I have been wondering when we were going to hear from the bishops in the U.S. who support the pope! When Amoris Laetitia was issued, there were some initial statements and press conferences, but soon the commentary went mostly negative, Some bishops have penned columns that relativized the apostolic exhortation excessively. Cardinal Raymond Burke denied Amoris Laetitia was a magisterial text at all! And, Mary Hunt, the feminist theologian, pounced on the text as an opportunity lost because it lacked affirmation of the ever-expanding acronym for sexual difference that is her calling card.
Of course, it is easy to pick out a few phrases from any given text to make a point one had already concluded before reading the document. To do what the pope asked, to read it prayerfully and slowly with a view towards appropriating it for oneself, this takes more time. Just as at the synod last fall, after a week of misinformation from those who oppose the pope, it fell to Washington's Cardinal Donald Wuerl to set the record straight in a series of interviews, so it is the same Cardinal Wuerl who, in a talk at Catholic University last week, engaged Amoris Laetitia in the same spirit with which it was written, a spirit of pastoral solicitude.
Cardinal Wuerl organized his talk around four major points. He began with a short overview of the exhortation's content, then provided a reflection on the consensus the document represents. Third, he demonstrated how the text was in profound continuity with the previous magisterium of the church, and fourth, he outlined some of its pastoral implications and offered some guidance.
One line in Wuerl's overview needs to be read by those who think Ms. Hunt was right in dismissing the document. The cardinal stated, "Clearly the Church distinguishes between someone who is struggling with accepting and living elements of the faith and those who simply demand that the Church change her teaching. Increasingly we hear voices demanding that the Church change her teaching on human sexuality, marriage and family or be branded as practicing discrimination." Bingo. There is a hubris on the left that matches the hubris on the right, an insistence that the church say nothing except what passes for a commonplace at each camp's respective cocktail parties. If it is true that our faith cannot be hidebound by law, it is also true that our faith is not clay in our hands, to do with whatever we wish. Willfulness is a threat to the Christian conscience too.
Cardinal Wuerl calls Amoris Laetitia a "consensus exhortation" and recapitulates the process that brought it about, from the consistory in February 2014, through the first synod the following year, and finally to last year's synod. In addition to these formal meetings, the cardinal notes the large number of books and articles written about the topic and the questionnaires in many dioceses soliciting the input of the faithful. And, instead of complaining that too much time was spent discussing those whose marriages are somehow irregular when compared to the Catholic ideal, Wuerl states that "it was widely understood that a special task of the Synod, and thus the Church, was to help pastorally those who find themselves in unique or challenging situations and patiently and lovingly to accompany them with special concern, helping them to live as fully as possible the life-giving experience of Christ and his Church." This section dismisses Cardinal Burke's assertion that the text is not part of the magisterium for the absurdity that it is.
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Another key point is that throughout the process, the consensus of the bishops understood and asserted what the minority was intent to deny, namely that more is needed in the way of pastoral ministry than shouting the catechism at people. Wuerl writes: "[W]e must be careful not to mingle as if there were no distinctions among: God's revelation to us in Jesus Christ; the Church's articulated teaching or doctrine; Church law which attempts to apply the teaching, and the evaluation of the specific concrete spiritual situation of each believer. A context of both Church law and pastoral assessment is the loving, pastoral assistance of the pastors of the Church." This is not heresy. This is a recognition that all moral absolutes become less absolutized as they become concrete in the lives of actual human beings. It is a recognition, too, that pastoral practice must take account not only of the doctrine of indissolubility but the doctrine of God's mercy. Pastoral accompaniment also acknowledges what the lawyers prefer to forget, that the Holy Spirit remains active in the church, that the mysteries of salvation cannot be reduced to legalisms or ideologies.
The third section dealing with the points of continuity between this exhortation and previous magisterial texts notes the many citations to Vatican II, to recent popes, to St. Thomas Aquinas, etc. From much of the commentary you would think there was only one footnote in the document, but there are many. One observation of Wuerl's deserves special mention because so many prelates get it wrong and he gets it right. He states: "It was Pope Benedict XVI who began explicitly to point out the failings and unacceptability of what has been called 'a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture,' which he contrasted with the true hermeneutic of reform and renewal in the continuity of the Church. Precisely in order to understand what it is that Jesus is revealing to us, we turn to his Church and the continuous apostolic tradition in the Body of Christ to clarify, reaffirm and assure us." Pope Benedict did not contrast a hermeneutic of continuity with one of discontinuity as many of our neo-con friends incorrectly repeat. He proposed a hermeneutic of "reform and renewal" which contains elements of both continuity and discontinuity.
In the final section of the text, Wuerl captures the essence of Amoris Laetitia and, indeed, of this entire pontificate. He writes:
In Amoris Laetitia the priority of charity and mercy in Catholic moral teaching is put into action in the service of the Church's pastoral mission. In many respects this is the Holy Father's response to the Second Vatican Council's priority that moral theology shed light on 'the calling of the faithful in Christ and the obligation that is theirs of bearing fruit in charity for the life of the world' (Optatem totius, no. 16). Pope Francis approaches his teaching ministry first and foremost as a pastor of souls. Indeed in many places in the document one hears the voice of a pastor speaking directly to members of his flock, sharing his own experience and wisdom formed from many years of service to God's people.
Mercy and charity cannot be set at odds with moral teaching. If we find them at odds, there is more work to be done, and not just by the struggling people of God but by the pastors and the theologians. It is easy to just repeat the catechism. Pastoral engagement and theological penetration are hard work. It is one of the qualities of the opposition to Pope Francis, a synod father explained to me, on both the left and the right, that there is not only hubris but sloth.
Cardinal Wuerl, who has a knack for capturing the essence of a complicated document, also highlights what he calls the four key activities in pastoral activity. "For the Holy Father the pastoral mission of the Church, focused on the lived expression of mercy and love, is expressed in four principle activities: listening, accompanying, discerning, and evangelizing" he writes. Again, this is work, hard work, and it is the work of the entire church. The pope is, as Wuerl observes, calling the entire church to accompany families, not just the pastors, and while Pope Francis does not set forth a precise pastoral agenda for said accompaniment, he expects us to devise one.
I could go on. Wuerl highlights the importance of Pope Francis' words on conscience and how the pastors of the church are called to form, not to replace, conscience. His comments on how pastoral accompaniment leads to evangelization -- precisely in these pastoral approaches to those who feel themselves apart from or far from the church do we realize an evangelizing outreach ... as in most efforts to evangelize, to bring another to experience more closely Christ, the very activity itself brings the evangelizer into a relationship that causes both parties to come closer to the Lord -- is worth the price of admission.
In the weeks ahead, as bishops give further reflection upon Amoris Laetitia and as they start holding priestly convocations, I hope they will follow Wuerl's lead and share their reflections with a wider audience. At my parish, they have already formed a new outreach ministry to married couples that will meet every couple of weeks to study the document, and thoughts and insights like those provided by Wuerl will help people to understand the text more fully. The family is the "little church," and if we take Pope Francis' thoughts seriously, the little church might bring new life and vigor to the big church. Let it be so.
I have not been able to find the complete text on line, but here is the video of the talk.
[Michael Sean Winters is a Visiting Fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]