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The idea that Pope Francis is some sort of liberal seems pretty entrenched in some conservative circles. This strikes me as odd in many ways. In the first place, on issues such as contraception, abortion and homosexuality he regularly disappoints those secular liberals who fail to understand that he teaches, as he is bound to, what the Church teaches. The former Argentinian President described his tone as harking back to “medieval times and the Inquisition”, when he opposed the idea of gay people adopting children. His very genuine concern for the effects of poverty is entirely Christian, and he is not, as far as I can see, advocating any particular economic system – progressive taxation in which the rich pay more? Winston Churchill supported that idea, as did Margaret Thatcher. Perhaps, viewed from Trump Tower, all these are socialists, but for the rest of us, perhaps not. He has spoken out against that ‘spirit of worldliness also exists today, today also brings us this desire to be progressive, following a single thought’, and criticised ‘adolescent progressivism’.

Pope Francis’ acceptance of the consensus which exists about global warming is based on his concern for our stewardship of the world, and whether one takes some of the views here seriously or not, it is quite hard to look at the use we make of the world’s resources and our impact on our local environments and think that we have been good and faithful stewards. What he is not doing is embracing the Green view that humans are simply another part of nature – another animal. Stewardship theology is hardly new.

The one element in Amoris Laetitia where there is not clarity (and there is on all other issues) is on the admission of divorced people to communion. In a way that reflects the current reality, which, let us remember, does allow it for couples who are remarried but live as bother and sister. The Pope says he has changed nothing, and those liberals in the Church who wanted a firm declaration of the sort Cardinal Kasper wanted, have been disappointed. That has not stopped self-proclaimed conservatives saying that it is clear that the Pope nonetheless wants this to happen. Had that been the case, I suspect that there would have been that clarity. It might actually be that he wants what the document appears to be saying, which is for Bishops to make decisions based on the personal circumstances of the couple and the prevailing cultural attitudes; it would be hard to say that they are the same in lose Angeles as they are in Lusaka.

Familiaris Consortio is quite clear, and because the new exhortation is not, this, I suspect is where the rubber hits the road:

“However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.”

But those longing for such clarity from Francis might want to look again at the 1981 Exhortation which also states:

“Therefore, while clearly stating the Church’s teaching, pastors are to avoid judgements that do not take into account the complexity of various situations, and they are to be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience and endure distress because of their condition … There is in fact a difference between those who have sincerely tried to save their first marriage and have been unjustly abandoned, and those who through their own grave fault have destroyed a canonically valid marriage. Finally, there are those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children’s upbringing, and who are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably destroyed marriage had never been valid.”

It seems to me the 1981 document is struggling with the same tension the more recent one has been, which suggests, if nothing else, that this is a real problem and not easily resolvable by blanket statements of principle – to which everyone adhere in principle, but where practice is variable; it was variable before Amoris Laetitia, and will be after it; in that sense nothing has changed. Some say ‘liberals’ will use it to prove they have – well, that too is nothing new to those who have heard all about the ‘spirit of Vatican 2’.

In this sense, Cardinal Nichols is right to see Francis as wrestling with the same problems as St John Paul:

Cardinal Nichols said that John Paul II was describing “the same tension that is essentially in this exhortation. That objectively speaking, there is something incompatible between the principle of entering a second marriage” and the principle of “fidelity”.

He added that “in Familiaris Consortio, St Pope John Paul said ‘Pastors must distinguish, pastors must discern.’”

There is, in the real world, no alternative. Those who want human lives to align themselves neatly and tidily with the rules are, like those who think politics can solves all the ills to which flesh is heir, doomed to disappointment. As the Cardinal said:

The exhortation’s “only categorical statement” is that the teaching of the Church is unchanged, 

“What this document makes clear is that there is a relationship to be explored between the objective teaching of the Church and the personal situation.”

As indeed there is, and in that exploration, if we will undertake it, lies the path to reconciliation and Christ. What is that – people will not take it and they will remained obstinately mired in sin? What is new there. Were that not so, we should have had no need of so great a redeemer.