The Lasting Legacy of Amoris Laetitia
Thomas A. Shannon
Professor Emeritus of Religion and Social Ethics
Worcester Polytechnic Institute
The long-awaited Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Francis summarizing the two Synod meetings on the family has been published and reactions have been mixed, with many commentators focusing on discerning the degree of his fidelity to traditional doctrinal positions. Most have agreed that the letter repeats traditional teaching but allows for discernment about particular situations to be made at the local level. And clearly, discussions and debates about those local resolutions will continue.
But there are other dimensions of this Exhortation that are significant in helping to understand, specifically its strong continuity with the theology of Vatican II. In particular, there are three themes from Vatican II in this Exhortation that have long-term significance.
One of the contributions of Vatican II was complementing the work of Vatican I by developing the teaching on the bishops. The document Lumen gentium helped to clarify and establish the relation between Pope and bishops. One of the structures that emerged from this teaching was reestablishment of the Synod of Bishops. Clearly, an Ecumenical Council could not be a frequent event and the Synod was seen as a mediating structure between such a Council and the Papal Office. The Synod was a means of the bishops discerning and discussing key topics and advising the Pope. Lumen gentium presented it this way.
22. Just as in the Gospel, the Lord so disposing, St. Peter and the other apostles constitute one apostolic college, so in a similar way the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter, and the bishops, the successors of the apostles, are joined together. Indeed, the very ancient practice whereby bishops duly established in all parts of the world were in communion with one another and with the Bishop of Rome in a bond of unity, charity and peace, and also the councils assembled together, in which more profound issues were settled in common, the opinion of the many having been prudently considered, both of these factors are already an indication of the collegiate character and aspect of the Episcopal order; and the ecumenical councils held in the course of centuries are also manifest proof of that same character. And it is intimated also in the practice, introduced in ancient times, of summoning several bishops to take part in the elevation of the newly elected to the ministry of the high priesthood.
Paul VI called Synods to discuss problems, but eventually, the Synods fell into disuse or basically were called to reaffirm specific issues in the Papal agenda. Recent Synods were not noted for discussions or advising but affirming a predetermined agenda.
This has changed with Pope Francis and how the Synod on the family was structured. There was a pre-Synod process of preparation of the agenda for the Synod on the family. This included asking Bishops what concerns they had as well as sending surveys to Bishops who in turn frequently sent them to parishes to solicit other perspectives. On this basis an agenda was prepared. But then something unusual happened. At the Synod the Pope asked the Bishops to say what was on their minds, to say what their real concerns were, what problems they faced, and how they thought they should respond to them. The Pope strongly stated that he did not want them to guess what they thought he wanted them to say but rather to speak freely and identify their concerns. This took a while, but the bishops began to say what they thought, to the delight of some and the horror of others. But speak they did, to each other and to the press, in the meeting room of the Synod, and with each other in various language groups. This went on for two sessions, with summaries being provided and documents produced after the end of each session. Also publicly available were the summaries of the various language groups and the interventions of several of the laity and religious who spoke at the Synod. Eventually, all paragraphs of each of the reports were voted on and the two reports were presented to the Pope.
That Francis listened to the Synod is clear from reading the footnotes of the Exhortation. The vast majority cite the Synod reports. The Exhortation is a marvelous synthesis of the Reports as well as Francis' own concerns about the family and how the family is to be affirmed and treated. The thought of Francis is clear in the Exhortation, but his thoughts are clearly expressed within the framework proposed by the Synod. As Francis states it:
2. The Synod process allowed for an examination of the situation of families in today’s world, and thus for a broader vision and a renewed awareness of the importance of marriage and the family. The complexity of the issues that arose revealed the need for continued open discussion of a number of doctrinal, moral, spiritual, and pastoral questions. The thinking of pastors and theologians, if faithful to the Church, honest, realistic and creative, will help us to achieve greater clarity.
An important conclusion to draw from this is that the use of the Synod will be an important part of Francis' papacy. And with this use of the Synod is also a push to decentralize how authority is exercised in the Church. And such a push also emphasizes the significance of the role of the local Ordinary. And this then leads to the second theme: the importance of the local church--whether this be on a national level, the diocesan level, or the parish level.
The Significance of the local Church
A critical starting point for this discussion is Paragraph 4 of Gaudium et spes from Vatican II which Francis quotes in the Exhortation:
Indeed this accommodated preaching of the revealed word ought to remain the law of all evangelization. For thus the ability to express Christ's message in its own way is developed in each nation, and at the same time there is fostered a living exchange between the Church and the diverse cultures of people. To promote such exchange, especially in our days, the Church requires the special help of those who live in the world, are versed in different institutions and specialties and grasp their innermost significance in the eyes of both believers and unbelievers. With the help of the Holy Spirit, it is the task of the entire People of God, especially pastors and theologians, to hear, distinguish and interpret the many voices of our age, and to judge them in the light of the divine word, so that revealed truth can always be more deeply penetrated, better understood and set forth to greater advantage. (4)
This reasoning was continued in Octagesima Adveniens, the Apostolic Letter Paul VI wrote to Cardinal Roy on the 80th anniversary of the encyclical Rerum Novarum.
In the face of such widely varying situations, it is difficult for us to utter a unified message and to put forward a solution which has universal validity. Such is not our ambition, nor is it our mission. It is up to the Christian communities to analyze with objectivity the situation which is proper to their own country, to shed on it the light of the Gospel's unalterable words and to draw principles of reflection, norms of judgment and directives for action from the social teaching of the Church. ... It is up to these Christian communities, with the help of the Holy Spirit, in communion with the bishops who hold responsibility and in dialogue with other Christian brethren and all men of goodwill, to discern the options and commitments which are called for in order to bring about the social, political and economic changes seen in many cases to be urgently needed. (4)
Here Paul acknowledged the reality of the complexity of the world and that communities closest to the problems should be at least the first to begin grappling with the problem. Solutions proposed from on high with little knowledge or sensitivity to the local context may not be the best way to resolve a problem. In many ways, this is nothing other than the application of the traditional principle of solidarity. But perhaps it has never been stated so baldly with respect to papal teachings.
The Exhortation reiterates this teaching:
3. Since “time is greater than space”, 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 for the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it. This will always be the case as the Spirit guides us towards the entire truth (cf. Jn 16:13) until he leads us fully into the mystery of Christ and enables us to see all things as he does. Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs. For “cultures are in fact quite diverse and every general principle... needs to be enculturated, if it is to be respected and applied”.
The role of the local community is a recent emphasis on the life of the Church. Clearly, there have always been local synods that have significantly impacted the life of the Church. Consider, for example, the lasting significance of the Baltimore Catechism. And we also have the importance of various Bishop's Conferences. Again consider the profound importance of the USCCB's letter "The Challenge of Peace" that significantly influenced national debates over the strategy of nuclear deterrence. Various themes in their other letter "Economic Justice for All" continues to influence discussions of justice in contemporary social policy debates. But such initiatives fell into disuse, discouraged by a heightened centralization of authority within Rome. Fewer issues tended to be resolved at the local level and more and more questions were sent to Rome for resolution. Again, Francis is reversing this tide by returning to the practice of calling synods to gain the bishops' perspectives on various topics and expecting bishops to resolve their own issues. This is clearly recognizing the appropriate role of the bishop as well as the relation of the bishop to the papal office and the role of the local community.
Moral Decision Making
A third theme in the Exhortation relates to moral decision making. This theme also has clear roots in Vatican II. In Gaudium et Spes, the Council Fathers shifted the center of moral decision making from rules or a biologically deterministic view of natural law to the person. In the discussion of decision making with respect to responsible parenthood, the Council highlighted the centrality of person.
Hence when there is question of harmonizing conjugal love with the responsible transmission of life, the moral aspects of any procedure does not depend solely on sincere intentions or on an evaluation of motives but must be determined by objective standards. These, based on the nature of the human person and his acts, preserve the full sense of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love. 51
This shift from the structure of law to the person is continued in the document on religious freedom, Dignitas Humanae. Here the focus is on the centrality of the conscience as the locus of moral decision making and the respect that needs to be accorded conscience.
In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious. 3
Francis continues this by noting that "We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them." (37). Francis affirms the role and necessity of the whole Church in such a formation of conscience, particularly with respect to the development of a meaningful catechesis on marriage. But along with this is the necessity of each member of the Church, within the context of the ecclesial community, for forming his or her conscience and coming to his or her conclusions about the application of these teachings to his or her life. While not a new teaching in the Church, Francis is developing this orientation, emerging out of the theology of Vatican II, and giving it new vibrancy.
It is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being. I earnestly ask that we always recall a teaching of Saint Thomas Aquinas and learn to incorporate it in our pastoral discernment: “Although there is necessity in the general principles, the more we descend to matters of detail, the more frequently we encounter defects... In matters of action, truth or practical rectitude is not the same for all, as to matters of detail, but only as to the general principles; and where there is the same rectitude in matters of detail, it is not equally known to all... The principle will be found to fail, according to as we descend further into detail”. It is true that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation, they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations. At the same time, it must be said that precisely for that reason, what is part of a practical discernment in particular circumstances cannot be elevated to the level of a rule. That would not only lead to an intolerable casuistry but would endanger the very values which must be preserved with special care. (304)
This is not new teaching as is clear from the citation from Aquinas. But it is a teaching that has been marginalized for several years as priority has been given to rules and laws. The Pope's point, and indeed, the point of the Synod, is that one cannot go directly from a law or rule to the very specific context of the person who has to decide. This does not mean that a person can do whatever one wants. But what has to be affirmed is that the person, in the sanctity of his or her conscience, has to particularize and personalize the decision in the light of both the rule and the particularities of the situation. And as Aquinas noted centuries ago, the more specific one gets, the further from the general rule one gets.
The enduring legacy of this Synod and the Apostolic Exhortation derived from it will not be particular conclusions stated in it or specific statements. Rather the legacy will be this three-fold shift in direction initiated by Francis. Implementing these shifts in the life of the Church will not be easy. Many are not used to being given responsibility for resolving problems. Others will be fearful of stepping outside of what were perceived to be clear lines of debate. Still others will find dialogue and listening difficult. But this is the journey on which Francis is sending the church, a direction sustained and upheld by the practice of mercy. The sessions of the Synod provided a model for the whole Church to follow and Francis further exemplified this in how he implemented the advice of the Synod. Indeed, he and the Synod have given the Church a true example of the Amoris Laetitia.