The deeper meaning of Amoris Laetitia, and the challenge it presents
Suppose you lived in a place and time when the faithful had great confidence in the orthodoxy, charity, zeal and even counter-cultural courage of their bishops and priests. Now suppose the Pope issued a statement exhorting the faithful to closely examine the difficulties facing those in broken marriages. Suppose he also instructed priests and bishops to engage in deep discussion with invalidly remarried couples to see if any of them could properly be assisted by a greater share in the Church’s sacramental life.
This thought experiment reveals that most of the controversy over Chapter 8 in Amoris Laetitia arises from our lack of this imagined confidence in our own clergy. The reality is that we do not trust contemporary Western clergy to make deeply Catholic decisions about the problems described in Amoris Laetitia. Our priests and bishops have been influenced far too much by the intensely secular bias which haunts our culture.
To put the matter another way, we no more trust our priests and bishops in this matter than we do in the matter of declaring marriages null. Just as abuses in the latter case are so widespread that “annulment” has been nicknamed “Catholic divorce”, so do we expect rampant abuse in this new task of accompaniment and discernment.
Most readers will agree that the health of the episcopate and the priesthood in the West has significantly improved over the past thirty years. We know many eminently trustworthy priests. But we also know firsthand of ongoing difficulties, and we are painfully aware of how little progress has been made in key quarters of inluence—in nominally Catholic universities, prominent Catholic periodicals, and certain older religious orders. To add to the confusion, these three areas of gross deficiency converge in the Jesuits, a plain fact of Catholic life which Pope Francis clearly prefers to ignore.
As a result, except in parishes where we have great confidence in our clergy, we have a horror of spiritual judgments that are “prudential” in nature. We’d still like to see everybody bound to obey very clear rules, even though we understand that a far healthier Church would place less emphasis on rules, and more emphasis on both dynamic ministry and the salutary influence of the Catholic community.
None of this leaves us without hope, however. Today I would like to highlight two aspects of Amoris Laetitia which can serve as sources of growing confidence:
1. Little Emphasis on Nullity
The first aspect is the apostolic exhortation’s almost complete lack of recourse to annulments as the “obvious” solution to the contemporary problem of irregular marriages. Annulments are mentioned in only one paragraph, #244, where Pope Francis explains that the Synod fathers wanted to make ecclesiastical justice with respect to marriage more speedily and affordably available to the faithful, and that he has already legislated the changes necessary to put this desire into action.
But nowhere in the document is there a great emphasis on taking advantage of the more streamlined annulment process to sweep away (in effect) the problem posed by irregular marriages. There is no shortage of Catholic thinkers who inflate psychological grounds for nullity to the point of arguing that if a marriage did not work, then it could not work—hence it was intrinsically flawed, or null. Had Pope Francis chosen to go down this path, he would have had far less need to enunciate a process of accompaniment and discernment. This is a strong argument for the spiritual seriousness of what he has written, even if it may well prove to be grossly abused in practice.
2. A Surprising Reduction of Emphasis on “Failures”
The second aspect is the almost peculiar fact that Amoris Laetitia spends a very small percentage of its text on ministry to what the Pope, perhaps in an unguarded moment, called “failures”. Eight of the nine chapters focus on the threats to marriage and the need to strengthen it by providing far greater support for those who are married or are preparing for marriage.
In the context of the entire document, the volatile Chapter 8—a mere 22 paragraphs out of 325—is something of a blip on the radar screen, even if radar often does warn of incoming dangers. Moreover, within Chapter 8 itself, Pope Francis slips in a remarkable statement which amounts, in the context, to an almost shocking shift in emphasis:
A lukewarm attitude, any kind of relativism, or an undue reticence in proposing that ideal [of Christian marriage], would be a lack of fidelity to the Gospel and also of love on the part of the Church for young people themselves. To show understanding in the face of exceptional situations never implies dimming the light of the fuller ideal, or proposing less than what Jesus offers to the human being. Today, more important than the pastoral care of failures is the pastoral effort to strengthen marriages and thus to prevent their breakdown. [#307, italics added to the decisive shift]
As time goes on, I believe this will be seen as one of the most decisive statements in the entire text. There are those who will spin their entire course of action out of Chapter 8, but this will simply serve as a signal that they are poor servants of Christ. For the rest of the apostolic exhortation is far, far more important to the ongoing renewal of the Church. The deeper message of Amoris Laetitia is that the Church must form in the body of Christ a far more robust pattern of marriage and family life than can be found anywhere today. As the family goes, so goes the Church; as the Church goes, so goes the family.
Christian freedom depends on spiritual strength. Spiritual strength vastly diminishes the significance of formal rules. The deeper meaning of Amoris Laetitia is that we must envision a renewal that goes far beyond rules, a renewal that forms families in Christ, a renewal that forges a culture marked by Christian sacrifice and Christian joy. The alternative is to find ourselves fiddling with shortcuts—even with ecclesiastical rules!—while all the world burns.
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