A document released today by the Vatican is called "The Joy Of Love." It addresses the church's teachings on marriage and family. Those teachings are strict and have alienated many Catholics, especially those who divorce and remarry. This new document encourages clergy to help people follow their own consciences rather than just telling people the rules. Joshua McElwee of the National Catholic Reporter is in Rome. He joins us once again. Welcome back.
JOSHUA MCELWEE: Yeah, thanks for having me.
INSKEEP: So what does this document say about marriage?
MCELWEE: He really tackles a question that has really vexed Catholics for the past few years about what to do about people who divorce and remarry without first getting annulments.
INSKEEP: Getting a marriage annulled — that's essentially finding some reason to say it was never really a marriage to begin with so you can then go on as if your second marriage is your first marriage. Is that right?
MCELWEE: Yeah, that's right. He doesn't exactly change church law, but he kind of pivots the church's stance — asking clergy to be much more pastoral and to not always apply one general norm to all cases, but to instead help people discern what God is doing in their lives, even if they might be living in a situation the church in past years might have called irregular.
INSKEEP: So priests are encouraged to — what? — be more understanding of people in that situation or what, exactly?
MCELWEE: Well, the pope is saying that the church can no longer say that people in what we call irregular situations are always in a state of mortal sin. He's saying there has to be more discernment about the particular situations people live. For example, he talks about a remarried person who's been in a new relationship for a very long time, is practicing fidelity, faithfulness, and how clergy should treat that differently than other situations where there's — someone might have just gotten remarried kind of on a whim. So it's a very different stance, and it's allowing clergy to let people discern God's will even in situations where that might be what he says morally confusing.
INSKEEP: Is this a little like what the pope has done with gay people in the church? The church hasn't actually changed its rules or its prohibitions, but priests are encouraged to take a very different tone.
MCELWEE: Yeah, you're right, it's a very different tone. But what's significant here is the talk about conscience. That's something that the church talked about 50 years ago but the last couple of popes did not expand upon. And what Pope Francis is saying is that conscience means people can be hearing something from God kind of in the depths of their heart that may even be not quite in accord with what the church teaches generally as a general norm, but can still be true and can still be discerned to be God's will in their life. So they're — he's allowing for a little bit of discord between individual cases and the general church teaching.
INSKEEP: Does this document address gay marriage?
MCELWEE: It does. It addresses gay marriage. The Pope does not give an OK to same-sex relations or same-sex marriage. He does express that they have value — that some relationships like that can have value, can have lifelong commitment. But he says they are not the same as the Christian ideal of marriage between a man and woman.
INSKEEP: Are there some in the Catholic Church who would have liked the pope to go farther when it comes to marriage and family?
MCELWEE: Yeah, it seems there were kind of two extremes. The one extreme was, you know, people wanted a very clear OK — kind of a new role from the pope saying it's OK for divorced and remarried people to go ahead and take Communion in the Catholic Church. There were others who wanted a very strong no. And what the pope has done, really, is seem to embrace the middle path — looking for ambiguity, for individual situations, and for a little bit of OK with being confused and not always having a general rule.
INSKEEP: Joshua McElwee of the National Catholic Reporter in Rome. Thanks very much.
MCELWEE: Yeah, thanks for having me.