I feel certain that this book will be helpful to families. I pray for this.
These are the words of Pope Francis whose letter to Stephen Walford is included as the preface to his new book, Pope Francis, the Family, and Divorce: In Defense of Truth and Mercy.
The goal of the book, as Walford states in his interview with Mike Lewis for Where Peter Is, is to defend Francis’ work, but also “offer help to those brothers and sisters in second, civil marriages that they can advance on the path of spiritual renewal.” With all the noise and media attention that has surrounded the more provocative passages of Amoris Laetitia, it must never be forgotten that people are truly suffering. Walford writes in the book’s first chapter:
The Lord’s arms are always open to all the divorced and remarried, and thus I hope they too can find in this book an invitation to seek the Lord’s forgiveness and mercy, and a gradual path back to a beautiful friendship with him. There is nothing more precious than that!
I echo Walford and the Pope in saying that I hope that his book will be a true help to these Christians as they return to the fullness of the faith.
Many books and articles have been written about Amoris Laetitia, and many more will be written, but few, like Walford in these pages, discuss the things that really matter. The 212-page book is best thought of as a theological justification for the most challenging teachings in Amoris Laetitia, complete with Scriptural exegesis and nuanced moral reasoning. Consequently, Stephen Walford lays a foundation for future debates regarding the Pope’s seminal apostolic exhortation.
The second and third chapters of the book contain a comprehensive summary of Amoris Laetitia. These chapters are a great service to his readers, because many, sadly, have only heard about Amoris Laetitia or read Chapter VIII and its infamous footnotes. What those only casually familiar with the exhortation may not realize is that Chapters I through Chapter VII are necessary reading.
Pope Francis himself underscores this point in the book’s preface, when he says, “The Exhortation Amoris Laetitia is a unified whole, which means that, in order to understand its message, it must be read in its entirety and from the beginning. …If the Exhortation is not read in its entirety and in the order it is written, it will either not be understood or it will be distorted.”
The book contains a variety of approaches to understanding Amoris Laetitia. In the ninth chapter, Walford exhorts those who are suffering to take courage in the Church’s teaching on marriage and family with a collection of Scripture passages and texts from saintly figures. He writes:
For those who sincerely strove to respond to grace in their lives, in spite of the irregularity of their situation, heaven will be the perfection of everything they had hoped for on earth: true love, true companionship, and the blessing of God, finally peace and harmony, never to be lost.
In the fourth chapter he presents an exegesis on relevant passages from scripture. Here, Walford emphasizes the greatness of the Lord’s mercy when he “looks at the heart,” gives grace to those who are living in objective sin, and rewards good intentions even when expressed through objectively evil actions.
[We] can rightfully affirm that Pope Francis’ conception of mercy is aligned perfectly with the notion of mercy found in the Canon of Sacred Scripture. […] By focusing deliberately on the great pagan sinners rather than the chosen ones like King David, or St. Paul, we have been able to decipher the mysterious yet marvellous way God’s grace is still able to envelop a soul disfigured by original sin. This should give confidence and reassurance to those blessed with baptism in objective gravely sinful situations that as long as the will, the intention, is to cling to the Cross, then God will be close to them with his mercy.
In the heart of the book, which is undoubtedly a response to the Pope’s critics, Walford methodically takes up major objections to Amoris Laetitia’s Chapter VIII. He provides the historical context necessary to understand the arguments on both sides, and defends the principles advanced in Amoris Laetitia.
Like Francis, Walford makes ample use of texts from the Church fathers and cites moral principles illustrated by Aquinas. He uses language such as, “We can never say that subjectivity takes precedence over objectivity…” And ultimately, with the foundation laid by doctors and saints of the Church, Walford clearly presents the case for admitting some divorced and remarried Catholics to the sacraments in certain circumstances.
In Pope Francis, the Family, and Divorce, Walford advances the discussion about Amoris Laetitia in two very important ways.
First, he rightly observes that the “development of doctrine” that is really being made in Amoris Laetitia is not about marriage per se, as critics often assert, but about conscience.
After quoting Amoris Laetitia on conscience, Walford writes:
It is hard to imagine that a teaching such as this on conscience would be found in earlier magisterial documents; until now, the focus has been centered on the two opposite possibilities for conscience to decipher: something being either right or wrong. Pope Francis has nevertheless taught that “moral security” can be had when certain circumstances don’t allow for the full objective ideal to be realized. In essence, this means that even if the sinfulness of an act remains, God will take into account our intention, and the other factors that affect a decision made in good conscience; again, the principle of “time is greater than space” would appear to be at play here. As long as the conscience is not closed off to seeking truth—with God’s grace and patience—spiritual growth can certainly be made.
Walford devotes the sixth chapter to Francis’ statement in Evangelii Gaudium that “time is greater than space,” a concept that is foundational to Francis’ vision of evangelization in the modern world. Walford applies this principle to the “law of gradualism.” In short, though always growing to the ideal, one’s conscience can determine intermediary steps along the way which themselves may not fully conform to the objective good. This echoes a point made by Pope Benedict XVI who said that the decision of a HIV-positive male prostitute to wear condoms “can be a first step in the direction of a moralization.” With this view of conscience, supported by his chapter on moral theology, Walford helps readers develop a more rigorous understanding of Amoris Laetitia’s Chapter VIII.
The second main contribution to the discussion, which he articulates in Chapter 7, derives from Walford’s “incarnational” vision of the Holy Spirit who truly provides assistance to the Pope to speak inerrantly on matters of faith and morals, even in his Ordinary Magisterium. He argues that the authority of the Pope is not simply theoretical but, in fact, exists today in the ministry of Pope Francis and by extension, Amoris Laetitia. Walford believes that through the ongoing help of the Holy Spirit, God will not allow the Pope, in his official teachings, to lead his people away from Truth. Walford writes:
We must be loyal to him, and support him with prayer and sacrifice so that he receives the necessary strength to courageously govern the Church. For our part, even when the temptation arises to “correct” him, we must remind ourselves that in truth—in doctrinal matters of faith and morals— he cannot be corrected. Any other conclusion is not from God, but from the evil one.
While one can claim that Walford is guilty of a type ultramontanism, elevating the Pope to an inordinate degree, Walford celebrates collegiality as well. Francis himself writes in Amoris Laetitia about the importance of local bishops deriving their own standards that best suit their dioceses. This tension can be resolved, as Walford does, by insisting that it is only through the abuse of papal authority that collegiality can be infringed upon. It is therefore a positive sign that Francis relied so heavily upon the work of the two Synods that immediately preceded the writing of his Exhortation.
For those charitable enough to take up Walford’s work with an aim to engage and not to disparage, his thoroughly researched and well documented book builds a strong case for accepting Amoris Laetitia, including its teaching on the family, in full. But, of course, it would be foolish to suggest that it closes the debate altogether. At the very least, if Walford is successful in refocusing critics on the document and pulling them away from the partisanship and the rumor-mongering that has permeated their criticisms, the Church will be well-served.
If it needs to be said again, Amoris Laetitia, and I would add Walford’s book, stands firmly within the Tradition of our faith. As our Holy Father writes in the preface, “With respect to the problems that involve ethical situations, the Exhortation follows the classical doctrine of Saint Thomas Aquinas.”