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June 13, 2016

Any who believe a chasm exists between the papacies of Popes Francis and Benedict XVI must contend with the fact Pope Francis chose Vienna's Cardinal Christophe Schonborn as his spokesman at the release of his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of the Family).

Moreover, the pope was later asked whether the document opens new possibilities for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion in certain cases. His response: "I could say 'yes' and leave it at that. But that would be too brief a response. I recommend that all of you read the presentation made by Cardinal Schonborn" at the April 8 press conference.

Schonborn has a long history with Pope Benedict. He studied under Joseph Ratzinger decades ago; when Ratzinger was prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), he made Schonborn chief editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The two are on much the same wavelength.

Significantly, when Pope Francis named Schonborn as his spokesman at the Amoris Laetitia press conference, he passed over the current CDF prefect - Cardinal Gerhard Muller. It was Schonborn, not Muller, whom the pope saw as the document's most faithful interpreter.

In his presentation, Schonborn made at least two essential points. The first is the frequent tendency to separate marriages into the "regular" and "irregular." The first kind meets all the Church's requirements; the second doesn't. The very use of the term "irregular," Schonborn states, implies a clear distinction between regular and irregular.

With such terminology, the Church "may cause harm and can give the sensation of exclusion," he said.

The cardinal also noted that two discussion groups, composed mainly of bishops, at last fall's synod began with each participant discussing their own family situations. Almost all participants experience so-called irregularities in their own families.

Schonborn's second major point is that Amoris Laetitia proposes not a new set of rules, but greater trust in the consciences and discernment of both pastors and married people. He quotes the pope's comments that in preparing couples for marriage, the Church must do more than stress doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues. It must instead present marriage "more as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfillment than as a lifelong burden."

Twice, Schonborn quotes Pope Francis' statement, "We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them." He also emphasizes the papal teaching that, instead of multiplying rules, pastors must be encouraged "to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases."

Schonborn echoes the pope's belief that couples and pastors should be treated as adults, not as automatons, "externally conditioned and remotely controlled." The Church must be the instrument of God's mercy, mercy that is unconditional.