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How Pope Francis' exhortation on love is -- and isn't -- changing the Catholic Church

It was two years in the making and followed two rowdy synods at the Vatican as well as a questionnaire sent to Catholics around the world. And though it deals with a host of family issues, Pope Francis’ 261-page meditation on love and family was keenly awaited by many last week for just one reason: Would it allow remarried divorcees to take Communion?

Anyone who gets married in the Roman Catholic Church and then divorces, instead of getting a Catholic annulment, is still considered married by the Vatican. So if you get remarried you are living in sin, ruling you out of receiving Communion in church on Sunday.

As the number of divorced Catholics has grown, progressives in the church have complained that murderers can take Communion but divorcees who remarry cannot. The issue has become the key battleground between liberals who look to Pope Francis for leadership, and hardcore fans of Catholic doctrine.

Here’s a look at how Francis addressed the issue in his apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” — Latin for “The Joy of Love.”

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So do remarried divorcees now get Communion or not?

Yes. And then again no. It is going to depend on your priest.

Francis states in The Joy of Love that he is not tearing up any rules, or writing any new ones, but says a little wiggle room is in order if people deserve it, and that will be down to the good judgment of priests.

“It is possible that in an objective situation of sin,” he writes, a person can be helped to live in God’s grace, and in certain cases, “this can include the help of the sacraments.”

Explaining who priests will give the nod to, Francis lists “unjustly abandoned” spouses, people remarrying for the sake of their children and anyone who is really sure their “previous and irreparably broken marriage had never been valid.”

Why did Francis chose this flexible path and not establish an unbending rule?

Arguably, Francis is sticking to a long-standing Catholic tradition of making rules that priests will sometimes allow their flock to bend if they do not exaggerate. It is also in keeping with Francis’ push for a more merciful church which spends less time sitting in judgment and more time considering each person’s situation.

“We put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance,” he wrote. “That is the worst way of watering down the Gospel.”

How clear is his message?

The Joy of Love does not make it that easy to understand where things stand. Francis chooses to make his clearest references to being flexible on Communion in two footnotes, number 336 and number 351, rather than in the main text of the document. That prompted some critics to claim he felt pinned down by the conservatives who had fought against change at the synods and decided to slip his plans into the small print.

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What did the conservatives make of that?

On Tuesday, one of Francis’ most noted conservative foes tore into the Joy of Love. Writing in the National Catholic Review, U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke of St. Louis went as far as claiming that it was entirely acceptable to ignore the document altogether.

“The Catholic Church, while insisting on the respect owed to the Petrine Office as instituted by Our Lord Himself, has never held that every utterance of the Successor of St. Peter should be received as part of her infallible magisterium,” he wrote.

Burke then sought to demolish Francis’ idea that priests out in the trenches need to use discernment instead of just preaching doctrine.

“There can be no opposition or contradiction between the Church’s doctrine and her pastoral practice, since, as the Catechism reminds us, doctrine is inherently pastoral,” he wrote.

Writing on the website Crux, U.S. canon law professor Edward Peters claimed that since Francis did not come out and clearly change the rules, nothing was changing.

“Bottom line, sacramental rules are made of words, not surmises,” Peters wrote. “Those who think Amoris Laetitia has cleared a path to the Communion rail for Catholics in irregular marriages are hearing words that the pope (whatever might be his personal inclinations) simply did not say.”

Was Francis clearer on his views of homosexuality?

It has been three years since the pope uttered his famous line “Who am I to judge?” about homosexuality, but in the document he made it very clear that his relaxed attitude to gays does not extend to marriage.

Same-sex unions, he wrote, “may not simply be equated with marriage. No union that is temporary or closed to the transmission of life can ensure the future of society.”

And what about women?

Francis slams the mistreatment of women, but sticks to the church’s view that men and women are very different creatures. He attacks “a society without sexual differences,” which he says destroys “the anthropological basis of the family,” and leads to school programs and laws “that promote a personal identity and emotional intimacy radically separated from the biological difference between male and female.”

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Where does he stand on unmarried couples living together?

Francis breaks with the church’s traditional frowning on cohabiting, arguing that couples often cannot afford to get married and therefore should not be lectured to. But he also asks priests not to give up, and to work on gently steering couples to the “eventual celebration of the sacrament of marriage.”

Any tips from the pope on what to do when you do get married?

Here, the Joy of Love really hits its stride, turning into a type of go-to guide for newlyweds with tips on staying happy and being patient and kind.

Francis urges parents to ensure their children say please and thank you and encourages them to throw parties. Daily routines for newlyweds can “include a morning kiss, an evening blessing, waiting at the door to welcome each other home, taking trips together and sharing household chores,” he writes.

And, poignantly, he adds, “At each new stage of married life, there is a need to sit down and renegotiate agreements, so that there will be no winners and losers, but rather two winners.”

Kington is a special correspondent.

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