Friday, April 8, 2016

Amoris Laetitia - A First Look

The Pope's long awaited Post Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, dated and signed, fittingly, on the feast of Saint Joseph, March 19, was finally released to the world this morning. Being an early riser, I listened live to some of the formal press briefing in Italian. Then, at the office, I printed out the whole thing (all 325 paragraphs) and quickly read through it in free moments over the course of the day. That, of course, was what the Pope explicitly asked us not to do! I do not  recommend a rushed reading of the text (AL 7). And, of course, the Pope is right. This document is meant to be read and studied - and even meditated on. It is not meant to be rushed through in a hasty search for soundbites.

That, inevitably, was what much of the media did. So we got such absurd headlines as "Pope insists conscience, not rules, must lead faithful" (AP). Or "Pope Francis offers hope to divorced Catholics, says no to gay marriage" (The Washington Post). The latter, while somewhat accurate at least, still ignored some 90+% of the document, a document which really is not primarily about divorce, nor is it about gay marriage, however important both those topics seem right now in our society. But then it is inevitably the most normal of responses to search such a document for references to whatever one's preferred topics and causes happen to be!

Needless to say, many such commentaries display neither nuance nor in-depth substantive detail. Those qualities are generally in short supply anyway. Witness the coverage of our political campaigns! Unfortunately, people probably pay even less attention to Church documents than to politics. So how much of the wisdom and beauty of this Apostolic Exhortation will trickle down into the pews remains to be seen. In any case, it will clearly take time. But taking time with this is a good thing.

Amoris Laetitia is, first of all, an authentic engagement with the the two synods on the family, as the repeated references to the last synod's final relatio make evident. It is a Post-
Synodal Apostolic Exhortation in the truest sense, and (except perhaps for its length) it could well serve as a model for what it would mean to take the synod process more seriously in the future. 

It is also a profoundly pastoral document, in the sense that it is about examining the way the Church ministers to families (of all sorts) in all sorts of complex contemporary situations. It is not about defining doctrine but about the living application of revealed doctrine in the Church's day-to-day encounter with families, primarily in parish life.

Each of its nine chapters is a substantial essay in itself, and most could conceivably merit being published individually as guides to particular topics. Most obviously, chapter six ("Some Pastoral Perspectives") could easily stand alone as a manual for marriage preparation and ongoing ministry to families and crisis situations. Likewise chapter seven ("Towards a Better Education of Children") could just as well be an essay in its own right.

What this suggests is not just that the entire document deserves time to be read and absorbed, but that each particular part of it deserves such treatment. Chapter one ("In the Light of the Word") is the typical scriptural introduction, with which such documents nowadays tend to begin. It would be tempting to skip over this chapter. Indeed, one could do so and still profit from the rest of the document. But then one should at some point go back and read the chapter on its own, for it is also an edifying mediation on the family as experienced in scripture, from the creation of Adam and Eve to the Holy Family of Nazareth. 

Likewise, chapter four ("Love in Marriage"), which begins with a lengthy meditation on 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, could well stand alone and would be worthwhile meditation for all married couples and those preparing for marriage. In fact, the Pope specifically recommends chapter four (together with chapter five "Love Made Fruitful") to married couples to read. We are all familiar with the popularity of 1 Corinthians 13 as a wedding reading. The Pope's extensive meditation on that text in this document is a good alternative to the popular superficial use of that Pauline text. 

Meanwhile, chapter two ("The Experiences and Challenges of Families") traces the contemporary situation of the family. Here the contributions of the synod's relatio are especially evident and relevant. this chapter honestly highlights how modernity has harmed family life and continues to do so, but also challenges us for having often been on the defensive, wasting pastoral energy on denouncing a decadent world without being proactive in proposing ways of finding true happiness (AL 38). The challenge Pope Francis poses in this Exhortation is to stop wasting pastoral energy and proactively speak and act about marriage and family life - and minister to individuals and families, however we find them - in ways which. while fully faithful to God's revealed word, are actually helpful to family life and the Church's overall mission in the modern world.

How the Pope proposes for the Church to respond to that challenge I will write more about in these coming days.

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