14 April 2016, The Tablet

In the service of the people


This is a different kind of papal teaching. Francis focuses not on church doctrine in the abstract but on how it can be used to help the lives of ordinary believers

The apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (the joy of love) is an exercise in authentic, compassionate pastoral care. That this statement requires explanation says much about the dramatic transformation of the modern papacy.

Over a period of approximately two centuries, Catholicism shifted from seeing the papacy as a doctrinal court of final appeal to seeing it as the chief expositor and arbiter of doctrinal orthodoxy. Consequently, most Catholics now presume that the authoritative articulation of doctrine belongs among the Pope’s most essential responsibilities. This explains, in part, the heightened anticipation surrounding the promulgation of this document. Some feared a dramatic change in church doctrine; others prayed for it. Neither group got what they wanted. This is not that kind of document, largely because this is not that kind of pope.

What we have in Amoris Laetitia is the work of a pastor, pure and simple. Pope Francis is a pastor who recognises church leadership’s past tendency to offer eloquent, confident and authoritative answers to questions no one is really asking. He understands that the first task of the pastor is to engage in sympathetic understanding by engaging the world of those he serves. He readily admits that church teaching has too often failed to take into account the concrete concerns of believers. “Concrete” is the key word. He uses some form of it 20 times in this document.

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