Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis's much-anticipated apostolic exhortation based upon the latest meetings of the synod of bishops, has attracted attention because it takes a pastoral approach to the problems of people in "complex marital situations."
That approach is neither so new nor such a radical departure from current practice as some commentators seem to think. What is new is the fact that we now have a pope whose view of pastoral care has been shaped by the Scripture-based spirituality of the Jesuits instead of philosophy (John Paul) or academic theology (Benedict).
Apart from clerics wedded to the rigorism of those two popes, most priests in their dealings with people pained by the often messy reality of life with other people find in the pastorally oriented approach of Francis support for what we have been doing all along.
So, I agree with those who find Amoris Laetitia a breath of the Spirit blowing across the face of the church.
There is, however, something that Francis has not given the attention it needs.
In their presentation to the synod, the bishops of Japan pointed out that some 90 percent of Japanese Catholics are married to unbelievers. The bishops felt that the deliberations in Rome presupposed that marriage is between two Christians, usually both Catholic, who struggle to be faithful while forming a Christian family.
The pope does take note of Christians who are married to followers of non-Christian religious traditions and of the problems and opportunities their situation can present. However, in much of East Asia, marriages between Christians and non-Christians increasingly involve a spouse who is atheist, agnostic or simply uninterested in religion rather than someone from another religious tradition.
That phenomenon is not unique to East Asia. In fact, it is increasingly the situation in the West. That makes it all the more surprising that Francis does not explicitly deal with this situation, but seems to aim his message at those who are religious of whatever flavor, ignoring trends in his own homeland as well as in Europe and North America.
The closest he comes to offering a word to those families where one spouse is nonreligious is a paragraph that can be seen as including them, but without dealing with the specific challenges and opportunities their situation presents.
"In some cases, one of the spouses is not baptized or does not want to practice the faith. This can make the other's desire to live and grow in the Christian life difficult and at times painful. Still, some common values can be found and these can be shared and relished. In any event, showing love for a spouse who is not a believer, bestowing happiness, soothing hurts and sharing life together represents a true path of sanctification." (Paragraph 228)
Yet, the situation of those families where the Christian spouse may be the only religious member is not like that of mixed-religion families. In cases of mixed religion, at least the value of religion is accepted to some extent by all. But, what has the church to offer someone who lives in an environment that effectively denies the value of religion?
The urgent need to develop pastoral approaches to such families goes beyond the needs of just those families. In many ways, such families are increasingly a microcosm of the modern world. Christians are increasingly surrounded by people for whom any religion is of little or no interest. In fact, it may, as happens in some families, be a matter of outright hostility to the very idea of faith.
Of course, we should not expect the pope to deal with every situation, nor does he seem to think that is his job. In fact, he says, "Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs."
The bishops of at least China, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea and Taiwan should, probably cooperatively, begin the work of developing theological and pastoral approaches and tools to provide care and encouragement to Catholics who are in marriages where they may be the sole religiously observant member of their family. The words of St. Paul (I Cor. 7:12-16) might be a starting point for their reflection: "For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband.... Wife, for all you know, you might save your husband. Husband, for all you know, you might save your wife."
In this matter, the church in East Asia is already becoming a harbinger of what the church is or will be facing in much of the rest of the world. Perhaps more attention to such families will give new ideas for how to engage in mission throughout the modern world.
Maryknoll Father William Grimm is publisher of ucanews.com and based in Tokyo.