It is accomplished. Amoris Laetitia (hereafter AL) has been read from go to whoa. It was a bit of a slog at times. There are moments of golden lucidity and crystal clarity, with flashes of insight and inspiration. There are moments of ambiguity and the avoidance of plain speaking. There a stretches where the subject seems laboured, over-worked and even, at times, uneccessary. There are moments when one thinks when is reading the words of an earthy parish priest rather than the magisterial teaching of a sovereign pontiff to the Church and the world.
Given all this, it is hard to avoid the impression that AL is the work of many hands, not just one or two as would normally be the case. This is not surprising since it is quite explicitly and deliberately the fruit of the Synod of Bishops on Marriage and Family Life. It is really a compromise document, seeking to satisfy all and, judging by the headlines I have seen, pleasing very few. Compromises ever were thus on the whole.
Read properly, in the light of previous magisterial teaching, there is nothing of particular note here. Indeed it would probably be quickly forgotten but for chapter 8. Here we find evasion, obfuscation and ambiguity. It is as though Francis is always on the verge of permitting a new way of proceeding, but never actually saying it. He can be construed as strongly implying a change in pastoral practice but he never explicitly permits it. In fact, the chapter read as a whole changes nothing on the practical level or on the doctrinal level. One has to spin it vigorously to make it support the case for change in the Church’s pastoral practice towards remarried divorcees.
Rather than offer a systematic assessment of AL, which would require more time and more space, what follows is a purposeful ramble, pointing out the sights on an exploratory walk through the black forest (see here, those who do not remember the 60s and 70s). It will not be the work of a professional moral theologian or canonist, but the observations of a concerned priest eager to see the Church lead the world along the right path. I am writing without the benefit of having read the other commentaries now emerging. In another post I will collect some of the better ones that have been suggested to me or found by me.
The first word of the gospel proclamation is Repent. The Letter to the Hebrews is one long treatise on the mission of Christ to deal with human sinfulness once and for all. The operation of divine mercy is achieved through a wonderful exchange between God and humankind: we repent and God forgives—or more precisely, our repentance opens us to receive the forgiveness of our sins ever on offer in Christ. I mention all this to offer (dare I say it) a hermeneutic for interpreting Amoris Laetitia, a lens through which to read the document.
The first chapter opens with the Synod’s noting the many “signs of crisis in the institution of marriage”. To be honest, it seems more precise to say that the crisis is not in marriage but in modern people’s ability to enter into marriage properly. The problem is not with marriage but with the society in which Christian marriage seeks to endure and to flourish. Marriage is under attack. So it would be right to say there is a crisis that Christian marriage must face, not a crisis in marriage itself.
In §3 there appears what I suspect many will see as a type of double speak. Francis affirms that “[u]nity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary”, and then adds a but: “but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it.” In its proper context there is nothing remarkable in this statement; but…
Pope Francis then continues with offering the biblical context for marriage, noting that in Genesis the creation of humankind as man and woman is a reflection of the image of God (§10), and that a couple’s conjugal relationship bearing fruit in a family images the mystery of God who is a trinity of persons established as one in a “communion of love” (§11). Highlighting this trinitarian imaging in marriage is a welcome complement to the christological one, which sees marriage as an icon of Christ’s conjugal relationship with his Church.
AL continues in its biblical tour showing the course and effects of the human fall as detailed in scripture, usually with reference to its impact on marriage and the family’s relationship with the Trinity, though in §26 we find a jarring diversion into ecology which does not really fit with the rest. Its inclusion kept some party or other happy I guess.
When he arrives at Jesus’ encounter with the woman caught in adultery he rightly remarks that “she meets not condemnation but the admonition to lead a more worthy life” (§27). This is a crucial reminder that Christ’s mercy always involves the exhortation to go and sin no more. The woman is forgiven not condemned, yes, but she also admonished not approved.
Chapter Two deals with the challenges of families, and begins with the crucial insight, “The welfare of the family is decisive for the future of the world and that of the Church.” (§31) Here too is another lens through which to read AL. I like to think that this articulates the fundamental motivation for Pope Francis in calling the Synod and writing this document. It goes on to note the Synod’s concern at the effects of individualism on the family unit, and the dangerous idea that can emerge that “one’s personality is shaped by his or her desires, which are considered absolute” (§33).
Also noted is the danger that freedom, when lacking “noble goals or personal discipline… degenerates into an inability to given oneself generously to others”, the culture of narcissistic self-absorption we see all round us. The effect this has on the family is described, noting that “to confuse genuine freedom with the idea that each individual can act arbitrarily, as if there were no truths, values and principles to provide guidance, and everything were possible and permissible” means that the ideal of marriage is “swept aside whenever it proves inconvenient or tiresome.” (§34) AL then asserts that an over-idealisation of marriage on the part of Christians has “not helped to make marriage more desirable and attractive, but quite the opposite.” (§36)
In §39 he unpacks the “culture of the ephemeral” in which many “believe, along the lines of social networks, that love can be connected or disconnected at the whim of the consumer, and the relationship quickly ‘blocked’.” Thus we end up treating
affective relationships the way we treat material objects and the environment: everything is disposable; everyone uses and throws away, takes and breaks, exploits and squeezes to the last drop. Then, goodbye. Narcissism makes people incapable of looking beyond themselves, beyond their own desires and needs. Yet sooner or later, those who use others end up being used themselves, manipulated and discarded by that same mind-set. (§39)
His analysis of the poverty of much in modern culture and society is clear and rings true, and is well worth the read, such as Francis’ assessment that “the great poverty of contemporary culture is loneliness, arising from the absence of God in a person’s life and the fragility of relationships.” (§43) He goes on to note such challenges to family life as social media and technology, and drugs. Pope Francis is at pains to point out the necessity of the family not just to the Church but to society as a whole, since “No union that is temporary or closed to the transmission of life can ensure the future of society.” (§52)
AL articulates the essential roles of both mother and father, lamenting the modern phenomenon of the increasing absence of fathers which “gravely affects family life and the upbringing of children and their integration into society” (§55). This leads into a discussion of “the ideology of gender” in the next paragraph, and an affirmation of sexual difference as biologically given, and which “must be received as a gift” (§56). Here we have a clear nod to such modern debates as the provision of toilets for the transgendered.
Chapter Three deals with the vocation of the family, which is solid and largely unremarkable expect perhaps for §68 (coincidence?) which offers a rather pale affirmation of Paul VI’s teaching in Humanae Vitae. Pope Francis does offer solid bits from Benedict XVI (e.g., in §70), and pursues again the trinitarian character of the family.
In §72 he repeats the modern mantra that marriage is a vocation. However, I am a bit of a heretic in this regard. In fact, to equate marriage with other vocations, such as to religious life or the priesthood, seems to devalue the sacrament of marriage. If Genesis teaches us anything it is that the union of man and woman in conjugal love as an icon of God’s relationship with his people and a reflection of the Triune life of God. In fact, this union is integral to the creation of man and woman. Marriage is thus, in a sense, hard-wired into human nature; it is our default setting. If we accept this then we can appreciate vocations to the various other states of life as divinely-willed departures from the norm for the sake of the Church as a whole, and for the support of conjugal love in marriage in particular. The priestly vocation nourishes and supports the life of families through providing the sacraments and pastoral care; the consecrated religious highlights to families and married couples the supernatural end of marriage: intimate, self-giving union with God in holiness.
In §78 we find the first hints of what most readers are seeking, discussion of “the faithful who are living together, or are only married civilly, or are divorced and remarried.” We are told the Church turns in love to those who “participate in her life in an imperfect manner”, which is a carefully crafted description if ever there was one. But for all that, it is true. As AL asserts elsewhere, these people are not ipso facto outside the Church, though their membership can only be exercised in an incomplete way. In her pastoral care of them the Church “seeks the grace of conversion for them”, which does rather set the right tone for all pastoral care. But AL sees in a stable union when found in such irregular situations an “opportunity”.
§82 renews the “message” of Humanae Vitae, regarding the dignity of the person as a determinant in “morally assessing methods of regulating birth”. In this it is quoting the Synod’s relatio. Again this is a fairly weak affirmation of HV, but it is a real one. In §83 there is a much stronger denunciation of abortion, and of the duty of those who work in health care to opt for conscientious objection rather than assist in this crime.
Chapter 4 deals with love in marriage. One of its emphases is to insist on love as an activity rather than a feeling. It includes a lengthy and occasionally wearying exegesis of 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. It contains some excellent and useful insights but it does begin to pall a little. Finally, the reason for this long excursus is revealed in §120 – “Our reflection on Saint Paul’s hymn to love has prepared us to discuss conjugal love.”
The discussion proceeds along traditional lines, and is rather well put. Of particular note is the recognition that the lifelong union of the marriage vows is “rooted in the natural inclinations of the human person.” (§123). This rings true and rather confirms my instinct noted above, that marriage is not a vocation in the sense that we use the word, but hard-wired into us a our default state of life, and from which the sovereign will of God may call us for the good of the Church. Marriage of course is itself not just for the benefit of the Church but “a social institution… for the good of society as a whole”. (§131) This justifies the Church’s struggle to preserve the integrity of civil marriage as well as sacramental marriage, as both build a fruitful and healthy social order.
There is a very Franciscan touch in §134 when Pope Francis speaks with what is clearly his own voice:
Marital love is not defended primarily by presenting indissolubility as a duty, or by repeating doctrine, but by helping it to grow ever stronger under the impulse of grace.
This might appear at first glance a step towards the dilution of the doctrinal aspect of marriage, but it strikes me more as an example of the Pope’s desire to adopt a more positive tone in presenting the Church’s teaching. If the Church nurtures and nourishes the bond of marital love an overriding emphasis on the duty of lifelong commitment becomes unnecessary. Here the Pope brandishes the primacy of the pastoral. He wants to present indissolubility not as a burdensome duty but the the stable ground on which charity and holiness have the scope to grow and weather the inevitable storms.
Otherwise in this chapter we see the Pope at his most parish-priesty. “Take time, quality time” (§137); “Keep an open mind.” (§139) It is all sound enough if not overly pontifical at times.
As he moves onto the erotic dimension of conjugal love, he reiterates sound teaching—”Sexuality is not a means of gratification or entertainment; it is an interpersonal language wherein the other is taken seriously, in his or her sacred and inviolable dignity.”(§151)—but I fear he misses an opportunity.
In this section the theology of the body makes it mark, but it would have been wonderful here to highlight the sacred, iconographic nature of conjugal sexual love. Conjugal love is an icon of the intense and all-absorbing union in love between Christ and his Church, between God and the human soul. In this context celibacy could be displayed in its proper light. The celibate renounces the good of the physical expression of this divine iconography in order to reveal in stark relief the essential, ecclesial, and eschatological value and meaning of conjugal love for humanity: growth in charity, in self-giving, in holiness, for the sake of the Church and of the world, and ordered to eternal union with God.
To be fair, AL does go on to describe rather well the depersonalisation of sexual love in modern society, and its reduction to an “instrument of self-assertion and… selfish satisfaction” (§153), as well as the objectification of the human body and its reduction to a disposable commodity. A little later it describes virginity very well as a form of love and delineates its relationship with marriage, though again without fully elaborating its mystical-iconographic value.
Chapter 5 deals with the fruitfulness of conjugal love in the issue of children and the building of families. Since this is turning into an epic tome to rival AL, suffice it to say that it is well worth reading. It describes the value and need for real and healthy maternal and paternal presences in the life of children, noting especially the too-common absence of the father in our world. The role of the absent father in gender confusion would merit serious study.
Particularly good in this section is the promotion of adoption as a true expression of conjugal love (§179). Through adoption, childless couples and children without parents are able to give to each other the gift of family life. But here again is perhaps another missed opportunity. It would have been wonderful to explore the possibility that infertility may be an implicit call to establish a family in a different way, in a way profoundly generous and truly selfless. The status of the baptised as adoptive sons of the Father offers rich soil for promoting adoption. Perhaps if all infertile couples sought to adopt children the yearning for IVF would be vastly reduced.
There follows a mystifying section exhorting families not to see themselves as “overly different or ‘set apart'”. (§182) This section strikes me as laboured and needless. I must be missing something. After this there are more accessible sections on the duties of children and the necessity of the elderly for family flourishing. In §197 there is passing mention of children with disabilities. It is all too fleeting and represents another missed opportunity to meet families where many of them are. To develop the truth that children with disabilities are not a burden or punishment, but offer privileged opportunities to experience the Cross and grow in a love that is truly godly, profoundly Christ-like. Of course we can always point out things we feel should have been mentioned. But here was a valuable opportunity missed, especially as the movement towards designer-babies and the abortion of disabled babies gains strength.
Chapter 6 offers pastoral perspectives. In §202 I found myself troubled by this passage:
In the replies given to the worldwide consultation, it became clear that ordained ministers often lack the training needed to deal with the complex problems currently facing families. The experience of the broad oriental tradition of a married clergy could also be drawn upon.
Is there possibly a little time-bomb here with this subtle advocacy of the married clergy of the eastern churches? And married clergy are not by this fact alone necessarily always better able to deal with the pastoral needs of families. Indeed sometimes the celibate pastor can benefit from the fuller perspective on a troubled situation that celibacy gives him. Really, though, this is again an opportunity to promote a proper lay apostolate, namely that of married couples within a parish who can use their experience and knowledge to support other couples. They would need to be selected by the pastor and monitored adequately. Married deacons and their wives are obvious examples, and are already in place.
There is much space given to the need for proper and comprehensive marriage preparation to serve as a kind of “‘initiation’ into the sacrament of matrimony” (§207). It is all very sensible. And again I find whiffs of support for my contention that marriage is hard-wired into human nature when AL declares that “[f]or every couple, marriage preparation begins at birth” (§208). Of course the immediate context is that of children being formed by the witness to conjugal life and love offered by their parents. §222 is a rather veiled advocacy of Humanae Vitae‘s teaching on contraception.
This brought a wry grin:
Nowadays, pastoral care for families has to be fundamentally missionary, going out to where people are. We can no longer be like a factory, churning out courses that for the most part are poorly attended. (§230)
It’s time for more clergy to embrace parish visiting again.
Now we head into the more contentious area of troubled marriages and broken commitments. There was common sense in its exhortation to accept that “divorced people who have not remarried… often bear witness to marital fidelity, [and] ought to be encouraged to find in the Eucharist the nourishment they need to sustain them in their present state of life.” (§242) To be divorced, especially when the aggrieved party, and yet refrain from entering any other conjugal relationship is noble self-sacrifice and an honouring of the marriage bond. It is thereby a means of great grace and blessings.
§243 is not as good as it should be. It exhorts that the divorced who have entered into a new union “should be made to feel part of the Church”. They already are part of the Church, and this talk of being made to feel it seems to be pandering to emotions and feelings rather than the necessity for living and acting with Gospel integrity. One is left asking the question, “How does he propose that this should be done?”
The primacy of care for children of broken marriages is discussed, as is the care of children with same-sex attraction, and these sections are much better.
Chapter 7 deals with the education of children. It is good. It raises such issues as developing the habit of virtue in children, the understanding that actions have consequences, the need for repentance for misdeeds and the obligation to make reparation to the one sinned against, and the necessity of fostering the understanding and practice of delayed gratification. It discusses sex education, highlighting the need to teach modesty as a positive, not prudish, value which protects the self against objectification for others’ gratification. And family catechesis is strongly advocated. It needs no further dissection here.
Chapter 8 is where the potential problems emerge. Is it just me or is its title disturbing? “Accompanying, discerning, and integrating weakness”. The opening sentences are pussy-footing:
The Synod Fathers stated that, although the Church realizes that any breach of the marriage bond “is against the will of God”, she is also “conscious of the frailty of many of her children”. (§291)
I think this is a veiled way of saying that to break the marriage bond is a sin and that most people will be tempted to commit that sin at some stage. A more explicit approach would be more effective. Sin is not a dirty word (though it might be a dirty deed). Let’s use it; Christ did. The Year of Mercy is invoked and with it the perceived need for the Church to “accompany… the weakest of her children”. He then likens the Church to a “field hospital”, which is fair enough. But hospitals do not accompany; they heal.
The chapter goes on to express the necessity of pastoral care for those in irregular situations. It manifests a desire to understand the context of individuals’ situations, which is quite right. It is reasonable to assume that around 50% of such people could be seen as victims of the original breakdown. And yes, they do require pastoral care.
The “law of gradualness” is invoked (§295) with the authority of St John Paul II.
This is not a “gradualness of law” but rather a gradualness in the prudential exercise of free acts on the part of subjects who are not in a position to understand, appreciate, or fully carry out the objective demands of the law.
Here we see the seeds of a divorce of doctrine from pastoral practice. The sentence requires significant unpacking. I am reluctant to attempt to do so.
In §297 there is more potentially problematic material. The expressed desire to “help each person find his or her proper way of participating in the ecclesial community” is well put, and the word “proper” is crucial. Some ways of ecclesial participation would be improper for remarried divorcees, but not all. They can come to Mass, receive blessings, and pray. They can even make a spiritual communion. But still there is the elephant in the room, the new marital union which is objectively adulterous, whatever there might be in subjective mitigation.
Francis bursts into the light with the sentence “No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel!” This is either nonsense or just sloppy. No man can condemn another for ever; but of course it is not ours to condemn at all. But God can condemn forever, which is another way of saying that he respects our choices made in full freedom, even of they are rejections of his own life and love. That is clearly to be found in the Gospel.
In §299 the question is begged when it arrives the Synodal observation that “the baptized who are divorced and civilly remarried need to be more fully integrated into Christian communities in the variety of ways possible, while avoiding any occasion of scandal.” That would be quite a feat. But what is this fuller integration? Once again there is the appearance of evasion and pussy-footing.
This question is at the back of my mind on reading a little further on:
Such persons need to feel not as excommunicated members of the Church, but instead as living members, able to live and grow in the Church and experience her as a mother who welcomes them always, who takes care of them with affection and encourages them along the path of life and the Gospel.
One can almost hear various hands, gripping their pens, jostling to get their bit in. This bit is not adequate to the reality of the Church’s mission to bind and loose. When she binds, when she allows the sinner to feel the force of the consequences of his sin, this is motherly. Mothers correct and insist on amendment in their children, not to exercise their power but to bring about what is best for the children. Sometimes we must feel the sting of shame and guilt, so that they can bring us to repentance and amendment.
In the next section another hand gets ink to paper. When dealing with the process of “accompaniment and discernment” which involves conversation with a priest to promote “a correct judgment”, and since “gradualness is not in the law itself, this discernment can never prescind from the Gospel demands of truth and charity, as proposed by the Church” (§300). Gradualness is here seemingly much mitigated. Am I the only one a little confused?
§302 quotes the Catechism’s list of factors that mitigate subjective guilt and moral responsibility for a gravely sinful action, and holds that to judge an action as objectively gravely sinful is not to impute proportionate culpability to the sinner. No one denies this, not even the most conservative of theologians. But this is not the issue. The issue is really how to integrate someone who is manifestly living in a gravely sinful state, adultery, with participation in the life of the Church. The danger of scandal, of leading others astray, of appearing to approve what is beyond approval, is the real nub.
So even one whose moral responsibility for a gravely sinful situation is mitigated, if that situation is not repented of and the sinner’s life amended there is an objective problem for the Church as well as the individual. There is much that the individual can do in the life of the Church, but receiving Communion is not one of them. Of course, Communion is yet to be mentioned but its presence in the wings is palpable.
But if we accept that neither Christ nor his Church are brutes, then we must accept that while they must safeguard the ninety-nine who have not strayed, they will not leave abandoned the one who has. The Church of Christ can bring grace and support to the strayed in many other ways than Communion. Christ’s Spirit will be fully active in such a person’s soul. Spiritual communion can bring a rich haul of grace to such a person.
Moreover the witness of such a submission to the consequences of such sin is a powerful incentive to fellow Christians to pray for the sinner and assist him along the way. Part of that encouragement is detailed in §306, when perhaps yet another hand has quoted 1 Peter and the Book of Daniel, that love covers a multitude of sins, and that the sinner can atone for his sins with acts of righteousness. The Church can encourage the sinner to prepare for the necessary amendment by doing the works of love, which themselves can begin to reform a deformed soul.
To keep people like me confused, we read in the next section that a “lukewarm attitude, any kind of relativism, or an undue reticence in proposing that ideal, would be a lack of fidelity to the Gospel and also of love”.
Just when we come to the climax and indeed the whole point of this exhortation, we find indecisiveness, a hedging of bets, vacillation and ambiguity, and a failure to speak plainly. This both saves Amoris Laetitia from outright error and undermines the traditional teaching and pastoral approach of the Church.
I am certain that this is not what the Holy Father wanted to do. But I am not so certain that some of the hands who were jostling for pen space did not have in mind the same ambiguity and the same openness to distortion and misinterpretation that mars so many of the conciliar documents. Will we find the sounder, and clearer, parts of AL ignored and the ambiguities taken out of their proper context and put to a pastorally and doctrinally destructive use?
But it is this final reluctance to mandate any substantial change to the bottom line of the Church’s pastoral practice that may make Amoris Laetitia something of a lame duck, and a let down for those desperate for change much as Humane Vitae was half a century ago. We can only hope that its less central teachings, such as the value of adoption, might come to the fore and truly enrich the life of married couples and of the whole Church.
The bottom line is that I cannot see but that the Church’s traditional understanding of divine mercy has not changed: repentance -> forgiveness -> grace to amend. And the gospel’s pastoral message to the repentant likewise remains the same as before: Your sins are forgiven; go and sin no more.