That he did this while remaining true to Catholicism’s bedrock beliefs must be regarded, by liberal Catholics at least, as something of an achievement. Where once there was only black or white authoritarianism, he has introduced the idea of grey and the possibility of renewed and continued inclusion sparked by that creative ambiguity. The process that led to the publication, as an exercise in marrying reality and long-standing, rigid codes more acknowledged in the breach than in observance, offers our two main political leaders and their parties an example of what can be achieved when the head rules the heart. This is especially pertinent when an organisation must modify its position or become marginalised and irrelevant — and, in essence, a barrier to progress. The pope has shown, once again, that well-considered compromise is the genesis of civilised evolution.
The Pope encouraged Catholicism to be less strict and more compassionate towards “imperfect” Catholics, citing those who divorced and remarried, saying “no one can be condemned forever”. Catholic teaching orders divorcees who remarry to have a celibate relationship with their new partner as their first marriage remains valid in the eyes of the Church. Those people are seen, by Catholicism at least, as living in an adulterous state of sin.
It is hard to imagine that anyone but the most ardent Catholic lives by those rules so the Pontiff was really just aligning his church with actuality. A sceptic might suggest that The Joy of Love honours that old saw — “if you can’t beat them join them” — as did so many of the changes in once-unquestionable religious discipline accepted over the centuries.
Yesterday’s softening certainly outflanks conservatives who “prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion”. In any event, the naysayers and obstructionists have been driven out of the temple because their position has become a threat to the relevance and position of the very institution they cherish and champion. This seems yet another lesson for our reticent politicians.
The Pope also asserted that young people had to be better prepared for a life-long commitment and praised the “erotic dimension” of love within marriage. He conceded the Catholic Church needed a “healthy dose of self-criticism” for teaching for so very long that procreation was the “almost exclusive” reason for marriage. This position is in stark contrast to the absolutism, dogma and anti-democratic bullying used by the Irish Catholic Church to oppose so much of the social legislation introduced through the Dáil over recent decades. That the Sodom-and-Gomorrah predictions made by the hierarchy to oppose those initiatives have turned out to be utterly, screamingly hollow offers our political leaders another lesson — change will come whether you embrace it or not — but it is far better to be part of it than not.