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Amoris Laetitia: revealing the potential

Elissa Roper

I had been looking forward to the publication of Pope Francis’ exhortation for a long time. Like most parents who pick up Amoris Laetitia I had to find time squeezed in amongst the constant round of activities. I found my first opportunity during a three-hour wait in Outpatients at the hospital for a checkup on my son’s broken arm - which was becoming a common event for the Roper household.

 

A breath of Good News for the Church

The key themes of Pope Francis’ papacy, appearing constantly throughout his many moments of teaching, are clearly visible in this document. Mercy is undoubtedly the lens for the Pope’s vision of the reality of the Church; joy, too, as the sign of a life of mercy, encounter with Christ and genuine engagement with other people (Evangelli Gaudium). Injured and wearied from abuse scandals, clericalism and disturbing trends of exclusion and judgement the Church is invited to “gaze with faith and love, grace and fidelity” on the love and joy (and hardships) of families.

Mercy is undoubtedly the lens for the Pope’s vision of the reality of the Church; joy, too, as the sign of a life of mercy, encounter with Christ and genuine engagement with other people

A Family of Families

The opening line of Amoris Laetitia reminds us that we have a Pope who loves people: “The joy of love experienced by families is also the joy of the Church.” Past Papal teachings have described families as receivers of catechesis with a duty to “allow themselves to be led, and, like a docile flock, to follow the Pastors” (Pius X, Vehementer Nos). There is no docility in Pope Francis’ emphasis on a Church of missionary disciples. He uses this official document of the Church to bring to light a new understanding of relationships within the Church by describing the Church as a “family of families.”

Pope Francis constantly talks about families. He proclaimed in the lead up to the Synod on the Family, and iterated within Amoris Laetitia, that the Church is the Family of God. Thus the whole Church is called to exhibit the most beautiful attributes of a family by being tender, merciful and joyous.

Pope Francis constantly talks about families. He proclaimed in the lead up to the Synod on the Family, and iterated within Amoris Laetitia, that the Church is the Family of God. Thus the whole Church is called to exhibit the most beautiful attributes of a family by being tender, merciful and joyous.

 

Amoris Laetitia highlights the wisdom and insights of families which embody Christ’s love. The family table welcomes Christ (#15), children are the result of mutual and generous giving and gift (#80-81), and the sexual relationship between husband and wife is recognised as the “greatest form of friendship” (#123). I am amused at the reaction of we know this! when I speak about Amoris Laetitia to the prayer and study groups in my parish. This is an encouraging sign for the Church as there already exists a real ability to engage with this document by all of the faithful. It is also an indicator that when it comes to catechesis on the family it is the people who have a great deal of wisdom and have much to share in dialogue with their pastors.

Francis is also making a statement to our leaders that “missionary conversion” is necessary by all in the Church in order to support families pastorally and spiritually. The content of Amoris Laetitia demands maturity, responsibility and co-operation throughout the Church.

 

Criticisms… and opportunities

The first three chapters of Amoris Laetitia satisfy me as a theologian and as a mother. I admit to putting down my ipad to dab at my eyes while in the hospital waiting room (“what’s wrong Mummy?” “Mummy’s happy because the Pope says that families reflect the love of the Trinity”). However, these chapters in particular have a disjointed feeling. Some paragraphs are simply quotations and offer little depth or reflection. Opportunities are missed, such as a more nuanced discussion on gender and femininity in particular. There is an unfortunate lack of mention of Religious and how families can benefit from their wisdom and practice.

A number of topics feel open-ended (paragraph 202 is a good example) - and herein lies a clue. Pope Francis has not written this document as a closing statement on a Synod that is done and dusted, but rather as an “opener.” Pope Francis is a builder of bridges (sublimely pontifex, Latin for bridge-maker), and his style of communicating is always to engage the listener with his own eyes and ears open.

Pope Francis’ style gives us a number of insights:

  1. Pope Francis is careful to place himself firmly in the tradition of the papacy, using the insights of past popes, theologians, and Councils just as previous popes have.
  2. The recent Synod was given a significant voice in the document. This Synod was extremely unusual for the way that feedback was collected from the faithful before the Synod began, and for the role that lay people played in addressing the bishops and contributing to discussions.
  3. Pope Francis referenced a large number of catechesis sessions, far more than former popes have. In doing so he seems to be legitimising those occasions where he is not just teaching, but engaging with the faithful. The pope’s main audience, the faithful of the Church, easily recognise themselves in the scope of this book; both as subjects, present as hearers and dialogue partners, and as agents, encouraged and entrusted to the mission of the family by the Pope.
  4. Several poets, writers and a psychoanalyst are referenced and given voices, along with a small number of theologians. It is discombobulating to notice that from the 391 footnotes and the 406 references contained therein, not a single one is from a woman. No female theologians, poets, writers, saints, mystics or other appropriate experts give their voice in this papal document. Why is this so? This surprising point raises many questions regarding women’s voices in the Church, the lack of intentional and effective dialogue and communication between clergy and the faithful, and the very large and essential questions around authority.

The Church has a great deal of work to do if an official document on the family, marriage and love cannot recognise, let alone incorporate, the work of women experts. Amoris Laetitia has potential: it provides many gaps in which further voices can speak, joining with the existing structures and traditions in a respectful and fruitful conversation. And here rises another major theme of Pope Francis’ - that of a synodal Church.

Amoris Laetitia has potential: it provides many gaps in which further voices can speak, joining with the existing structures and traditions in a respectful and fruitful conversation. 

The Church’s official understanding of synod, ‘meeting together,’ specifically encourages lay people to participate in Diocesan Synods and in local Councils, whether provincial or plenary, as envisioned by the Code of Canon Law (can. 443 ∫4; 463 ∫1 and ∫2). The last Diocesan Synod to be held in Melbourne was in 1905, and the last Melbourne Provincial Synod was 1907: could the drought be broken by local engagement with the issues raised in the recent Synod on the Family? Amoris Laetitia proves that further discussion is needed, along with the constant need for appreciation, appropriation and critique of offical documents by a wide variety of people.

Hope and Good News for the future

“Families are not a problem but an opportunity” declares Pope Francis. Through his linking of the joys and sorrows of families with those of Christ the Pope reminds us that our religion is one of relationships. The relationships of families - internal and external - are cause for great joy and much hard work for the Church.

Might we say that the greatest mission of two people in love is to help one another become, respectively, more a man and more a woman? 

One of my favourite quotes from Amoris Laetitia speaks powerfully of our own personal mission:

Might we say that the greatest mission of two people in love is to help one another become, respectively, more a man and more a woman? Fostering growth means helping a person to shape his or her own identity. Love is thus a kind of craftsmanship (#221). 

May the craftsmanship develop further as we engage with this document and with each other within a more merciful Church.

 

Elissa Roper is a wife and mother of four young children. After baptism as an adult she sought further knowledge of her faith and the Catholic Church as a student of theology. Elissa is currently applying to research at PhD level the topic of the Church as authentically the Body of Christ. She is  a representative on the Victorian Council of Churches Faith and Order Commission, a student at Yarra Theological Union, and active in her parish of St Brigid’s, Healesville.