Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Amoris Laetitia - Reception and Problems

In the run up to Amoris Laetitia's release, expectations were high on all sides. It is, of course, sad to have to speak of "sides" in the Church. But it can hardly be denied that "sides" do exist, and that on each "side" there were differing expectations, some quite apocalyptic (in both the favorable and unfavorable connotations of that word).

Well, the document having been released, some very extreme statements have since been made on each side, along with more widespread satisfaction with the Exhortation's tone and appreciation of how it appears to try to resolve - or at least mute - some of the divide between the two "sides." In fact, New York Times  columnist Ross Douthat has even called it "The New Catholic Truce."

Thus the optimists on one side have highlighted the document's pastoral tone, its understanding of those in problematic circumstances, it reluctance to judge persons entirely in terms of such situations, its preference for mercy and inclusion, and its explicit encouragement to pastors to do the same in their day-to-day pastoral ministry in parishes. The pessimists on the same side, however, have highlighted (despite all the kind and gentle language) the Exhortation's insistence on reaffirming all the traditional doctrines. 

Meanwhile, on the other side, the optimists have been comforted by that unequivocal restatement of all the traditional doctrines, while the pessimists on that side (operating out of a seemingly permanent hermeneutic of suspicion of almost any development since 1960 or maybe 1570) see too many signs of openness to problematic practices, which - while not explicitly approved in the document - are likely to be interpreted (in the secular media especially) as being implicitly approved in it. 

The fact is all that four groups may be on to something in their perceptions, to at least some extent!

It is certainly true that the Exhortation repeats and reaffirms the traditional teachings of the Church on the nature and purposes of marriage and on the permanence of marriage. Likewise it is also true that the document displays a great awareness of and sensitivity to the difficulties individuals and families experience in today's post-Christian culture, in which the traditional understanding of the nature, purposes, and permanence of marriage has become implausible to so many, inside as well as outside the Church.  And the pastoral priorities proposed are all about accompanying people in such problematic circumstances, in spite of their situations, seeking to reach out and include all in the Church's life to the greatest extent possible. And the critics are certainly correct that some in the secular media have already interpreted this outreach and inclusion as a kind of free pass (or at least a step toward a free pass) to ignore the rules - the rules in this case being Mark 10:11-12 and 1 Corinthians 11:27-29. On the other hand, for those who want precisely that outcome and who want to interpret the document that way, its persistent refusal actually to say so seems to taint that supposed opening with a troubled conscience. And so the arguments continue - on both sides!

All of which would seem, sadly, to leave a lot unchanged in the divisions within the Church community - divisions not just about divorce and remarriage but about the meaning of human nature and human sexuality, divisions which go all the way back at least to the divisions within the Church in the aftermath of Humanae Vitae. That situation has been one in which, as Ross Douthat described it in the New York Times, "the church's official teaching remains conservative even as the everyday life of Catholicism is shot through with disagreement, relativism, dissent." 

That may be overstating the case somewhat. But, to the extent that this is true (or perhaps just widely perceived to be true) it is not only an immediate problem but a long-term one, because it sets up a culture of mutual suspicion in which all initiatives to address contemporary problems appear tainted. But the fact is that the Church's mission and ministry, her teaching and her pastoral practice, are only viable when they simultaneously are authentically faithful to divine revelation and the Church's traditional teaching and also translate what the Church has received and teaches for it to be received in turn by those who are either still outside the community or are inside but for whatever reason are marginal or peripheral.  In the life and mission of the Church, fidelity and accompaniment are like the two ends of marriage, and like them cannot be arbitrarily separated without calamitous consequences.

That likely excludes some of the more extreme positions on each of the two opposite sides, but still leaves a lot of space in the center, where both fidelity and accompaniment are valued and desired.

Personally, I have long been of the view that, to the extent that the Church in the late 20th and early 21st centuries may have been less effective in its outreach to the wider world than had been hoped in the immediate afterglow of the Second Vatican Council, this has in some significant measure been because so much of Catholic energy has been sapped by internal (and inward-looking) battles between factions and interest groups within the Church, many rooted in conflicts over questions of human sexuality and sexual morality. In the late 19th-century, Paulist founder and Servant of God Isaac Hecker composed  Rules for the Guidance of Writers, Lecturers, and Others Engaged in Public Life, one of which was “To keep our minds and hearts free from all attachments to schools, parties, or persons in the Church, so that nothing within us may hinder the light and direction of the Holy Spirit.”

Indeed what growth and evangelizing energy have nonetheless characterized the Church's life here in the United States (and even more so in many other places) have been rooted both in fidelity to revelation and tradition and in an openness to a constantly revitalized emphasis on the essential mission of the Church, as that mission has been understood ever since the Council of Jerusalem. 

Of course, that doesn't do away with all difficulties and disagreements, which will be always with us this side of heaven. But it does contextualize them within what the Church's proclamation of the Kingdom of God is primarily about.

n. 329

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