Conscience -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

Pope Francis is a beloved figure in many circles. Progressives love his economic and environmental vision, but they seem confounded by his mostly traditional views on marriage equality and birth control. Traditional Catholics on the other hand don't seem enthralled by his economic views and his less that passionate commitment to medieval liturgies. So, his latest missive will likely frustrate many.  Titled Amoris Laetitia, it emphasizes mercy and pastoral accommodation, but doesn't change the rules. Thus, it won't satisfy those wanting change, but then if he had gone all the way he would have had a major revolt from those on the right and from those in the Global South, whose views of marriage and sexuality are much more traditional.  I offer Martin Marty's analysis, which is always helpful.  Take a read and offer your thoughts!

By MARTIN E. MARTY   APR. 11, 2016
                 Credit: Giulio Napolitano /
“Surprised!” is the rarest response of almost everyone to the long-awaited papal document on the joy of love (Amoris Laetitia). So devotedly had Pope Francis and Catholic episcopal leadership pondered and worked on the new 256-page document on the family and marriage (etc.) that the resulting product was predictable.

Why? Because the positions with which it had to deal had been so widely discussed and because parties with interests had already foreseen favored vs. unfavored outcomes, there was little wiggle room left for the authors if they had wanted to surprise anyone. Our earlier reference to “almost everyone responding” includes the Catholic left and right, progressives and traditionalists, dogmatists and pastors, “ordinary” Catholic lay people, other religious people, and the larger public, which has much at stake in the views and practices of the world’s largest communion.

It was no surprise that the church leadership took on domestic and personal issues. Had the document dealt with classic Catholic dogmatic interests—say, on the Trinity, the Incarnation, transubstantiation, and more, the interest would have been relatively low. Not that everything fought over for centuries has been creatively addressed and resolved. Rather, what long represented life-and-death, heaven-and-hell doctrinal issues have become eclipsed by those which deal with sexual practices and personal problems.

What might have occasioned some surprise? Had Pope Francis been ready to please the hard-line dogmatists and thus thereby disappointed, angered, alienated, or lost the majority of Catholics by taking a severe line on the issues being addressed, this personalizing pontiff would have prompted reactive surprise. Had the document instead been designed and intended to please only those who wanted a fresh address to divorce, homosexuality, or same-sex marriage, and thus “gone all the way” in assenting to what “progressives” want, the Pope and the bishops would have set themselves up for revolution from the conservatives.

So Amoris Laetitia was true to what Vatican observers had seen in the Pope and leaders favorable to him, which is pastoral care, empathy, and concern for some (not all) the sets of Catholics who suffer under current strictures. The word “Divorce” appeared in most headlines.

There is no way that the document could have said that for centuries the church had been simply wrong for opposing divorce. But it could and did show that leaders had seen the pain and strain felt by divorced and remarried Catholics who lived on in marriage after un-annuled broken marriages and who readily approached their Lord’s Table at the mass.

The document does not say that “anything goes,” but the Pope made clear that, rather than censure all with acts which barred them from the sacred rites, he expected that careful pastoral approaches and an appeal to informed consciences would best serve the souls of the faithful.

So there is here no new Catholic doctrine on divorce and remarriage. On other issues, predictably, he did not please LGBT Catholics, who had argued eloquently for change but were rebuffed. In too many regions and parts of the Church the abhorrence of homosexual activity is so profound that in some cases it even supports the death penalty for those who engage in same-sex activities. Amoris Laetitia pays little positive pastoral attention to those who would enter same-sex marriages. Supporting abortion? No chance.

The nearest the document comes to surprising readers in its continuing monitoring of the bedroom is its renewed condemnation of “birth control.” That all surveys and observations suggest that millions of otherwise faithful Catholics will shrug off renewed church law and simply by-pass church disciplines means that “informed consciences” may have to look elsewhere for any “informing” that squares with their experience, reflection, intentions, and their own studied and conscientious dissent.

Pope Francis went as far as he could to address the concerns of the faithful, but the years ahead will see anything but resolution, assent, or cheer among many diverse conscientious Catholic populations. This may be the wrong century in which to look for such. He tried.


Carroll, James. “The New Morality of Pope Francis.” New Yorker, April 8, 2016, News.

Yardley, Jim and Laurie Goodstein. “Francis’ Message Calls on Church to Be Inclusive.” New York Times, April 8, 2015, Europe.

Pope’s Family Document ‘Amoris Laetita’ tackles Complex Pastoral Challenges.”National Catholic Register, April 8, 2016, Daily News.

Rocca, Francis X. “The Pope and the Divorce Question.” Wall Street Journal, Sept. 25, 2014, Houses of Worship.

Rocca, Francis X. “Pope Francis Opens New Phase in Church’s Debate on Divorce.”Wall Street Journal, April 8, 2016, World.

Weigel, George. “Pope Francis on Love, Marriage, and the Family.” National Review, April 8, 2016.

Staff Reporter. “Amoris Laetitia: Five key passages you need to read.” Catholic Herald, April 8, 2016, Comment & Blogs.

Greene, Richard Allen. “Pope to church: Be more accepting of divorced Catholics, gays and lesbians.” CNN, April 8, 2016, World.

Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation on the Joy of Love: Summary of Amoris Laetita.” Vatican Radio, April 8, 2016, Pope Francis \ Documents.

To read the entire text of Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia, visit the Vatican’s website: “Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia of the Holy Father Francis to Bishops, Priests and Deacons, Consecrated Persons, Christian Married Couples, and all the Lay Faithful on Love in the Family.” Accessed April 11, 2016.

Image: Pope Francis greets pilgrims during his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican (Jan. 15, 2014); Credit: Giulio Napolitano /  creative commons.

To comment: email the Managing Editor, Myriam Renaud, at If you would like your comment to appear with this article on the Marty Center's website, please provide your full name in the body of the email and indicate in the subject line: POST COMMENT TO [title of Sightings piece]. ForSightings' comment policy, visit:
Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at
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