“Pope confuses faithful with mixed messages on family life”.
“Conservatives will tut. Liberals will be equally disappointed. The rest of us will wonder why we are still worrying about such nonsense. “Individual conscience”? Yes, mine is telling right now that we don’t need to be listening to old men in fancy robes pontificating any longer.”
These are two quotes from the “I” newspaper. The first was the title given to a brief description of Amoris laetitia the day after its publication (10th April). The second is the closing section of an op-ed piece on the following Monday (12th April) by Stefano Hatfield who identifies himself as an atheist, having been brought up a catholic. The “I” prides itself on being a quality newspaper which gives brief, balanced accounts of news items. So much for the coverage of a “balanced”, “quality” newspaper! The fact that the papal letter was published in the same week as the “Panama Papers” almost certainly meant that it received less coverage than might have been the case in the secular press, but it is also an indication of the lack of wider interest of a church document in this age.
The fact is that not only in the secular world, but also among many Catholic Christians, the institutional element of the Church has long since lost its credibility in matters of marriage and family life. The Pope’s Letter, which is addressed only to Catholics, unlike his encyclical on the environment, which was addressed to all humankind, is a bold attempt on his part to try to re-establish that wider credibility within the Church itself.
From the outset the Pope acknowledges the complexity raised by the subject of sexuality, marriage and family life. At over 250 pages long the letter is very long indeed and deals with a vast array of the issues raised by this topic. He sees this letter as part of an on-going process, that began with those impenetrable questionnaires that were sent out to parishes before the first of the two synods met, and which has continued since then. This Letter is not the last word, rather it is an invitation to everyone to engage with this topic in the light of Christ. In the opening paragraphs he writes,
… I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium. Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain conclusions from it… Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its traditions and local customs. (§3)
He sees what he has written as,
… (A)n aid to reflection, dialogue and pastoral practice, and as a help and encouragement to families in their daily commitments and challenges. (§4)
From the word go with this recent synodal process the Pope has encouraged bishops, indeed all people in the Church, to be open and honest about their responses to the issues under discussion. There had been a feeling that many synods since the 1980’s had been little more than expensive, rubber-stamping exercises in which the assembled bishops simply agreed to whatever was placed before them by the Curia, with little or no room for any dissenting voices. Pope Francis actively encouraged open responses saying that the bishops were to talk freely and openly, and noted that his was the responsibility of maintaining unity within the Church in face of all that might be presented. Amoris laetitia is this attempt at honouring the different views presented to him whilst maintaining that unity within the Church.
Because it is such a long text dealing with so many issues it is not easy to digest all that he is saying in a short time. Indeed, the Pope acknowledges this himself,
Given the rich fruits of the two-year Synod process, this Exhortation will treat, in different ways, a wide variety of questions. This explains its inevitable length. Consequently I do not recommend a rushed reading of the text. The greatest benefit, for families themselves and for those engaged in the family apostolate, will come if each part is read patiently and carefully, or if attention is paid to the parts dealing with their specific needs. It is likely, for example, that married couples will be more concerned with Chapters 4 and 5, and pastoral ministers with Chapter 6, while everyone should feel challenged by Chapter 8. (§7)
Before dealing in any depth with any individual chapters, however, some preliminary observations will be of use to our reading of the Letter. Just as the Bible itself needs to be read carefully with the help of eyes accustomed to its various nuances – language, types of writing, contexts and so on – the same holds true for a church document such as this. Otherwise the danger is always present for what the French say in a wonderfully cynical expression, “Donnez-moi la parole de quelqu’un et je le pends.” (Give me the sentence of any man and I will hang him.) We are all capable of picking and choosing sentences that resonate with our own, already formed, opinions, while conveniently leaving to one side any sentences with which we have problems and which challenge any preconceived ideas we may hold. That is not a particularly mature approach to take, and is not helpful in the task that the Pope sets out in this Letter.
The Overall Setting/Hermeneutic of the Letter
Two recurring references made by the Pope help us to place any interpretation of the contents of the Letter: it is issued during the Year of Mercy, and it is to be seen in the light of his first exhortation Evangelii gaudium. There are many references to both in the course of the Letter. Already this gives us a lens through which we can begin to interpret his treatment of various issues.
Firstly, with regard to the Year of Mercy, we can see especially in the reflection on the Scriptures in the first chapter of the Letter, and the meditation on the “Hymn of Love” in 1 Corinthians 13 in Chapter 4, the image of God that the Pope uses. What he writes in these chapters is very reminiscent of what the Scripture scholar Walter Brueggemann calls a “credo of five adjectives” for God that constantly recur in the Hebrew Scriptures, and are revealed in their fullness in Jesus:- merciful, gracious, faithful, forgiving, and steadfast in love.[i] This is the God Pope Francis invites us to be aware of, and to share with him.
Secondly, since the publication of Evangelii gaudium there have been a growing number of studies devoted to the theological methodology used by the Pope, which is uniquely Argentinian, an awareness of which helps us to understand better what he is trying to achieve.
[ii] In that document we became familiar with the many references made by Pope Francis to “the people”, “the poor”, “a church that is poor for the poor” (there are 164 such references in Evangelii gaudium). The Spanish term “Iglesia popular” means both the word “popular” as in English, and “of the poor/ordinary people”. The origins of the usage of this term lie in something called “teologia del pueblo” (theology of the people) which developed in Argentina. It is especially associated with two of Jorge Bergoglio’s theological advisers in Buenos Aires Fr Carlos Maria Galli (who accompanied Bergoglio to the CELAM conference in Aparecida, 2007), and a fellow Jesuit Fr Juan Carlos Scannone.
Bergoglio was known as an implacable opponent of what is called “Liberation Theology” that emerged from Latin America in the 1970’s and ‘80’s. His criticism is based on two main factors: in its methodology Liberation Theology begins with a sociological analysis of a situation (la realidad); and that analysis is often from a Marxist perspective. Under the then Cardinal Ratzinger the CDF made similar criticisms of Liberation Theology in the 1980’s. The assertion is that you cannot begin with what is essentially an atheistic perspective and then arrive successfully at a Christian one.
At the CELAM conference at Aparecida (Brazil) in 2007 Bergoglio, with Galli acting as his assistant, was elected by his fellow bishops with the responsibility of writing the final document of the meeting. The assembled bishops took a vote in favour of the final text that began with a (non-Marxist) sociological overview of the issues. Bergoglio insisted that this was wrong. He fought for, and won, an alteration whereby a reflection on the Christian Faith based on the Scriptures comes first, followed then by a sociological analysis of the situation.
If you take a look at both Evangelli gaudium and Amoris laetitia you will find that this is the way he proceeds – Gospel first, exploring the reality (la realidad) of people’s situations comes second, but notice both are properly honoured. In no way is Pope Francis repudiating the claims of the liberationists to address the real needs of poor people in Latin America, far from it. He agrees wholeheartedly with this but insists that one must begin the Gospel, otherwise any Christian reflection will not be adequate and may become lost in mere sociology.
One of the purposes of this ‘teologia del pueblo’ is to engage people in the theological process, to have their input. This involves a necessary evolution of people from being merely “habitantes” to becoming “ciudadanos” – from merely happening to inhabit/live in a place, to being citizens, involved with rights and responsibilities, from being passive recipients to being actively engaged. It is this idea of being RESPONSIBLE ADULTS in church matters that is key to understanding Pope Francis’ calls for “encounter”, an active, conscious engagement of a person with the Gospel, an active, conscious engagement of people with each other in the church. We can see this explicitly mentioned throughout the Letter.
The call for engagement and encounter also form the basis of his use of very ordinary, accessible language in his writings. There are some spectacular failures in this, of course, perhaps the most memorable of which in Evangelii gaudium is to “self-absorbed promethean neo-pelagianism “[iii]. However, most of his writing is very accessible indeed and is something that has attracted both a great deal of comment, and many more readers than for previous papal texts.
We can also note that this way of thinking completely blurs the traditional, rigid distinction between the ecclesia docens (the teaching church/the Magisterium) and the ecclesia discens (the learning church/ the laity). Of course we have always known that in face of the Master we are all disciples/learners, but this way of thinking points out that even those in authority in the Church can, and must learn, from the experience of others – of the “Ciudadanos” who have their own contribution to make in terms of practice and piety. This becomes very clear in the Pope’s reflections on the experience of married life.
Fr Galli, the Pope’s former theological adviser from Buenos Aires and now a member of the International Theological Commission, has recently been on a lecture tour of a number of Catholic Universities in the United States talking about “teologia del pueblo”.[iv] In the course of his lecture Galli claims that Pope Francis is the first truly “global pope”. Whilst it is true that he is the first pope from Latin America and the first non-European for over fifteen hundred years this may seem a strange claim given the extent of Pope John Paul II’s travels, and indeed our self-identity as “catholic”, but it has some resonance with a claim made by the German Jesuit Fr Karl Rahner, in the 1970’s. In a famous lecture given on the occasion of the conferral of one of his many honorary doctorates, he claimed that we were entering a new theological era in the life of the church, only the third such in two thousand years.[v]
The first era had been the very brief spell in the First Century which was a period when Jewish thought dominated Christian thinking. This was followed by the centuries of dominance of Graeco-Roman thinking, from the Second to the Twentieth Centuries. In other words our Christian Faith was seen through the lens of what is essentially one, dominant way of thinking. However many variants there may be on the fundamental works of Plato and Aristotle all theological reflection was done through that same, Western prism. This is no longer the case and many philosophies across many cultures vie for our attention, as do other human sciences such as sociology and psychology. This is truly a global, world church setting and Pope Francis is the first to lead the Church with this awareness.
Pope Paul VI, the pope who presided over the final three sessions of Vatican II, achieved the major task of keeping the church together (with the exception of Archbishop Lefebvre and his supporters) in the maelstrom that inevitably ensues after closing of a council. John Paul II contributed his Eastern European perspective on the Church under communism to help bring about an end to the Cold War, and to address issues in the Church. His background and training belonged to the pre-conciliar methods of theology dominated by Neo-Thomistic thought. Benedict XVI was, and still is, a highly respected academic theologian trained in the pre-conciliar way but contributing hugely to developing new ways of thinking both at the Council and after, including a modern critical use of Scripture – but still from a European (i.e. Graeco-Roman perspective). Pope Francis still comes from a largely traditional Western grounding in theology (his knowledge and use of St Thomas Aquinas makes that very clear), nonetheless he is the first pope to come out a very different mould, in that his post-Conciliar on-going formation in theology has been much broader than was possible for any of his predecessors.
Pope Francis’s use of Scripture, for example, is far more sophisticated and mature than that of his predecessors (even of Pope Benedict whose knowledge of exegetical works dates largely from his time prior to being appointed an archbishop in 1980). His reflection on the Pauline Hymn to Love (1 Cor. 13), at the beginning of Chapter 4, has been particularly noted for both its beauty and its depth of knowledge of exegetical skills. His reflections on educating children (Ch.7) show a solid understanding of basic developmental psychology.
Throughout both Apostolic Letters that he has written so far there are also constant references not just to councils, his predecessors, or ancient theological texts that we are used to seeing, but also to the writings of national episcopal conferences that he wants to see taking their full role and responsibility for engaging with the Gospel in the various regions of the world.
The clear unequivocal call is for people to take responsibility at all levels of the Church – to engage in the dialogue, to help work things out together, guided by things like Apostolic Letters, but also by other sources of wisdom to which we can lay claim.
Fr Sean Hall is a priest and theologian in the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle, United Kingdom.
[i] W. Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy, Minneapolis, Fortress, 2005, pp.2515ff.
[ii] For further on this cf. Esteban Pittaro, “La Teologia del Pueblo en la Papa Francisco”, accessed by Googling “teologia del pueblo” on 12/4/16. It is an article from the periodical Aleteia, from 28/1/14, and an article in NCR, “To Understand the pope, one must follow him home.” Accessed on the NCR website on 11/4/16.
[iii] E.G. §94
[iv] Cf. NCR articled cited above.
[v] Cf. “Towards a Fundamental Theological Interpretation of Vatican II”, Theological Studies, 40(1979), pp.716-727.