I'd like to back up a bit and begin again at Chapter Two: The Experience and Challenges of Families.
[NB: As I'm "live-blogging" my slow and sporadic reading of the exhortation, I am refraining from reading any other commentary on it. I've only seen headlines.]
The focus on experience can't be overstressed; it is key to understanding Francis. It accounts for his much-lamented "unclarity." Real experience is messy and opaque; it resists facile analysis and simple answers. It requires attention, listening, patience, receptivity, sensitivity, care, and strong faith. Many of us (in a perennial temptation) prefer to concentrate on "the law"—something strictly objective that can be readily mastered by anyone with time and a certain level of intellectual ability.
But we can't really grasp life—or anything personal—except through experience. And it is through experience that “the Church can also be guided to a more profound understanding of the inexhaustible mystery of marriage and the family.”
Francis is quoting John Paul II here. He is determined to contend with concrete reality—however painful and challenging—because he trusts that through it the Church will be guided to a more profound understanding of the human person and of the practical exigencies of her own teachings.
It is the opposite of what he is often suspected and accused of—the opposite of the dissident habit of mind. Dissidents dwell on hard cases to insinuate that the doctrines of our faith are untenable in practice and therefore need to be adjusted. The Pope (as I read him), rather, is so confidently rooted in Truth that he has no fear of hard cases. Pastoral practices may need to be adjusted; our understanding may need to develop; but, if so, it's only because the previous practice and understanding has (on closer examination) proven to be inadequate to the fullness of truth.
In paragraphs 33-36, the Pope goes into various cultural conditions that "militate against permanent decisions." He doesn't mean permanent decisions are impossible; only that they are harder to achieve in our day and age. I receive this as typical of his kindly, humble, and generous spirit. He's not heaping condemnation on our generation; he's sympathetically entering into our difficulties. Nor does he lay all the blame on those who fail or abandon the ideal; committed Catholics have too often presented the ideal badly—in a way that repels, discourages, or acts as a stumbling block. Specifically, he says:
1. We have exaggerated the procreative end of marriage to the neglect of its unitive meaning.
2. We have failed to teach Natural Family Planning, leaving couples too vulnerable to the temptations of birth control.
3. We have presented marriage in an abstract, idealized way, far removed from the real concerns and circumstances of normal people.
As someone who has lived in intensely Catholic circles for all my 50 years and been married (and studying marriage) for more than half of those, I say yes to all these. It's true. And it contributes to the crisis we're in. I could list examples from experience all day, but I won't.
I'm going to quote paragraph 37 in full, because it strikes me as more than vital. I'm guessing it can be taken as a kind of summary of the pastoral thrust of the document and of the Pope's thinking on these questions.
We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life. We find it difficult to present marriage more as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfillment than as a lifelong burden. We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.
Every line of this paragraph is important enough for a post of its own. I am turning mental cartwheels of joy over it. This is the Pope fearlessly appropriating the gift and ethos of Vatican II. It is him exposing and opposing the residual legalism, paternalism and clericalism that are still weighing down the faithful, preventing us from achieving the abundant life that we are meant to live. It is him expressing the same holy boldness of faith that impelled Peter to walk on water.
He is challenging all of us to a much more radical faith in the efficacy of grace in the ordinary layman, and in the sacrament of marriage. We have to put away the kind of moral protectionism that is animated more by fear of sin than by confidence in the freedom we have in Christ.
I'm thinking of Augustine: "Love, and do what you will."
I know some will see this as inviting laxity. I don't, any more than Peter's stepping out of the boat was inviting drowning. He wasn't tempting fate; he was trusting Jesus to give him the power to do what was naturally beyond him.
What does the Pope mean when he says that marriage is "a dynamic path to personal development and fulfillment"? I take him to be emphasizing the same element of personal life that John Paul II continually emphasized: To be a person is to be self-determining. We don't simply conform to the law (or fail to conform to it); we "pro-create" ourselves and our marriages, under grace. (Jules reminded me yesterday of a post of his on Berdyaev that develops this point beautifully.) And we do that creative work from the materials and circumstance we have at hand, including the limits on our abilities and understanding.
The ideal presented us by the Gospel and by the Church isn't meant to be a burden—as if every moment we're not living up to it is a moment we're failing. Rather, it's meant to be a source of hope and joy: "There's where grace can bring us, if we only turn to God and rely on Him."
As I'm writing I'm experiencing the difficulty of communicating these things. I feel the truth of what the Pope writes, but I remember that I didn't always feel it. I used to have exactly the mentality he is here challenging.
A final point on forming consciences rather than replacing them.
There's a scene in the excellent, heart-wrenching Iranian movie, ASeparation. A pious Muslim woman is hired to do housework and watch an elderly man with dementia while his son is at work. The first day there, the old man wets himself. She is distressed. She knows he needs to be cleaned and changed, but she's afraid, because it's forbidden for her to see a strange man undressed. So she calls her imam to ask permission. In effect, his authority is substituting for her conscience.
In Islam, this is normal. In Catholicism, it isn't. In the Catholic understanding, the moral life has to be lived from within. But religious authorities are tempted to take the place of conscience, and we are tempted to give it to them, because the responsibility entailed in freedom frightens us. But unless we take it up, we will remain morally immature and unable to fulfill our vocation as persons.