Some thoughts on Pope Francis’ “The Joy of Love”

April 8, 2016

Rome - St Peter's Basilica - photo by Kevin A. Davis

St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome

I am reading the long-anticipated “apostolic exhortation” finally issued by the Vatican. The title is “Amoris Laetitia,” or, “The Joy of Love.” I am enjoying it for the most part.

It is exceptionally long at around 260 pages. I have read enough of it now to get a good sense of the whole, and I do not see the value in releasing an exhortation this long. Much of the material is simply quotes from the final document produced by the Synod on the Family and already published. Why not distill and summarize this material? Why not simply refer to it in the footnotes? “The Joy of Love” is overly laborious.

That’s a small complaint, perhaps, but it makes a difference in whether it will get widely read, even among priests and theologians. This means that nearly everyone will rely upon journalists and reporters to give us the important stuff. That is not normally a good thing. For example…

Same-sex Unions?

I heard on NPR this afternoon an interview with an “expert” discussing the document. When the NPR host asked him directly about what “The Joy of Love” says about same-sex unions, the “expert” said that it leaves the matter open to the conscience of the individual in dialog with his priest. Sorry to disappoint this “expert,” but that is most definitely not what the document says about same-sex unions.

There is actually not much that pertains directly to same-sex unions, which is not surprising. The point of the synod and the point of the exhortation is to strengthen marriage (which same-sex unions are not and cannot be) in the midst of the unique challenges that face this institution and sacrament in the 21st century. But, of course, everyone is curious what it does say about same-sex unions, which is this:

There is a failure to realize that only the exclusive and indissoluble union between a man and a woman has a plenary role to play in society as a stable commitment that bears fruit in new life. We need to acknowledge the great variety of family situations that can offer a certain stability, but de facto or same-sex unions, for example, may not simply be equated with marriage. No union that is temporary or closed to the transmission of life can ensure the future of society. (52)

In various countries, legislation facilitates a growing variety of alternatives to marriage, with the result that marriage, with its characteristics of exclusivity, indissolubility and openness to life, comes to appear as an old-fashioned and outdated option. Many countries are witnessing a legal deconstruction of the family, tending to adopt models based almost exclusively on the autonomy of the individual will. (53)

In discussing the dignity and mission of the family, the Synod Fathers observed that, “as for proposals to place unions between homosexual persons on the same level as marriage, there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family”. It is unacceptable “that local Churches should be subjected to pressure in this matter and that international bodies should make financial aid to poor countries dependent on the introduction of laws to establish ‘marriage’ between persons of the same sex.” (251)

Moreover, there is an important section, featuring the theology of John Paul II, near the beginning of the document. Herein, the male-female, husband-wife union in love is an icon of the Trinity, imaging and revealing the inner life of God, indeed his own “very being” (see 10-11). Rome is still standing athwart the West’s sexual revolution and gender revolution. The difficulty is the pastoral care of individuals, especially innocent victims in a failed marriage. There is much more happening in this lengthy document, but understandably our attention is on these issues.

And as for gender, there is this:

Yet another challenge is posed by the various forms of an ideology of gender that “denies the difference and reciprocity in nature of a man and a woman and envisages a society without sexual differences, thereby eliminating the anthropological basis of the family. This ideology leads to educational programmes and legislative enactments that promote a personal identity and emotional intimacy radically separated from the biological difference between male and female. Consequently, human identity becomes the choice of the individual, one which can also change over time”. It is a source of concern that some ideologies of this sort, which seek to respond to what are at times understandable aspirations, manage to assert themselves as absolute and unquestionable, even dictating how children should be raised. It needs to be emphasized that “biological sex and the socio-cultural role of sex (gender) can be distinguished but not separated.” (56)

I do not expect this paragraph to be widely quoted among Francis’ admirers in the media.

Against Individualism

In the second chapter, there is an important quote from a Spanish Bishops’ Conference document, Matrimonio y familia, from 1979:

…equal consideration needs to be given to the growing danger represented by an extreme individualism which weakens family bonds and ends up considering each member of the family as an isolated unit, leading in some cases to the idea that one’s personality is shaped by his or her desires, which are considered absolute. (33)

As we all know, the belief that one’s personality is “shaped by his or her desires, which are considered absolute” is the rallying cry of our day — regardless of one’s sexual orientation. As a result, the family is only convenient or expedient in how it may service the desires of the individual. A little later we read:

As Christians, we can hardly stop advocating marriage simply to avoid countering contemporary sensibilities, or out of a desire to be fashionable or a sense of helplessness in the face of human and moral failings. We would be depriving the world of values that we can and must offer. It is true that there is no sense in simply decrying present-day evils, as if this could change things. Nor it is helpful to try to impose rules by sheer authority. What we need is a more responsible and generous effort to present the reasons and motivations for choosing marriage and the family, and in this way to help men and women better to respond to the grace that God offers them. (35)

In this effort to present a positive and attractive vision of marriage, the pope then cautions about “the way we present our Christian beliefs and treat other people.” He writes, “We need a healthy dose of self-criticism. Then too, we often present marriage in such a way that its unitive meaning, its call to grow in love and its ideal of mutual assistance are overshadowed by an almost exclusive insistence on the duty of procreation” (36). As a result, there has been an “excessive idealization” that has contributed to an insensitivity toward the particular circumstances and struggles of couples. Unfortunately, the pope is not entirely clear on how the conscience is to be evaluated:

We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them. (37)

This can be interpreted in a way consistent with the Catholic Church’s longstanding teaching that the conscience must be formed properly by right doctrine and practice. Formed properly, the moral agency of the individual is truly free and not controlled or coerced from without. However, it would not be hard for someone to interpret this passage as giving the conscience a certain autonomy and intrinsic justification.

All in all, the pope is warning us about how we center ourselves around our desires, obsessed with cultivating ourselves, our independence. “We treat affective relationships the way we treat material objects and the environment: everything is disposable; everyone uses and throws away, takes and breaks, exploits and squeezes to the last drop” (39). The social teachings of the Church on justice and fairness are frequent throughout the document. For example, “The lack of dignified or affordable housing often leads to the postponement of formal relationships” (44). “The verbal, physical, and sexual violence that women endure in some marriages contradicts the very nature of the conjugal union” (54). Many more examples could be given.

Gospel First

The overall thrust is that the pope firmly believes that grace and joy, not law and condemnation, is far more effective in achieving the Church’s moral goals in the lives of individuals. For example, “…we have often been on the defensive, wasting pastoral energy on denouncing a decadent world without being proactive in proposing ways of finding true happiness” (38).

The pope is not necessarily pitting grace against law, though that has surely been the impression of many casual observers of Pope Francis. I would rather say that (like Karl Barth?) he is reversing the traditional law-gospel order and presentation to a gospel-law order and presentation. This aspect of Francis’ ministry deserves a whole other article.

Communion for Divorced-and-Remarried?

The major headline for both the synod and now for the apostolic exhortation has been about the divorced and remarried. I will wait until I have studied the eighth chapter before I talk about it in any detail. The issue concerns those Catholics who have divorced and civilly remarried. As such, their previous marriage is valid — unless it has been annulled and therefore declared an invalid marriage from the beginning — and therefore their subsequent civil marriage is invalid. Their current civil marriage is objectively immoral and a scandal.

But what to do when such a person is now wholly penitent and in fact may even have been the innocent victim in the separation from his or her spouse? How is mercy applied in this case? How is mercy applied without effectively undermining the indissolubility of marriage?

_______________

Image: Bernini’s baldacchino in St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome. The photograph is mine.

 

5 Responses to “Some thoughts on Pope Francis’ “The Joy of Love””

  1. Joshua said

    Since when does NPR get matters of dogma wrong??

  2. Kim Fabricius said

    The English title should ensure that in book shops it will be found in the section for sex manuals.

    • Kevin Davis said

      Ha — apparently there are some traditionalist Catholics who are mocking it by calling it “The Joy of Sex.”

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