Last week, I gave my initial thoughts on Pope Francis’ “Amoris Laetitia” (the Joy of Love), noting some of its positive features as well as its shortcomings. This week I look at some of the responses to “Amoris Laetitia” and draw some conclusions about its importance.
The document is proving controversial, both within and outwith the Catholic church. Conservative theologians criticise the bits liberals approve of, and liberals express reservations about the bits conservatives like. Secular commentators have also found themselves in disagreement about the document’s implications.
The conservative Spectator described the document as “…the beginning of the end of the pontificate of Jorge Bergoglio”, arguing that “…the chief effect of ‘Amoris Laetitia’ is to ensure that waters Pope Francis deliberately and foolishly muddied will stay muddy.” The more liberal Guardian hailed the document as “…urging greater acceptance for divorced people and those in same-sex relationships while adhering to traditional church teachings.”
While liberal Catholic weekly The Tablet believes the Pope “…has opened the way for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive holy communion”, conservative theologian James Schall suggests that much of the document is flawed and concludes that the impression is created “…that no sin has ever occurred. Everything has an excusing cause.”
There is much more. Not only is there profound disagreement on the direction Francis appears to be taking, there is also much debate on what – if anything – has changed. Even the apparently clearest statements have been deconstructed. On same sex marriage, Francis wrote: “…there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.” This seems clear enough, and I am among the many LGBT Catholics who are disappointed by this.
Yet Francis X Clooney, from harvard Divinity School, observes that even this apparently unambiguous statement is not as clear cut as it seems. He notes the tone in this sentence is colder than the rest of the document and different from Francis’ normal way of speaking. He also notes that – unlike the rest of the document – the first person “we” is missing. He points out that Francis’ statement on same sex marriage is an exact quote from the 2003 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith statement on homosexuality. Clooney writes: “…I think he would have spoken differently had he spoken in his own voice” and that “…perhaps Francis is implicity distancing himself…” from official Catholic doctrine.
Towards the end of the article, Clooney quotes Francis saying that mercy and compassion is open to all. He seems to be implying we haven’t yet heard the Pope’s final word on same sex unions. I hope he is right.
There is no doubt Francis has been under great pressure, with conservatives and liberals within the church arguing with each other, leading to a lack of meaningful consensus. No matter what he wrote, he would have been criticised. Regardless of his own feelings, it is clear he has not been able to change doctrine (assuming he wanted to). His emphasis on mercy and compassion is welcome, but on its own doesn’t change any of the rules we Catholics are supposed to live under, rules that many thousands, if not millions, of us continually break without troubling our consciences. Falling birth rates among married Catholics aren’t the result of abstinence and few LGBT Catholics who regularly attend Mass are celibate.
Francis seems to recognise this disconnect between the centre and ordinary lay Catholics. I also think he recognises the difficulty, if not impossibility, of getting a consensus for change. It is in this context that his belief that interpreting doctrine should be devolved and based on compassion takes on great importance. I would go so far as to say it is the most important part of “Amoris Laetitia”.
This devolution allows parishes and dioceses to take account of what is happening within their own localities and is based on the principle that those who are most qualified to understand the needs of people in a particular locality are those working and living in that area. It also, pragmatically, allows for differing interpretations of doctrine without causing major schisms at the centre. Finally, Francis’ exhortation to use compassion and mercy may work against those parish priests and bishops who want to take the church back to the dark days of inflexibility and condemnation.
It is this devolution that has been criticised by conservative theologian and editor of Catholic World News Phil Lawler, who writes: “…the net effect of the Pope’s approach will very likely be an acceleration of an already powerful trend to dismiss the Church’s perennial teaching.”
I agree with Lawler. I also agree with him that “Amoris Laetitia” is subversive. However, unlike Lawler, I think this is a good thing.
I look forward to Francis being even more subversive in the future.