My initial judgment: The Joy of Love (Amoris Laetitia) is the best of Francis’ official documents yet—probably because he defers a great measure to bishops’ interventions at the synods on the family—even while it remains classic Francis in its tenor and length. That said, all will depend on how certain episcopal conferences and clerics interpret it, and whether they engage in willing misreading.
There’s no denying Francis is very different from Benedict in not only his style but also his exercise of the Magisterium, and many who love Benedict and his predecessor St. John Paul II have indeed suffered a sort of pontifical whiplash, and wonder where all the newfound ultramontanism was from 1978 to 2013. In any event, I suppose on one level it’s the Pope’s job to win over his people—human beings, even after baptism—but it’s also his people’s job to listen readily and charitably.
Hopefully many who have been hyperventilating will take a deep breath and find relief once they actually read the document. Which brings me to my first pointed piece of advice: Let’s all give Papa Francesco a break and simply read the thing with the deference the Vicar of Christ deserves. And then let’s help Francis and our own ordinary shepherds bring lost sheep back into a state of grace and regular participation in the life of the Church, instead of conducting ourselves as armchair antipopes.
Others here at Catholic World Report and many others at lesser publications (ahem!) will get into the necessary weeds of the details; I want to engage in more general overarching reflections on interpretive issues that will play out in its reception and application.
The first issue concerns the relationship of doctrine and practice, of the application of what the Church teaches is the truth about significant matters of supreme importance. On this matter Francis writes:
I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium. Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it. This will always be the case as the Spirit guides us towards the entire truth (cf. Jn 16:13), until he leads us fully into the mystery of Christ and enables us to see all things as he does. Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs. (AL 3)
And herein lies the rub: what Francis says is true as such, but it will suggest to some of the more impressionable that the truth is something all too elusive this side of the eschaton, something ultimately captive to culture.
The relationship between doctrine and practice must be seen as integral, perhaps in a way analogous to the hypostatic union of the two natures of Christ, where the eternal Son of God united with the man Jesus Christ in the temporal realm perfectly, in all his particularity. In some theologies, some ways of praxis, some parishes, some communities, doctrine and practice are estranged. It is true that some are very concerned with getting doctrinal boxes checked before all else, while others would never deny Nicea (for instance) but while checking the boxes in their own way find doctrine irrelevant or an obstacle. The irony, then, is that both sorts of Christians—the doctrinaires and the practicals, the theologians on one hand and the activists and pastors on the other—occupy the same space.
On this point Francis writes something helpful: “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” (AL 134). Put differently, doctrine is necessary but not sufficient. It’s not enough to acknowledge the truth—even demons do that, and shudder—but rather to live in it, with it, and under it. Conversely it would be nice for Francis to remind more directly those of a supposedly “pastoral” bent—like many in the Rhineland episcopate—that pastoral practice can never evacuate doctrine of its relevance, by, say, suggesting Catholics are really just hung up on outmoded taboos when they affirm those Church teachings that progressives find embarrassing.
Here one might wish Francis were more like Benedict, who excelled in presenting both sides of every question in a both-and manner, and not in some vague, allegedly creative tension but in a way that shows the integral, coherent relationship between them. But to his credit, Francis’ exhortation makes great strides toward capturing the texture of the Church’s rich teaching on marriage and family, presenting Her doctrine as something nourishing.
The second major issue I would address concerns the interpretive issue of intertextuality. Don’t let the imposing neologism scare you. Although “intertextuality” was a term coined in the heyday of French post-structuralist theory by a Bulgarian genius (and here I do apologize for forcing you, gentle reader, to endure a slice of my academic expertise—be a good Catholic and offer it up), it basically concerns the realization that later texts appropriate earlier texts—by design, by accident, by quotation, by allusion—and affects our appropriation of both texts. The former shapes our reception of the latter, while the latter interprets the former by foregrounding some aspects and leaving others tacit.
The particular question here, then, concerns how we should understand Francis’ references and lack of references to prior authoritative texts like Familiaris Consortio. Indeed, AL 69 summarizes Pope St. John Paul II’s Gratissimam Sane and Familiaris Consortio and affirms their general relevance in a subsection entitled “The Family in the Documents of the Church.” Are we to understand that the entirety of each of those documents remains in direct force?
This is no mere academic discussion. Like doctrine, it has immense practical relevance. For in Familiaris Consortio 84, Pope St. John Paul II wrote the following concerning divorced persons who have remarried:
Reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage. This means, in practice, that when, for serious reasons, such as for example the children’s upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they “take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.”
On one hand, AL 69 mentions and seems to affirm the enduring relevance of Familiaris Consortio in toto, tout court. On the other hand, is there significance in the fact that The Joy of Love does not quote this particular adjuration to continence even while it does quote directly from FC 84 (in AL 79)? Does Francis’ silence here imply that divorced persons who have remarried may now copulate and commune comfortably in good Christian conscience, leaving Pope St. John Paul II’s teaching quietly in the past?
I would say no, that later magisterial interventions are bound by earlier. But that’s just me, an educated layman, neither priest, nor bishop, nor pope. The real answer will be given by clerics who put this document in force in their dioceses and parishes.
And so we come to the third issue. Whatever educated, thoughtful people make of documents—which are written with an eye to logic and reason and published so that the faithful may read them using their intellect—the fact is that clerical authorities implement them (or not) as they do.
And here we may have a problem. Some frustrated wag recently wrote that Francis writes with “invincible ambiguity,” and that any ambiguity can be—and will be—exploited willfully by those with agendas not really in line with the Magisterium. And sections 298ff leave plenty of room for innovative exploitation, perhaps proving the adage in cauda venenum. What the Church needs, then, isn’t more documents—we have had an ever-increasing number since the pontificate of Pope St. John XXIII, and most every one, from Veterum Sapientia to Summorum Pontificum, remains a dead letter at the diocesan level—but faithful bishops who will implement the Church’s teaching pastorally. As George Weigel wrote after the conclusion of the 2015 synod:
The experience of Synod 2015 also suggests that too many of the Church’s bishops have a tenuous grasp on doctrine and a palpable disinclination to discuss grave pastoral matters in their appropriately theological context. Pastorally skillful bishops are, obviously, an imperative. But we are in a moment of cultural crisis in the West. Bad ideas underwrite ideologies that make war on human nature, especially male-female complementarity, and deconstruct the basic norms and institutions that promote human flourishing (often deploying coercive state power to accelerate the deconstruction). Surely the Church can find pastorally skilled and humanly compelling men who can meet the challenge of those desperately deficient ideas, which are magnifying the sum total of human unhappiness—intellectually sophisticated pastors who can invite the walking wounded of postmodernity to the joy of conversion.
Only if Francis’ episcopal appointments measure up to his fidelity to and passion for the joy of the Gospel will The Joy of Love have salutary effect.
Perhaps the pope punted—like the final relatio there’s no real definitive direction on burning questions like Communion for the divorced and remarried, and the document leaves plenty of space for clerics right and left to claim victory. Some will see in the several references to Familiaris Consortio a ringing endorsement of a conservative read of Pope St. John Paul II’s Magisterium, or hear in the sound of silence tacit approval to move forward in new directions.
One hopes that our bishops and priests will receive the document in continuity with the Church’s teaching and bring many wayward and hurting Catholics back to full fellowship. If that doesn’t happen, one might ask what the point of synods is in any event, and the documents that issue forth from them. As St. Paul says, our God is not a God of confusion but a God of peace, whatever surprises some think he could have in store.
· Further reading – Amoris Laetitia: A CWR Symposium