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The more I think about Amoris Lætitia, Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on love in the family, the more it seems to me that the great impact it will have on the lives of families may even be among its lesser contributions to the world. Amoris Lætitia is a dramatic sea-change in how the roles of the individual and of the Church are understood in all aspects of life and it is a re-setting of how the perfection we are called to as children of God, and the necessary imperfection resulting from our finite powers, now relate to each other and to our being community.
By way of analogy, I believe that Amoris Lætitia is a move from the Church being modeled on Noah’s ark to a recognition that she is journeying towards Emmaus. The Church cannot be thought of as having been constructed following strict, specific and complete instructions and being called to the role of a gate-keeper who lets creatures in following a pre-determined passenger list, with those who are in being destined for hope and salvation, while those who are out being condemned. Instead, she is on a journey, huddled together for mutual support, discussing worries and fears that transform into hope, joy and salvation by the, initially unrecognized, presence of Jesus in her midst.
What Amoris Lætitia does first of all is break down the false categories of “good” versus “irregular” families by recognizing that each family and each one of us is in need of mercy, forgiveness and growing perfection. This is the result of the twofold nature of the family. First, that it is an ideal of divine proportions: “The triune God is a communion of love, and the family is its living reflection. [...] it is a particular reflection of that full unity in distinction found in the Trinity. The family is also a sign of Christ.” (§11, §161) Second, that it is, here on Earth, sought by finite and imperfect persons and that, therefore, “there is no need to lay upon two limited persons the tremendous burden of having to reproduce perfectly the union existing between Christ and his Church, for marriage as a sign entails “a dynamic process..., one which advances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God”. (§122).
Given what the fully-realized family is, we are all members of imperfect families and what we - both as families and as the Church who is “a family of families” (§87) - are called to is to support each other and help each other get ever closer to the ideal we seek. Instead of drawing an arbitrary line between different levels of imperfection and calling one side “good” and the other “irregular,” we need a change of paradigm that Pope Francis is proposing in the following way:
“Here I would like to reiterate something I sought to make clear to the whole Church, lest we take the wrong path: “There are two ways of thinking which recur throughout the Church’s history: casting off and reinstating. The Church’s way, from the time of the Council of Jerusalem, has always always been the way of Jesus, the way of mercy and reinstatement... The way of the Church is not to condemn anyone for ever; it is to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart... For true charity is always unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous”. Consequently, there is a need “to avoid judgements which do not take into account the complexity of various situations” and “to be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience distress because of their condition”. (§296)Before we look at what “reinstatement” looks like, it is also worth hearing from Francis what he thinks about how the Church has done lately in passing on the Gospel message of the family, in his characteristically direct words:
“At times we have also proposed a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families. This excessive idealization, especially when we have failed to inspire trust in God’s grace, has not helped to make marriage more desirable and attractive, but quite the opposite. (§36)In the very next sentence, Francis then delivers one of the key points of Amoris Lætitia: “We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.” It is not the Church who acts as my conscience, as the gate-keeper to right or wrong, but it is she who helps me develop my conscience, given to me by God, that it may be ever more attuned to discerning and acting on God’s will.
We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life. We find it difficult to present marriage more as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfillment than as a lifelong burden. We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. (§37)”
This, however, does not at all mean an individualization, a move to it being just up to me to understand what the right thing is to do. Amoris Lætitia places discernment firmly in the context of relationships. For me to act according to my conscience imposes a duty on me to form my conscience by understanding it in the context of a relationship with another person who is also committed to living the Gospel. Pope Francis here proposes the following: “I encourage the faithful who find themselves in complicated situations to speak confidently with their pastors or with other lay people whose lives are committed to the Lord.” (§312).
There are great treasures in the 264 pages of Amoris Lætitia on a broad variety of topics, but I believe that the revolution it brings is in replacing a “cold bureaucracy” of rules not with new, albeit more inclusive, rules, but with the need for discerning God’s will in the context of a relationship, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20).