This is the first year that the feast of the Holy Family is being celebrated in the context and shadow of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, the Joy of Love. The Feast of the Holy Family was added to the Church’s calendar in the first decade of the twentieth century. To contemplate the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph is indeed a good thing to do within the celebration of the Christmas season. The bond of love that existed within this totally unique family is an example for every family to emulate. But, as I have preached about many times, to hold up the Holy Family as a model for the what we can call normal family, is not an easy thing to do. And when we try to apply our own situation to that of the Holy Family without acknowledging that uniqueness, we are always disappointed.
And so we come here today to celebrate this feast, which is a contemplation of this unique family, this Holy Family, under the cloud of Amoris Laetitia. I say under the cloud in an objective sense, in that there seems to be some confusion about what certain sections of that document really mean, especially Chapter 8 It is no secret that four cardinals of the Church submitted a private correspondence to the Pope in which they asked for a clarification of certain sections of the Exhortation that could be construed as contrary to Church teaching about the moral life with respect to the Sacrament of Marriage, the role of conscience, and the authority of the Church. The request for clarification has been met by a refusal to answer the dubia, as they are called, and instead resorting to public press conferences to insist that the Exhortation is based on the outcome of a valid Synod of bishops and therefore there can be no doubt, no dubium, about the results of that Synod nor in the spelling out of its teaching in Amoris Laetitia. Such monarchial, to say the least, behavior on the part of the Holy See is not only not consonant with the image of the Bishop of Rome as the servant of the Church but also brings forth once again what is the fundamental dogmatic problem in the Church today, a problem that has been growing for at least a century, the problem that is the ever expanding imagined power and authority of the Bishop of Rome.
One aspect of the question brought up by Amoris Laetitia is the objectivity of moral norms. This has been a topic of discussion in the Church for her whole life. The question of whether particular circumstances affecting a particular situation can in fact allow for the breaking of a fundamental moral norm. The Church’s answer to this question has always been that particular circumstances can never justify an act that is intrinsically evil. St. Pope John Paul II affirmed this constant teaching of the Church in several of his encyclicals. The 1960s saw a resurgence of an attempt to soften this teaching of the Church by an appeal to the relationship between difficult circumstances and the moral law. The protest against Humanae Vitae was a clear example of an attempt to evade the difficulty of living a Catholic life based on the teaching of the Church. This specifically applied to marriage. What we have seen in the past few years is an attempt to finish what was begun in the sixties but what was held back by St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. It is a case of back to the future. But now the same flawed understanding of the demands of the moral life, of the role of conscience, and of the power of the Church, are proclaimed in the name of the mercy of God. The role of conscience, my friends, is not to decide what to do. It is to recognize what is good and what is bad. The role of the confessor is not to decide what is right and wrong in the light of the penitent’s situation in life. The role of the Confessor is to absolve the penitent in the name of the mercy of God and to tell him: God and sin no more.
I want to briefly contemplate the situation of one of the members of the Holy Family, namely, Joseph. We know so little about St. Joseph. The most important is his faith, that he believed what the angel told him about the singular situation of Mary’s pregnancy, and that he acted out his faith by taking on the role of the father protector of this unique family, and he did so in love. I always wonder why St. Joseph’s Day on March 19 is celebrated with such fervor among some ethnic groups, since objectively we know so little about him. My answer to my own wonderment is that most of us know instinctively that he relates to us, especially those of us who are married, in a mysterious and yet very real way. He took on a task, a role, the role of a father although he did not father the child for whom he was an earthly father, and every married man knows that even when one has fathered children that to be a faithful and loving father is not an easy task, and that a part of the at difficulty is to give oneself even when one wants to keep part of oneself for oneself.
St. Joseph’s situation would give some theologians pause. His acceptance to be the earthly father of Jesus and the husband of Mary with all the moral imperatives that apply without the physical intimacy of a husband and wife and without the deep wonder and joy of looking at his Son as part of himself. This is indeed a unique and difficult situation. And, surely in this situation, we could declare that the moral norms of marriage do not apply to him and that his failure to abide by those norms could be excused by an appeal to the mercy of God, that the severity and ambiguity of his calling surely can be softened by a God of mercy and surely his Confessor would understand and tell him to not worry too much about following his own conscience as a man in his peculiar situation. Does that shock you? It should. Is this consonant with the Church’s teaching on marriage, on sexuality, on conscience, on living a moral life, on the constitution of the Church ? But is this consonant with the deliberate ambiguities found in the teaching of Amoris Laetitiae? And if it is not, then for the sake of truth, let the Bishop of Rome speak with clarity and cast away the doubts that cause so many good people to suffer because of the doubts that this lack of clarity brings into their own marriages.
It is to the Holy Family that we must pray, pray that each of us in our own families and husband or wife or child may have the grace to live a life of sacrificial love for each other and that whatever our particular circumstances we know that we have the prayers of Joseph and the Blessed Virgin Mary to really assist us, and above all that we have the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ who is present at this Mass to offer himself for your and me.