Pope to stress broader conception of family

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Pope Francis’ landmark text on the family, scheduled for release on Friday (April 8), is expected to encourage a more open attitude towards the non-nuclear family, but contain no change in church doctrine.

The Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), will be the culmination of two synods in which family matters were hotly debated by bishops. Since the second such conference concluded in October, Francis has been charged with producing a defining text to determine the Catholic Church’s way forward on everything from divorce to pornography.

The world’s 1.2 billion Catholics will likely find a push for pastoral care and a less rigid focus on doctrine.

That is not to say the pontiff is about to sweep aside the rules which govern the Catholic Church. Progressives will be disappointed by the likely decision not to alter the definition of gay relationships as “intrinsically disordered,” nor rule that divorced and remarried Catholics can receive Communion.

John S. Grabowski, an associate professor at Catholic University of America who served as an expert to the 2015 synod, said the pope will recognize families in different forms without delinking family from marriage and parenthood.

He said Francis will be “talking about the family as multigenerational, not just nuclear. He’s casting the net of family more widely and more inclusively,” Grabowski told RNS.

But he added there will be no opening to same-sex couples. “At various points, Pope Francis has been insistent that having a mother and a father is non-negotiable.”

Despite this, the pope is expected to call on priests to accompany Catholics who fall foul of church rules, as opposed to criticizing them, Grabowski said.

Gerard Mannion, a professor in Catholic studies at Georgetown University, said the Apostolic Exhortation will overall be a positive text which moves away from the “one size fits all” standard.

“It will be a shift in tone on the church’s intervention of family life, human relations and sexuality,” he told RNS.

“The hint I get is that the emphasis and way forward is the need for stressing pastoral realism. That would reflect Francis’ major teaching documents to date,” Mannion added. “He’s a very realistic and pastoral-orientated pope.”

This recognition of different realities, including the impacts of migration on families and marriages between faiths, will likely result in the pope’s push for discernment at the local level.

Francis is additionally expected to use his text to call for greater guidance for young Catholics as they embark on marriage and having a family, while also stating issues such as violence and sexual abuse should be addressed.

But although the word from the pope has been eagerly anticipated, Mannion predicted the compassionate and inclusive text will push the focus away from the Vatican: “For pastors and lay people (the pope) will stress that they have to dialogue and listen to their conscience; it’s not going to be Rome dictating what happens.”

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