The Shape of Repentance: Reflections on Amoris Laetitia

Whatever shape repentance must take in a given situation, one can never play truth off against love.

In the current ecclesial climate it is difficult to avoid a political reading of Pope Francis’s Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia. Almost any ‘party’ within and beyond the Church can no doubt find in it a grab-bag of quotes to further whatever agenda it wishes to pursue. To be sure, in certain passages there are rhetorical registers that especially lend themselves to this kind of manipulation. 

I think particularly of the way the Holy Father, in his own style, dialectically juxtaposes affirmations of the permanent validity of Church teaching with concessional qualifications about the primacy of mercy, almost as though one could be played off against the other. I think also of the way, at least in the English version, the word ‘doctrine’ appears consistently maligned: we hear of ‘dry and lifeless doctrine’, doctrine turned into ‘dead stones’ to throw at others, and the bland repetition of doctrine (59, 49, 134). All this will too easily serve as grist for the mill for those who want to further certain divisive but false polarities.

Ironically, of course, the Exhortation is itself replete with doctrine, in the New Testament sense of ‘saving’ or ‘healing’ doctrine (1 Tim 1:10; 2 Tim 4:3; Tit 1:9; 2:1). Moreover, it is doctrine applied in all its Spirit-filled vigor and pastoral depth to the multitude of complex joys and crises that characterize marriage and family life. From beginning to end Pope Francis expresses a lively confidence, born from experience and faith in the revealed Word, that Christ himself dwells at the heart of the Christian home, transforming all its activities and those who share in them with his ever-faithful and merciful love. More than any other human love, marital love most manifestly embodies the totality of Trinitarian, supernatural love, sacramentally incarnating the redeeming union of Christ and the Church (142, 159). In this way, says the Pope, married life represents a kind of salvation history (221), with a particularly close covenantal bond between married life and the Eucharist (318), such that ‘each spouse is for the other a sign and instrument of the closeness of the Lord’ (319).

It is in this light that we are to read his lengthy, frank, and intensely practical treatment of almost countless contingencies surrounding marriage and family life: pregnancy and childbearing, childhood and formation, upbringing and discipline of children, sex education, relational dysfunction, desire and emotion, courtship, pre-marriage preparation, marital conflict, sexual union, communication, the pedagogy and cultivation of love, family prayer and worship, fatherhood and motherhood, childlessness, healing and forgiveness, breakdown and divorce, mixed marriages, aging, suffering, and death. It was especially pleasing, at least to me, to notice how frequently and substantially Pope Francis has drawn upon the doctrinal legacy of Saint John Paul II, the Pope who taught more on marriage, and more deeply, than all his predecessors put together.

But the recent Synod on the Family, whose deliberations and discussions this Exhortation seeks to summarize and convey, sought more than simply to restate positively the Church’s developed teaching on marriage. We know well how much energy was taken up with pressing controversial concerns: pre-marriage preparation, indissolubility, communion and the remarried, homosexual relationships, single parent households, pastoral accompaniment, questions of canonical validity and annulment processes, and so on. On these matters we encounter no radical surprises or changes in teaching. We may note in particular the Pope’s reaffirmation of the divine given-ness of male and female sexual distinctiveness and the irreducible specificity of their respective vocations (56; 172-177), although a more considered treatment of the abiding relevance of specificity in the New Testament Haustafeln – none of which seem to me to be overwhelmed or negated by Ephesians 5:21 – would have been welcome.

It is, however, regarding chapter 8 that most ink will be spilled, for here the Pope attempts to engage some of the stickiest issues facing the Church’s pastors. In sum, the Holy Father directs us away from general laws to give close attention to the concrete, particular, and subjective circumstances that obtain in a ‘variety of situations.’ Attention needs to be given to enlightening, forming and respecting consciences, not just in their ability to recognize incongruence between God’s objective will and one’s actual situation, but in being able to discern what God is actually asking here and now, within the limits of this or that concrete circumstance, concerning ‘the most generous response’ one can give to him (303).

In taking this approach, which presumes the close accompaniment of the Church’s pastors with the baptized, and an open and continuous dialogue, local decisions and practices are bound to vary, opening up inevitable tension between the ‘unity of teaching and practice’ without which the Church cannot exist, and the ‘various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it.’ (3) What safeguards does the Pope suggest to prevent this tension from degenerating into a far-reaching chasm? The conditions of personal and pastoral discernment include, objectively, fidelity to ‘the Gospel demands of truth and charity’, and subjectively, ‘humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching’ along with ‘a sincere search for God’s will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it.’ (300)

Given these conditions are met, is it in fact possible for someone to ‘be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin’ (301)? Can we really envisage a situation where repentance requires a person to add sin to sin? Perhaps, for example, we could imagine the prodigal son having to break a solemn contract with the pig farmer in order to return to his father. But wouldn’t such a mental scenario already be shifting away from the particular to the general, and so prescinding from the faith-filled hope that God is always able, in my situation, to open the way for me to true repentance (cf 1 Cor 10:13; 2 Cor 9:8)?

In any case, whatever shape repentance must take in a given situation, one can never play truth off against love. It is at least more honest to admit an imperfect and partial repentance than to pretend a phony full one. The latter would only be possible by stripping this Exhortation of all integrity and emptying both justice and mercy of any meaning whatsoever. Which would bring us back to the ‘cold bureaucratic mentality’ against which Pope Francis inveighs so passionately (312). God preserve us. God preserve him.


·         Further reading – Amoris Laetitia: A CWR Symposium 

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About Adam G. Cooper 0 Articles
Adam G. Cooper is senior lecturer at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage & Family in Melbourne, Australia. He previously served on the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne and the Lutheran School of Theology and was an honorary fellow at the University of Melbourne. He is the author of Life in the Flesh: An Anti-Gnostic Spiritual Philosophy (2008), The Body in St. Maximus the Confessor (2005), and Naturally Human, Supernaturally God: Deification in Pre-Conciliar Catholicism (2014).