Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn speaks during a news conference for the release of Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation on the family, "Amoris Laetitia", at the Vatican April 8. From left are: Bishop Fabio Fabene, undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops; Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, general secretary of the synod; Cardinal Schonborn; Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, papal spokesman; and Pina De Simone and Francesco Miano, a married couple who participated in the Synod of Bishops on the family. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
My initial judgment: The Joy of Love (Amoris
Laetitia) is the best of Francis’ official documents yetprobably because
he defers a great measure to bishops’ interventions at the synods on the
familyeven 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.
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
peoplehuman beings, even after baptismbut it’s also
his people’s job to listen readily and charitably.
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
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:
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)
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.
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 Christiansthe doctrinaires and the practicals, the
theologians on one hand and the activists and pastors on the otheroccupy the
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 trutheven demons do that, and shudderbut 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” bentlike many in the Rhineland
episcopatethat 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.
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.
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 expertisebe a good Catholic and offer
it up), it basically concerns the realization that later texts appropriate
earlier textsby design, by accident, by quotation, by allusionand 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.
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?
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.”
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?
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.
so we come to the third issue. Whatever educated, thoughtful people make of
documentswhich are written with an eye to logic and reason and published so
that the faithful may read them using their intellectthe fact is that clerical
authorities implement them (or not) as they do.
here we may have a problem. Some frustrated wag recently wrote that Francis
writes with “invincible ambiguity,” and that any ambiguity can beand will
beexploited 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 documentswe 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 levelbut 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 unhappinessintellectually
sophisticated pastors who can invite the walking wounded of postmodernity to
the joy of conversion.
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.
the pope puntedlike 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