Ansel Adams, the world famous photographer whose landscape images are national treasures, was instrumental in developing a technique to gauge proper exposure in outdoor scenes. He called it the zone system and it was based on 10 “zones,” or ranges of light, from the blackest black to the whitest white.
Adams used his zone system to capture some of the most memorable black and white landscape scenes, such as Half Dome at Yosemite National Park.
What made Adams so successful was his understanding of light; that between black and white, many subtle tones of light and darkness exist. Knowing what range or zone to use in a photographic exposure brought out stunning details of light and contrast in his scenes.
In his apostolic exhortation on the family, “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”), Pope Francis gives his own interpretation of seeing the world in different zones of light. When it comes to the reality of family life, he says, things simply are not black and white.
The document, approximately 52,000 words minus footnotes, was released April 8. It is the pope’s closing reflection on the 2014 and 2015 synods of bishops on the family. The two synods provided ample opportunity to discuss the challenges of family life, including outreach to divorced Catholics, same-sex couples and cohabitating couples.
Rather than approaching these and many other family issues from a legalistic or authoritarian angle, Pope Francis, as has become his style, addresses them from a merciful stand.
In describing the current reality of the family, Pope Francis says that “there is no sense in simply decrying present-day evils, as if this could change things. Nor is it helpful to try to impose rules by sheer authority. What we need is a more responsible and generous effort to present the reasons and motivations for choosing marriage and family…”
He introduces the Catholic teaching called moral conscience and encourages the use of a well-formed conscience as a moral compass. The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls conscience “a judgment or reason by which the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act” (1796).
Pope Francis refers to moral conscience at least 13 times and stresses the need for a properly formed conscience.
“We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families,” writes Pope Francis. “We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.”
Near the end of his document, Pope Francis reminds pastors to be merciful and to consider “mitigating factors” when counseling the faithful.
“The church possesses a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations,” he writes. “Hence it is can no longer simply be said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace. More is involved here than mere ignorance of the rule.”
While the church’s mission of saving souls has not changed, Pope Francis makes us aware that journeying with sinners should be done with outstretched, merciful arms and not pointing, accusatory fingers.
Too often we like things black and white, even though many shades of gray permeate the scene. Pope Francis understands this. He knows there are other ways to shepherd a flock than just a heavy handed, legalistic approach. In a way, Amoris Laetitia is Pope Francis’ zone system.