Pope Francis stands on a congressional balcony with leaders including, far left, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, on Sept. 24, 2015, in Washington. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Pope Francis made global news in 2016 with a high-level document on family life meant to bring the church into modern times. It emphasized the need for priests to welcome divorced Catholics who remarry outside the church and many others in what the church calls “irregular situations.”

Francis fans cheered his emphasis on inclusion. Critics rued his lack of clarity.

Two years later, Washington’s archbishop, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, has released one of the most comprehensive responses from a Catholic leader on how to implement the pope’s more lofty and theoretical document.

Like the pope’s, Wuerl’s document sidesteps giving a specific answer to the question of whether Catholics who appear to violate classic teaching — getting remarried outside the church, marrying someone of the same gender, cohabiting — can receive the sacrament of Holy Communion, a core ritual in Catholic spiritual life that represents connection with God.

Instead Wuerl tells the 630,000 Catholics in the D.C. region — and their clergy — to focus on welcoming, and on accompanying others in their lives at a time in history when many families feel unstable and social isolation is rampant.

Wuerl appears to leave the door open to priests and regular Catholics as to whether Communion is an option in some cases — even for people who don’t seem to qualify. For example, he wrote, Catholics can’t be held culpable for sticking to the teaching if they didn’t have strong Catholic education and counseling. Also, the church needs to welcome people who are working to be closer to the church and its teachings. Wuerl frequently uses the phrases “in good faith” and “individual conscience.”

Papal documents very rarely trigger specific responses from bishops, who are the ones leading local communities. But some say Amoris Laetitia has generated more interest than any papal document since Pope Paul VI’s 1968 “Humanae Vitae,” about birth control, because it tackles areas such as marriage, divorce and sexuality that are undergoing enormous social change.

Wuerl’s stature as leader of the U.S. capital’s Catholics, his reputation for caution, and his decision to create this document underscores in a dramatic way what is being said at the highest levels: Family life in 2018 looks nothing like 1950s America, and the church needs to start reflecting that.

“You have to walk with people. You can’t just give them a teaching and say ‘There. I’ve done it,’ ” Wuerl said in a recent interview in his office. “They’ll receive the teaching where they are and how they’re understanding it. You have to walk with them, keep journeying with them.”

However, Wuerl states explicitly, as Francis did, that the church’s teaching on family matters hasn’t changed. “Objective truth remains unaffected,” Wuerl writes. He also describes secular and nontraditional families as “not the Christian ideal,” and the goal should ultimately be on sharing “the light of the Gospel … to help them move beyond partial or false mind-sets.”

Wuerl, known as a consummate churchman and teacher of doctrine, is nearing retirement, and this could be his last major paper. Because of his standing, many other bishops may be likely to adopt his paper as guidance for their priests.

Wuerl’s document has been distributed in English and Spanish to all its 139 parishes in the District and Maryland. It is not one of the country’s biggest but it is one of the most prominent, as it includes the federal government as well as the governing agency of the U.S. church.

Wuerl, 77, said he would not have written a document like this one (called “Sharing in the Joy of Love in Marriage and Family”) 20 years ago.

The church teaching hasn’t changed, he said, “but the conditions are different.” Family life, church life have been dramatically affected, he said, by contemporary social problems that are pushing people apart from one another. A more welcoming church has the potential to bring people together again, Wuerl said.

“Think of the situation in our world today. Think of how much domestic violence there is, and sexual assault, gun abuse, gang violence; that’s all part of reality. Racist words, human trafficking. Fifteen years ago I wouldn’t have known that all existed, let alone it’s a real part of life.”

Tim O’Malley, director of the Center for Liturgy at the University of Notre Dame, said Wuerl’s teaching is notable because rather than focusing on clarifying rules, “it focuses on how to make marriages happy and fruitful in the church.” It focuses on, for example, things like updating premarital counseling and recognizing that the Catholic community of relatives and old family friends many once had to pass along Catholic teachings isn’t there anymore.

“In the ’50s a good deal of formation in the church occurred in local communities where it was easy to do. Parents and grandparents were there. This recognizes that that situation is gone,” O’Malley said. “So how do we welcome young couples? It has to be intentional whereas once upon a time it could be accidental.”

Some priests said Wuerl’s document — and Francis’s — just put into words the nuanced reality they already live.

This “idea of ‘accompaniment’ is what pastors have been doing for 2,000 years,” said the Rev. Bill Byrne, of Our Lady of Mercy in Potomac. “I’d hardly describe it as revolutionary. It’s more like refreshing because it’s the lived experience of trying to bring the theology and apply it.”

That said, Byrne knows to many that will feel radical.

The documents give “sort of an acknowledgment and encouragement to walk with people. And I wouldn’t say that people always felt walked with very well.”

There are also pragmatic reasons not to focus on language that pushes many away from the church.

First, the reality is many Catholics and clergy already believe individual conscience is primary — that individuals and the uniqueness of each person’s situations should determine whether they are in communion with God and the church. Many Catholics around the world who are divorced and remarried outside the church (meaning without an annulment) decide to receive Communion, as do others whose relationships violate orthodox teaching, such as couples in a same-sex marriage and transgender Catholics.

In Europe, some bishops have reacted to Amoris Laetitia by saying explicitly that they read it as opening the doors wider to Communion. Bishops in Malta made an announcement like that last year, as did those in Germany. Francis also lauded a letter by Argentine bishops (about Amoris) that says there is no black-and-white line on who gets Communion, regardless of their marital situation. In other words, sometimes divorced people who remarry outside the church may qualify, the bishops wrote. They “explained precisely the meaning” of Amoris, Francis wrote them back.

In the United States a lot of Catholics who are told against their beliefs that they don’t merit Communion have simply left the faith. “To be an American bishop is to be worried about this,” O’Malley said.

In the last five or six years, he said, the number of marriages within the U.S. church is down 14 percent, and the number of infant baptisms is down 19 percent.

Other dioceses have organized high-level meetings about how to implement Amoris, or released bits of guidance. In the United States those include San Diego, Chicago, Newark and Philadelphia.

Wuerl’s document comes as Catholics thinking about family unity and safety are just as likely to be thinking about immigration and refu­gee crackdowns and gun control, some priests said. The document doesn’t focus primarily on divorce and same-sex marriage, and that seems appropriate to the times.

His document is just getting out and may face criticism from Catholic conservatives who see danger in ambiguity.

In a June 2017 post on Novus Ordo Watch, a blog focused on blocking modernizing changes to Catholicism, Amoris is called “loaded with heresy and blasphemy.”

“Francis opted to effectively get rid of the concepts of adultery, fornication, and sodomy as mortal sins and replaced them with the smoother-sounding ‘irregular situations.’ … Sin was reinterpreted from being a transgression of the divine law to being an imperfect realization of holiness. By that logic, one might as well say that an abortionist has ‘not fully’ realized the objective ideal of being a pediatrician.”

But a March 5 analysis in the National Catholic Register, a news site run by the conservative EWTN, a global Catholic network, praised Wuerl.

“After so much polarization, we finally now have a local implementation of Amoris Laeitia that sees the larger picture of Pope Francis’ challenge and vision,” the analysis said. The black-white issue of who gets Communion wasn’t the point of Francis’s or Wuerl’s papers. “Some will, no doubt, be disappointed that Cardinal Wuerl did not repeat the Church’s teaching on the matter. Yet it seems to me that to do so would be to continue the tired arguments of the last few years to the detriment of a vision that seeks to encounter the faithful and to help them not only to know the doctrines of our faith but to experience the liberating truth of what we believe.”

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