Amoris Laetitia: Now for the Discernment.
“No one can be condemned forever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel! Here I am not speaking only of the divorced and remarried, but of everyone, in whatever situation they find themselves.”
-Pope Francis, March 8, 2016
The title and tone of Amoris Laetitia (the Joy of Love) set the context for Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation in response to the Bishops’ Synods on the Family.
The joy and love that the Church acknowledges and celebrates in marriage, family and associated human relationships, are central to the theological and pastoral ecology of the letter. What the Letter does primarily is to affirm the fact that the Christian family is the first Church, the micro-community in which the Faith is first taught and caught and that the family is, therefore, the essential foundational unit of the Universal Church.
Despite the inadequacies of the pre-synodal consultations and even despite the ludicrous situation where the Synod on the Family included few women and only a mere token group of non-voting laity, Francis’ Exhortation represents a significant and refreshing departure from those of his predecessors. Amoris Laetitia is remarkably enlightened and insightful as well as being a genuine celebration of Christian marriage, family life, the range of human relationships and the pastoral care needed to support, nurture and sustain them.
The need for discernment involves process and extends beyond Amoris Laeitita. The Church has an urgent need to address its gravely dysfunctional governance specifically in its inadequate involvement of its people and the inclusion of women in decision making at the highest levels. The Church also needs to establish structures that will enable a culture of respect and listening which has already been critical to the development of Francis’ insights in Amoris Laetitia.
While many will be disappointed in some of the conclusions reached, the Exhortation does attempt honestly and candidly to address the principal moral conundrums raised explicitly in the survey responses before the 2014 Extraordinary Synod. Francis acknowledges the grave shortcomings in this ‘consultative’ process.
The hand of Francis himself is clear in the synthesis of different views, in his typical search for consensus as well as in his ability to speak candidly and with his customary compassion. Furthermore, it is clear that he was listening closely to the advice of all, especially to theologians in the process of interpreting the survey material and in framing the pastoral response of the Exhortation.
The consensus achieved in the Synod German language group was decisive in heading off the stalling group nicknamed the Semper idem bloc (“ever the same”, that is, “the no change party”). Cardinal Christophe Schönborn, working closely with Cardinals Kasper and Cardinal Müller from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) broke deadlocks, found common ground and succeeded in forging consensus on the floor of the Synod. Schönborn and collaborators appealed to the central theological teaching of St Thomas Aquinas on human freedom and the primacy of Conscience. The appeal to the authority of Thomas effectively addressed the anxieties of those more inclined to the rule and regulation solutions and provided the key to unravelling imponderable problems practically intractable in both Sacramental theology and Canon Law.
Francis specifically teaches that considerable care and compassion must be exercised by pastors to make the Sacramental life of the Church, particularly the Eucharist, available to those struggling in circumstances which have placed them on the margins of the Church and handicapped their full participation in its life:
“In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, ‘I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy’. … I would also point out that the Eucharist ‘is not a prize for the perfect’ (but) nourishment for the weak.”
Francis admits to the disproportionate stress placed on the procreative ends of marriage which has often been at the expense of its unitive dimension. This will be taken, and probably with reason, as a candid admission that Humanae Vitae was not received by the vast majority of Catholics and that it has caused undue stress within the marriages of those less able to reconcile their consciences with artificial means of birth control:
“We need a healthy dose of self-criticism. Then too, we often present marriage in such a way that its unitive meaning, its call to grow in love and its ideal of mutual assistance are overshadowed by an almost exclusive insistence on the duty of procreation. Nor have we always provided solid guidance to young married couples, understanding their timetables, their way of thinking and their concrete concerns. At times we have also proposed a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families. This excessive idealization, especially when we have failed to inspire trust in God’s grace, has not helped to make marriage more desirable and attractive, but quite the opposite.” #36
“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.” #37
While the Exhortation rejects same sex marriage, readers will be encouraged by Francis’ genuinely compassionate sensitivity to the matter. He breaks ranks with his predecessors in rejecting the highly charged negative language used to describe homosexuality and same sex unions. He acknowledges the intrinsic value of genuinely human relationships. These were commonly described as ‘intrinsically disordered’ in previous doctrinal pronouncements. Francis comments:
“During the Synod, we discussed the situation of families whose members include persons who experience same-sex attraction, a situation not easy either for parents or for children. We would like before all else to reaffirm that every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration, while ‘every sign of unjust discrimination’ is to be carefully avoided, particularly any form of aggression and violence. Such families should be given respectful pastoral guidance, so that those who manifest a homosexual orientation can receive the assistance they need to understand and fully carry out God’s will in their lives.” # 250
As in all formal Church documents from the solemn pronouncements of Ecumenical Councils to Apostolic Exhortations, AL bears the signs of a difficult attempt at consensus. Conflicting, viewpoints are not only noted but in their turn give some form of validation. People will ‘cherry pick’ the pieces that support their own point of view. This kind of confusing accommodation of opposing positions has been minimised in Amoris Laetitia because Francis has informed the entire document with his own brand of transparent honesty and his trademark blend of pastoral understanding, mercy and compassion.
Above all, Frances refuses to infantalise people and he makes this abundantly clear by the fact that he trusts and is influenced by the God-given Sensus Fidei Fidelium (the Faithful’s innate sense of what is of the Faith). This was strongly affirmed by the Second Vatican Council.
Amoris Laeitita (the Joy of Love) is built upon unprecedented consultation across the diverse Church despite the process being less than perfect. It does, however, pave the way for further much needed renewal in the Church’s theology and in its pastoral and institutional practices. What is needed now is the collective discernment of the entire People of God to evaluate and test the teaching of Francis in this Exhortation. In this process, Catholics will need to identify those insights into the moral and pastoral realities which will be beneficial not only to them at the local level but that will also serve as foundations for further growth in the Universal Church.