For popular Catholic media personality Bishop Robert Barron, an auxiliary of Los Angeles, when Pope Francis opened a cautious door for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion in Amoris Laetitia, he wasn’t “dumbing down” Catholic teaching but illustrating how to respond when people fail to live out the ideal.
In a keynote address for the Aug. 22-26 World Meeting of Families in Dublin, titled “Pope Francis and the Gospel of the Family: What is Jesus Calling our Families to Be?” which focused on chapters 7-9 of Amoris, Barron said that instead of dreading the fact that he had to handle chapter eight, which includes the controversial footnote on Communion, he was happy to get the assignment.
“Everyone and his brother and sister have talked about chapter eight of Amoris Laetitia because of the controversy, and the result of that is that we often overlook these very interesting, very helpful parts of the letter,” he said, referring to chapters seven and nine.
Barron said the way chapter eight and even the text as a whole has been portrayed from the beginning, as if it were “a battle between absolutism and relativism,” is unhelpful.
He said the chapter is about “formation in the moral life,” and ought to be read in continuity with chapter seven, which deals with the process of growing in virtue and balancing one’s use of digital communications.
Francis, he said, “is keenly aware, it seems to me, of the challenges and difficulties in attaining the fullness of the Church’s teaching on sexuality, [but] it does not mean that he’s dialing down or negating this great demand.”
Reading aloud a quote from chapter eight, Barron said “Christian marriage is fully realized in the union between a man and a woman who give themselves to each other in a free, faithful and exclusive love, and belong to each other until death, and are open to the transmission of life.”
“Could John Paul II have said that any more emphatically?” he said, adding that the Church “is not interested in spiritual mediocrity,” but rather, calls people to be saints and to live heroic virtue, which is first learned in family life.
“We’re not interested in a dumbed-down, dialed-down ideal,” he said, but at the same time, given Francis’s pastoral experience, the pope is keenly aware that many people struggle to live up to the saintly ideal put before them.
In terms of what to do when the Church meets people who are struggling or in difficulty, Barron said there are two paths that recur throughout the Church’s history: “Casting off, and reinstating.”
From the time of the Council of Jerusalem, held around 50 AD, the Church has been following the way of Jesus, which, Barron said, is “the way of mercy and reinstatement.”
This, in his view, is “the heart of chapter eight,” Barron said, adding that “it’s not negating, dialing-down, denying the ideal, it’s not relativism in regard to the Church’s sexual teaching,” but is sensitivity to fragility.
“What do you do when someone is not living at the highest level of sanctity? Cast you off! The law says this! Okay, there is that path, but the pope says the Church’s way has been the way of mercy and reinstatement. I think that’s what he’s interested in in chapter eight, is our pastoral sensitivity to those in these very situations.”
Citing his own pastoral experience as rector of Mundelein seminary in th Archdiocese of Chicago, Barron said he taught many “John Paul II generation” men, meaning people who grew up during the Polish saint’s pontificate, who entered the priesthood because they were inspired by his “heroic ideal.”
But the “shadow side” of seminarians from this generation, he said, is that in his experience, “they often got deeply frustrated when they fell short of the ideal, because he was such a heroic figure.”
“Indeed he was, and he held out such a heroic ideal, and they were properly called to follow it, but then what do you do when you fail?” he said, voicing his belief that Francis is “sensitive to that fact, that part of our pastoral experience, what do we do when people fail. And he prefers the path of mercy and reinstatement to the path of exclusion.”
What Amoris spells out, Barron said, is that “the family is the place par excellence of formation in virtue,” which is built through a slow, day-to-day process of practice and refinement.
Using his childhood experience playing baseball as an example, Barron said he started playing at age seven. At the beginning, “no one laid out the rules of the game,” but rather, he had coaches who brought him out to the field and had him smell the grass, feel the dirt and go through the motions of hitting and catching during practices.
After a while, Barron said he began “to internalize the rules of baseball” and eventually became a player. And as a player, he learned the rules along the way, but this is not how it started out.
For Francis, he said, building virtue functions the same way.
Barron also touched on the overuse of technology, citing a study done by a psychologist saying that the amount of screen time young people have is keeping them in a state of adolescence longer, making it harder to mature because of a lack of interpersonal social interaction.
Even though new media offers a plethora of benefits, it can never replace the need “for more personal and direct dialogue,” he said, adding that “if we lose that, we’re losing an awful lot.”