VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Pope Francis is leading the church in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola and trying to help Catholics understand true discernment, especially when dealing with complex moral issues, said a Dominican theologian.

Father Jean-Miguel Garrigues, professor of patristic and dogmatic theology in France, said Pope Francis is using the Ignatian approach to help “believers face the practical — that is, the evangelical and theological — requirements of their faith,” including in the way the church approaches homosexuals, divorced and remarried Catholics, and cohabiting couples.

The Dominican priest, who assisted Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna in drafting the Catechism of the Catholic Church in the 1990s, spoke about Catholic morality, Pope Francis and the Synod of Bishops on the family in an interview with La Civilta Cattolica, the Jesuit journal reviewed by the Vatican before publication.


“All Christians live under the law of Christ and the indissolubility of marriage applies to all,” Father Garrigues said. That will not and cannot change, he said.

“The church is not a selective and closed club. Nor is it a social scene for those who are Catholic by tradition or even just for those capable of virtuous heroism.”

“Bending down with compassion to those persons wounded in their family lives, the pope is drawing on the ancient Roman tradition of ecclesial mercy toward sinners,” he said in the interview published in late May.

At the end of the second century, Father Garrigues said, the church of Rome began offering penances to those who committed a sin after baptism so that they could return to the path of righteousness and full communion with the church.

The popes always rejected the notion of a church made up only of the “pure,” he said. Instead, they favored a vision of the church composed of the justified and of sinners seeking salvation.

“The church is not a selective and closed club,” he said. “Nor is it a social scene for those who are Catholic by tradition or even just for those capable of virtuous heroism.”

“Christ truly died for all people without exception,” he said. “The objective always has been to ‘help souls’ in the concrete situation in which the Lord calls them.”

Pope Francis’ desire to reach out to people who have experienced sin and brokenness, including in their relationships, is not a negation of the teaching of St. John Paul II and retired Pope Benedict XVI, but relies on the fact that “the doctrinal and moral principles” on marriage and family “were reinforced by the two great popes,” Father Garrigues said.

Knowing that church teaching has been clearly and articulately explained, Pope Francis “trusts in ecclesial dynamism to find — little by little and sometimes with difficulty — the point where the truth of the basics of the faith and the merciful pastoral care of persons meet,” he said.

What the pope is hoping for, he said, has nothing to do with “subjective relativism” or the acceptance of objectively sinful situations, but rather with finding a way that takes people where they are and points them along the path toward greater virtue and holiness of life.

Those who want to see the synod issue a blanket welcome back to Communion of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics are asking the church to give into “moral relativism,” he said, while those who want to see the church reject all pastoral provisions for any of the couples tend to have “very rigid opinions when judging others.”

“I don’t see how a more merciful pastoral approach toward the ‘weak’ can cause ‘strong’ and sometimes heroic couples to feel unappreciated,” Father Garrigues said. “If this happens, it means their virtue is based too much on self-satisfaction and, consequently, is a ‘dead work’ because it is lacking charity.”

“Charity is expressed in mercy and is able to fraternally join with those who proceed haltingly on life’s path, recognizing the good in them and helping them carry some of their burden,” he said.

Pope Francis’ decision that the church must discuss ways to minister to people in relationships that are not perfect has caused pain and confusion for some Catholics, he said. But “like a good physician, (the pope) prefers to risk causing pain rather than to allow the evil of spiritual pride to hide,” he said.