Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’s post-synod apostolic exhortation, will be released this Friday, and the secrecy surrounding it is greater than usual. No doubt this is partly because of the sensitiveness of the issues involved, but it's also likely because the Vatican wants to guard against a leak like the one that allowed early publication of Laudato si' last June. Still, this hasn’t discouraged a pre-publication exercise in managing (or spinning) expectations.
Amoris Laetitia will plainly be a hugely important document on family and marriage, a substantial update of John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio (1981). And that explains the interest and commentary preceding it. Consider interviews given this week to Crux’s John Allen by two of the most visible prelates in the United States, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington, D.C. Each reveals something about the relationship between the American church and this pontificate.
Cardinal Dolan’s comments on the exhortation are illustrative of the worries some have about the “Francis effect” on American Catholicism. He sounds in some ways like the successor to the late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago in how he expresses surprise and qualms at just what Pope Francis is doing. He gives the pontiff the benefit of the doubt perhaps—but little else. “There’s a clarity and precision in the message of Jesus that we can’t tamper with, and that I don’t want to tamper with, nor do I believe Pope Francis wants to,” Dolan says, reporting on what he has heard from a fellow Catholic about the “confusion” caused by Francis without really disputing it: “Some wag said to me, and I think he was onto something, ‘Probably what we’ll get after the apostolic exhortation is some confusion, which would not be new, because that’s what we’ve got now.’” It’s clear where Dolan stands from how he answers a question about the issue of divorced and remarried Catholics: “Of course, there’s a conservative approach to the internal forum solution that the most conservative canonists and theologians have defended forever,” Dolan says. “I think the fear among many of us, however, is that if anything, things have become a little bit too lax.” This is actually the opposite of Francis’s take on the role of the law in the church (here's just one of the many possible examples). Surprisingly, Dolan seems to approach the issue of divorced and remarried Catholics in terms of their numbers, characterizing those who want to come back to full Eucharistic communion with the church as “a very distinct minority.” “I wish there were more,” he tells Allen. “Most people have said, ‘I didn’t know that’s what the church teaches,’ or 'They have no right to teach that, so I’m not going to obey them,’ or, ‘Who cares, I don’t go [to Mass] anyway.’ And the last group is the largest one.” The issue of inclusivity in the church, whether it’s through restoration of Eucharistic communion or some other way of welcoming back those who’ve left it, seems to be absent from Dolan’s pre-publication comments about Amoris Laetitia.
Meanwhile, in an interview that appeared twenty-four hours later, Cardinal Wuerl reminds Catholics (and his fellow bishops, as he did during the Synod last October) that Francis is the pope and that you don’t get to pick and choose among popes.
Wuerl frames the apostolic exhortation in terms of Francis’s synodal process, and not in terms of “clarity vs. confusion.” “I think what we really need to do when this comes out is to recognize that this is the work of a huge consensus in the church, whether or not absolutely everyone agrees with every aspect of it,” Wuerl tells Allen. “This was two years of dialogue, and it was not closeted dialogue. It was totally public. Some of it was exaggerated, but that happens in dialogue.” Wuerl has a more positive view of the Francis effect, especially among the clergy. When asked about the divorced and remarried Catholics, Wuerl does not seem worried about possible changes in the document:
If this document says, look, there’s a lot of space…we have to be aware that the teaching doesn’t change, but pastoral practice has to be compassionate…and there’s space to try to put all of that together, I think we will find that many, many of the priests are already doing that. […] Personally, I think it’s going to be quite subtle. It’s not going to be the dissolving of marriages in the confessional, it’s not going to be annulment, but it is going to be meeting people conscientiously where they find themselves to be. This is pastoral practice, which has been a part of the life of the church from the beginning.
The synodal debates of 2014 and 2015 appear to have caused more division for the American church than for others. Marriage in the United States is no more in crisis than it is in other countries, but the issues of marriage and family play a much bigger role in the self-perception—and in the politics—of the U.S. church and the nation as a whole. In their interviews, Dolan and Wuerl confirm their respective roles vis-à-vis the pontificate of Francis: Dolan the skeptic and Wuerl the loyalist. This is also a preview of what we might see during the reception process of the exhortation. Francis’s inclusive ecclesiology has aroused the joys and hopes of some American Catholics and bishops, but also the griefs and the anxieties (to quote the beginning of Gaudium et spes), of others. They have questioned in an unprecedented way the catholicity of the pope, and they have also indirectly revealed their view of the papal office and their catholicity.