A Shepherd’s Voice: One Diocesan Bishop’s Pastoral Plan for Implementing “Amoris Laetitia”: First Look

 

Wuerl         Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Cardinal-Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Washington, DC has just released Sharing in the Joy of Love in Marriage and Family: A Pastoral Plan to Implement Amoris Laetitia.  You may access the full document here.  This may be the first parish-centered pastoral plan on this subject in the United States, and I thank Deacon Greg Kandra for posting about this significant event.  This has personal implications for me,  since I am a deacon of the Archdiocese of Washington, DC so the new document has particular personal and ministerial relevance; Cardinal Wuerl is my bishop!

I think it is important to note from the outset that Cardinal Wuerl is a master teacher and a faithful, precise theologian.  Indeed, long before he became a bishop, he was well-known to be a skilled catechist, gifted teacher and respected author.  This catechetical perspective informs his entire approach to ministry, so it comes as no surprise that he would create a pastoral resource for the clergy, religious and laity of the Archdiocese, and that this resource would be grounded in a faithful presentation of the teaching of the Church on marriage and family life.  He provides clear guidance and direction for all Catholics of the Archdiocese, which should serve to prevent confusion while also serving wuerlsynodas an aid for everyone seeking to strengthen their own marriages and families, and the pastoral ministers who are supporting them.  These initial comments can only skim the surface of what is a much more substantive document, and I encourage everyone to take the time to read the Pastoral Plan in detail.  Let’s take a closer look.

More than fifty pages in length, the Pastoral Plan consists of a preface, some introductory reflections, five “parts”, a conclusion and an executive summary.  The five major sections are: Amoris Laetitia’s Teaching, the Way of Faith and Contemporary Culture, the Way of Accompaniment, the Importance of Parish Life, and finally, In Service of the Ministry of Accompaniment, which consists of an extensive list of resources available to pastoral ministers.

The contributions of the Pastoral Plan revolve around several key themes: context, accompaniment, conscience, and practical care.

CONTEXT

The document’s first significant contribution is context.  In the Preface, Cardinal Wuerl makes clear that the Plan incorporates not only the teaching of Amoris Laetitia itself, but also the two Synods which preceded and inspired it.  For me this is a most important reminder.  Far too frequently, observers have attempted to read and comprehend the pope’s Exhortation without this context, and that, in my opinion, is not only inadequate VaticanSynodofMarriageandFamilybut dangerous.  “Text” always requires “context”, and the Cardinal makes this clear: to understand and to implement Amoris Laetitia, one must situate it within that broader global synodal process.  Amoris Laetitia, precisely as a post-synodal apostolic exhortation, reflects not merely the personal teaching of the Holy Father himself; it is that, certainly, but so much more.  The work of the preceding synods involved representatives of the world’s episcopal conferences, extensive consultation and research over several years, and intense discussions during the synods themselves.  All of this reflected both the importance of the challenges facing contemporary families and the diversity of pastoral responses needed to help them.  As Cardinal Wuerl notes, “Many collaborators have worked to provide elements of a pastoral plan to implement this expression of the Papal Magisterium that follows on two gatherings of bishops, the 2014 Synod on the Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization and the 2015 Synod on the Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and in the Contemporary World” (Preface, 3).

There is a sense in which the right understanding of the work of both the 2014 and 2015 synods and their fruit, Amoris Laetitia, depends upon the recognition of this interactive dynamic between teaching, experiencing the teaching, and the living out of the teaching in light of how it is understood and able to be received. This recognition is perhaps the most challenging aspect of Amoris Laetitia. It calls for a conversion of heart. The minister is called to recognize that beyond the assurance of doctrinal statements he has to encounter the people entrusted to his care in the concrete situations they live and to accompany them on a journey of growth in the faith.

VATICAN-POPE-AUDIENCEACCOMPANIMENT

The Cardinal outlines the approach of his Pastoral Plan in terms of accompaniment, which is of course, a major theme of Amoris Laetitia itself.  The theme of pastoral accompaniment is, indeed, the foundation and the goal of the entire Plan.  The Cardinal writes,

Not every marriage, however, goes forward with “they lived happily ever after.”  In fact, for many, in our heavily secular culture today, there is little understanding of the true nature of love, marriage, commitment, and self-giving which are all part of the Catholic vision of love. Yet, while their lives and experiences may have drawn many far away from the Church’s message, we are all the more called to reach out to them, to invite and accompany them on the journey that should help bring them to the joy of love that is also the joy of the Church.

He reminds us that we must approach everyone “with humility and compassion,” remembering that all the baptized are members of Christ’s body, and that we are all brothers and sisters to one another, regardless of circumstance.  He recalls the invitation of Pope Francis “to value the gifts of marriage and family. . .  (and) to encourage everyone to be a sign of mercy and closeness wherever family life remains imperfect or lacks peace and joy” (AL, 5).

The Cardinal directs that the implementation of Amoris Laetitia  in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC be based on the following points.

  • First, it must begin with the Church’s teaching on love, marriage, family, faith and mercy. In particular, he points out that a key insight of the pope’s teaching was a proper understanding of the family “as the site of God’s revelation lived out in practice.”  To this end, the Cardinal joins with Pope Francis in exhorting all ministers of the Archdiocese to a deeper knowledge and formation on marriage and family life.  The richness of the Church’s teaching on marriage and family is a gift to be treasured and shared, especially in light of the many challenges faced by people in today’s world which can distract or even alienate people from each other and from loving commitments.  However, the Cardinal points out, “our task is not complete if we only limit ourselves to faith statements. The goal is the salvation of souls and it is a far more complex effort than simply restating Church doctrine.”
  • Therefore, “it is essential to recognize that our teaching is received by individuals according to their own situation, experience and life. Whatever is received is received according to the ability of the receiver, to paraphrase Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas. This is our starting point for pastoral ministry.” The Cardinal points out that this “interation” between the proclamation of the church’s teaching and the lived experience of those who hear that teaching was a critical insight from both of the synods.

There is a sense in which the right understanding of the work of both the 2014 and 2015 synods and their fruit, Amoris Laetitia, depends upon the recognition of this interactive dynamic between teaching, experiencing the teaching, and the living out of the teaching in light of how it is understood and able to be received.  This recognition is perhaps the most challenging aspect of Amoris Laetitia. It calls for a conversion of heart. The minister is called to recognize that beyond the assurance of doctrinal statements he has to encounter the people entrusted to his care in the concrete situations they live and to accompany them on a journey of growth in the faith.

Here we see the master catechist at work.  The Cardinal expresses the Church’s constant tradition that at the heart of our faith lies a relationship with Christ, and that one does not establish or nourish such a relationship without the conversion of the human heart.  Teaching alone, as central as it is, will be heard and received within very different life situations, and he challenges all of us who minister “to encounter and to accompany” the people we serve where they are in their journey.

CONSCIENCE7889200

Central to Amoris Laetitia and to this pastoral plan is the role of conscience.  St. John Paul II referred to the conscience as “the ultimate concrete judgment” in Veritatis Splendor 63, while the Catechism of the Catholic Church (both of which are cited by Cardinal Wuerl) describes conscience as “a judgment of reason by which the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act” (CCC, 1796).  Therefore, stressing always fidelity to the Church’s teaching on marriage and family along with the pastoral awareness of how that teaching “is being received or even able to be perceived,” there is something more.  “An equally important part of our Catholic faith is the recognition that personal culpability rests with the individual. We have always made the distinction between objective wrong and personal or subjective culpability.”  The Cardinal continues:

          Our personal culpability of any of us does not depend solely on exposure to the teaching. It is not enough simply to hear the teaching. Each of us has to be helped to grasp it and appropriate it.  We have to have “experiential” and not just “objective” moral knowledge, to use the language of Saint John Paul II. . . .  Our consideration of our standing before God recognizes all these elements. We cannot enter the soul of another and make that judgment for someone else. As Pope Francis teaches, “We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them” (AL, 37).

The Cardinal’s treatment of “conscience” is, for me, a highlight of the pastoral plan, since it is at the level of conscience that our pastoral activity will be centered, and I hope that everyone will study this section reflectively and carefully.

Many will be curious about the question of the possibility of divorced-and-remarried persons receiving Communion, so let me address this in more detail.   This question itself is not specifically addressed in the Plan.  However, much as the treatment of the subject in Amoris Laetitia, I do not find this particularly troubling, for the following reasons.  Traditional Catholic teaching has always stressed a balanced approach between objective moral principles and subjective moral culpability.  There is nothing new in this, and the current Catechism of the Catholic Church repeats it clearly (see, for example, paragraphs 1857-1859).  What prevents us from receiving communion ccc-photois being in a state of mortal sin.  The tradition holds that for a sin to mortal, “three conditions must together be met: grave matter which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.” The Catechism continues, “Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments, corresponding to the answer of Jesus to the rich young man: ‘Do not kill, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not defraud, honor your father and your mother. . . .”  But mortal sin is more than an objectively grave act.  “Mortal sin [also] requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice” (CCC, 1857-1859).

What Cardinal Wuerl has done is to echo this traditional teaching.  How one forms spiritual directionone’s conscience is a complex matrix involving experience, formation, and discernment guided by one’s pastor.  Objective moral principles are one thing, but a person’s moral culpability for those acts or omissions is another, since “full knowledge” and “complete consent” are subjective issues.  The state of one’s soul before God, then, is deeply personal between the person and God, which again is the traditional teaching of the Church.  The decisions a person makes under the guidance of a pastor are matters of a deeply internal spiritual nature and can vary from person to person.  The responsibilities of a pastor in these matters are most crucial and weighty, and the Cardinal stresses all of this in the document.  No one answer will suffice in every case.  He writes, “Here Amoris Laetitia confirms the longstanding teaching of the Church and encourages pastors to see through the lens of Christ’s mercy and compassion rather than through a rigorous legalism.”  He continues:

Pastoral dialogue and accompaniment involve the development of conscience and also the expression of a level of support or confirmation for the judgment the individual is making about the state of his soul or her soul.  That judgment is the act of the individual and is the basis for their accountability before God.

In practice, this means that while some may be secure in their understanding and appropriation of the faith and the call of the Christian way of life, not all of our spiritual family can say the same thing. Even how we receive and understand the faith and its impact on our lives varies according to our situation, circumstances and life experiences.

While some people might prefer that both Amoris Laetitia and this Pastoral Plan might more directly “answer the question” about the reception of communion, such a response would not respect the primacy of the individual conscience under the guidance of the Church’s pastors, and the traditional understanding of moral decision-making in the Catholic Church.

PRACTICAL CAREwuerl3

Finally, as suggested by all that has gone before, the Plan offers very concrete resources for all those in pastoral ministry.  A primary “resource” is, of course, the parish itself.  The Plan suggests myriad ways in which various people within the parish might catechize, encourage, and accompany each other.  The parish is “the home of pastoral accompaniment, where we can all experience the love and healing mercy of Jesus Christ.”  The Cardinal directs that “Our parishes, as the place where people most experience the life of the Church, must be places of welcome, where everyone is invited, particularly anyone who might be disillusioned or disaffected by contemporary society or even by our faith community. The Church assures all that there is a place for everyone here in our spiritual home.”

7-Church-Walk           The section on the parish is extremely practical, with suggestions on how the various members of the parish and pastoral team might create this “culture of accompaniment” for others.  There are paragraphs for pastors and other priests, parish leaders and staffs, youth and young adults, engaged couples, newly married couples, young families, older couples and adults, and families in special circumstances.  It is only here that I would have wished for just one addition to the text.  Deacons are not mentioned in any context, and yet deacons, who are generally married with families of their own, are frequently engaged in ministries to couples preparing for marriage as well as other forms of family-related ministry.  In one sense, of course, the words of encouragement offered by the Plan to pastors, priests and parish staffs can – and do! – apply to the deacons.  Still, it does seem a missed opportunity to develop specific ways in which the diaconate, given its unique features within marriage and family life, might contribute to these ministries.

Finally, the last section of the plan offers a kind of “bibliography” of sources available from a variety of places, including the offices of the archdiocese itself, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and various national and regional groups.  The resources identified cover the waterfront and there is something for everyone, in every kind of need.

          In short, this Pastoral Plan, while prepared for the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, is an excellent resource for Catholics everywhere, and I hope that other bishops will follow suit with similar initiatives in their own dioceses.  This Plan reflects significant collaboration on the part of the archdiocesan staff as the Cardinal prepared this multi-layered pastoral response to Amoris Laetitia.  I encourage everyone to read it, study it, and use it!

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On the road again — but not too far!

lectionarySorry I haven’t posted in a couple of days, but we have been preparing for our annual retreat for our current deacon candidate class, coming up next weekend, during which they will be installed in the ministry of Lector by the bishop.  I’ve also headed to the neighboring Diocese of Fresno to facilitate their annual Clergy Convocation.  Today I met with Bishop Armando Ochoa and the presbyterate of the Diocese.  Since tArmando Ochoahe diaconate is still relatively new in the Diocese, we spent the day talking about the diaconate in general and responding to questions and concerns that the priests had.  But this is all preliminary to the matters we’ll work on tomorrow: pastoral planning in the Diocese.  Tomorrow the deacons join us and we’re going to talk about the annual pastoral planning process we’re developing in the Diocese of Monterey and see how a similar process might help in Fresno.

So, as the clergy of the Diocese prayerfully discern their next steps in strategic pastoral planning, please keep all of us in your prayers!  Please pray for our deacon candidates and their families in Monterey, and for our neighbors in Fresno!