Pope Francis’ long meditation on love in the family does more than sum up two meetings of the world’s bishops in Rome in 2014 and 2015. Francis is bringing a new spark to an old fire.
The apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) begins with a sentence that recalls the most famous sentence in 20th-century Catholicism.
“The joy of love experienced by families is also the joy of the church,” writes Francis.
With that sentence Pope Francis consciously, deliberately calls to mind the pastoral constitution of the Church, Gaudium et Spes. The primary pastoral document of the Second Vatican Council begins: “The joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the men of our time, especially those who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish, of the followers of Christ as well.”
If there are some in the church who would minimize Vatican II, they do it by pointing out that it was not a doctrinal council. But such an argument misses the point. Pope John XXIII was convinced the church needed a revolution if it was to respond to a new and changing world — a pastoral revolution.
Pope Francis’ first sentence calling to mind the pastoral constitution of the church is “rather important, to be honest,” said Jesuit Father Gilles Mongeau, a theologian at Toronto’s Regis College.
“There’s a signal there that with this apostolic exhortation he wants to move the work of the council forward,” Mongeau said.
It doesn’t end at the first sentence. There are 29 footnoted references to Gaudium et Spes in Amoris Laetitia. Whenever Francis wants to make a point about what the church really teaches about marriage and sex, he reaches for Gaudium et Spes.
“This is because ‘marriage was not instituted solely for the procreation of children’ but also that mutual love ‘might be properly expressed, that it should grow and mature,’ ” he writes. The two quotes contained within that sentence come from paragraph 50 of Gaudium et Spes.
“The real achievement here is finding a way of articulating at the same time the truth of the church’s teaching on marriage while recovering the really rich and complex history of the church’s reflection on pastoral care,” said Mongeau. “That’s something we haven’t heard recently.”
A pastoral revolution begins with the people who are being pastored. The pastors, indeed the whole community, needs to see each individual as a real person and not merely the sum of their problems or their accomplishments.
“There’s a constant thread through the whole thing, and through Francis’ thought in general, which is against the commodification of persons, the commodification of sexual relationships,” said Atlantic School of Theology professor David Deane. “So there’s a seamless coherence between his critiques of capitalism and his approach to sex and sexuality.”
“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. Then, goodbye,” Pope Francis writes. “Narcissism makes people incapable of looking beyond themselves, beyond their own desires and needs.”
“I just think it’s a beautiful, beautiful document,” said Regis College theologian Rev. Gordon Rixon, SJ. “He retrieves the tradition and locates it in an organic development that gives life and isn’t either the confused, scattered approach that we might find taking root in broader society or a rigid, rule-bound approach that’s present in other elements of society. It really is deepening the centre.”
Amoris Laetitia isn’t aimed at laying down the law and shutting everybody up. It’s not the final word, even if it is weighty, comprehensive, wise and true.
“This is really engaging and inviting dialogue,” said Rixon. “And continues the process of the synod.”
Pope Francis, also a Jesuit, uses the word “discernment” 32 times. It’s a word plucked out of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, a word every Jesuit wears on his heart and on his sleeve. It means a constant process of understanding which is embedded in prayer, love and respect. It is no mere sorting of facts, but a way of deepening every glimpse of truth and spirit in every human encounter. Discernment doesn’t just sort things into their proper categories. At the same time, it makes connections.
“It is an Ignatian document. It really is. And discernment is at the centre of it,” said Mongeau.