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A document both maternal and pastoral

Now that the dust stirred by publication of Pope Francis' new document on marriage and the family has started to settle, it's time for assessments that avoid the overwrought tone of some early responses. Here, then, some preliminary thoughts.

Shortly after the document was released, I got a phone call from a reporter in Rome who wanted to know what I thought. Answering that question, I said something like this: "Up to now we've been accustomed to seeing the church as a teacher. Now we're seeing it as a facilitator."

Thinking about that later, it occurred to me that the idea I was expressing was summed up years earlier in the title of Pope St. John XXIII's famous social encyclical "Mater et Magistra" - mother and teacher. The idea is that the church performs both a maternal, comforting, consoling role and also a role as an authoritative teacher.

In discussing a pastoral approach to divorced and remarried Catholics whose first marriages haven't been annulled, Pope Francis stresses the maternal, with pastors as facilitators of a discernment process meant to reintegrate these people in the community of faith. But that doesn't mean the document is without a teaching component. Indeed, its very writing and issuance were teaching acts. In this instance, Francis simply concentrates on the pastoral side. There can be no reasonable objection to that.

It's important, though, not to separate teaching from pastoring. Sound teaching is itself a fundamental pastoral act. Does "Amoris Laetitia" (The Joy of Love) separate the two? Not really. But at times it leans that way.

Like much of Pope Francis's writing, the document isn't overburdened with verbal precision. It invites interpretation. And interpretations to date conflict.

For example, Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, editor of the influential Jesuit journal La Civilta Catolica and a papal adviser said to have had a hand in writing the document, contends that it removes all barriers to the reception of holy Communion by the divorced and remarried. But Cardinal Raymond Burke, a hero among conservative Catholics, holds that it "does not propose new doctrine and discipline" but only applies "perennial" teaching and rules to current facts.

"Amoris Laetitia" is heartfelt and earnest, long and loosely written. Some passages are beautiful, others problematic. The temptation is all too real for commentators to cherry-pick quotes to demonstrate what they wish to demonstrate. In these circumstances, the sensible way to read it is to take it as a whole.

Taking it like that, Cardinal Burke seems to get it about right: "The task of pastors and other teachers of the faith is to present (the document) within the context of the church's teaching and discipline." Where matrimony is concerned, the indissolubility of valid marriages is central to that. So is the character of moral truths as norms rather than mere "ideals" - a squishy word "Amoris Laetitia" uses repeatedly.

If pursued systematically and with intellectual honesty by divorced and remarried persons under spiritual guidance loyal to the faith, the discernment process outlined in the papal document is sufficiently rigorous that relatively few are likely to undertake it. Not all who do will conclude they are eligible to receive Communion.

The central challenge will be to make sure that pastoral practice truly reflects sound doctrine. In the end, that is the greatest pastoral service the church can do for those struggling with the plague of divorce and remarriage. In the face of today's sea of moral uncertainties, people aren't looking for an invitation to cheap grace but for the solid rock of Christ's moral truth.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016