A faction within the Catholic Church thinks one of the worst problems it faces is people feeling excluded from church life because of their lifestyle choices. For example, because Catholicism teaches marriage is a lifelong union that can’t be undone, many people who are divorced and re-married aren’t permitted to receive Holy Communion, a sacred rite that’s central to the Catholic faith. This faction thinks their exclusion from this sacrament is an injustice.
A second faction within the church believes dramatic changes of liturgy and practice have steered the church’s message off course, thus diluting the faith. This faction understands that worship affects belief, which determines behavior (as the old adage goes, “Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi”). This faction generally believes the identity crisis hasn’t really helped people grow closer to God and has led to a shortage of priests, damaged Catholic education, and the large portion of self-identified Catholics who dissent from church teaching on fundamental issues of faith and morals.
These two possibilities are not of equal importance. If we are currently unjustly excluding people, then we should make changes to welcome them. If, on the other hand, the Catholic Church is spiritually hurting the faithful through dreadful liturgical practices and confusing or erroneous preaching, then that’s a very serious problem that must be corrected. Such correction would be urgent yet would also take years to implement liturgically, pastorally, and practically.
Most well-known Catholics today stand in one of these two factions, whether they admit it or not.
Now, for ‘The Joy of Love’
The Catholic world and news media are buzzing about Pope Francis’s exhortation, or letter, “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”). “Amoris Laetitia” is a follow-up from two synods, or meetings of bishops, that discussed and debated challenges to sharing the Catholic faith in the modern world, especially as related to family life and the church’s teachings on marriage.
During these synods, unorthodox and high-ranking Catholic leaders advocated that the church liberalize her approach to people living in what the church has historically considered intrinsically disordered and inherently sinful situations, like same-sex relationships and second marriages when the church hasn’t declared a first marriage null.
It may seem bizarre to non-Catholics for so many Catholic leaders to disregard or advocate changing church teaching, especially teaching that is so central to the faith that these men are supposed to proclaim. But thanks to the church’s identity crisis, this isn’t uncommon. There are many differences of opinion amongst high-up Catholic leaders about matters where the church has long held there’s no room for difference of opinion—for example, Cardinal Schornborn, the archbishop of Vienna, has taken positions on same-sex relationships that conflict with established church teaching. Archbishop Blase Cupich of the archdiocese of Chicago has made erroneous, misleading comments about conscience and Holy Communion.
Why Who Receives Communion Matters a Lot
Although certain parts of “Amoris Laetitia” uphold Catholic doctrine, the document’s ambiguities and a certain footnote seem to imply Pope Francis advocates that those who are divorced and re-married be allowed in certain circumstances to receive Holy Communion. This matters because if it’s true then Pope Francis is encouraging people to commit sacrilege—a very grave sin that the Catholic Church teaches can lead to hell. Catholicism teaches that during Mass, a priest changes bread and wine into the literal body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus. This is so sacred that not all Catholics can consume it. Only those who are in what the church calls a “state of grace”—those who haven’t committed a serious sin without going to confession—may partake of it.
If Pope Francis is really advocating for people to commit sacrilege by unworthily receiving Holy Communion, then he’s essentially saying that it’s more important that people don’t feel excluded than that they don’t go to hell. Seriously.
This is certainly disturbing for people who believe what the Catholic Church actually teaches about these matters. Suddenly the rhetorical question, “Is the pope Catholic?” doesn’t seem so rhetorical anymore.
Thankfully, the scandalous language in “Amoris Laetitia” isn’t necessarily an exercise of papal infallibility, although it’s likely progressive priests and pundits will claim it is, which will have even more negative effects for souls in the Catholic Church’s care. It’s an abuse of the pope’s teaching authority and will no doubt be a source of confusion, media spin, and continued crisis within the Catholic Church.
The Catholic Church has had unfaithful, confused, and erroneous popes before. The fact that the church and her doctrines have been able to survive in spite of them is a testament to its resilience.
Catholics and non-Catholics alike can look at the history of the Church and be assured that eventually this identity crisis will sort itself out. Until then, many Catholics will find themselves having to answer uncomfortable, tough questions about this pope, and non-Catholics will find themselves having to dig deeper into their doctrine to understand what the Catholic Church really teaches.