A humanist response to ‘Evangelii Gaudium’ – Pope Francis’ 2013 manifesto

This is the text of a talk given on 20th June 2018 at the invitation of Westminster Inter Faith Group, which is linked to Westminster Cathedral, the ‘mother church’ of the Catholic Church in England and Wales. I should give the leader of the group, John Woodhouse, credit for his efforts to ensure a wide range of views are heard and considered.

‘Evangelii Gaudium’, ‘The Joy of the Gospel’, was a document issued by Pope Francis in 2013, shortly after he became Pope.


As you’d expect, like most humanists, I’m an atheist, so I found plenty to disagree with in Pope Francis’ underlying theology in Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). But let’s take that as a given and focus on the other aspects of what he says. And I should add that I’m giving my personal perspective as a humanist – there is no official Humanists UK line on this document.

The impetus for this new evangelical drive came from a Synod of Bishops meeting in 2012. I can see why they were worried. The Church is, in many places, in decline.  In Britain in 2016, roughly a third of people who were brought up in Catholic households now identify as non-religious[1]. The overall Catholic proportion of the British population is remaining roughly steady at around 9% only because immigration, mainly from Poland, has so far made up for the attrition. Catholics in Brazil have dropped from 90% of the population in 1970 to 50% now. The institution is under threat.

So Francis makes it clear that this document is a call to arms: “I hope that all communities will devote the necessary effort to advancing along the path of a pastoral and missionary conversion which cannot leave things as they presently are. ‘Mere administration’ can no longer be enough.”

But Evangelii Gaudium goes a lot further than that. He sees two big problems:  the state of the world and the state of the church. His thesis seems to be that fixing the state of the church, in which evangelism – in the very broad way he uses it – has a part to play, will make a major contribution to fixing the state of the world. He wrote Evangelii Gaudium shortly after he became Pope in 2013. I read it as, effectively, his manifesto.


His analysis of what he calls the challenges of today’s world focuses on two broad areas: firstly, socio-economic exclusion, inequality, and the ills of the financial system; and secondly a range of cultural and religious issues, including the state of his own church.

He blames poverty, inequality and social exclusion on over-reliance on trickle-down economics, free markets and “a globalisation of indifference”.  He complains about “the new idolatry of money”, globalisation, a global elite beyond the reach of state control, corruption, and “a limitless thirst for power and possessions” which means that anything fragile, including the environment, is “defenceless before the interests of a deified market”. He blames the injustices of the socioeconomic system for rising levels of violence. And he calls for the reform of the financial system based on a “non-ideological ethics” to bring about balance and a more humane social order.

It’s hardly news that a religious leader says the world is unfair and excessively materialistic. What’s different here is the specificity of the analysis and the language used. He’s very political. Although I don’t think he’s got everything right – the causes of the financial crash were rather more complex than he seems to think for example. And he generalises wildly, ignoring the fact that an analysis 100% applicable to Latin America may be only 30% applicable to Britain, Germany or China. But overall, I think a lot of people, regardless of their religion of belief, would agree with his concerns about inequality and corruption. He’s hardly alone in thinking that. On the other hand, his analysis must be anathema to many others – I can’t see how a committed American Republican could support him for instance.

In making these important points, though, he omits some others. The last 200 years, and the last few decades in particular, have seen an unprecedented decline in the proportion of people living in absolute poverty, that’s living on less than $1.90 a day. It’s currently around 10%, a quarter of what is was in 1981[2]. Not good enough of course – there are millions of real lives behind the statistics – but it’s a dramatic improvement by any standard. Many would claim it’s attributable to trade and globalisation, with wealth from developed countries moving to all the places our clothes and mobile phones are made. And he doesn’t mention factory conditions or the need for organised labour to avoid exploitation.

Something similar applies to war and violence. It’s striking that Evangelii Gaudium doesn’t mention war among the world’s problems, although the Syrian conflict had been running for two years when it was written. While war and other violence continue to plague the world, as Stephen Pinker has demonstrated, “violence has been in decline over long stretches of time…and we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence.”[3] Of course, that doesn’t mean it will stay that way. But it does mean the Pope’s analysis is rather one-sided.

Nevertheless, he’s right that there are big social and economic issues to be tackled.


He groups his other global problems under the general banner of “culture”. Here again, there is much that people from all sorts of backgrounds, including humanists, can agree with. For example, freedom of religion and belief is constrained in many countries. We should all deplore the persecution of Christians, atheists, Ahmadiyya Muslims, Rohinga Muslims or anyone else. And it’s no surprise to find his concerns for social cohesion, individualism, and family life. But he elides that into concern about what he calls “relativism”. For example, he says “We should recognise how, in a culture where each person wants to be bearer of his or her own subjective truth, it becomes difficult for citizens to devise a common plan which transcends individual gain and personal ambition.” By relativism he seems to mean pluralism. Not only is that a challenge to democracy as a means to decide what should happen, but it implies that there’s a major problem with the city we’re in now, as London has a massive diversity of religions and beliefs, and massive diversity within each grouping, including among Catholics and the non-religious. Actually, London works pretty well and I think we should be proud of it. We teach people to think for themselves on these matters and, as a secularist, I think we should respect their right to draw their own conclusions, provided they don’t then erode the rights of others.  The alternative seems to be a religious hegemony. That might be attractive for a Pope, but we all know where it can lead.

While he’s ok with cultural diversity per se, which he says is “not a threat to Church unity”, he is concerned about it in the sense that “in many [developing] countries globalisation has meant a hastened deterioration of their own cultural roots and the invasion of ways of thinking and acting proper to other cultures which are economically advanced but ethically debilitated”.  Of course, there are real issues here. But the example he gives, referring to Asia and Africa, is about the sacredness of marriage and the stability of the family in the face of what he considers to be poor, or at least culturally-inappropriate, examples in western mass media. That may be so. But he doesn’t mention the positive contribution of global sharing on women’s rights, women’s health or the fight against FGM, or the fact that it is culturally-appropriate Nigerian mass media, in the form of the Nollywood film industry, which has reinforced belief in witchcraft across Africa[4] . Homosexuality isn’t mentioned anywhere in the document. The most charitable explanation for these omissions is that they are the compromises required to find common messages for audiences in several continents.

Beyond these wider issues, some of his concerns under the “cultural” heading are in fact concerns about external challenges to the Church.  They comprise both what he calls “the onslaught of contemporary secularism”, and competition from other faiths.

By “Secularism” he seems to mean “living without a religious identity”. That’s not the meaning that most British Secularists give it. We say it’s about the neutrality of government in matters of religion or belief; freedom of religion and belief – provided it doesn’t erode the rights of others; and lack of discrimination. I’d recommend Andrew Copson’s recent book on Secularism, which will become part of the Oxford University Press “Very Short Introduction” series and which puts it in its varied international contexts.

Francis sees Secularism as a “challenge to inculcating the faith”, bemoaning parents who fail to have their children baptised, or to “teach them how to pray”. He bemoans “spiritual desertification…as a result of attempts by some societies to build without God or to eliminate their Christian roots”, adding a quote that, in these places “the Christian world is becoming sterile, and it is depleting itself like an over-exploited ground, which transforms into a desert”. But it turns out that quote is from Cardinal Newman in 1833. This isn’t new.

He accepts that deficiencies in the Church itself may be contributing to the decline. He lists “machismo, alcoholism, domestic violence, Low Mass attendance, fatalistic or superstitious notions which lead to sorcery and the like”. There seems to be a misfit here with his enthusiasm for what he calls “popular piety”, which to my mind includes attributing miraculous powers to statues and relics. In fact he explicitly mentions “journeying together to shrines” as an “evangelising gesture”. From the outside, it seems that some forms of superstition are more ok than others.

What is pretty astonishing, though, is that this list of deficiencies doesn’t include the fact that Catholic priests have sexually and physically abused children all over the world and the Church has protected the abusers and covered up the abuse. This is such a major stain on the Church’s reputation, and has had such major repercussions, it seems strange that Francis has apparently decided to play it down.

Then there are more subtle issues which are largely invisible to those on the outside. He quotes his predecessor talking about “the grey pragmatism of daily life of the Church, in which all appears to proceed normally, while in reality faith is wearing down and degenerating into small mindedness”, and he talks about a “tomb psychology transforming Christians in to mummies in a museum”. Strong stuff. Then there are demotivated pastoral workers, and recruitment problems for the priesthood. Yet there’s no mention of celibacy. And he rules out women priests, while emphasising women’s rights and the “equal dignity” of men and women. I wonder how long those positions will be sustainable.

Among the reasons he gives for losing adherents to other religions is “relativistic subjectivism” and, significantly for today’s discussion, “our difficulty in restoring a mystical adherence to the faith in a pluralistic religious landscape”. To me these apparent problems sound more like “thinking for yourself”. Ironically, and to his credit, he explicitly encourages “critical thinking”.

He attacks the idea of a “purely spiritual faith” and “immanentism”, which apparently means a denial of God’s transcendent reality in favour of a wholly subjective form of faith. “Today” he says, “our challenge is not so much atheism as the need to respond adequately to many people’s thirst for God, lest they try to satisfy it with alienating solutions or with a disembodied Jesus who demands nothing of us with regard to others”.  The language he uses here about incarnation and “personal relationships …..with God…Christ…Mary and the saints”, devotions he calls “fleshy”, is rather off-putting for a humanist. But underlying it is the concern that a religion or belief that only looks selfishly for spiritual or material well-being – such as the ‘theology of prosperity’ which is popular in Latin America and parts of Africa – means not caring for others. He sees that as a core of the message. And on that there’s common ground.

So those are the problems. He then turns to the solutions.


His solutions to socioeconomic problems are no different from those that many others would offer. He wants a more people-oriented financial system, greater equality and so on.  But there is something a little patronising in the implication that charity and concern for others is a specifically Christian characteristic. He contrasts St.Paul’s emphasis on looking after the poor with the “self-centred lifestyle of the pagans” – I guess he means the pre-Christian Romans – which he sees re-emerging in modern society. Setting aside the fact that slaves were surely among the worst off people in Jesus and Paul’s time, yet neither of them expressed an objection to slavery, he’s simply wrong about lack of charity in pre-Christian Rome and Greece[5], and it also featured in Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism, and subsequently in Islam. Modern Britons are among the world’s greatest contributors to charity, while also being among the least religious –last year we were 7th out of 139 in the World Giving Index 5 year ranking – the top three were Myanmar, the USA and New Zealand.

While it was no surprise to find his emphasis on including the poor in society, his claim that “for the Church, the option for the poor is primarily a theological category rather than a cultural, sociological, political or philosophical one” would seem to make little practical difference. In practice, while charity has a vital role, structural change in this area is more likely to be brought about in the political arena than the religious – compare universal health care in Europe and the US. To be fair, he recognises that and encourages “responsible citizenship and participation in political life”.

In some respects, I think the religious perspective might even get in the way. For example, he says that the poor are “beautiful above and beyond all appearances” and “the love by which we find the other pleasing leads us to offer him something freely”. I’m not sure that it’s desirable to put “the poor” into a different them-and-us category which we are obliged to consider “beautiful”, rather than simply recognising everyone as fellow human beings with equal rights and similar needs whose suffering it is right to alleviate. As Bertrand Russell said: “The happy life is, to an extraordinary extent, the same as the good life”. We all gain from helping others.


The four principles he offers for the construction of a just and peaceful society – “time is greater than space”, “unity prevails over conflict”, “realities are more important than ideas” , and  “the whole is greater than the parts” – are fine, to varying degrees, but I didn’t find them particularly helpful, or particularly specific to the Pope’s position.

When it comes to fixing the Church’s problems, he goes beyond simply counteracting the negatives he’s identified to a radical vision of “a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channelled for the evangelisation of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.” The implication is that the message is more important than the survival of the institution. He wants “a Church which is poor and for the poor”. That’s pretty bold coming from the CEO, especially one sitting in the splendour of the Vatican.  I’m not sure I believe it. Without the institution and its resources there is no mission, and he hasn’t got a job. In fact I think it’s really one of several challenges to Cardinal Burke and his followers in the Church’s conservative wing. Francis wants the organisation to “abandon the complacent attitude that says: ‘We have always done it this way’”. Among other things, that means taking into account developments in social science, and recognising that, as Thomas Aquinas apparently pointed out, “the precepts which Christ and the apostles gave to the people of God ‘are very few’”. Just in case that wasn’t clear, he says “For those who long for a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance, this might appear as undesirable and leading to confusion”.

But the biggest challenge for the Church is that it is losing active adherents. While he would argue that doing good works and arguing for the poor is itself an evangelical activity, there’s no escaping the fact that he sees a need for evangelism, or missionary activity, in a more conventional sense. The targets are not only “those who do not know Jesus Christ or who have always rejected him”, but also both existing Catholics who rarely go to church, and lapsed Catholics, where the aim is “to help them experience a conversion” – all rather ‘Born Again’ I thought. As an aside, it’s interesting that, among the major faiths, only the Catholic Church refers to former adherents as “lapsed”, with the implication that they’re still really Catholics and may be back later. In reality most are ex-Catholics, just as those who have left Islam are ex-Muslims.

He mentions the fact that evangelism will highlight the difference between the Church’s ideal self-image and the actual image it currently has. He says this difference is the “source of the Church’s heroic and impatient struggle for renewal”.  That felt to me rather disingenuous. The problem is not simply one of image, but of substance, especially on the child abuse issue, but also on some other ethical matters.

To be fair, he does try to deal with the problem of divergence between Church teaching and changed public ethics.  Homosexuality and divorce aren’t mentioned explicitly, but it’s hard not to think that’s what he has in mind when he says “the biggest problem is when the message we preach then seems identified with those secondary aspects which, important as they are, do not in and of themselves convey the heart of Christ’s message”. He refers to a hierarchy of truths, all descended from the core message of “the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ” and the need to see God in others”.  He wants evangelism to be focussed on this positive message, not on rules, if the edifice of the Church’s moral teaching isn’t to collapse. I don’t think that will work if the underlying issues are not addressed. He may not think issues such as homosexuality and divorce are major issues, but a lot of other people do. But it’s hard to see how he can address them without causing a rift in the edifice he’s trying to protect.

While he tries to draw a distinction between evangelising and proselytising, he says that Christians are duty-bound to “proclaim the Gospel” and the Church will grow because people find the missionary message attractive. I think this is a meaningless distinction:  no-one can ever be forced to believe something they don’t believe. And “proclaiming the Gospel” – depending on how it’s done – is indistinguishable from proselytisation if you’re on the receiving end.  Even more contentious is his emphasis on the role of Catholic schools which, quote “always strive to join their work of education with the explicit proclamation of the Gospel, are a most valuable resource for the evangelisation of culture”. As you would expect, as a humanist I find it astonishing that schools with that objective continue to be financed by the state.

That’s especially a problem in a society such as ours. His respect for the sciences is, of course, something I’d agree with. But then he goes on to complain that “positivism and scientism refuse to admit the validity of forms of knowledge other than those of the positive sciences”, which denies “other areas of knowledge such as…faith itself, which elevates us to the mystery transcending nature and human intelligence”. Few humanists would go along with scientism in the sense of denying the reality of emotions and all the other subjective human experiences which make life what it is. But talk of mystery transcending nature as a real thing, as opposed to something people have created to explain subjective feelings and answer their desires, is where we part company. And when he says “the Church has no wish to hold back the marvellous progress of science” presumably a line is drawn when it contradicts Church truth claims. For example, we know that homo sapiens, while special in what we have achieved and the richness of human life, is in genetic terms not special in any way – we’re just a particular human animal species that has been very successful over the geologically-short period of around 100,000 years. We also know that no-one is actually possessed by evil forces, physical miracles don’t happen, and the Turin Shroud dates from the 14th century.

At the same time, he seems to have no real answer to the problem of other religions looking more attractive in a plural marketplace of ideas, or to why people should abandon the sort of purely personal spirituality he criticises. Having said that, he does recognise the fact of plurality, and encourages “dialogue with other believers who are not part of the Catholic Church”. So apparently not unbelievers, which cuts out roughly half the population of the UK, and the great majority of the young.


Overall, Evangelii Gaudium left me with a more favourable impression of Pope Francis. It’s a lot more radical and political than I’d expected, and it does no harm for such a prominent figure to highlight some of the ills and injustices of the world.

But I ended up feeling rather sorry for him. For good or ill – and probably a bit of both – the world is moving on.


[1] http://www.natcen.ac.uk/blog/religion-in-britain-in-2016

[2] https://ourworldindata.org/extreme-poverty

[3] https://www.edge.org/conversation/mc2011-history-violence-pinker

[4] http://henrycenter.tiu.edu/2016/02/the-role-of-nollywood-in-witchcraft-belief-and-confessions/

[5] http://philanthrocapitalism.net/bonus-chapters/ancient-giving/


A humanist response to ‘Amoris Laetitia’ (Pope Francis on ‘The Joy of Love’)

This is the text of a talk given on 21st June 2017 at the kind invitation of Westminster Inter Faith Group, which is linked to Westminster Cathedral, the ‘mother church’ of the Catholic Church in England and Wales.

‘Amoris Laetitia, ‘The Joy of Love’, is a document issued by Pope Francis in 2016  bringing together the results of the two Synods on the family in 2014 and 2015. The official Vatican summary is here and the full document here.

It may seem presumptuous for a humanist – and an atheist – to comment on a Vatican document. My excuse is that John kindly invited me to do so! So here goes, with apologies in advance if I say anything that anyone finds offensive. That’s certainly not my intention. And I should add that I’m giving a personal view rather than an official Humanists UK line.

There are two broad considerations here: the broad context in which Amoris Laetitia was created and hence its strategic purpose, and its content.



Let’s start with the context. We have a Pope from Latin America. The country with the largest Catholic population in the world is Brazil, where Catholicism was introduced in the sixteenth century. Although it has no official religion, in 1970 over 90% of Brazilians identified as Catholics[1]. A recent survey[2] indicates it is now down to 50%, with the church losing 9 million (out of around 130 million) adherents between 2014 and 2016. This is a huge change, leading the Brazilian Cardinal, Cláudio Hummes, to say: “We wonder with anxiety: how long will Brazil remain a Catholic country?”. Although there has been an increase in the number of non-religious people – now up to around 14% of the population – the main reason for the decline is the growth of neo-Pentecostalism, a form of Protestantism whose main characteristics have been defined as: “the emphasis on the spiritual battle against the devil” and the profession of the “health and wealth gospel,” explained as “the right of a ‘true’ Christian to live his life here and now in happiness and material affluence.” Pentecostalism has no Canon Law, no “magisterium” or rules about contraception or divorce, and no global hierarchy. In response, a Catholic charismatic movement has grown up and, among Afro-Brazilians, there has been the adoption of an Africanised mass[3].

But essentially, in a competitive religion and belief environment, where people are able to make free choices, the Church is losing out to the competition.

Here in the UK there is a different situation. There has been a growth in non-denominational Protestant churches, notably Pentecostals, but they still account for only about 12% of the population. The main change has been a decline in Anglicanism and a large increase in the non-religious, including humanists like me, who now account for roughly half the population. But the proportion of Catholics has remained roughly static, at around 9%. The reason for that is that departures from the church have been balanced by immigration, especially from Eastern Europe[4]. The key issue in the context of Amoria Laetitia, however, is what those British Catholics think about the issues it covers. Here are some statistics from a survey of over 1000 Catholics conducted for Professor Linda Woodhead’s “Westminster Faith Debates” in 2013[5]:

Asked to choose one item from a list of sources that they “most rely on most for guidance as you live your life and make decisions?”,  not a single person selected “Religious leaders, local or national”, and only 8% selected “The tradition and teachings of my religion”. The top two choices were “Own reason and judgement” and “Own intuition or feelings”, which were together selected by half the respondents.

Asked for their views on abortion, just 19% said it should be banned altogether, 30% favoured “keeping the time limit at 24 weeks”, 5% even favoured increasing the time limit. 30% favoured reducing it. 16% didn’t know.

Asked whether they thought same sex marriage was right or wrong, 38% said it was right, 43% wrong and the rest didn’t know. Of those under 40, over 50% thought it was right.

They were also asked “Do you think British law should be kept as it is, or should it be changed so that people with incurable diseases have the right to ask close friends or relatives to help them commit suicide, without those friends or relatives risking prosecution?” a clear majority, 58%, agreed that “the law should be changed to allow assisted suicide in these circumstances”.

Similarly, a 2013 poll of 12,000 Catholics in 12 countries revealed that 78% back contraception, rising to over 90% in Argentina, Colombia, Brazil, Spain and France. The same poll found that 50% thought priests should be able to marry, 51% favoured female priests and 65% said abortions should be allowed in at least special cases, such as when a mother’s life is at risk. And it only takes a look at the birth rates in Catholic countries such as Italy and Spain to see that the ban on contraceptives is widely ignored. You get the idea.

The Vatican’s own poll, conducted in preparation for the two synods that resulted in Amoria Laetitia – where only a limited selection of results have been released – showed that, in Germany,  there was strong condemnation of the ban on re-married divorcees taking communion; and in Switzerland, 90% of Catholics said the ban should be lifted[6].

Meanwhile in the US, under half of Catholics say homosexual behaviour, remarriage without annulment, cohabitation or contraception are sins[7], and one in four have themselves been divorced, while four in ten have cohabited.

The evidence is pretty strong: there is a gulf between Church teachings and the views of many Catholics.

On the other hand, of course, there are many other Catholics in the West – usually the more devout – who are more traditional in their views.

In Africa, homosexuality is a significant issue. Legislation amplifying traditional cultural discrimination against homosexuals has been supported by Catholic bishops in some countries, notably Nigeria, where a 2014 law imposed 14-year prison terms for anyone entering a same-sex relationship. But it has been condemned in other African countries[8].  Those where the church has apparently taken a homophobic line are often those where it is in competition with Islam and African Pentecostalism, both of which have unequivocally hostile positions on the issue.

It seems from the outside that the Church is therefore in a difficult position. It is haemorrhaging followers in at least one of its major countries, Brazil, to a vigorous religious competitor; its authority on family and sexual matters seems to carry limited weight in its historical heartlands in West Europe and North America, where many people who identify as Catholic have decided for themselves to reject core teachings; in Africa there is a strongly-felt split on homosexuality; while at the same time in all areas there is a significant core who expect the Church to uphold its traditional teachings. Across the world, Catholics take opposing – or at least different – views compared to both the Church and each other on some of the most important ethical issues of our time. What to do?

Of course, the Church has always adapted, as the history of ideas like purgatory and limbo illustrates. And while the ban on communion for divorcees has proved one of the most contentious issue related to Amoris Laetitia, it’s worth remembering that it wasn’t till about half-way through the Church’s history, in the 12th century, that it decided that marriage was a holy sacrament, and it was only at the Council of Trent in 1547, that sacramental marriage became part of Canon Law.

But we live in a world where the speed of development and communications means that it’s not feasible to take several centuries to make changes, or to have different policies in different places. Yet rapid change is constrained  by the fact that teachings which have in the past been deemed to have Divine authority are hard to change.

Of course, as a humanist I see the whole edifice of Catholic teaching and Canon Law as a human creation. From that perspective, Amoris Laetitia seems to be a sophisticated attempt – couched in the Vatican’s arcane language – to deal with the problems arising when that edifice is undermined by both the complexity and speed of change of modern societies and by the fact that adherents in many places are educated to think for themselves, with the result that large numbers no longer respect Church teaching on key family matters, or consider it to be morally superior.

At the end of the day, the strategic purpose of this document is to help the Church assure its future strength by adapting to massive and rapid social change.



In terms of solutions, the Pope seeks to chart a course between “an immoderate desire for total change without sufficient reflection or grounding” and “an attitude that would solve everything by applying general rules or deriving undue conclusions from particular theological considerations”. In other words it would be impossible to reach agreement on any change to improve the acceptability of disputed teachings. But he also knows, but cannot say explicitly, that the authority to impose them no longer exists, even among some of the church’s own employees.

The chosen solution seems to be to emphasise tolerance and flexibility of attitude enabling priests to hang on to traditional teachings while dealing better with modern realities: homosexual acts remain sinful, but people who are homosexual should be treated with compassion; non-traditional unions are not approved of, but the Church “does not disregard the constructive elements in those situations which do not yet or no longer correspond to her teaching on marriage”. Empathy and compassion are allowed to go only so far.

The one area where he tries to go a bit further, effectively by moving beyond tolerance of “error” into  ambiguity of teaching, is on the question of whether remarried divorcees should be ex-communicated – presumably a big issue in terms of loss of adherents and especially their children. He says: “…the baptised who are divorced and civilly remarried need to be more fully integrated into Christian communities in the variety of ways possible, while avoiding any occasion of scandal. Their participation can be expressed in different ecclesial services… Such persons need to feel not as excommunicated members of the Church, but instead as living members, able to live and grow in the Church… This integration is also needed in the care and Christian upbringing of their children”.

This seems to be a far cry from Canon Law, which refers to divorce as “a grave offense against the natural law” while remarriage “adds to the gravity of the rupture: the remarried spouse is then in a situation of public and permanent adultery.”  The Catholic Encyclopaedia[9] considers divorce “a modification of monogamy that seems to be no less opposed to its spirit than polyandry, polygamy, or adultery”.

The way out is to say that “conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God.” In other words, your conscience can trump the rules.

A group of traditionalist American cardinals were having none of that. They sent the Pope a letter[10] stating that “conscience [as opposed to law] does not decide about good and evil” suggesting that, if it did, there could be good adultery or good murder – they could have added good homosexual activity and good unmarried partnerships. In the letter, they sought to pin the Pope down, using a list of detailed challenges – or “Dubia” – to Amoris Laetitia. Wisely, he didn’t reply. To the outsider, it seems pretty obvious that he is quite happy with the ambiguity. Unfortunately, it looks like the tactic has not been wholly successful.

Another of the risks he runs is cultural relativism. The Pope says that “not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium” and for some questions, “each country or region … can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs. For ‘cultures are in fact quite diverse and every general principle … needs to be inculturated [a new word to me], if it is to be respected and applied”.

Ironically, on the area where that could be the most contentious, homosexuality, he actually comes down quite firmly on an approach which is contrary to the views of bishops in Nigeria and other countries where homophobia is official government policy, supported by the local Church. “Regarding families with members with homosexual tendencies, it reaffirms the necessity to respect them and to refrain from any unjust discrimination and every form of aggression or violence”.  Good!



Focussing now on the content and ethics: the overall sense that came over to me – and I should stress I’m speaking personally here – is of a man whose instinct is essentially to be kind rather than harsh. The cynic might say he has to do that to avoid making the situation worse, but I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt. Having said that, while he may be a good man in that sense, some of his ideological beliefs run counter to the values and principles Western societies have evolved – however imperfectly – on the basis of human rights. Essentially, these values reflect the basic ethic of the Golden Rule – treat others as you would like to be treated – without the overlay of scripturally-derived doctrine.

In a telling passage, he takes a very broad brush to tell us what he thinks is wrong with the world of the family: “Families face many challenges, from migration to the ideological denial of differences between the sexes (“ideology of gender”); from the culture of the provisional [sic] to the anti-birth mentality and the impact of biotechnology in the field of procreation; from the lack of housing and work to pornography and abuse of minors; from inattention to persons with disabilities, to lack of respect for the elderly; from the legal dismantling of the family, to violence against women.” I confess I don’t know what “the culture of the provisional” means – perhaps something to do with lifetime commitment – but it’s grouped with the perceived evils of birth control. Gender equality is grouped with problems of migration, pornography with child abuse, divorce law with domestic violence.

The implication that there is a comparison of awfulness between divorce and violence against women, or between adult porn and child abuse is, to say the least, both disturbing and surprising, given the massive issue of child abuse and the impact of forcing women to remain in violent marriages.

Not surprisingly for a document about the family, it comes back to divorce more than once. It is “rampant individualism” which he says, “makes it difficult today for a person to give oneself generously to another…..The fear of loneliness and the desire for stability and fidelity exist side by side with a growing fear of entrapment in a relationship that could hamper the achievement of one’s personal goals”. Of course, many moral questions feature a tension between what we want to do to maximise our individual happiness and what we ought to do to maximise the well-being of others. But to talk about “fear of entrapment” as if it’s always a sign of moral weakness makes little sense. How about entrapment in a relationship where one party is subject to physical or mental abuse? Or is serially unfaithful? On the other hand, he himself argues that marriage should be understood as “a dynamic path to personal development and fulfilment” rather than the imposition of an ideal that is impossible to achieve in real life.

Divorce is stated explicitly to be “evil”. While this is said in the context of the damaging impact on children – a very real issue of course – there is no qualification. It is just as evil apparently when the couple are childless, or have adult children, or when children’s life is being scarred by conflict between parents, as when people divorce for selfish or trivial reasons and there are young children involved. That seems to be contrary to the Pope’s own exhortation about dealing with the world as it is rather than in theological absolutes. From a humanistic viewpoint, this is – to put it politely – ethically problematic. A humanist view would be to consider the likely consequences in each case and try to produce an outcome which yields the least suffering, and the greatest long-term well-being, for all those concerned. I am no specialist in Divorce Law, but from the outside it seems that the legal approach in most Western countries, evolved through the democratic process over the years, is closer to that compassionate ideal than a doctrine that forbids divorce in almost all circumstances, and has had the effect of bringing shame on innocent divorcees.

One area where there is a welcome implicit shift from traditional teaching is that of sex education. “Yes to sex education” is the title of the section. While it complains that the expression ‘safe sex’ conveys “a negative attitude towards the natural procreative finality of sexuality, as if an eventual child were an enemy to be protected against” there is the implicit acceptance that many young people will have sex before marriage and it’s better that they are properly educated about it. OK. Of course, I think the Church’s whole approach to contraception, birth control and population growth is ethically unsound, but there’s no time to go into that now.  I would just say that two underlying issues are, in my view, hugely important here: firstly, women’s rights and education – together with technology that makes contraception safe, cheap and readily available – and secondly, the direct and indirect impact on human suffering of the Earth’s population growing on its current trajectory.

Similarly, in terms of flexibility, I read into the section where the Pope accepts that the Church “does not disregard the constructive elements in those situations which do not yet or no longer correspond to her teaching on marriage” that there is license for priests to have a constructive and supportive relationship with people who are in unmarried partnerships or even same-sex couples.  Of course, as a humanist I would say that applying the Golden Rule to people who are homosexual means not causing them avoidable suffering because of their sexuality, while helping them maximise their well-being, assuming there is no negative effect on the well-being of others. On that basis, it is a no-brainer to me that it is morally good to enable people who love one another, and want to make a lifetime commitment, to get married. And while the Pope’s approach here does encourage greater kindness and compassion, the firm barrier of a teaching that says the natural expression of these people’s sexuality is deviant and sinful means that this kindness and compassion is constrained in a way that I imagine is increasingly uncomfortable for many good Catholics.

It also raises what I assume is a general issue with the document. Presumably it’s a matter of luck whether the particular priest someone is dealing with chooses to exercise the limited tolerance allowed by Amoris Laetitia to the full, or to cling more strongly towards the still-unchanged traditional teaching*.

I guess that is a problem that the CEOs of many other multi-national organisations would understand.

Overall the direction the Pope seems to be taking with Amoris Laetitia seems, from this humanist’s perspective, the right one. But the train will keep running into the buffers of doctrine. If that problem is not addressed, then it’s questionable whether the document will successfully deal with the strategic challenges the Church is facing. Maybe it’s simply not possible to reconcile the conflicting forces here. Only time will tell.


* Two days after the Westminster Cathedral Inter Faith Group meeting at which I presented this paper, this article appeared in the Washington Post: Illinois Catholic bishop decrees no Holy Communion, funerals for same-sex couples. It begins:

“The bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Springfield, Ill., is calling on priests there to deny Holy Communion and even funeral rites to people in same-sex unions unless they show “some signs of repentance” for their relationships before death.

The decree by Bishop Thomas Paprocki also said that people “living publicly” in same-sex marriages may not receive the sacrament of confirmation or be admitted to the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, a process by which many converts become Catholic, preparing them for baptism and confirmation.

At the same time, Paprocki said that children living with a Catholic parent or parents in a same-sex marriage may be baptized. But when it comes to same-sex unions, priests cannot bless couples, church property cannot be used for ceremonies and diocesan employees are forbidden from participating, the decree said.”

[1] http://www.pewforum.org/2013/07/18/brazils-changing-religious-landscape/

[2] https://www.churchmilitant.com/news/article/brazil-loses-9-million-catholics-in-2-years

[3] https://rlp.hds.harvard.edu/faq/catholic-church-brazil

[4] https://www.stmarys.ac.uk/research/centres/benedict-xvi/contemporary-catholicism.aspx?filtered=1

[5] http://faithdebates.org.uk/blog/surveys-reveal-widening-gulf-catholics-church-teaching/

[6] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/vaticancityandholysee/10627312/Catholics-divided-on-issues-such-as-divorce-and-birth-control.html

[7] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/04/08/popes-proclamation-like-views-of-u-s-catholics-indicates-openness-to-nontraditional-families/

[8] https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/religion/in-rare-public-split-catholic-bishops-differ-sharply-on-anti-gay-laws/2014/02/13/ccfcdd84-94e6-11e3-9e13-770265cf4962_story.html?utm_term=.710376b3afad

[9] http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09693a.htm

[10] http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2016/11/14/full-text-cardinals-letter-to-pope-francis-on-amoris-laetitia/