Amoris Laetitia in America: The bishops’ joy…and the bishops’ tact
Have you heard the one about the cardinal who asked the various episcopal conferences to comment on the Church’s reception of Amoris Laetitia? The US Bishops responded that bishops and priests around America were delighted and inspired by the Pope's apostolic exhortation, and had already taken countless steps to convey their joy to all the faithful, and to undertake comprehensive revisions of their programs for the care of married couples and families.
In the paragraph you just read, the response of the American bishops is called the punch line.
Okay, okay, please don’t get me wrong on this. From the first, I have maintained the following about Amoris Laetitia:
The first seven chapters discuss the nature of marital love, the surpassing importance of the family in God’s plan, and the great many problems which weaken both the family and the marital bond in our time. Anyone can read and reflect on all this with great profit. [See “The Controversy at the Heart of Amoris Laetitia”]
It is true that I also fingered the neuralgic points raised in the controversial Chapter 8, but there is a great deal to be treasured in this document, a great deal that ought to inspire us to take the threats to marriage and family seriously and to forge more effective ministries of support.
And so the humor—the joke—consists not in a positive reception of important sections of the apostolic exhortation, but only in this: I could have written the response made by the US Bishops, without consulting anybody, and so could you. How do we respond to the latest intervention by our boss? Great progress within just six short months! Wonderful applications to a large number of key pastoral concerns! Renewed confidence in the Church’s ministry! Surely this is standard fare.
But at the very end of the episcopal response there appears a trifling little blip on the screen of our collective euphoria:
Respondents indicated that further resources on the application of some aspects of Amoris Laetitia, such as those treating the internal forum and reception of the sacraments with regard to persons in irregular marital situations, would be helpful. The same was mentioned about some of the key terms and concepts such as discernment, integration, gradualness, conscience, and mercy. [emphasis added]
Our readers have been aware from the first of the difficult issues affecting spiritual direction, confession and reception of the sacraments—in other words, the question of what can or cannot be resolved in the “internal forum” of personal conscience. Principally to defend Pope Francis’ doctrinal probity, I’ve tried to guess at some circumstances which might admit those who are divorced and remarried to Communion, without benefit of annulment. But Phil Lawler has rightly stated that Pope Francis himself has not yet provided a single example of such circumstances. It is no wonder this has been highly controversial: Our priests and bishops have no idea what he has in mind.
But the reason I italicized the second sentence in the above quotation is because it is so utterly spectacular, and not just in the jocular spirit of my introduction. Think about it: The American bishops are saying there are lots of questions, arising expressly from the text of Amoris Laetitia, about “the key terms and concepts”. And they say these keys include discernment, integration, gradualness, conscience and mercy.
No wonder the bishops’ report of their churches’ joyfully frenetic reception of Amoris Laetitia sounds just a trifle self-conscious. They are surely well aware that we cannot possibly overvalue the proper application of discernment, conscience and mercy. They certainly recognize that a proper understanding of integration and gradualness in pastoral counseling makes all the difference in the world.
Finally, immediately after listing these points of confusion, the episcopal report closes with an especially delectable layer of icing on the cake: “The interest in additional resources shows the high level of eagerness toward charting a faithful and effective implementation of the Holy Father’s exhortation across the United States.”
My friends, I admit that this report is not a stellar example of plain speaking. But, on my honor, it is a stellar example of tact.
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