Pope Strikes Deft Balance Between Doctrine, Mercy in 'Joy of Love'

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Pope Francis speaks to Elizabeth Myers, 5, of Ohio in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican on Wednesday, prior to the release of his exhortation on family and marriage, "The Joy of Love." Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters

Pope Francis's long-awaited "exhortation' on family issues," The Joy of Love, was worth waiting for. It is a bold document that confirms his image as a surprising reformer. Does it announce any major changes in the Church's teaching? Yes and no. Principally, of course, no: It upholds traditional marriage in very strong terms and does not acknowledge the validity of homosexual unions. Obviously, there is no change on abortion. And it does not explicitly challenge the rule that bars Catholics who have divorced and remarried from receiving Communion.

And yet, the pope does imply the need for reform on that issue and others. He says that all such rules must be applied with "mercy" and "pastoral discernment" that puts love before rigidity. A good example of his approach is that he is silent on the issue of contraception in marriage, effectively condoning it.

His rejection of homosexuality is understated. He does not use harsh phrases about it; rather, he calls for pastoral sensitivity, so that homosexuals should not feel entirely excluded from the Church. He does not quite say "who am I to judge?" as he once did when asked about homosexuality, but he does say that Church teaching must not be applied in a judgmental way.

So the document confirms his image as a reformer who uses tone, nuance, implication, the vague suggestion of reform-round-the-corner. His method of reform is to signal that he wants local churches to push the boundaries, to apply the rules more flexibly than hitherto. This emphasis first comes just a few paragraphs in (in a 256-page document). "I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium. Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but that does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it."

The document is mostly a hymn to married love (including sex) and family stability. In line with Catholic tradition, it is all rather rose-tinted: It overstates the centrality of the family to Christianity, ignoring those bits of the New Testament that are less enthusiastic about marriage and procreation. The traditionalism tries to sound modern in some ways. He sounds positive about feminism: We must see in it "the working of the Spirit for a clearer recognition of the dignity and rights of women." Later, he says that girls' education should not discourage them from leadership.

At the end, he sums up his approach in a passage that will surely become famous. The Church must put forward "the full ideal of marriage, God's plan in all its grandeur...a lukewarm attitude, any kind of relativism, or an undue reticence in proposing that ideal, would be a lack of fidelity to the Gospel." But, he goes on, "to show understanding in the face of exceptional situations never implies dimming the light of the fuller ideal.... I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care that leaves no room for confusion," he writes, "but I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness."

This is an important summary of how Roman Catholicism seeks to present itself nowadays. Its seemingly harsh rules are necessary expressions of the absoluteness of the Christian ideal, it says. But this harshness must be balanced by the compassion with which it is applied to actual lives.

I am not in general convinced by this presentation of Christianity—even if couched in soft rhetoric, it seems to excuse a legalistic approach to morality (I prefer the liberal Protestant suspicion of all holy rules). But let's give this Pope credit: He expresses it in an engagingly humane way.

Theo Hobson is a British theologian who has written for various journals and newspapers.