Before it was released, the Papal Exhortation Amoris Laetitia received many online giggles for its title alone, which could be translated variously as “The Joy of Love”, “The Joy of Sex” or even “The Exuberance of Sex.” Had the document been signed by Benedict XVI, this choice of title would almost certainly have been deemed a “gaffe” by the popular press. However, it is clear from the first paragraph that the love the Exhortation purports to address is family love or what the ancients called storgē.
Amoris Laetitia is 256 pages long and arguably comprises at least three separate documents that have been mashed together. The first work includes the preamble, Chapters 2 and 3 and contains much to disturb the orthodox Catholic reader. The second work comprises Chapters 1, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 9 and is a lively and heartening work of easily-grasped pastoral theology. Work 3, or Chapter 8, is a torturous and tortured attempt to make adultery seem that much less adulterous. Particularly intriguing was the author’s (or authors’) insinuation that some men and women cannot cease to have extramarital sex with each other without incurring sin. This too will disturb the orthodox Catholic reader.
The preamble sets the subject—family as the offspring of marriage—and the theological boundaries—porous. The revelations from the Synod on the Family have made it clear that there are strong tensions between the hierarchy of the progressive German Church and those of the more traditional Polish and African Churches. Amoris Laetitia honors the divide by positing that the reception of Church teaching is a local, cultural matter. The author writes “Unity of teaching and practice is certainly in the church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it…Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs (3).” This is what the German hierarchy wanted, and they need read no further.
Chapter 2 includes the great hallmark of the Franciscan papacy: the strawman insult. While lamenting the contemporary forces tearing apart the family, the author saves his sharpest barbs for the pre-Franciscan Catholic Church. No doubt everyone will have a favorite. Mine is “At times we have proposed a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families (36).” No examples are provided.
Chapter 2 also contains the answer to one of the questions raised by at least one churchman at the Family Synod: same-sex unions cannot be equated with marriage. Presumably this is true even in a country or region seeking solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs, e.g. San Francisco, Provincetown, Soho, Berlin.
Chapter 3 contains many references to “openness to life” but there is no sign that this means “in every nuptial act” until Paragraph 80. There seems to be a strong emphasis on the individual conscience on the use of birth control methods, an emphasis which makes a perhaps odd claim: “We need to return to the message of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae of Blessed Pope Paul, which highlights the need to respect the dignity of the person in morally assessing methods of regulating birth…” However, the teachings on both reproductive technologies like IVF and abortion are unequivocally upheld. Although it looks like the author wants—with the surprising help of Bl. Paul VI–to provide wiggle room for artificial birth control, there is none for the destruction of the unborn.
Chapters 1, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 9 form an enjoyable and easily understood work of pastoral theology. The reader might very well conclude that there’s a diocese in Argentina that has lost a splendid parish priest. However you feel about the author of Work1, the author of Work 2 is irresistibly lovable. These chapters contain much good, creative and topical advice about raising children, preparing young people for marriage and fostering family love. Neither unmarried adults nor the extended family are forgotten. The author draws on the work of Saint John Paul II to address new family challenges like the ubiquity of electronic devices. This is what pastoral theology should do: apply the work of great dogmatic theologians to everyday problems. The trouble only begins when dogmatic theology is twisted for purportedly pastoral ends.
In the otherwise splendid “Work 2”, paragraph 243 indicates trouble to come: the married person in an actively sexual relationship with someone other than his or her spouse is described as “the divorced who have entered a new union”. We are told in that paragraph that that this person is “not excommunicated” but we are not told what that actually means, particularly in terms of receiving the sacraments. We are told, however, that the “Christian community’s care of such person is not to be considered its faith and testimony to the indissolubility of marriage; rather, such care is a particular expression of its charity.”
However, it becomes quite clear in Chapter 8 that the “care” the author envisions does not stop at pastoral “accompanying” to reconciliation with Christ or the common human decency any Catholic owes every person who sets foot in his church, but includes participation in “different ecclesial services, which necessarily requires discerning which of the various forms of exclusion currently practiced in the liturgical, pastoral, educational and institutional framework, can be surmounted.” Would this include teaching marriage preparation courses? How about the deaconate?
Chapter 8 (or “Work 3” as I suggest others call it, so as remove the excellent Work 2 from its shadow) has such serious implications for the sacrament of marriage, the understanding of Eucharist, the concept of mortal sin, and the souls of those are told it could be sinful to leave their sinful situation (301) that it will need a treatment, or several treatments, of its own. Worth reading will be commentary by expert Thomists as they pick apart the author’s (or authors’) use of the great systematician to argue his (or their) pastoral point.
In conclusion, Amoris Laetitia strongly suggests that although its principal author has a talent for pastoral theology, he is out of his depth when he strays into another theological specialty, be that moral theology or, especially, systematic or dogmatic theology. One might even conclude that the author makes the specialist’s error of assuming that only his field really matters.
· Further reading – Amoris Laetitia: A CWR Symposium