Reflecting on Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation on love in the family, two professors at the John Paul II Institute have emphasized the close ties between integration and conversion, as well as the importance of the Church's established teaching.

Amoris laetitia, released April 8, is the conclusion of a two-year synod process discussing both the beauty and challenges of family life today.

“Among the many pastoral challenges facing the family, one issue in particular provoked intense debate and discussion during the 2014 and 2015 synods. Could there be a change in the Church's discipline to allow divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive the Eucharist, at least in some cases?” explained Father Antonio López and Dr. Nicholas Healy.

Fr. López is dean at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and Healy is an associate professor of philosophy and culture.

“Following the lead of the synod, Pope Francis chose not to answer this question directly,” they reflected, adding that he encouraged instead a "responsible personal and pastoral discernment," accompanying people in their particular circumstances.

They noted the Pope's belief that "The key to pastoral care ... is the 'logic of integration' and discernment."

“Pope Francis's concern to avoid 'overly rigid classifications' as well as the simple application of [a] 'general norm or rule' to complex personal situations is a helpful reminder that pastors need to be patient and merciful in dealing with the sensitive situations of marriage and family life,” Fr. López and Healy reflected.

They added that “At the same, the question of whether or not someone is married is not a matter of 'rigid classification,' or the unmerciful application of a 'general norm' without regard for particular circumstances. If someone is in fact married, then the path of integration must acknowledge the reality of this marriage as an integral part of the mystery of God's plan for their life.”

“For every Christian, the path of integration is also a path of conversion. Amoris laetitia invites us to reflect on the meaning of 'integration' not in the sociological sense, but as a theological 'incorporation' in the body of Christ, 'who gave himself up for our sake and who continues to dwell in our midst' (59).”

Fr. López said that two of the most beautiful things in Amoris laetitia are "the emphasis on the centrality of Christ, and how the Christian gospel makes married love truer and more human. We need to look more at these two elements. The Pope is aware that the main challenges the Church is facing is that young people no longer see why they should get married, what the nature of Christian marriage is, and what is the social significance of the family."

They also mentioned the Pope's lengthy discussion of “mitigating factors” that might reduce one's culpability for a grave sin.

“Does this imply that on a case by case basis some civilly remarried Catholics may be admitted to the Eucharist? Although there are some expressions in the text that are not entirely clear, the answer seems to be 'no.'”

They explained that the reason that the divorced-and-remarried cannot be admitted to Communion, “which Familiaris Consortio 84 and Sacramentum Caritatis 29 affirm as based on Christ's teaching” is “precisely not” a judgement about the person's culpability: “Instead, it is the objective situation of living more coniugale [in a conjugal way] with a person who is not in fact one's husband or wife.”

"Mitigating factors do not change this objective situation,” they explained. “To change a discipline of the Church rooted in doctrine and affirmed by the constant Magisterium of the Church, an explicit declaration would be necessary. This cannot be found in the apostolic exhortation. Wherever a reader may have doubts as of how to interpret a certain passage, a sound guiding principle of interpretation is to read those passages in light of the clearly affirmed doctrine of the Church. To seek 'doctrinal novelty,' as some claim to have found in the text, where it is not stated, is to do violence to the text."

Healy acknowledged, at the same time, that “there is going to be a debate of interpreting just what this means.”

“One point that would be helpful for Catholic readers is to know that the reason why the Church has this discipline of not allowing civilly remarried Catholics to receive the sacrament is not on the basis of a determination that they're in mortal sin: it's not the subjective culpability, or even their responsibility in the failure of the marriage.”

Healy said that “once you see that, then what are presented in the document as mitigating circumstances … aren't mitigating circumstances that open the path to receiving Communion: they're mitigating circumstances that would allow for a more human and more charitable form of accompaniment and mercy.”

Instead of judging “a person's subjective state, you realize the human complexity of the situation. But that's of a different order than principles that would allow an exception to the prohibition against receiving the sacrament, because the reason for that prohibition is objective: it's the state or condition of life.”

He also reflected on the importance of understanding “where there is a discussion in this exhortation of the need for recognizing that there are [universal, general] norms, but there can be exceptions to the norm, what norms are being talked about here? Are they norms of divine right? Absolute moral norms that regard those acts that are intrinsically evil? Or are they disciplinary norms?”

"We are not dealing with absolute moral norms that refer to intrinsically evil acts and are valid in every situation. The existence of such norms is the main point of the doctrinal encyclical Veritatis splendor. The Pope said that he does not want to make doctrinal changes. We are not dealing with whether, for example, there can be an acceptable exception to adultery, or torture, or acts of pedophilia, which are wrong always, everywhere, and without exception. The Church does not have the authority to change norms of divine right, like the one regarding the admission to Communion of those living in irregular situations."

Fr. López suggested that "the norms referred to in the text are not absolute moral norms or norms that regard the divine right, but are rather disciplinary, such as the admission to certain public offices of people in irregular situations (see no. 299). There is also reference (fn. 336) to the sacramental discipline that regards who is a fitting person to be the godfather or godmother at a baptism."

"It would be be erroneous to reduce the affirmation that 'divorced and civilly remarried couples cannot receive communion' to a disciplinary norm whose application can be suspended if certain circumstances suggest that the norm is not pertinent to a specific couple. In this case, a subjectivistic understanding of conscience will have more weight than what God has revealed about the nature of love and what human experience knows to be the case. One's own conscience will be the ultimate tribunal to discriminate what one can do; but it is a tribunal where God is not allowed to speak, and whatever he says is taken to coerce human freedom. But to expel God from one's conscience is to hand oneself over to the one who is more powerful than oneself, or who speaks with greater clarity. It is to accept slavery in the guise of self-determination."

“To see their impossibility of receiving the Eucharist as a hard way of applying a norm, I think is a confusion of what is going on; they can't receive communion because their state objectively contradicts the nature of the sacraments of marriage and the Eucharist … That's why you can't see this case as a possible exception to a sacramental or moral norm.”

The risk in the discussion of norms, Fr. López said, is that “what people will run away with once the dust settles is … an idea of Christianity that says, 'Alright, so let's try to be good. If we can, great. If not, don't worry, we'll be understanding and merciful'.”

Healy stressed that there is also a danger in "reducing marraige to a mere ideal, which the spouses need to pursue."

“That's not really adequate to the truth of marriage: if you understand it simply as an ideal, that misses what's most fundamental about the sacramental economy … marriage isn't just an ideal, but a sacrament, a vocation that comprehends you, and that makes possible a life together beyond the shortcomings of your will.”

Marriage is “not something that you have put into existence,” Fr. López stated. “It's a gift given by God and accepted in freedom; it is a vocation that one joyfully and courageously receives and embraces for all of life.”

“If you talk about marriage simply as an ideal,” he said, "detached from the concrete lives of the spouses, you moralize marriage. You put marriage in the hands of the spouses' intentions, their good wills, and their capacity to sacrifice. But if this is the case -- is it really the only thing the Church has to say about married love, is this moral effort to pursue a very high ideal? Is the Christian Gospel really necessary to come up with this not particularly deep morality? How can there be joy in marriage if it does not participate in Christ's love for the Church? Why would one endure the sacrifices that married life brings with itself? If marriage is just dependent upon the will, intentions, and feelings of the spouses, is there an adequate reason that can adequately justify why marriage is indissoluble?"

Real pastoral accompaniment, Healy concluded, isn't saying, “we acknowledge the ideal, but we recognize that not everyone lives up to it.”

“Real pastoral accompaniment does not simply propose an ideal: it is grounded in the mystery of God's grace, which is communicated in the sacraments. A sure signpost along the path of accompaniment and integration is the sacramental gift of an indissoluble bond of marriage -- a sign that God has irrevocably shared his own life and love, and that his faithfulness endures.”