Rebutting the prebuttals of 'Amoris Laetitia'

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by Michael Sean Winters

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As was the case with Laudato Si’, there is already widespread speculation and some early spin about Amoris Laetitia, the apostolic exhortation that will be published on Friday. I have not seen an advance copy, but I want to push back against some of the prebuttals and give a sense of what I think we can anticipate.

At First Things, George Weigel makes the case that the pope really can’t do very much, an argument he never really made when his hero John Paul II was sitting on the papal throne. His key argument is contained here:

By declining Paul VI’s suggestion about a papacy “accountable to the Lord alone,” Vatican II made clear that there are limits to what popes can do. On the bottom-line matters at issue in the two recent Synods, for example, no pope can change the settled teaching of the Church on the indissolubility of marriage, or on the grave danger of receiving holy communion unworthily, because these are matters of what the Council’s Theological Commission called “revelation itself:” to be specific, Matthew 19. 6 and 1 Corinthians 11.27-29.

Here we see, however unintentionally, the poverty of the Catholic neo-con imagination in the words "bottom-line matters." Two years of synodal discussions and Weigel wants to reduce the outcome to a bottom-line. He hurls the word "indissolubility" as if it were designed to end the discussion when a more thoughtful person might ask what, precisely, we mean by indissolubility and whether it is an either/or reality. A more thoughtful person might also point out that while the Bible certainly warns against taking communion unworthily, we all say, "Lord I am not worthy" immediately before approaching the altar, and we do so for a reason. Why is it only the divorced and remarried, rather than, say, the hubristic and pompous, who are barred from reception of the Eucharist?

I could go on, but Weigel helps me make my first point about the forthcoming text: Pope Francis' entire pontificate has been a rejection of the moralistic reductionism that says the only thing that matters is following the rules. And, the only thing that matters in this text will be what the pope does or does not do about the rules. (There is a moralism on the left that makes the same reduction too.) The themes of this pontificate -- accompaniment, encounter, pastoral compassion -- these are what I think will characterize the text because they are what Pope Francis talks about all the time. As became apparent at the synod, the "issues" are not abstract and so the "solutions" are not to be sought in the realm of abstraction. The church must accompany families, especially those in difficult situations not so we can tell them how to live their lives, but so we can provide spiritual assistance and guidance from the wealth of our tradition, not just from the moral theology books, so that they can live with greater dignity and grow closer to God in ways they find appropriate. Discernment is not a thing you do on behalf of someone else and it is not something you accomplish by making people recite the catechism. As I have suggested before, one of the keys to understanding this pontificate is this: Pope Francis sees moral theology as assisting pastoral theology, not the other way round, and the other way round is precisely how Weigel et al. have seen it.

My former colleague John Allen, who now publishes at the Knights of Columbus-funded Crux, took a different tack in his prebuttal. He suggested the text would be no big deal and compared it to the motu proprio Benedict XVI issued about making the traditional Latin Mass more available. Really? By conducting these two synods, and inviting an informed, prayerful discussion about matters of pastoral concern that had been verboten for the past thirty-five years, this text will indicate an ecclesiological change of enormous importance. This may be the easiest thing to overlook about the exhortation that will be released Friday: It is the result of a new process by which the church reflects upon its own mission. After the Council, there were two synods, one on the priesthood and one on justice and peace, which produced their own documents. The process was unwieldy and the next synod focused on evangelization and left it to Pope Paul VI to issue an exhortation, which resulted in arguably the finest text of his pontificate and, indeed, of the entire post-conciliar era: Evangelii Nuntiandi. Then the synods became rote affairs of no interest, in which genuine discussion, let alone disagreement, was barred. Pope Benedict XVI introduced the "open mike" hour each day, to encourage a more honest discussion, and Pope Francis has further expanded the processes of the synod to make it a genuinely deliberative and consultative event in the life of the church. Whatever Francis does or does not say about marriage and the family in this document, the way the document was produced is hugely significant for the life of the church, and not only on these issues but on all of them. The church is, under Francis, engaged in a new way of being a church, one familiar to the bishops of CELAM, but unfamiliar to the Roman Curia. And, the text will be a magisterial document of the highest order. It is a big deal.

I do not think the pope will overturn any doctrines but I do expect he will invite us all to conceive of pastoral practice in a different way. It is not a matter of the clergy with all the answers merely instructing the flock. It is certainly not waiting for people to come to us seeking answers. Pastoral practice means getting out of the rectory and the sacristy, getting the smell of the sheep, being willing to get bruised and dirty. Pastoral practice is not about being lax. Quite the contrary. For Francis, if I read him correctly, it is about the ministry of the church finding an authentic humility that seeks to help people discover how God is already acting in their lives, and slowly allowing that fact of God’s activity to be recognized as the most important thing in anyone’s life. Francis will, in this Year of Mercy, remind us that only a person who evidences mercy is actually proclaiming the Gospel in its fullness.

I do expect the pope will also remind us that, in order to be faithful to the tradition and to the teachings of the church, one must be faithful to all of them. There is no, there can be no, division between Truth and Mercy. If we perceive such a division, we have more work to do. Yes, the church teaches that marriage is indissoluble, but that is not all the church teaches and the most important thing to know about marriage is not a thing that is negative, that it is not dissoluble. I also anticipate that the Holy Father will look at the impact of globalization, consumerism and, especially, migration on family life, again keeping with themes that have run through his many talks and official writings.

My worry is that the pope’s call for a new approach to the challenges and the hopes the families of the world face will be ignored by some people, downplayed by others. The conservatives will celebrate the fact that the pope did not upend any doctrines, which was never going to happen. Some liberals will complain that the pope did not upend doctrine. The deeper call of this pontificate, the call to conversion, the call for a missionary church, the call for a church that lives and breathes the mercy of God, will be ignored by some at both ends of the spectrum. It is my hope that the rest of us will take up the Holy Father’s call to recognize the importance of marriage and family to the Christian faith and humbly take up the work of accompanying the families in our midst, learning from their experience of God and sharing our own experience, mutually enriching each other so that, together, we can confidently move forward, seeing with the eyes of faith what the ideologues would prefer to keep hidden.

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