It took two years, two gatherings of some-190 bishops from around the world, and 264 pages for Pope Francis to release a historic declaration urging clergy around the world to welcome gay, divorced, and single-parent Catholics into the fold. The declaration, which came in the form of an apostolic exhortation released Friday morning, lays out Francis’ sweeping vision of a church that is more inclusive and in touch with the realities of the modern world.
Since its release Friday morning, the document, titled, “Joy of Love,” has caused a whirlwind of discussion, both within theological circles and among Catholics in New York and around the world. The widely anticipated document addresses major contemporary issues within the church and marks another hallmark in Francis’ legacy as a progressive, groundbreaking pope. But it does not change doctrine. Apostolic exhortations are instead a way for a pope to call upon their clergy to act, or change their ways.
“It’s a groundbreaking document,” Father Jim Martin, editor-in-chief of America, a national Catholic magazine, adding that it can be described even as “quietly revolutionary.” For Martin, the document makes important theological shifts, handing more autonomy to the individual, allowing for geographical variance and “restoring conscience to its rightful place.”
Family and the institution of marriage were the central focus of the Pope’s exhortation. Its pages rove over contemporary topics and give views not traditionally associated with the church. Francis discusses why people may want to divorce or live together before marriage. There is a passage dedicated to the discussion of sex education. “Sex education should also include respect and appreciation for differences, as a way of helping the young to overcome their self-absorption and to be open and accepting of others,” Pope Francis wrote. “ The young need to be helped to accept their own body as it was created.”
As he celebrates love, marriage and family as central to the church, Francis warns that if church officials don’t become more open-minded about family structures they will miss the opportunity to guide their people.
“A pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in “irregular” situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives,” he wrote. These “irregular” situations include gay relationships, divorce, single parenthood, and cohabitations before marriage.
Francis also lays out a vision for more autonomy for Catholics to use their conscience for moral decisions. He writes that individuals have the power to pen their own life decisions within the church’s broad strokes, a shift away from Catholicism’s strictly top-down approach to rules about behavior.
“Priests don’t live in the world like other people do and maybe the magisterium shouldn’t be regulating every detail of peoples’ lives,” says Dr. Colt Anderson, dean of the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education at Fordham University, musing about the context behind the pope’s words. “The people who live in the world understand the complexities and deal with pressures, and if they don’t meet some church ideal, it doesn’t mean that they are rebels.”
In “Joy of Love,” the pope also takes on the contentious topic of divorce. For centuries, the divorced have been barred from receiving communion and remarrying with the Church. While rates of divorce vary around the world, roughly 28 percent of American Catholics are divorced, according to a 2013 study from Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
On Friday, Francis called for more acceptance of divorced Catholics and suggested that those who have been divorced should be able to receive communion at the discretion of their local priests and bishops.
“He’s saying you can’t simply say, ‘here is the rule, if you don’t meet it you shouldn’t come into the church,’ he’s trying to tell people—we want everyone in the church, and we need to work toward that as a goal,” said Dr. Anderson. “But how we get there may be different.”
Anderson alludes to the other pillar of the declaration, the pope’s endorsement of localization, saying that priests and bishops in different regions can “seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs.” This is already in practice to a certain extent within the church—where some churches in progressive areas have long been welcoming to gay worshippers, or certain priests look the other way while divorced Catholics receive communion.
Yet the document falls short of being revolutionary when it comes to marriage. Catholics who have been divorced still cannot remarry within the church and the passage on gay marriage explicitly states that “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.”
Despite the denial of gay marriage, the pope calls for tolerance and condemns, “aggression and violence” toward gays. Mark Synder, director of communications at Equality Federation, a gay-rights advocacy group, hopes the overall message of inclusion will impact the political conversation in the United States.
“This is a step in the right direction at a time in America when we are seeing a wave of anti-LGBT legislation,” he says. “I hope that the Catholic politicians in the U.S. listen to the pope’s call for more tolerance and compassion.”