One of the great achievements of Pope Francis’ latest apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, is its emphasis on inculturation and appropriate devolution of decision-making, writes Garry Everett.
BY Garry Everett
Last night I received a text message from a 30-something close friend of mine. In it she poured out her heart about how her two-year-old “ideal marriage made in heaven, blessed with twin boys aged nine months”, had collapsed. She was at a loss as to what to do, with no income, debts, and two babies to feed, clothe and protect. Her family is one of the many kinds of families that Pope Francis discusses in his latest apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia.
There is much to admire about Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love). The title is at once subtle and powerful, and contains more significance than first meets the eye. The Pope’s first exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), uses a different word for joy. One of the wonders of the Latin language is its capacity to use a single word in order to signify a major difference. I think the Pope made a deliberate choice not to use “gaudium”, but “laetitia” this time.
In Latin, and my knowledge is fairly rudimentary here, “laetitia” is a feminine form, and “gaudium” a masculine form. The connotation here is that “gaudium” conveys the image of the joy that goes with good news: a new job; the footy team won; lotto paid out.
On the other hand, “laetitia” connotes a joy that is more felt than described: the joy of nurturance; of intimacy; of love. This “love in the family” that Francis writes about, gathers everyone in: across generations; across genders and sexualities; across economic and ability levels; across cultures. It is a joy in love that Francis regards as touched by “un-merited, unconditional and gratuitous mercy”.
The opening two words of the exhortation then, create for us an expectation that the remaining contents will be conveyed in the language of “contact”. In 2015, when the Pope addressed the newly-installed cardinals, he told them: “The true language of communication is contact, the same endearing language that brought healing to the leper”. This exhortation does not disappoint. It is classic Francis.
There are nine chapters in the exhortation, and each conveys a different emphasis and accounts for a different aspect of family life. In chapter nine, for example, Francis notes that: “no family drops down from heaven perfectly formed; families need to constantly grow and mature in the ability to love…”
This observation is also true of the family we call Church. While Francis says that human families should strive to achieve the perfection of the union between Christ and his Church, contemporary readers may question this perfection. The Church also needs to grow and mature in love. Its recent lists of imperfections might suggest that the Church needs more “guiding, discerning and integrating” (to use words from the exhortation), than it has displayed these last few decades.
Some commentators have noted that the Pope is grappling more with real aspects of families than the ideal. This should be enormously encouraging for all family members and for those involved in supporting families in any way. For too long the Church has emphasised the ideal, while shying away from addressing the real issues of family life. In this exhortation, Francis readily acknowledges that priestly formation in this matter has been inadequate, as has been the preparation of couples for marriage and family life.
I particularly warmed to Francis’ emphasis on the psychological aspects of formation and preparation – an emphasis rarely exhibited in papal documents, which have tended to accentuate the scriptural, the theological and the sacramental, at the expense of the secular sciences.
Pope Francis is to be commended for the manner in which he addresses the issue of divorce and civil re-marriage. He writes: “Such persons need to feel not as ex-communicated, but instead as living members”. In my experience, such people still feel a kind of excommunication; a sense of being punished for “failing”; a sense of not being fully welcomed in Church. This Pope has, more than many of his predecessors, tried to be attentive to the needs of the people in this category of divorced/re-married. This exhortation opens some doors but it seems there is still a long journey ahead for those who wish for full sacramental life.
There are several other outstanding qualities of this exhortation which will endear it to many Catholics. Firstly, there is the language – plain, homely, full of love and everyday images. This language differentiates this exhortation from most other papal documents. Then there are the images: “family is a trade carried out with tenderness”; marriage is “a dynamic path to personal development and fulfilment”; and again, “a shared and lasting project”.
However, one of the great achievements of Amoris Laetitia is its emphasis on inculturation and appropriate devolution of decision-making. Many Catholics may have wanted the Pope to declare some universal solutions to seemingly intractable problems. In this way, compliance needs would be clear and punishments for offenders could be devised.
Pope Francis has resisted this expectation and instead, invites us on a journey of contact, communication and charity so that together we can strengthen the bonds of marriage and its basis in love. He offers this sage advice:
“At times we find it hard to make room for God’s unconditional love in our personal activity. We put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance.”
If we all could live the essence of this advice, Amoris Laetitia will have achieved more than was ever expected of it.
I wondered whether Francis would have used this concluding saying had he known of it: “It is not what you look at that matters, but what you see”. I think so, because Francis, like Jesus, invites us to “come and see”.