‘Amoris Laetitia’: A Challenge for Priests

Bishops from around the world met in Rome at the Synods of Bishops on the family in 2014 and 2015 to discuss fundamental issues facing families. Among other issues, the possibility of receiving of holy Communion by Catholics in irregular situations was addressed.

Pope Francis used the conclusions of these synods in his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”). Chapter 8 of this document has received considerable scrutiny. It contains the controversial issues like the one mentioned above.

As a pastoral starting point, Pope Francis says, “the Church must accompany with attention and care the weakest of her children, who show signs of a wounded and troubled love, by restoring in them hope and confidence, like the beacon of a lighthouse in a port or a torch carried among the people to enlighten those who have lost their way or who are in the midst of a storm” (2014 Relatio Synodi, No. 28). This notion of accompaniment, mentioned here, is central to Pope Francis’ message.

Widening Our Focus

Amoris Laetitia is a beautiful document, and it needs to be read as a whole. In reflecting on it, I remember Pope Paul VI’s document Humanae Vitae. Published in 1968, some people refer to it as the “birth control” encyclical. I recall the turmoil it caused not long after the Second Vatican Council. Many never appreciated it as a powerful defense of human life. They focused instead on the part of the encyclical that upheld the traditional teaching of the Church against artificial birth control. The wisdom contained in this document was clouded over by an almost exclusive focus on the part about artificial birth control.

When considering Amoris Laetitia, we cannot let Chapter 8 cloud over the rest of this exhortation as a whole. It is a strong statement on love and the family. Focusing almost exclusively on Chapter 8 (which addresses divorce and remarriage outside of the Church without a declaration of nullity, gay marriage and more) could lead to missing the pope’s inspiring message on the beauty of the family. We don’t want what happened to Humanae Vitae to happen to Amoris Laetitia.

To focus on Amoris Laetitia, my remarks offer a theological and pastoral underpinning for the entire work, including Chapter 8. This approach lets us see the great value of this document for enhancing family ministry. Putting Amoris Laetitia in a broader context also invites us to see its true worth, while at the same time encouraging us to carry on a healthy conversation with those holding different views on the controversial matters in Chapter 8.

To appreciate what Pope Francis says in Amoris Laetitia, we begin by stressing that he remains faithful to basic Catholic beliefs and practices. At the same time, he invites us to consider a new paradigm or way of looking at family ministry and pastoral issues generally, not unlike the one taken at the Second Vatican Council.

Like any paradigm shift, his approach brings with it differences of opinion and some confusion. The bishop of Rome offers us this new way of seeing and ministering by using again and again expressions like dialogue, accompaniment, communication, discernment and encounter. In so doing, he urges us to take people where they are and walk with them on their faith journeys.

Pope Francis challenges us to embrace a fresh way of thinking, counseling, reconciling penitents, preaching and teaching. In some instances, this may mean shifting from an abstract, deductive, rule-oriented perspective to a historical, inductive and conscience-focused one.

To better appreciate the potential for ministry contained in his approach, we divide our remarks into three sections. The first offers two philosophical perspectives as starting points to analyze Amoris Laetitia. The second considers 10 suggestions gleaned from Amoris Laetitia. The third reflects on a personal story of accompaniment.

Two Philosophical Perspectives

The insights of several prominent philosophers of the 20th century can shed light on the pastoral approach suggested in Amoris Laetitia.

We begin by quoting Ludwig Wittgenstein’s words, “Ask not for meaning, ask for use.”

These words moved language philosophers away from stressing the meaning of words to focusing on the context of their use. In other words, interpreting words and passages depends on the broader framework within which they are used.

The stress on use helps us appreciate what Pope Francis tells us in Amoris Laetitia. His notion of “pastoral accompaniment as an imperative” is reinforced in the context of his other works, such as his speech to leaders in Brazil in 2013, his encyclical Evangelii Gaudium in 2013 and his remarks about a culture of engagement at the 48th World Communications Day in 2014. In each of these, he stresses the importance of dialogue, accompaniment and engagement.

Francis-Approved Directives
Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia, “Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness,” has been much discussed since the document was released in April 2016. Last September, Pope Francis responded to the “Directive of the Bishops of the Buenos Aires Pastoral Region,” which focused on the clergy’s roles in implementing the teachings of Chapter 8, saying, “The text is very good and makes fully explicit the meaning of the eighth chapter of Amoris Laetitia. There are no other interpretations. And I am sure it will do a lot of good. May the Lord reward you for this effort of pastoral charity” Pope Francis wrote.

His context of use focuses on the concrete, the here and now, the situation in which people find themselves, and on conscience. While doing this, he does not minimize an abstract, deductive approach in general or the importance of rules and directives in moral theology, liturgical worship and canon law.

Pope Francis never questions how the Church mediates the Holy Spirit’s presence through her teaching, norms, liturgical practices and rules. While maintaining the vital role of the Church, his approach affirms that God often deals directly with us in our joys and sorrows and focuses on the complex realities that we often face. This is essential in understanding his perspectives on conscience, especially in Chapter 8.

The pope stresses that our loving God is present in the difficult — sometimes irregular — situations that we encounter, guiding us in ways that go beyond human comprehension. In this context of use, Pope Francis urges priests and Christian disciples to accompany those with troubles, address the issue of conscience and help them discern the designs of God.

Next, we move to the phenomenological philosophers Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. They stressed intentionality and a “return to the subject.”

Their philosophy implied a move away from an abstract view of the object and toward the subject. It focused on “the subject” (the one acting) over “the object” (what is done).

This return to the subject influenced theologians before and after the Second Vatican Council and conciliar decrees like Lumen Gentium. Pope St. John Paul II used this perspective in his work Laborem Exercens (“On Human Labor”). He describes the worker, made in the image of God, as the subject of the work produced, and the work produced as the object of the worker (see Laborem Exercens, No. 4).

In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis builds on the Second Vatican Council and the papacy of St. John Paul ll and Pope Benedict XVI. Pope Francis refocuses certain dimensions of moral theology and pastoral ministry while maintaining continuity with traditional Church teachings and practices. He strongly affirms the Church’s doctrine on marriage and rejects any kind of relativism.

Concerning more controversial issues in Amoris Laetitia, this refocusing invites us to probe more deeply into the role of the subject (the person involved), especially the role of conscience in personal discernment, while not minimizing the significance of the object (basic Church teachings and rules as norms of conduct). This refocusing involves a both/and, not an either/or.

In so doing, Amoris Laetitia enables us to take a deeper look at our priestly ministry and to conduct it with pride, mercy and dedication. It also invites us to walk with people in their joys and sorrows, especially when they need us most. This may mean sacrificing ourselves in traumatic moments of sickness and death and having the courage to fall on our knees and wipe the feet of broken people before us, just as Jesus washed the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper.

The Sharif family prays before sharing tea in their Chicago home. Pope Francis’ exhortation Amoris Laetitia extols the value of family life. CNS photo via Karen Callaway, Chicago Catholic

10 Considerations

Let us now consider 10 suggestions gleaned from viewing Amoris Laetitia as a whole.

1. If we have not done so, read Amoris Laetitia, with particular application to our life and ministry, mindful of the need to be a welcoming priestly leader. Consider reflecting on it during a retreat or at another time.

2. Refocus our homilies on the family in its various configurations. In so doing, discuss with the parish education commission, pastoral council, liturgical committee and finance council the wisdom of shifting the orientation of the parish toward the family, giving it “A Family Perspective,” as the U.S. bishops recommended in their pastoral statement of that title at the end of the last millennium and reiterated in 2008.

3. Remember Pope Francis’ words that the most powerful influence on families today is the “culture of the ephemeral” that engulfs us. Reflect during your homily preparation on how to address the cultural challenges of people in their work, play and family.

4. With the renewed stress on the New Evangelization, recall that the most fruitful evangelization happens in the family — in love, mercy and forgiveness. Then ask, “What does this imply about evangelization in our parishes and about the need to welcome all family members, regardless of their situation?”

5. In early Christian house churches, a vital part of a Christian home was its missionary outreach beyond the family. Remember Pope Francis’ teaching on the family’s mission and focus family ministry on its missionary responsibility to share Jesus’ Good News.

6. Chapter 4 of Amoris Laetitia, “Love in Marriage,” contains a powerful reflection on 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. Use it in marriage preparation and meditate on this chapter. It contains insightful comments for family and priestly ministry.

7. Re-examine parish marriage preparation processes in light of Pope Francis’ remarks in Chapter 6, “Some Pastoral Perspectives.” What changes do his remarks imply for our parishes?

8. Look at the parish catechetical program as it relates to the importance of parental involvement and the ethical and moral formation of children. Let us take our lead for needed changes from Amoris Laetitia.

9. Discuss with priest friends or attend a seminar on the challenges contained in Chapter 8 concerning irregular and difficult situations that we face as priests. To put these challenges in clearer focus, study the “Directive of the Bishops of the Buenos Aires Pastoral Region” on the basic criteria for applying Chapter 8. Read carefully Pope Francis’ letter to Msgr. Sergio Fenoy of Sept. 5, 2016, affirming the interpretation of this chapter by the Argentine bishops, and consider the subsequent reaction to the pope’s affirmation by other bishops and theologians. In addition, be particularly mindful of Pope Francis’ comments about four pastoral attitudes in dealing with irregular situations — namely, “welcome, accompaniment, discernment and integration.” His words offer us a new model of pastoral ministry. Welcome as the underlying perspective; accompaniment as we walk with the needy; discernment as we help them understand God’s will for them; and integration as we work to integrate them in some way into the community. Remember these four attitudes with the acronym WADI as we help people move from a sometimes-dry riverbed to the living waters of a stream suffused with the power of the Holy Spirit. Finally, take seriously Pope Francis’ words in the letter to Msgr. Fenoy: “I consider formation in discernment, personal and communitarian, in our seminaries and rectories to be an urgent matter.”

10. Be merciful to the poor, needy and hurting, remembering that it is the Lord’s Church, the Holy Spirit directs us, and we are humble servants.

The Journey of Accompaniment

Accompaniment begins in the family. Reflect on your own family and Pope Francis’ call for accompaniment in family ministry as you join me on a part of my journey that occurred in the spring of 2016.

Uncertainty filled the hearts of my sister, Joan, and I as we drove to Columbus, Ohio, to visit my dying brother, Tom, at the James Cancer Hospital. On our trip north, we remembered our other sister, Mary Ann, seriously ill in Cincinnati at Good Samaritan Hospital, as we looked forward to visiting Tom for perhaps the last time.

Arriving at the hospital, we stood outside of his room. Seeing us, his feeble voice invited us to enter. After a visit with family and friends, everyone left the room except Joan and me. I asked Tom, “Do you want us to pray with you?” He answered, “Sure!” As we said the Our Father, I looked at his trembling lips and the worry on Joan’s face.

Coming to the words, “Thy kingdom come,” suddenly my mind flashed back about 75 years. I remembered my mother teaching us children this prayer and praying it with Mary Ann, Joan, Tom and me. It was almost as if we were transported back in time to a core moment that united us as a family. Thinking of my mother praying with us, I experienced powerfully what Pope Francis calls “accompaniment,” when in the hospital room we said, “Give us this day our daily bread.”

Through life, our family nourished each other in joys and sorrows, made possible by faith-filled parents. As I left Tom’s room that day, not long before he died, I realized more deeply that faith is born in and nourished by the family, where we grow in love, mercy and forgiveness through life’s ordinary events.

Looking backward over my 57 years in the priesthood, one thing comes to mind. Our priestly attitude is so vital. My prayer is that we maintain a positive, pastoral attitude as we encounter people and walk with them on their faith journey.

FATHER ROBERT J. HATER is a priest in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and professor emeritus at the University of Dayton.