Editorial: Take Amoris Laetitia's challenge seriously

by NCR Editorial Staff

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Editor's note: We are re-promoting this earlier editorial, in light of the news that San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy announced May 11 that he will convene a diocesan synod in October focused on marriage and family life.​

Amoris Laetitia is a profound reflection on the reality of family life in contemporary society, and Pope Francis has said the community should read the apostolic exhortation slowly and deliberately. That deliberation will play out in these pages over the next several weeks, so for now we offer reflections on two points that are particularly noteworthy.

First, we should note that Amoris Laetitia offers few concrete solutions to questions that challenge today's families. In fact, it warns against accepting easily obtained answers. Instead, Amoris Laetitia boldly challenges bishops, pastors, theologians and lay leaders to seek answers together and among themselves in sincere dialogue.

In this, the apostolic exhortation echoes Francis' opening statement for the 2014 Synod of Bishops on the family; Amoris Laetitia is a challenge to parrhesia: bold, fearless dialogue about the family.

We urge all leaders in the Catholic church to take this challenge seriously.

With a few exceptions, the U.S. bishops -- and no doubt bishops in other countries -- missed the opportunity to fully engage all Catholics in their dioceses in the lead up to the two Synods of Bishops on the family.

Tools and encouragement were provided, and NCR reporting recorded great enthusiasm throughout the Catholic community to discuss the issues that impact family life. We recognized, at that time, an opportunity to set the larger community on fire. Too few dioceses tapped into this enthusiasm.

With Amoris Laetitia, Francis has given the Catholic community a second chance. At a press conference April 8 introducing the apostolic exhortation, Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich said that the document "should spark our imagination" and asked where that might lead: "Do we need to form teams that are going to help pastors reach out to people? Do we need to look for ways to enhance our marriage preparation program? Is there a program we can put together for families who welcome that first child into the world?"

We would answer Cupich with a resounding "Yes!" to these questions.

The imaginations of Catholics have already been sparked, and with Amoris Laetitia, Francis is fanning that ember. We urge bishops and diocesan leaders not to lose this opportunity: Go out to the parishes and deaneries and consult widely.

Because it is so accessible, Amoris Laetitia is the perfect tool to guide these local consultations. Amoris Laetitia calls for local communities to seek pastoral programs appropriate to local churches and cultures. These consultations can become the seedbeds of the parrhesia that Francis is calling for. From these could spring the spirit of a new evangelization.

At the same time, we urge Catholic laity and others to have patience with their bishops and diocesan leaders. They need time to study Amoris Laetitia fully and deeply; give them that time.

Amoris Laetitia brings out of the shadows a language and style, a pastoral theology, that has been much maligned in recent decades. Many in diocesan leadership will need to be reacquainted with this approach. If they are not convinced and conversant in this language and approach, then any consultations they call won't be worthy of the name, and we risk never bridging the divide between teachings and practice on issues like artificial contraception and "irregular" (to use the Vatican word) relationships.

We have to give our leadership the time to get Amoris Laetitia right so that its importance isn't dismissed. That leads to our next point.

After Amoris Laetitia, anyone who continues to insist that Francis is not bringing change to the Catholic church either misunderstands the deeper message of this apostolic exhortation -- and the Francis pontificate -- or is deliberately trying to mislead people.

Those who have opposed Francis' reforms were immediately ready to discredit the apostolic exhortation. U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke wrote that Amoris Laetitia "is not an act of the magisterium." It is, Burke says, a "personal, that is, non-magisterial ... document," a "reflection of the Holy Father."

One wonders if Burke says the same of Pope John Paul II's 1981 apostolic exhortation on the family, Familiaris Consortio, which was cited during the 2014 and 2015 Synods of Bishops as a kind of gold standard for church thinking on the family.

Other bishops pointed out in their statements about Amoris Laetitia that the document, in the words of Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, who attended the synods in 2014 and 2015, "reflects the consensus of those meetings and many voices," and it is, according to Cupich, who was appointed to the 2015 synod by Francis, "an authoritative teaching document" that was faithful to what the bishops had approved with a two-thirds majority vote.

Let's be clear. Amoris Laetitia will disappoint some, perhaps many, Catholics. It is tentative at best for Catholics who have divorced and remarried. It disrespects the family lives that our LGBT brothers and sisters have created despite the opposition of many in our society and our church.

We'd invite those who hoped for more not to become discouraged, because if Amoris Laetitia isn't strictly revolutionary, it is certainly evolutionary. It does prod this pilgrim church, which has been sitting in wayside for 35 years, forward.

With Amoris Laetitia, Francis continues to shift the structure of authority in the church. His repeated message is: Don't look to Rome and rule books for all the answers. ("Not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium.") Find answers that fit your tradition and your local situation. ("Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs.") Trust yourselves. ("The Spirit guides us towards the entire truth.") Francis is again calling for an adult church.

This is most clear in Francis' writing on conscience: "We can add that individual conscience needs to be better incorporated into the Church's praxis"; "We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who ... are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations"; and "We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them."

Francis, always the teacher, uses Amoris Laetitia to reflect on family life, but he also uses this apostolic exhortation to model how he wants the church to operate. Francis offers the Catholic community two challenges: To live as a community with parrhesia, speaking and listening to one another with courage and humility, and then to translate the openness of papal actions and documents into pastoral discourse and compassionate action in the parishes.

A version of this story appeared in the April 22-May 5, 2016 print issue under the headline: Editorial: Take Amoris Laetitia's challenge seriously.

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