African theologian responds to 'Amoris Laetitia'

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This is a reaction to the exhortation from Jesuit Fr. Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, the principal of Hekima University College in Nairobi and a well-known African theologian.

I admit that this is an initial reaction to the text, the outcome of a "rushed reading," contrary to Pope Francis's recommendation [in paragraph 7].

Frankly, I expected more than I got from the text, but I am not disappointed. I would refrain from calling it "groundbreaking" or "revolutionary." I don't think that was the pope's intention. I believe that there is still a long way to go before we actually make the bold steps that are long overdue with regard to critical issues such as the role of women in church, homosexual unions, reproductive rights, all of which are broached and addressed in the document.

Looking at the exhortation from the perspective of the church in Africa, I believe that the realistic tone of the document is a much needed guide for the African church. In other words, the realization that the first task of the church is not merely to squabble over contested moral issues. Besides, "the joy of love" notwithstanding, family life and marriage can be a place of enormous stress, burdens and nightmares [paragraph 30]; it is not to be romanticized [paragraph 36]. If we understand what this means, we can begin to tone down some of our rigid positions and see family life and marriage as opportunity rather than a problem [paragraph 7].

My reading of it tells me that Francis reaffirms in uncompromising terms the church's teaching on abortion, contraception, birth control, and marriage. What we must not forget is that he is just as uncompromising in affirming the centrality of conscience (#303), discernment, pastoral accompaniment, and compassion.

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As I see it, when the exhortation talks about conscience, it places a powerful tool in [the] hands of married, divorced, and remarried Catholics. To put it simply, Francis gives them permission to participate in the Eucharistic life of the church without fear of or hindrance by stone-throwing moral police who disguise their moralizing crusade under the cloak of doctrine [paragraph 305]. Part of his message to us is that we need to refrain from the common practice of equating "irregularity" with "mortal sin" [paragraph 301]. We need to respect the diverse and complex reality of people's situation -- and avoid sweeping generalizations, hasty judgments, and damming labels.

Francis opens up a unique opportunity for the renewal of family life and marriage. I see his exhortation as starting a "pastoral turn" in the church's teaching on marriage and family life [paragraph 199], a new methodology that focuses on listening more to and discerning the voice conscience than being preoccupied with fulfilling the commands of stiff moral precepts. I dare say that those who need schooling in this methodology, above all, are those who sit in confessionals, marriage tribunals, and preside at episcopal curias -- in other words, everybody who falls under the category "pastors." I think it is credit to the pope that he admits the woeful inadequacies of pastors in this regard [paragraph 202]. Pastors need to be learners; they need to be better taught!

If African bishops are wise, they would realize that the pope gives them licence to be creative in addressing pastoral situations of family life and marriage. Francis is actually saying: "Don't hide behind the veil of magisterium!" [paragraph 3]. Instead, we need to pay close attention to the unique elements within African cultures that allow the church in Africa to engender innovative pastoral solutions to family life and marriage with sensitivity to local needs and traditions. [paragraph 3]. There is a great opportunity here to be creative!

Furthermore, on a continent where at least 38 countries criminalize homosexuality, the pope's trenchant call for respect for human dignity, avoidance of unjust discrimination, aggression, and violence, and respectful pastoral guidance [paragraph 250], should galvanize the church in Africa to embrace wholeheartedly African families and their LGBT members who have been stigmatized, marginalized, and excluded from the life of the church. Church leaders need to dissociate themselves from governments and politicians who persecute gay people, and show example of respect for their dignity. In Africa, we say the church is "family of God," implying that it welcomes all without discrimination. The preeminent mark of this church and the world church is hospitality. Clearly, Francis is calling the church in Africa to practice what it preaches by becoming a church that welcomes all into the family without discrimination. 

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is jmcelwee@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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