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May 16, 2016

Right from the word "go," Pope Francis has stirred a variety of emotions among both the faithful and the wider society. When he asked the crowd assembled in St. Peter's Square to bless him on the night he was elected pope, we had every reason to believe we were in for something different.

So it is with his long-awaited exhortation on marriage and family life, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love). Many are parsing the supposed key sentences in the document to determine whether the pope changed or watered down Church teaching on the indissolubility of marriage.

That, however, is to miss the point. The pope is not going to reverse field on Church doctrine, especially one that is so well attested in the Gospels.

Pope Francis ought to be seen as going deeper than the so-called rules. It is not helpful, he wrote, "to try to impose rules by sheer authority" (35). The Church ought to be like a mother who trusts in people's efforts to live by their consciences and do good, rather than a stern taskmaster who has rules for every conceivable situation.

People are more likely to be led to sanctity and, ultimately, to heaven by a mother who seeks to understand the painful situations of their lives.

Wasn't that Jesus' way? It was Jesus who ate with Zacchaeus before the tax collector expressed any hint of sorrow for exploiting people. Look at the result. Only after he felt Jesus' warmth and acceptance was Zacchaeus liberated enough to pledge half his possessions to the poor and to pay back those he had defrauded four times the amount he had taken.

Jesus also told the woman caught in "the very act" of adultery that he would not condemn her. Yes, he told her to sin no more, but his primary message was not one of law, but of mercy.

Pope Francis writes, "A pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in 'irregular' situations, as if they were stones to throw at people's lives. This would bespeak the closed heart of one used to hiding behind the Church's teachings" (305). Isn't that so much like Jesus?

Isn't it also a message for a Church which surely must help form consciences with God-given moral law, but refrain from judging people for how they live out that law in mixed-up circumstances of daily life.

To say that is not to shift into an anything-goes situation ethics. Nor is it to deny that the Son of Man is the true judge of everyone's life. It is simply to keep open the pathways of grace.

The sense of sin has been muted in contemporary society. How can it be reignited? Jesus' way was not the way of judgment and exclusion. The ones he judged harshly were those who piled up laws and duties on the weakened backs of the sorrowful.

We must defend the dignity of human beings as the Canadian bishops and others are doing in the debate over assisted suicide. We must always stand with the vulnerable who are the easy victims of society's powerful.

Like Jesus, Pope Francis has recognized the frailty of society's broken ones; we are all broken in one way or another. The Church is here to welcome, not to condemn those already carrying heavy burdens. On the path of welcome we must lower barriers that block the way to repentance.

Letter to the Editor - 06/13/16