In the first two months of 2016, Pope Francis made front-page news worldwide by his meeting with the president of Iran, his decision to participate in the Lutheran-Catholic commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, his Asia Times interview on China, the historic encounter with the Patriarch of Moscow and his stunning visit to Mexico.
In March, he is sure to be in the news again when the Vatican releases his apostolic exhortation on the family. The target date for publication is March 19, the third anniversary of the inauguration of his Petrine ministry and the feast of St. Joseph.
In writing the exhortation, Francis drew on the work of the Synod of Bishops’ meetings on the family in 2014 and 2015 and especially the final report from last October’s assembly. The discussions at the meetings and the final report covered a vast area, extending from the very different socioeconomic, cultural, religious and interreligious situations in which families live to the serious challenges they face. Those range from extreme poverty, armed conflict, migration, secularization and ideological colonization to young people’s fear of entering lifelong commitments, polygamy, cohabitation, openness to having children, single-parent families, the breakup of marriages and the consequences of this for children and the passing on of the faith.
The final report in 2015 reaffirmed traditional church teaching on marriage and the family and highlighted the need to give greater attention to preparing couples for marriage and to the pastoral care of families. Significantly, however, it closed no doors to the development of new pastoral approaches to complex marriage situations, including those of divorced and remarried Catholics (whether they may receive Communion, for example), and to the issue of homosexuality and the family.
Francis had all this before him when he began writing the exhortation immediately after last October’s synod. Moreover, he came to the task with a rich pastoral experience from his 21 years as bishop in Buenos Aires (including 15 as archbishop) and almost three years as pope. That experience is likely to have had a decisive impact on his magisterial text on the family.
What then can we expect in the exhortation? The text is still secret, but one can predict some things. First of all, there will be no change in church doctrine; that was never in the cards. Pope Francis will reaffirm that marriage is between a man and a woman in a lifelong union open to having children. He will restate church teaching on the indissolubility of marriage and emphasize the importance of proper preparation of couples for marriage and of ongoing pastoral accompaniment of married couples and the family. His catechesis on the family in 2015 offers insights into what to expect here.
On the other hand, Francis is expected to open doors in terms of the church’s pastoral approach to issues such as cohabitation, how divorced and remarried Catholics—“They are not excommunicated,” he insists—may be reinstated in the church and allowed to receive Communion, and homosexuality in the family. In this context, it is worth recalling what he said in his homily at Mass with new cardinals on Feb. 15, 2015. He reminded them that “the church’s way, from the time of the Council of Jerusalem, has always been the way of Jesus, the way of mercy and reinstatement....The way of the church is not to condemn anyone for eternity; [it is] to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart.”
In the exhortation, Pope Francis is sure to emphasize that mercy is the heart of the Gospel message and that justice has to be seen in that infinite light, not just according to limited human standards. He will also highlight the vital importance of “accompaniment” and “reconciliation”—two key concepts at the synod assemblies.
One can therefore expect that in the exhortation (more than 100 pages) Francis will offer encouragement to people in various kinds of difficult situations. He is likely to open doors in pastoral praxis that offer new hope to people in complex marital or family situations. And given the cultural diversity in church, he might decentralize decision-making on certain matters to the local churches. If all this were to happen, then bishops and priests will have much more work to do in accompanying and helping people discern, in conscience, their path ahead as followers of Christ and members of the church.