On divorce: Is Pope Francis acting like a loving pastor or a clever Machiavelli?

So we have another major document from Pope Francis, with yet another wave of coverage in which the pope's intentions -- just as much as his words -- are the focus of a tsunami of media coverage.

Of course, "Amoris Laetitia (On Love in the Family)" wasn't just another 60,000-word church document. This apostolic exhortation from Pope Francis followed tumultuous synods on issues linked to marriage, sex and family life. The stakes were higher.

After reading waves of the coverage, and commentaries by all kinds of Catholics, I was struck by the degree to which journalists continue to view the work of Pope Francis through a lens that was perfectly captured in the following Associated Press statement (note the lack of attribution) about an earlier papal media storm:

Francis has largely shied away from emphasizing church teaching on hot-button issues, saying the previous two popes made the teaching well-known and that he wants to focus on making the church a place of welcome, not rules.

The "Amoris Laetitia" coverage offered more of the same formula, which can be summed up as,"The pope didn't change any church documents, but it's clear that he's trying to change such and such (wink, wink)." Thus, this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in) returned to a familiar question: Is Pope Francis acting like a loving pastor or a clever, stealth-mode liberal Machiavelli?

To be perfectly frank with you, I was intrigued by the degree to which traditional Catholics were divided on this issue, in their discussions of this document -- especially on the issue of Catholics receiving Communion after second, civil marriages. I am always intrigued when conservatives take stands that make other conservatives nervous and liberals take stands that make other liberals nervous.

Thus, in my "On Religion" column this week, I focused on the work of a conservative Catholic priest -- Father Dwight Longenecker, of Greenville, S.C. -- who offered a sympathetic view of "Amoris Laetitia." While doing so, he also raised some questions that, for me, pointed journalists to bigger questions facing pastors in all kinds of Christian flocks. So I called Longenecker up to talk about some semi-fictional case studies he discussed in a piece at his "Standing On My Head" weblog.

Here's one that I didn't have room for in my column. Once again, this is a fictional case study built on real details from real lives.

Story 2: Lucy was married to Phil for twenty five years. They were both Catholics when they got married in church after proper preparation. For fifteen years of their marriage Lucy and Phil had no relations and Lucy suspected Phil was having affairs. Then in his early fifties Phil walked out and declared he was gay. He moved to Florida and Lucy never heard from him again. All during their marriage Lucy was faithful to Phil. The divorce was quick and final. Lucy continued to raise their two kids who were finishing high school. Her faith deepened through her difficulties and she got more involved in the parish. Through her work with the local soup kitchen she met Harold–a Catholic widower. They became companions then fell in love. Lucy tracked Philip down and asked him to co operate with the annulment process but he told her to get lost. Lucy and Harold decide to get married anyway. One of the reasons is that Harold is well off and Lucy will benefit materially as they get older together.  

What should a Catholic priest do in this circumstance?

In my conversation with Father Dwight -- a former Anglican priest (and graduate of Bob Jones University, to boot) who is married, with children -- he mentioned a typical puzzle that only seems less complicated. What should a priest do when a woman from Vietnam wants to convert to Catholicism, but she is divorced from a Buddhist first husband on the other side of the planet who, after several decades, may or may not be alive and she has no idea how to find him?

In the end, Longenecker said he sees "Amoris Laetitia" as a document for pastors, an honest attempt to deal with the messy realities they now face around the world. The church's teachings have not been changed. The issue is how priests can help real people square the jigsaw puzzles of their lives to those teachings.

Concerning his semi-fictional case studies, he added:

Truth is, the real stories of real people in real life are often "even more complex and heartbreaking." ... At the ground level, he said, modern marriages and families are being torn apart by mobility, no-fault divorce laws, economic challenges, cohabitation, promiscuity, pornography and other global changes.
"I relate these stories to remind readers that for many complicated reasons, marriage in our society is a shipwreck," he said. "It's hit the iceberg and gone down long ago. ... The pope has made a good effort to help us sort through the wreckage, salvage what we can and build a raft to sail on."

In addition to focusing on these issues in a Catholic context, maybe journalists should visit pastors in other traditions and ask them how they deal with these issues?

So you are, oh, a Southern Baptist pastor and the son of the powerful chairman of your deacons is getting married. However, this young man has been living with his fiance for two or three years already. So what do you do? Do you risk making the father angry by requiring the two lovers to move into separate dwellings for, oh, six months to a year? Or do you hold the wedding as planned, knowing that most of your flock is well aware of the messy details?

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