Little attention paid to 'Amoris Laetitia' at bishops' fall meeting

This story appears in the USCCB Fall 2016 feature series. View the full series.

by Dennis Coday

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Except for brief references in a few committee reports, Pope Francis' April teaching document on marriage and family life, Amoris Laetitia, received very little attention at the U.S. bishops annual fall meeting.

At a press conference Nov. 15 following his election as president of the conference, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston was asked if a conference-wide or national discussion was planned on the implementation on the papal exhortation "The Joy of Love," which has the Latin title Amoris Laetitia.

"I don't think so, no," DiNardo said.

Francis issued Amoris Laetitia in response to two Synod of Bishops on the family that he called in 2014 and 2015, which were preceded by local consultations that spurred great interest in the topic.

Calling a synod on the family was one of Francis' earliest initiatives, but from the beginning it has caused controversy and debates largely focused on access to the sacraments for couples in what the Catholic church traditionally defined as "irregular situations," particularly people who were divorced and civilly remarried without an annulment.

This summer, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, a member of the 2015 Synod of Bishops on the family, was appointed to lead an ad hoc committee to study the implementation of the exhortation nationwide.

Chaput completed the study and filed a report with the bishops' conference administrative committee in September. The report, which looked at responses to the document in 59 dioceses and 18 national organizations, is available on the bishops' conference website.

The report found "significant energy and interest in the United States in advancing marriage and family life ministry in light of the Holy Father's rich, pastoral encouragement in Amoris Laetitia."

The report also noted that "bishops and national leaders identified some areas for which additional resources — some perhaps from the bishops' Conference — could be helpful," including "a Q&A brochure," and the "identification of best practices" for particular ministry areas.

At the press conference Nov. 15, Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington, Vt., confirmed that the bishops' administrative committee had shared Chaput's report among all bishops, but he was not aware of any other planned actions. Coyne said the topic was not on the agenda of the executive session at the fall meeting.

DiNardo said that just because Amoris Laetitia was not being discussed publicly at the bishops' conference level, that didn't mean there wasn't a wide public discussion on the topic.

He and Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, who had just been elected conference vice president, said at the press conference that they had each published articles about the family life document in their archdiocesan newspapers and had sponsored forums in their respective archdioceses.

"I think you could multiply this throughout the United States," DiNardo said. "Is there public discussion going on? You bet there is. Are we talking about this with our priests? Yes, we are. The question of whatever happens in the terms of the conference, the conference helps the bishops do it in their own dioceses, but I think there is a great deal of discussion going on about Amoris Laetitia."

"I had a convocation with my priests and it came up during the convocation. We had a discussion about it and we will probably continue to have a discussion on it. It is, as you know, a very complex document. The pope told us to study if carefully," the cardinal said.

However, at least one person is wishing that bishops' conference would implement Amoris Laetitia in a more coordinated manner: Cardinal-designate Kevin Farrell, who was bishop of Dallas and a member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops until September when he became prefect of the new Vatican Dicastery for Laity, the Family and Life.

Farrell told NCR last month that he expects the exhortation will be the basis of his work at the new dicastery.

Farrell told Catholic News Service Nov. 15 that implementing Amoris Laetitia "has to be done in communion with our bishops."

Before individual bishops began issuing guidelines, he said, "I think that it would have been wiser to wait for the gathering of the conference of bishops where all the bishops of the United States or all the bishops of a country would sit down and discuss these things."

Speaking to NCR after the Nov. 15 press conference, Coyne, who is chairman of the communications committee of the bishops' conference, said, "We really do not have a venue to discuss this." Presentations at national meetings, for example, are limited periods of 15 minutes to 20 minutes, not enough time to discuss the document, Coyne said.

He also added, "There would be a divisive conversation around" the document because in an open forum it would be very difficult to protect the discussion from "those who would want to read it one way and those who would want to read it another way."

Citing a report from Rome on Nov. 14 that four cardinals had asked Pope Francis to clarify some teachings in the apostolic exhortation — especially teaching on Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried — Coyne said, "It's a difficult conversation to have right now."

In August, the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano printed an article that made the case that Amoris Laetitia is authoritative church teaching, an example of the "ordinary magisterium" — papal teaching — to which Catholics are obliged to give "religious submission of will and intellect."

[Dennis Coday is NCR editor. His email is Follow him on Twitter at @dcoday.]

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