Pope Francis is rightly acclaimed for his affable, down-to-earth, conspicuously humble and self-effacing demeanor, as well as for his gift of leading quietly, mostly with words offering hope.
Among the more than 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide, many look to their pontiff to spur progressive, modernizing change in important spheres of church life.
Among the changes sought are in the governance structures atop the ecclesiastical hierarchy, where inefficiencies and corruptions are evidenced, and in the rules and regulations having to do with how Catholics should conduct their everyday lives.
Still, some in the Catholic laity and hierarchy are worried about the pope’s bent for reforming the church in ways they deem to be harmful to its unifying doctrinal integrity and its universal mission.
They fear the pontiff is fueling ambiguity and confusion among the faithful about the fundamental principles of belief and practice — the consequence sowing division and discord in the Catholic world over church teaching.
The skepticism and concern come despite Francis’s opposition as a churchman over nearly a half century to abortion, euthanasia, contraception, divorce, sex outside wedlock, homosexuality and same-sex marriage, ordaining women, abolishing the celibacy rule for priests and ending the ban against priests marrying.
In recent days, Pope Francis has amplified the evolution of his thinking, particularly about sexuality, marriage, and family in their different forms, as core aspects of the human condition.
In a book-length apostolic exhortation, “Amoris Laetitia — the Joy of Love,” the pontiff evinces an impressive intelligence and depth of understanding (which is hardly surprising; he’s a Jesuit, after all) in dealing with subjects of great moment and delicacy.
He exhorts the institutional church to adapt to changing times and to renounce its medieval preoccupation with assigning guilt and instigating shame, especially in the domain of sex.
Pope Francis conceives a less-judgmental church in matters of sexuality, marriage and family. The major exception would be for Catholic clergy and sexual abuse against the young and vulnerable. He does not exculpate such malefactors.
In “Amoris Laetitia,” Pope Francis takes note of what he refers to as “irregular unions” in sexual partnerships and family constellations, and of sex and gender identities outside the heterosexual mainstream.
He does not renounce the proscriptions against them, which are perhaps forever sealed in church doctrine and which neither he nor the institutional church probably will not or cannot jettison. They are also at the core of his own identities as a person and pastor.
But still, the pontiff urges that the institutional church and its members cease regarding those in “irregular unions” and those bearing other than mainstream sexual and gender identities as marginal, or worse yet, as pariahs and outcasts.
He exhorts that the institutional church, especially, should give voice and force to a fresh, new inclusive dispensation — one that welcomes into its midst pluralism in the domain of sex and is ready to address warmly and lovingly the attendant challenges.
This element in Pope Francis’s thinking about sexuality, marriage and family has a powerful resonance in traditional Catholic teaching, which is suffused with the idea of love — hence the subtitle of “Amoris Laetitia.”
The Catholic Catechism includes among its numerous scriptural sources 1 Corinthians 13, 4-17, which deals expansively with the role of love in the human condition.
“Amoris Laetitia” urges that love be considered as the key qualifying aspect of diverse individual and group identities and social arrangements having to do with sexuality, marriage, and family and, concomitantly, as a way to help bind wounds in the face of canonical proscriptions.
Doubtless in this regard, the pontiff was moved by his longtime keen interest in social-justice issues and his recognition that the number of “irregular unions” and of those bearing other than mainstream sex and gender identities would likely continue to grow, despite the stance of the institutional church.
What Pope Francis proposes in “Amoris Laetitia” will probably draw criticism from different quarters — from among those who feel that he has not gone far enough as a change-agent on the sex front; from an institutional church and its members who feel that he has gone too far in questing for reform in the matters of sexuality, marriage and family; and from those who regard his reformist prescription for trying to find some common ground between the two camps as hopelessly naive and unachievable.
I applaud Pope Francis’s ambitious undertaking in “Amoris Laetitia” and his courage.
Alvin Magid of Niskayuna is an emeritus professor of political science at the University at Albany/SUNY.