By Corrine Winter
After a few quick reactions from several sides, it appears that people have settled back to study Pope Francis’ recent apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, as it deserves to be studied: carefully, respectfully, in the context of his other writings and speeches and of church Tradition. Some of the startlingly immediate reactions seemed to demonstrate unrealistic expectations. Some were apparently either disappointed or relieved that the pope did not alter church teaching. But an apostolic exhortation is not the type of document in which the pope would declare such changes. It is, rather, a reflective document in which the pope urges members of the church to think about and to apply existing church teachings in particular ways.
Now, to avoid setting up unrealistic expectations for readers of this column, I will say up front that I do not intend to provide either a synopsis of or a commentary on the pope’s exhortation as such. I need to follow my own directions and read the document with great care before I try to analyze its content or its style in a public forum. Rather, after reviewing some points about the nature of the document and the process out of which it has come, I will reflect on our call to participate in the on-going ecclesial reflection of which Amoris Laetitia is an important piece.
In 2013, Pope Francis called for an Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in 2014 for the purpose of addressing the vocation of marriage and family life. That meeting was followed by a worldwide effort to gain insights into the state of the question from members of the church, lay and ordained, single and married, of all ages and social situations. A year later, the bishops met again in Ordinary General Assembly to continue the discussion. The apostolic exhortation is the pope’s means of sharing his thoughts on the issues in light of the discussions that have taken place at the synod gatherings.
The Synod of Bishops was established by Pope Paul VI in 1967 as a way, as he said, of fostering unity of the bishops through shared efforts to carry out the mandates of Vatican II which called for both increasing evidence of episcopal collegiality and reading the signs of the times. The synod has met in ordinary General Assembly 14 times and in Extraordinary General Assembly three times. By calling for an extraordinary gathering of the synod, the pope indicated that he believes the issues of marriage and family life require urgent attention for the good of the church. When he instructed that the faithful be consulted on the matter, he showed the breadth and depth of his concerns. His action was also consistent with a number of statements he has made about the need for bishops to walk with the members of their dioceses in order to present the Gospel more effectively in response to their needs.
Marriage and family life is hardly a new topic for the magisterium. The website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has links to many documents including encyclicals and other papal documents, materials from various offices of the Holy See and pastoral letters issued by U.S. Catholic bishops as well as Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World from Vatican II which addresses family life and its challenges as the first of five areas of urgent concern. What does seem new is the breadth of consultation that was undertaken between the two meetings of the bishops’ synod. Perhaps that, along with some of the publicity about discussion that took place around and during the synod meeting contributed to the kinds of expectations to which I referred above.
As members of the church, we need to modify our approach to magisterial writings in a number of ways. We should certainly seek to appreciate their content as fully as we can. We also need to pay attention to the intent of the writer. To whom is the document addressed? What does the author intend to do? If, for example, a pope intended to present new teaching on faith or morals, he would issue a solemn document such as a Papal Bull in which he clearly stated what he intended to do. Even an encyclical is not normally used to define doctrine.
We should also understand our own role in the development of church Tradition. Our reception of teachings, including our experience of applying them in our diverse situations, is a vital aspect to the church’s growth. It was the reception of existing church teaching on marriage and family life that the bishops sought to explore through their discussions at the synod. The pope’s apostolic exhortation invites us to continue the process of reception, to fill out through lived experience the implications of the faith.
(Corinne Winter is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)