Opinion Thomas Reese: Signs of the Times

‘Amoris Laetitia’ revisited

Pope Francis talks as he embraces a child during a special audience with members of the "Train of the children" at the Vatican, on June 3, 2017. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Remo Casilli

(RNS) — Major papal documents often get limited media coverage when they first appear and later are forgotten except by scholars and church leaders. The really important documents are studied in seminaries and incorporated into religious education textbooks. Ideally, the ideas in the documents influence sermons and trickle down to the faithful, but that depends on the interests of individual pastors.

Some documents are remembered because of their controversy. “Humanae Vitae” (Of Human Life), Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical that banned any use of artificial birth control, was one of these. This encyclical was criticized by theologians and even some bishops and ignored by the vast majority of the faithful.

Pope Francis’ document on the family, “Amoris Laetitia” (Joy of Love), received wide coverage both in the Catholic and secular media when it came out in 2016. The apostolic exhortation was the product of the pope’s thinking after two synods of bishops on the topic of the family.

Most of the attention in the media was focused on its opening the possibility of divorced and remarried Catholics receiving Communion, in Chapter 8. Traditionally, only those remarried Catholics whose first marriages had been annulled (declared invalid by a church tribunal) were allowed to go to Communion.

A small but vocal group of conservative commentators, and even some bishops and cardinals, felt this was an unacceptable breach with church teaching. The faithful, on the other hand, overwhelmingly (62 percent) favored Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics without an annulment, according to a Pew Research Center poll conducted even before the papal document was issued.

Last week, a group of theologians and bishops met at Boston College to reflect on how “Amoris Laetitia” has been received by the church and what might be done to improve its reception. These were all papal loyalists who believe that Francis has been a blessing for the church. The conference was convened by Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago and the Rev. James F. Keenan of Boston College’s Jesuit Institute. A video of the conference talks will be placed online and the papers will be published.

In general, the reception of “Amoris Laetitia” has been positive from the laypeople who have actually read the document or experienced programs based on the document. People have found it realistic in its description of the challenges facing families. Chapters 4 and 5, which Francis described as the heart of the document, are experienced as inspiring, hopeful and helpful.

Children greet Pope Francis in Cairo on April 29, 2017. Photo courtesy of Osservatore Romano/Handout via Reuters

Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego described the highly successful diocesan synod that he held on the document, which resulted in practical programs to help parishes minister to their families. Hispanic and black theologians described how the document’s ideas resonate in their communities.

But everyone quickly acknowledged that more needs to be done. “Amoris Laetitia” entered the world in a time of crisis for families. The opioid crisis and unemployment are destroying families. The poor are less likely to get married and more likely to get divorced than those in upper incomes. In a highly mobile society, extended families are not present to help couples. Single parents cannot find day care. And young people are abandoning religion in droves.

Parishes need to be more welcoming to families, especially families in difficulties. Rather than greeting them with a list of rules to be followed, the document encourages “listening” as the first response. “Accompanying” was another key word in “Amoris Laetitia,” which connotes accepting where people are and then traveling with them in their journey toward God.

But who is going to do this accompanying? The lack of a positive reception of “Amoris Laetitia” by many priests and even bishops was seen as a major problem for the document.

Young priests, who were trained by conservative moral theologians during the papacies of John Paul and Benedict, are often suspicious of the document. They were trained to enforce rules that excluded people rather than welcomed them. Many are confused; some are outright antagonistic.

Alienated Catholics, who are encouraged by the papacy of Pope Francis to give the church another try, often do not meet Francis in their parishes. When they experience condemnation and exclusion, they leave, never to return.

Until seminary faculties and administrators change, there is little hope that new priests will be open and welcoming. Converting the current priests is an even greater challenge.

Likewise, the participants saw little hope that the U.S. bishops’ conference would be a leader in implementing “Amoris Laetitia.” Until more new bishops in the Francis mode are appointed, there will be little action by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Bishops were encouraged to focus on their own dioceses.

Both bishops and theologians expressed concern about those dissenting from the teaching in “Amoris Laetitia.” Bishops especially are concerned about unity in their dioceses. Although Chapter 8 dealing with conscience, discernment and Communion for divorced Catholics is the most controversial, bishops reported enthusiasm even among conservatives when discussing other parts of the document. But the vitriol from some opponents of Pope Francis is discouraging to them.

Pope Francis kisses a child as he arrives to bless houses during his visit to Ostia, on the outskirts of Rome, on May 19, 2017. Photo courtesy of Osservatore Romano via Reuters

After hearing constantly from the critics, perhaps the best outcome of the Boston College conference was to encourage the participants to fear not in their implementation of “Amoris Laetitia.” The critics are a small minority in the church. In the past, they could complain to Rome, where they would get a sympathetic hearing. Now they are the dissidents out of step with the pope. They have few followers among the laity, as the Pew Research Center shows. They can make a lot of noise, but little else. Like other dissidents, they should be politely listened to and invited to dialogue, but they should not be allowed to determine the direction of the church.

Certainly, the participants were encouraged by hearing about the reception of “Amoris Laetitia” in France, Germany and Italy from visiting bishops and theologians. Also hopeful was the participation of Cardinal Kevin Farrell, prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life. The Rev. Antonio Spadaro, a fellow Jesuit and close confidant of the pope, was also a participant.

What role does the laity play in all of this? If you have not done so already, read Chapter 4 of “Amoris Laetitia” and give that chapter to any couple preparing for marriage or experiencing the ups and downs of family life.

Next, the laity must speak up. Bishops and priests only hear from the disgruntled. Tell them how much you like Pope Francis and his stress on compassion and mercy.

Finally, the pope says that one of the great sins of the church is its infantilizing of the laity. It is time for the laity to educate themselves, speak out and act like true disciples of Christ in spreading the joy of the gospel. As Cardinal Farrell noted, priests have no direct experience of marriage, and it is therefore up to lay people — who actually get married — to become leaders in reaching out to families in the parish communities.

About the author

Thomas Reese

The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest, is a Senior Analyst at RNS. Previously he was a columnist at the National Catholic Reporter (2015-17) and an associate editor (1978-85) and editor in chief (1998-2005) at America magazine. He was also a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University (1985-98 & 2006-15) where he wrote Archbishop, A Flock of Shepherds, and Inside the Vatican. Earlier he worked as a lobbyist for tax reform. He has a doctorate in political science from the University of California Berkeley. He entered the Jesuits in 1962 and was ordained a priest in 1974 after receiving a M.Div from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley.

19 Comments

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  • Thomas Reese proves that once a heretic, always a heretic.

    – “They were trained to enforce rules that excluded people rather than welcomed them…”

    These rules were instituted by none other than Jesus Christ himself, not that you’ve ever cared about Him to begin with. See Luke 16:18 for Jesus’ ‘exclusionary’ rules.

    – “The critics are a small minority in the church…”

    A blatant lie, like most everything else that comes out of your mouth. The critics are everywhere; the small minority that support it are liberals, who may indeed be firmly entrenched in high places, but are not representing the body of Christ on this issue at all.
    Like your good buddy in apostasy James Martin, you refuse to acknowledge the existence at all of the glorious new ocean of African Catholics, who stand in direct, overwhelming opposition to your Western, liberal nonsense. The not-so-subtle racism of your all-white, all-liberal enclave in pretending that only your opinions matter is quite telling indeed.

    – “They have few followers among the laity…”

    Which is why traditional Catholic Churches are attracting waves of younger people, and spreading like wildfire in the aforementioned Africa, while liberal dinosaurs such as yourself are seeing your parishes wither up and die.

    – “Like other dissidents, they should be politely listened to and invited to dialogue, but they should not be allowed to determine the direction of the church…”

    A 180 degree turn from your stance back when YOU were one of the dissidents, fighting tooth and nail against every orthodox dogma you could get your hands on.

    It’s been asked by plenty of genuine Catholics before, and it’s still a question you’ve never answered, Mr. Reese – since you clearly hate everything that the Catholic Church has stood for these past 2,000 years, why remain in it at all?
    Wouldn’t you be much happier moving to the Castro in S.F and letting your freak flag fly?
    It seems clear to most that you stay for one reason and one reason alone – to wage war against orthodoxy and to try and bring as much damage to the Catholic Church as possible.
    In which case, if you really think that’s a battle you can win, you’re in even worse shape than even your harshest critics believe.

  • I just love how a group of old men who have eschewed marriage, sex, family, and children, have the cojones to tell the entire world how they should run their marriages, sex lives, families, and Raising of children.

    Yet, they seem to have something of a problem with lack of boundaries regarding vows and children and things like that. And yes, they exhibit a failure to see a severe moral problem as anything more than an embarrassing faux pas that should not get discussed in public.

    But what I love even more are the arch conservatives who, if this is even possible, are further divorced– did you see what I did there– from those concerns, criticizing the pope for not being catholic.

  • So Catholicism is spreading like wildfire in Africa. It’s retreating like trump’s hairline in a lot of other places, all traditionally catholic, like Brazil.

    Or any place in the civilized world.

    Everything the Catholic Church has stood for during the last 2000 years, as far as I can tell from your nasty comments…

    Seems to be “get the gays.” (Well, that and some mythical creatures you call liberals. But that was expected). You really should not betray the workings of your subconscious that way, but there you have it. That is what is getting you so p.o.’ed. There are so many places you could have gone, but you went Right To The Gay. Your spiritual ancestors would have gone Right To The Jew.

    But you need a new arch enemy, so we’re it. And being anti-Semitic doesn’t play well any more.

  • “Young priests, who were trained by conservative moral theologians during the papacies of John Paul and Benedict, are often suspicious of the document. They were trained to enforce rules that excluded people rather than welcomed them.” Really? Perhaps you may like to elaborate and even substantiate these claims. I would particularly love to know what rules are to be enforced. Are they the commandments or what? Too funny.

    …Anyhow, go ahead, make my day

  • “There are so many places you could have gone, but you went Right To The Gay.” Says the guy who concludes that Africans are not among the “civilized.”

  • To sum up your drivel: “I’m anti Catholic because I perceive Catholics to be anti ‘gay’ and anti Jew.”

    You probably have a PhD from an American university.

  • “The faithful, on the other hand, overwhelmingly (62 percent) favored
    Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics without an annulment,
    according to a Pew Research Center poll conducted even before the papal document was issued.”

    Because, of course, objective truth doesn’t exist and we can decide on what is “moral” and “immoral” based on a poll. Welcome to the road to death that is protestantism.

    And by the way, Bruce Jenner really is a woman. There was a vote on it and the results were overwhelming.

  • The Pope needs to be careful! The last guy who had the nerve to stand up to the religious conservatives of his time and tell them what God really wanted from us, got himself nailed to a cross for his efforts.

  • I’d be more willing to follow Pope Francis’ downplaying of sin if he’d call a synod on hell and final judgment and stack it with German and Belgian bishops and assorted jesuits and vote on a motion something like: Be it resolved that hell is abolished. Until he does that I’m a little skittish about following him down his proposed path.

    He needs to go whole hog.

  • Change comes slowly in the Church, if at all. May Pope Francis minister for ten more years, and be succeeded by someone who shares his commitment to mercy and reinstating the marginalized.

  • Reese: “Alienated Catholics when they experience condemnation and exclusion, they leave, never to return” but offers no proof.
    In 2016, PRRI asked those who no longer identify with a denomination why the left. “Notably, those who were raised Catholic are more likely than those raised in any other religion to cite negative religious treatment of gay and lesbian people (39% vs. 29%, respectively) and the clergy sexual-abuse scandal (32% vs. 19%, respectively) as primary reasons they left the Church.”
    Pope Francis approved a reiteration last November of the ban on priests with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies.” He has referred to same-sex marriage as an “anthropological regression,” “disfiguring God’s plan for creation” that will “destroy the family.”
    The recent charges by the U.S. and Canada against a Vatican diplomat for child porn who is now shielded by the pope inside the Vatican against prosecution speaks for itself.

  • The problem, Tom, is not more discussions, more regulations, more persuading people to ‘conform’ to what our beloved Pope is saying and writing. The problem is more fundamental, much more fundamental.

    The problem is that many, too many, Catholics have never been CONVERTED. They’ve been taught to OBEY and they don’t want to be told anymore. They were taught that God is UP THERE, somewhere beyond the stars. And they don’t believe that anymore. They were taught to be CATHOLICS first and that it was all that was needed.

    Most were baptized as babies – not for them to become CHRISTIANS, but to make them CATHOLICS, members of this institution which is the subject of all these discussions and which is what the majority are and remain, Catholics and members of an institution.

    They have yet to make a decision about the God Who is there in their own hearts, deep in their own hearts, and Who is inviting them into a LOVING RELATIONSHIP with Him (or Her) – God has no sex. They have yet to begin listening to the Spirit Who is there to guide them as they journey through life. Instead they are invited to discuss and discuss some more and then some more. Using REASON instead of FAITH, which is missing in so many.

    And so the discussions go on and on; and people are leaving this institution. When are we going to go back to the BEGINNING, to their own beginning….If you live in New York and want to go to Florida and start by going North, you won’t get there very soon. The same with the situation that Father Reese and so many others describe so well.

    Paul

  • Not what I said, not what I intended, and not what I concluded. But to make you happy, I’ll include a small edit called a paragraph break.

  • I don’t see how you can call me anti catholic, unless you can also show me where what I said was not true, and intended to defame Catholics.

    As far as I can tell, the anti catholic in this story is catholic. But then, as far as I can tell, the most anti Christian people in the world are True Christians who constantly attack other True Christians for not beingTrue Christians.

    This is just one more example of it.

    And for the record, yes, until it was no longer fashionable, The Catholic Church was anti Jew. It was 11 years old when the Catholic church FINALLY issued a statement that the Jews really didn’t murder Jesus, and weren’t responsible. You might want to look up the history of the Reichskonkordat. Very illuminating what the church was will to have happen to the Jews as long as their power and privilege was left intact.

    and is still anti gay tothe extent they can get away with it,

  • Oops! Sounds like Francis has gone whole hog, given the interview he gave to Scalfari in the last couple of days. There is no eternal punishment he is reported to have said.
    No doubt a controversial view of hell being propounded by Francis, but like I said, if you’re gonna preach moral laxity you need to do away with hell or minimize it as he appears to be doing here. Can’t preach one without preaching the other.

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