(RNS1-jan21) Pope Francis waves to newlywed couples during his Wednesday general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican on Wednesday (January 21, 2015). For use ONLY with RNS-POPE-FAMILIES, transmitted on January 21, 2015, Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Tony Gentile

Applause, dismay, confusion over pope’s words

(RNS) Pope Francis’ “The Joy of Love,” a massive document released Friday (April 8) that wraps unchanged doctrine on marriage, divorce, and LGBT life in gentle terms, is getting a mixed reaction from U.S. Catholics and others.

It brought joy to conservative Christians who feared Francis would tamper with dogma, but less love from liberals who had hoped for a change in practices, not simply in tone. Statements flooded out from both directions. A sampling:

  • Archbishop of Louisville Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, extolled it as “a love letter to married couples and families” and to the church “to realize more and more her mission to live and love as a family.“ The pope traces through the Bible all the beauty of marriage and that “no obstacle is too big for Christ to overcome.”
  • The Human Rights Campaign was “disappointed” that the document, issued in the pope’s Year of Mercy, did not translate into fuller inclusion for LGBT Catholics, said Mary Beth Maxwell, an HRC senior vice president. She found consolation in knowing that “in a growing number of Catholic families and parishes all across this country we are welcomed for who we are, not judged or excluded because of doctrine.”
  • Conservative Catholic writer George Weigel, in the National Review, saw a thread throughout that church teachings can offer a structure for both holiness and happiness. He wrote that it says “many important things about love, marriage, the family, and the current cultural crisis of a world in which the imperial autonomous Self is running roughshod over just about everything, leaving a lot of human unhappiness in its wake.”
  • Catholics for Choice, a pro-contraception and an abortion-rights group, pointed out that most U.S. Catholics were not waiting for approval from their church. President Jon O’Brien called Francis’ pastoral approach “a breath of fresh air. … But talking about the law in a pastoral manner does not change doctrine, and it will not change the real practice of Catholics.”

Analysis by Catholic publications also divided on which themes to highlight.

National Catholic Reporter columnist Michael Sean Winters pulled a more optimistic message from the document. He says Francis “challenges the Church to do more than simply repeat the Catechism and harangue the fallen. … (T)he Holy Father does not believe the pastor, still less the magisterium, should tell people what to do, but that a pastor should accompany people so that they can discern God’s activity and calling in their own lives.”

The National Catholic Register highlighted a different thread through the document, one that might disturb conservatives by muddying up traditionalist ideas of clear rules with unspecified pastoral discretion: “Francis speaks in the chapter of a ‘need to avoid judgments’ that don’t take account of the ‘complexity of various situations’ and stresses the need of ‘reaching out to everyone.’ The divorced, he writes, should not be pigeonholed in ‘overly rigid classifications,’ leaving no room for personal and pastoral discernment.”

Reaction did not only come from Catholics struggling with the complex material and conflicting ways to read it. Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptists’ Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, tweeted @drmoore:   “Man. #AmorisLaetitia is a mess.”

(Cathy Lynn Grossman is senior national reporter for RNS)

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