Cardinal Wuerl’s pastoral plan on Amoris Laetitia points the way forward


Last weekend, Washington’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl issued a pastoral plan on the implementation of Amoris Laetitia.

This text makes an important step towards moving the church beyond the controversies generated by the document, controversies largely confined to the pages of the Catholic press, and focuses on what Amoris Laetitia is really about, revitalizing the church’s ministry to families, married couples, those preparing for marriage, and those whose marital situation has led them to feel like they no longer belong within the fold.

Recently, there has been a great deal of debate about whether or not Amoris Laetitia constitutes a paradigm shift, and whether such a shift is even possible for a church that believes its doctrines are revealed by God.

I wrote about that controversy here, and my colleague at The Tablet, editor Brendan Walsh, addressed the issue in this interview with Cardinal Blase Cupich, which includes a video of the cardinal’s lecture at the Von Hügel Institute on this subject.

I would submit that Cardinal Wuerl’s pastoral plan essentially puts that debate to rest: On virtually every page of the plan, we see that the shift is not in what the church teaches about marriage and family life.

The shift is in how the church ministers to the people of God.

The word that dominates this pastoral plan is accompaniment. In different sections, we read:

In Amoris Laetitia, the Holy Father gives priority to the practice of pastoral accompaniment, which in its most fundamental aspect involves leading others closer to God.

We begin each encounter mindful of everyone’s innate human dignity.

Pope Francis writes: “The Church will have to initiate everyone — priests, religious and laity — into this ‘art of accompaniment’ which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other (cf. Exodus 3:5).”


Early in his pontificate, Pope Francis shared a helpful image of a pastor who accompanies. To a group of priests gathered in Assisi, Pope Francis asked, “What could be more beautiful for us than walking with our people?… sometimes in front, sometimes behind and sometimes in the middle.” He further explains, “in front in order to guide the community, in the middle in order to encourage and support; and at the back in order to keep it united and so that no one lags too, too far behind, to keep them united” (Address, October 4, 2013).


If there is a breakdown that leads to separation or even divorce, that loving accompaniment by the Church needs to continue, said the Holy Father. “It is important that the divorced who have entered a new union should be made to feel part of the Church,” he added, and pastoral care to their children needs to be “the primary concern” (AL, 243-45).


The ministry of accompaniment is a collaborative effort of priests and laity who understand themselves to be missionary disciples, who experience the love of the Lord in their encounter with him and who seek to share it with others.

The cardinal has sections on “accompanying the hurting,” “accompanying the anonymous” and an especially interesting section on “accompanying the distracted.”

All three, but especially this last, reveal a frank but not fretful assessment of the challenges modern families face, a sense of realism about what is possible, especially at first, but also a great confidence in the fact that God’s grace is already active in the lives of people and, to repeat a theme of Amoris Laetitia, that God’s revelation continues especially in family life.

It is, as it is in the Scriptures, a privileged place for God’s self-revelation.

This is the paradigm shift.

It is not enough for a minister of the Gospel to repeat what the Church teaches and hope that is enough to make marriages more solid, still less bring comfort to the divorced and remarried. Continue reading

  • Michael Sean Winters is a Visiting Fellow at Catholic University’s Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.
  • Image: Real Clear Religion
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