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Cupich says pope’s words show ‘closeness to lives of real people’

Archbishop Blase Cupich spoke Friday to reporters about Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation “Amoris Laetitia,” (The Joy of Love), about love in the family. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Don’t tear the house down, but make sure the front doors open wider to accommodate a larger spectrum of people dealing with the realities of 21st Century life.

That, in a nutshell, is how Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich is interpreting Pope Francis’ landmark document on family and marriage that was released Friday.

“He demonstrates his closeness to the real lives of people, someone who knows the smell of the sheep, as he takes up a wide spectrum of the complexity that defines family living in our time,” said Cupich, talking to reporters at a news conference at the Archbishop Quigley Center.

But Cupich noted that the pope, in his writings, is not seeking change in church doctrine. For example, Francis strongly upholds that marriage is a lifelong commitment.

“In fact, the pope urges the church not to step away from proposing the full ideal of marriage,” Cupich said. “At the same time, he makes clear that doctrines are at the service of the pastoral mission.”

In the 256-page document “The Joy of Love” that rejects black-and-white rules for the faithful, Francis insisted that individual conscience be the guiding principle for Catholics negotiating the complexities of sex, marriage and family life.

In selectively citing his predecessors and emphasizing his own teachings, Francis makes clear that he wants nothing short of a revolution in the way priests accompany Catholics, saying the church must no longer sit in judgment and “throw stones” against those who fail to live up to the Gospel’s ideals of marriage and family life.

“I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion,” he wrote. “But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness.”

On thorny issues such as contraception, Francis stressed that a couple’s individual conscience — not dogmatic rules imposed across the board — must guide their decisions and the church’s pastoral practice.

“We have been called to form consciences, not replace to them,” he said.

He insisted the church’s aim is to reintegrate and welcome all its members. He called for a new language to help Catholic families cope with today’s problems. And he said pastors must take into account mitigating factors — fear, ignorance, habits and duress — in counseling Catholics who simply aren’t perfect.

“It can no longer simply be said that all those in any irregular situations are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace,” he wrote. Even those in an “objective situation of sin” can be in a state of grace, and can even be more pleasing to God by trying to improve, he said.

Gays will likely be disappointed by the documents’ failure to offer anything significant beyond existing church teaching that gays are not to be discriminated against and are to be welcomed into the church with respect and dignity.

“It’s not the position of the church to put that on the same plain as a marriage between a man and a woman,” Cupich said. “And the church’s position on that really has been very clear. It is because there is the understanding . . . that goes from the story of creation until now that talks about the continuation of the human race.”

Cupich said the pope’s words aren’t aimed at filling empty pews.

“He really cares about people,” Cupich said. “He wants to make sure they are served well by the church.”

The document’s release marks the culmination of a divisive two-year consultation of ordinary Catholics and the church hierarchy that Francis initiated in hopes of understanding the problems facing Catholic families and providing them with better pastoral care.

The most divisive issue that arose during two meetings of bishops, or synods, was whether Francis would loosen the Vatican’s strict position on whether Catholics who divorce and remarry can receive Communion. Church teaching holds that unless these Catholics receive an annulment — a church decree that their first marriage was invalid — they are committing adultery and cannot receive Communion.

Conservatives had insisted that the rules were fixed and that there was no way around Christ’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. Progressives had sought wiggle room to balance doctrine with mercy and look at each couple on a case-by-case basis, accompanying them on a path of reconciliation that could lead to them eventually receiving the sacraments.

Francis took a unilateral step last year in changing church law to make it easier to get an annulment. On Friday, he said the rigorous response proposed by the conservatives was inconsistent with Jesus’ message of mercy.

“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,” he said. “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.”

Contributing: AP