“Consequently, I do not recommend a rushed reading of the text.” In the seventh paragraph of his new apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis warns observers to take their time in digesting what he has written — and perhaps implies that they should be cautious in reading between the lines. Nevertheless, the media will do its best to do the latter before doing the former, and Reuters reports that Francis “seemed to embrace this view” of the progressives at the Synod:

Progressives have proposed the use of an “internal forum” in which a priest or bishop work with a Catholic who has divorced and remarried to decide jointly, privately and on a case-by-case basis if he or she can be fully re-integrated and receive communion.

Francis seemed to embrace this view, saying he could “not provide a new set of general rules … applicable to all cases”, but he called for “responsible, personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases”. …

Francis said he understood those conservatives who “prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion” but the Church should be more attentive to the good that can be found “in the midst of human weakness”.

“The Church turns with love to those who participate in her life in an imperfect manner,” he said, including in this category those Catholics who are cohabiting, married civilly or are divorced and remarried.

But does that mean that church teaching will change on access to the Eucharist for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics? According to Crux’ Ines St. Martin, it’s not clear that the pontiff actually wrote that, or that it should change:

On the hot-button question of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, Francis does not create any new Church law, but he does appear to encourage priests and bishops to be open to allowing at least some people in that situation to return to the sacrament after a period of discernment.

Francis calls for “a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases, one which would recognize that, since ‘the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases,’ the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same.”

In a key footnote, he adds, “This is also the case with regard to sacramental discipline.” …

However, despite the length of the document and the variety of issues explored, for Pope Francis this is only a way to kick-start further study and reflection.

In the second paragraph, the pope says: “The complexity of the issues that arose revealed the need for continued open discussion of a number of doctrinal, moral, spiritual, and pastoral questions.”

With that in mind, and especially in regard to “sacramental discipline,” expect a lot of focus to fall on footnote 351 on paragraph 305, which provides the most direct point on the issue of communion. Here is that passage in its entirety, part of Chapter 8, “Accompanying, Discerning, and Integrating Weakness”:

305. For this reason, a pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in “irregular” situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives. This would bespeak the closed heart of one used to hiding behind the Church’s teachings, “sitting on the chair of Moses and judging at times with superiority and superficiality difficult cases and wounded families”.349 Along these same lines, the International Theological Commission has noted that “natural law could not be presented as an already established set of rules that impose themselves a priori on the moral subject; rather, it is a source of objective inspiration for the deeply personal process of making decisions”.350 Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.351 Discernment must help to find possible ways of responding to God and growing in the midst of limits. By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth, and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God. Let us remember that “a small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order, but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties”.352 The practical pastoral care of ministers and of communities must not fail to embrace this reality.

[fn]351 In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, “I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy” (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium [24 November 2013], 44: AAS 105 [2013], 1038). I would also point out that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (ibid., 47: 1039).

Francis cites his own work in regard to both sacraments in the footnote, and it’s not an accident that this comes in the chapter on discernment in weakness. The “field hospital” analogy for the Church has been a continuing theme in Francis’ papacy. And yet, Francis clearly had the opening to move church teaching with an encyclical, or at least set up specific guidelines for this discernment and mercy. Instead, he left the question open, even after two synods that focused specifically on this question. Why?

The key to this question might be found in the nature of the document itself. An apostolic exhortation commonly follows a synod and frames the kind of action that popes want the church to undertake. However, it does not rise to the level of a papal encyclical, in which a pontiff lays out his view of doctrinal matters. The second paragraph, which calls for more discussion and more discernment, makes Amoris Laetitia into more of a mission statement that intends to frame further discussion.

As I repeatedly reported while at the Extraordinary Synod in 2014 (in partnership with Catholic Match Institute), this issue has been the main focus of this two-year effort all along. At that time, the media seized on the discussion of same-sex marriage and related issues, but it turned out to be nothing more than a background issue. Just as with the synodal documents, Amoris Laetitia only addresses that issue in brief, mainly to remind the Church to treat all with dignity but also to emphasize that same-sex or non-marital unions “may not simply be equated with marriage” (paragraph 52):

We need to acknowledge the great variety of family situations that can offer a certain stability, but de facto or same-sex unions, for example, may not simply be equated with marriage. No union that is temporary or closed to the transmission of life can ensure the future of society. But nowadays who is making an effort to strengthen marriages, to help married couples overcome their problems, to assist them in the work of raising children and, in general, to encourage the stability of the marriage bond?

It was this latter question which drove the discussion regarding same-sex marriages and civil unions, not the notion that the Catholic Church would embrace them. The media coverage, with some exceptions, missed that entirely at the time.

Speaking of further discussion, I will guest host on Relevant Radio this afternoon. For much more in-depth discussion and analysis of Amoris Laetitia and its meaning and impact on the Catholic Church, tune in all day long, including the 3-6 pm ET slot, where I will fill in for Drew Mariani. They plan wall-to-wall coverage and analysis of the new apostolic exhortation, and we will definitely do the same in the afternoon.