Well, I guess my friend Michael Brendan Dougherty did not get my memo counseling charity towards Pope Francis, since his column is titled “The Cowardice and Hubris of Pope Francis.” Here’s a representative passage:

Chapter 8 of this heralded document begins by describing the kind of person in an “irregular union” who might be considered for pastoral counseling back toward communion. It describes that person as someone possessed of “humility, discretion, and love for the Church.” The question of whether this person has sincere sorrow for sin and a firm purpose to amend their life is side-stepped. Repentance and conversion? How old fashioned.

Now, there’s the problem: this account of what Francis wrote is simply, flatly, incontestably false. Here’s is the relevant passage from Amoris Laetitia (p. 231), which is a quotation from Relatis Finalio:

“Conversation with the priest, in the internal forum, contributes to the formation of a correct judgment on what hinders the possibility of a fuller participation in the life of the Church and on what steps can foster it and make it grow. Given that gradualness is not in the law itself (cf. Familiaris Consortio, 34), this discernment can never prescind from the Gospel demands of truth and charity, as proposed by the Church. For this discernment to happen, the following conditions must necessarily be present: humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching, in a sincere search for God’s will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it”. These attitudes are essential for avoiding the grave danger of misunderstandings, such as the notion that any priest can quickly grant “exceptions”, or that some people can obtain sacramental privileges in exchange for favours.

As is quite evident, this presents pretty much the opposite of the view that Michael attributes to Francis. It does not describe a person in an “irregular union” as simply having “humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching”; rather, it says that only if the priest discerns the presence of such commitment can there be even the possibility of reconciliation. The person concerned must know that his or her response to the call of the Church is imperfect, and must want to perfect it; otherwise the whole business of reconciliation is a non-starter.

I think the deeper question here is: Are there such people? — that is, people who have genuine love of the Church, and a genuine desire to live in grace, but are living in habitual sin? I would like to think so, because I believe that I am such a person. For instance, — I’ll keep short what could be a long list —I know, and have long known, that I have too many possessions, that I am too fond of my possessions, and that I should live more simply and give more to the poor. You could say that I am in an irregular union with American capitalism — indeed that is what you should say. I believe that my way of life, taken as a whole, is implicated in serious patterns of sinfulness, including patterns that Jesus singled out for frequent and harsh denunciation. And yet I also believe that I love God and wish to know Him, and love the Church and wish to serve it.

It is possible that I am mistaken about all this, and that when I go to Judgment the Lord will say to me, “Depart from me, I never knew you.” But if I do have what the Book of Common Prayer calls “a right understanding of myself,” then it would be inaccurate to describe me as a rebel against God’s grace, but rather a vessel of clay, breakable, porous, fragile — a poor thing, but God’s own.

And if this can be true of me, who has received much good instruction, much good training in God’s ways, then surely it can also be true of people who have been catechized quite thoroughly by a hyper-sexualized late capitalism that teaches (every day and in every possible way) the gospel of self-fulfillment, but who nevertheless vaguely discern that there may be more to this world than advertisers tell us, and that the Church holds the keys to a greater Kingdom. Those who, in this world, catch even a glimpse of a possibility that the narrow and difficult path is better than the broad welcoming highway need all the encouragement the Church can muster. For this is the nature of our God: “A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench: he shall bring forth judgment unto truth.”