Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Man

So, it has come, the long anticipated Papal document summarizing the Synod on the FamilyAmoris Laetitia.  I should state up front that, because of its enormous length (250+ pages), I've skimmed the more theoretical sections (Chapters 1, 2, 3, 7, and 9) to focus on the parts on marriage (4-6, and 8).  I hope to come back and give those theoretical sections some time and reflection later.  I should also say that, despite its length, this is probably the most accessible Vatican document I have read.  The writing is smooth and unforced, and mostly avoids technical theological or philosophical jargon.  Laudato Si' had some of that quality, but this is far more pronounced.  It is, for lack of a better term, an easy read.

With that out of the way, how is it?  Well, it's very, very Pope Francis.  Like Laudato Si', it aspires to a comprehensive account of the topic.  So, for example, if you were curious to get Pope Francis's thoughts on "helicopter parenting," your wish has been granted (Paragraph 261).  Chapter 6, in particular, presents a fairly comprehensive catechism on marriage and marriage preparation, one that seems to be written for use on the parish level, or at least as a baseline for preparing programs.

It is also very Pope Francis in the sense that it focuses its attention on attitudes and dispositions as opposed to rules and guidelines.  With a couple of subtle but important exceptions that I will get to below, there are no grand changes in doctrine or revisions to old rules.  But there is an insistent focus on avoiding attitudes of judgment and blanket, one-size-fits-all solutions to concrete situations.  To borrow some terminology from the Orthodox, Amoris Laetitia can be summarized as a long meditation on the principle of economia--individualized and tailored flexibility in the application of rules, without voiding the rules in toto.  The Orthodox are not explicitly mentioned in the text (at least not that I could find), but I cannot help but wonder whether the similarities to Orthodox practice and approach are intentional.

As with all Vatican documents, the things that Amoris Laetitia doesn't say are just as important (if not more) as the things it does say.  Take, for example, Chapter 5, entitled "Love Made Fruitful."  Here, we find discussions of the proper disposition to welcome a new child into the family, we have a long talk about adoption, we have a section on mothers and fathers, we have a discussion of extended families.  You know what is not discussed, anywhere in this section?  Birth control, NFP, Humanae Vitae, and all of the rest of that.  We do get a discussion of Humanae Vitae in paragraph 222.  There is much talk of how NFP methods should be "promoted" and how we read HV to recover the sense that children are a gift, etc.  But, again, it scrupulously avoids saying that artificial birth control is always immoral.  Likewise in paragraph 283, "safe sex" based sex education is criticized for "convey[ing] a negative attitude towards the natural procreative finality of sexuality, as if an eventual child were an enemy to be protected against," without locating the problem squarely in the endorsement of artificial contraception.  If you wanted to, of course, you can read all of that into what is said in Amoris Laetitia, but nothing in the text mandates this kind of incorporation.

One should also always pay attention to the footnotes.
Take, for example, footnote 329.  In a discussion of second marriages, footnote 329 basically dismisses the "brother and sister" solution proposed by conservative voices, on the basis that it is bad for the kids if the married couple is not having sex with each other.  One might find that linkage disingenuous, but it nevertheless represents a significant, if subtle, change in approach to the divorced-and-remarried situation.  Whatever the correct solution for a divorced and remarried couple is, saying they need to stop having sex appears to now be off the table.

Likewise, Ross Douthat freaked out about footnote 351, about which more in a bit, but the footnote before it is a quote from the International Theological Commission discussing natural law which is equally significant:

"natural law could not be presented as an already established set of rules that impose themselves a priori on the moral subject; rather, it is a source of objective inspiration for the deeply personal process of making decisions."

That's a significant re-orientation of the understanding of natural law, from, well, law, to something more like a ground for reflection.  This is in keeping with all of Chapter 8's (the part about what to do in "irregular" situations) emphasis on conscience and the sacrosanct nature of individual conscience.

This focus on individual conscience segues into probably the most significant concrete take away from Amoris Laetitia, and that involves the moral framework for evaluating remarriages.  Very cleverly and carefully, Pope Francis makes the point that Catholic moral analysis in general requires a consideration of the subjective circumstances surrounding the act.  It then ports this concept over to the analysis of a remarried person and his or her status.  As a result, as Paragraph 304 says "[i]t is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being."  In other words, one cannot say in a blanket way that everyone who is divorced and remarried is "objectively" living in a sinful state.  Which, by the way, is precisely what the Church has previously claimed.

By walking away from an "objective" approach to the problem, Pope Francis creates space for remarried people to come back to Communion without an annulment, without actually mandating that it be allowed.  This leads to the footnote 351 that Douthat freaked out about.  The main body sentence reads:

Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this

So, one can be in an "objective situation of sin", i.e. in a second marriage without an annulment, and yet be "not . . . subjectively culpable."  In such a case, footnote 351 directs:

In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, “I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy” (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium [24 November 2013], 44: AAS 105 [2013], 1038). I would also point out that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (ibid., 47: 1039)

So, he is not telling you that you can take Communion, but he certainly suggests that such a thing is possible.  That's the opening.

Just a few more things that jumped out at me.  On the gender front, we see much of the same "on one hand, on the other hand" that has characterized Francis's thought in the past.  So, you have some discussion of the unique role of mothers as vehicles of the unique maternal gifts and so forth.  But, on balance, I think this document represents a step forward, albeit a modest one.  In particular, paragraph 258 seems to reject a purely biological understanding of gender, a helpful step especially in light of the anger regarding transgender folks here in the U.S.

Nor can we ignore the fact that the configuration of our own mode of being, whether as
male or female, is not simply the result of biological or genetic factors, but of multiple elements
having to do with temperament, family history, culture, experience, education, the influence of friends, family members and respected persons, as well as other formative situations.

That same paragraph also goes on to reject the idea of fixed gender roles, and earlier it explicitly stated that the controversial Ephesians 5 quote ("wives, be submissive to your husbands") cannot be read to equate to female subordination (and, it also nods to the idea than some of what Paul says on these topics are culturally conditioned, which is helpful).  It's not perfect, but I think it is more good than bad.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said on LGBT questions.  The document essentially quotes directly from the final report of the Synod--gay people shouldn't be persecuted, but same sex marriage is not real marriage.  One senses that Pope Francis decided that discretion is the better part of valor and thus avoided as much as possible this hot potato.  Still, it is unfortunate and disappointing.

So, what is my initial take-away?  For those priests and bishops who are eager to push forward with what you might call the "Kasper solution," this document certainly provides ammunition.  Moreover, I was immediately struck by paragraph 3:

Since “time is greater than space”, I 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. For “cultures are in fact quite diverse and every general principle… needs to be inculturated,
if it is to be respected and applied”

One wonders if this is in essence a "green light" to some of the more progressive European bishops conferences (Germany, Belgium, etc.) to push forward beyond the explicit bounds of the document on divorce/remarried issues, or even on LGBT issues.  It will be interesting to see how empowered those folks feel themselves to be in light of this document.

On the flip side, nothing in this document forces or mandates priests and bishops to change their approach if they are not so inclined, except for exhortation and a kind of moral persuasion.  This exposes what many see as the great weakness of Pope Francis and his method--you can lead a horse (in this case the more traditionalist bishops and priests) to water, but you can't make them drink.  For some, everything will be business as usual.  Like all things, the implementation of something is hard to predict from the outset.

Overall, though, Amoris Laetitia exceeded my expectations.  It doesn't give everyone what they wanted, and it gives some people very little, but I think it does move the ball forward in an appreciable way.  Now it is up to the hierarchy to act on the opening.


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