Separating Opinion from Doctrine in Amoris Laetitia

Last Friday, April 8, 2016, Pope Francis released his much-awaited Magna Carta on the family, Amoris Laetitia (AL), the exhortation following the 2014 and 2015 synods on the family. AL is an unusually long document, about 60,000 words amounting to 261 pages in the English translation. It could very well be the longest document in the history of the papal magisterium. Conscious of the document’s length, Francis himself, in the introduction, called for a patient and meditative reading of the text, with attention paid to the specific needs of the individual reader, be they family members, those engaged in the family apostolates, clergy, et cetera (AL 7).

Given the context of today’s world, I find it difficult to believe that many Catholics, much less non-Catholics, will heed Francis’s appeal and patiently go through a document of this length. Many Catholics will depend on media headlines to draw their conclusions. Thus an opportunity will be missed to rediscover the beauty of love, marriage, family life, and the crisis of marriage that has followed the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s.

Spread over 9 chapters, the first 4 offer a lyrical presentation and defense of Christian marriage as a reality that is grounded on the mystery of Trinitarian love. Chapters 5 to 8 bear the pastoral character of the document, while chapter 9 offers a spirituality of marriage and the family. The future will give us an opportunity to delve more deeply into the details of these reflections of Francis. For the moment, some quick thoughts from a quick glance.

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To Francis, the Bible sets the stage for any reflection on Christian marriage, since “the couple that loves and begets life is a true, living icon—not an idol like those of stone or gold prohibited by the Decalogue—capable of revealing God the Creator and Savior. For this reason, fruitful love becomes a symbol of God’s inner life” (AL 11). What propels a man and a woman to embrace this vocation of marriage that mirrors the being of God is human solitude and incompleteness (AL 13). As a consequence of this union of bodies and spirits, the gift of children enriches the love between husband (man) and wife (woman), to the extent that the parents become the primary educators of their offspring (AL 17).

Since “the welfare of the family is decisive for the future of the world and that of the Church” (AL 31), the Church must advocate for marriage, given today’s context in which everything that is demanding is kicked out, in this case, the full Christian vocation of marriage as a complimentary, indissoluble, fruitful union. Public advocacy for marriage is a gift that the Church offers the world (AL 35), even as the Church goes against the totalitarian current of the LGBT ideology, which Francis clearly decries when he talks about “a legal deconstruction of the family, tending to adopt models based almost exclusively on the autonomy of the individual will” (AL 53). The spurious arguments of Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy and others that invented a “gay marriage” right from the US Constitution last year readily come to mind.

The pope does not shy away from labeling the current forces that have been gnawing away at the Christian vision of marriage: from extreme individualism to license and unbridled permissiveness understood as freedom; from economic poverty to migration and human trafficking; from the abuse of women through actions such as female genital mutilation to the sexual abuse of children and gender theory. It is within this context of brokenness that Christ enters, offering God’s healing and restoration to marriage through the instrumentality of Christ’s body, the Church. Amoris Laetitia has much to say about marriage preparation and the accompaniment of couples in the early years of marriage, solid stuff that should set seminary faculties and theological institutions reworking their curricula on marriage.

Francis opens his heart to the challenges faced by couples, and on many counts, his cor ad cor loquitur approach reveals the pastorally sensitive side of the pope from Argentina. Chapter 8 treats the various forms of brokenness that plague marriages, with the case of the divorced and civilly remarried taking center stage. It is fair to say that Francis himself wanted this issue to stand out, when he gave Cardinal Kasper the platform to address the College of Cardinals in 2014. It was then that Kasper introduced the so-called “Kasper Proposal” that called for the divorced and civilly remarried to be allowed to receive the Eucharist following a penitential path. It has never really been clear what this will entail, and what concrete circumstances will justify a decision in favor or against, especially as the Kasper Proposal is restricted to the “internal forum.” Serious scholars and pastors have pointed out in detail the flaws of the Kasper Proposal, and it is unnecessary to repeat them at length here.

However, there is one particularly unfortunate consequence of Kasper’s presentation. It had the effect of overshadowing not only the Synods of 2014 and 2015, but also the very pastoral reform of marriage that Francis clearly desires. The media headlines across the Western world said it all Friday: “Pope Opens Door to Divorced and Remarried Catholics.” Owing to the length of this document, Catholics will depend on those headlines in forming a conclusion about AL, which will certainly be a missed opportunity. Clearly, AL is already being restricted to this single issue, and the sad fact is that it all could have been avoided. The Holy Father might have himself to blame for this missed evangelical opportunity because attention is not being paid to the beautiful teaching about Christian marriage he masterfully presents in the exhortation. The media attention is all about Communion for the divorced and remarried. Francis set the stage for this narrow media focus when he opened a previously closed debate on the Kasper Proposal and then returned to it in footnote 351, where he implicitly recommends opening up the sacraments to the divorce and civilly remarried:

In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, “I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy” (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium [24 November 2013], 44: AAS 105 [2013], 1038). I would also point out that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (ibid., 47: 1039).

This footnote is problematic in part because it is based on a pastoral description that is difficult to find in most Catholic parishes. There may have been instances where pastors mistreated the divorce and civilly remarried, but many Catholics and pastors will attest to the contrary. Unfortunately, Catholic priests don’t always get credit for their pastoral sensitivity. Secondly, this footnote is incompatible with the teaching of indissolubility propounded in the same AL. The reason is largely due to the fact that Pope Francis is expressing a sincere and heartfelt wish that pastors find new ways to better reconcile those who have been denied access to the Eucharist. Such intentions do not reflect official Church teaching but the prudential judgment of a pastor who believes that current pastoral practice may in some instances be a disservice to Catholics in “irregular” situations. Passages like this are not authoritative or binding on anyone but do reveal the mind of their author. As Cardinal Raymond Burke reminded us this week, an apostolic exhortation, by definition, “does not propose new doctrine and discipline but applies the perennial doctrine and discipline to the situation of the world at the time.” Thus any statement of the pope that does not conform to received teaching is not binding on conscience because an exhortation by its very nature lacks the authority to propose new doctrine or pastoral practice. Furthermore, Cardinal Burke reminds us that any attempt to interpret every statement of the pope as binding on conscience is “absurd.”

Cardinal Burke has argued more than once that current teaching on marriage is not only faithful to Jesus Christ but also already pastorally sensitive to those who have fallen short of those teachings. Thus footnote 351 raises a series of questions: How do you reconcile it with the clear teaching of Our Lord Jesus Christ: “What God has joined together, man must not put asunder… Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery?” How do you reconcile this with what Jesus so clearly points to in his teaching on marriage (Matt. 19:6-9)? How do you reconcile footnote 351 with the clear teaching of the Council of Trent on mortal sin and the reception of the Eucharist, unless we change what Jesus taught about adultery as a mortal sin? We cannot have it both ways. And how can we reconcile footnote 351 with the clear teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on this question? And going further, how can we reconcile it with the magisterium of John Paul II and Benedict XVI on this very question? And are we not finding ourselves in a situation in which “conscience” trumps the clear words of Christ? Can we still talk about marriage as a public good for the Church, since sacraments are by their nature public, when at some point down the line it becomes an issue of the “internal forum,” of the conscience of an individual and the pastor only? What accounts for the movement from the public to the private in this sacrament? And what stops us from applying this same criterion to the other sins in the Church?

This controversy is likely to close the minds of many faithful Catholics to the magisterium of Francis, especially as it has now become evident that he always wanted some form of the Kasper Proposal. To introduce a divisive footnote into an exhortation on the family does not serve a global Church challenged on so many fronts and only ends up creating the very scenario that Francis himself decries in AL: a Church wasting its energies on internal acrimonies, in this case, on a matter that is consumed largely by the church in the German-speaking world, pushed on despite the conclusions of the 1980 Synod on the Family clearly enunciated by St. John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio. The unity of the Church is not served by inconsistencies in official documents, even when they are on mere matters of nonauthoritative opinion. What we have now is an impassioned debate over the meaning of footnote 351. If this ecclesiastical digression was avoided, the Church and the world could devote its energies to the rich meaning of Christian marriage by appropriating this love letter of Francis, which is what Amoris Laetitia essentially is. Alas!


  • Fr. Maurice Ashley Agbaw-Ebai

    Fr. Maurice Ashley Agbaw-Ebai (AMDG) is a Catholic priest from the Diocese of Mamfe, Cameroon. He is a doctoral candidate in theology and philosophy at Boston College. He also teaches at the Woods School at Boston College.

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