. As an example, Wellman cited the Anglican Communion’s recent three-year suspension of the Episcopal Church for allowing clergy to perform same-sex marriages.

“We can’t move past more conservative communities like Africa or Latin America,” Wellman said. “There are some real restrictions in terms of the global community. Wherever you see more conservative Christianity, there’s reluctance on changing morals within what is thought of as the family.”

Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post wrote that the document’s condemnation of discrimination and violence is a step in the right direction.

“By talking about the humanity of gay and lesbian Catholics, Pope Francis is openly recognizing them as children of God,” Capehart wrote. “After centuries of demonization, that’s a revolutionary act that can’t be undone.

Wellman praised Pope Francis for discussing universal concerns like climate change and poverty in his past speeches and letters. Though he recognized that many people are disappointed in “Amoris Laetitia,” he admires Pope Francis’ efforts to challenge the Church on more divisive topics.

“Do you want to cause a radical division within your communion, and really try to cause a revolution, or do you want to push the church slowly but surely in a more progressive way?” he asked. “I think he chose the latter.”