Amoris Laetitia (Joy of Love) the book-length apostolic exhortation released to the general public about a week ago sums up the Vatican’s two year-long Synod on Family. While much like the pontiff’s most recently released encyclical Laudato Si, has the fresh and generous tone we have come to associate with Pope Francis I, it reiterates, reintroduces and reframes already existing teaching. It does not give us much that is new. This should not surprise anyone. Francis I is expert in warming up cold doctrine. Pope-watchers often look for dramatic turns whenever a Vatican document drops, but “the bigger the bus, the harder it is to turn” applies. The Magisterium changes slowly. Francis I was elevated to beat back a schism — -not to incite to one. Bottom line: Catholics are still supposed to remain married. Divorced Catholics are still considered adulterers by the Magisterium., and LGBTQ people are still, though less explicitly, “disordered,” and artificial contraception is still a grave sin.
So why all of the excitement about Amoris Letitae? The document shines a light on the principle of discernment while dusting off the the principle known (in Catholic teaching) as “Law of Graduality.” There are degrees of sinfulness, and discernment, in theory helps us know how to best address transgressions. There has long existed wiggle room for pastors counseling divorced and remarried Catholics. Divorced and remarried Catholics have been receiving unofficial permission from their priests to receive the sacraments for decades. What’s good about Amoris Laetitia is that those divorced and remarried Catholics who did not know before Amoris Laetitia now know just how commonplace it is for discerning priests to counsel some divorced and remarried Roman Catholics to go ahead and receive Communion.
Discernment and primacy of conscience are not new to Roman Catholicism. These principles were focal points of the Second Vatican Council. As Pope Benedict XVI (Josef Ratzinger) said in his commentary on the 1965 pastoral constitution gaudium et spes, there are instances in which conscience supersedes ecclesiastical law:
Over the pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority there still stands one’s own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority. Conscience confronts [the individual] with a supreme and ultimate tribunal, and one which in the last resort is beyond the claim of external social groups, even of the official church.
Amoris Laetitia contains some sound thinking on family and marriage, and seems to have drawn some modicum of wisdom from a couple, Ron and Mavis Pirola, who testified in the forum about their marriage. They reported that their healthy sex life had helped keep their sacramental marriage strong. They implied that sex had helped them to endure the trials to which most marriages are subject. Marriage is difficult and psychologically complex.The Pirolas spoke beautifully of their desire to see same-sex unions honored by the church, and I found it deeply encouraging to find that their story had not fallen on deaf papal ears.
Unfortunately, even the most insightful moments of Amoris Laetitia’s discussion of marriage bear the taint of the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy’s deep-rooted sexism and misogyny. I wanted to trust in the pontiff’s wisdom on marriage and family, but knowing that out of the 279 who voted, not all of them priests, not a single one was female cast a shadow over the entire letter. Amoris Laetitia glosses over contraception, declines to notice the Zika virus, reaffirms early on that babies should be conceived as an act of love. (Exceptions for children who are adopted are made later on in the letter). Children conceived with the help of artificial means are not quite so blessed, perhaps, as the rest. I loved the repeated exhortations to love one’s children with fervent abandon; it’s good advice, but it is easy to see that Amoris was written by men with no children. At one point in the text, citing another (2014) Vatican report, Amoris Laetitia advances the notion that being born out of marriage is as tragic as a being sexually violated, which struck me as nervy:
A great number of children are born out- side of wedlock, many of whom subsequently grow up with just one of their parents or in a blended or reconstituted family… The sexual exploitation of children is yet another scandalous and perverse reality in present-day society. "(Amoris Laetitia, Chapter Two)
Pope Francis has called for more involvement of women in (lay) leadership positions in the church, but he’s also called us (Catholic women) “strawberries on the cake.” Francis I not only opposes the ordination of women, but has also failed to lift the ban on discussion of it among clerics and theologists teaching in Catholic institutions. He asserts the rights of women to excel in their professions and careers, but the boosting feels pro forma. He reminds married men of the importance of supporting women who aspire in the workplace, but that too, comes off as perfunctory due to the roaring silence of the elephant of Women’s Ordination in the apostolic chambers.The pope is an old Latin American man who was elevated to the papacy to prevent a schism, not to detonate a feminist Reformation. I doubt that any cleric who so fervently opposes the ordination of women can be taken seriously on any aspect of feminism. Anything positive Amoris Laetitiae tries to say about the achivement of women outside motherhood comes off as lip service.
The Vatican may not like feminists, feminist ideology or Catholic feminists, but they like our money, and they know that there are still feminist women in the church who baptize their children, and thus increase the Roman Catholic fold. It distresses me to say that I believe the chief objective of this apostolic exhortation is to keep LGBTQ and remarried Catholics in the pews where, though still technically prohibited from receiving the Sacrament of the Eucharist, they are welcome to contribute financially.
I have noticed lately, in the bustling Roman Catholic blog world, a preponderance of chatter on the subject of tithing. In one piece I read recently, the the writer asserted that the refusal to tithe for reasons of principle (versus poverty) should be viewed as heresy. On the other hand, I know increasing numbers of mass-goers who have decided to continue to attend mass while declining to drop legal tender in the offertory basket. These soft boycotts, it seems, kicked into higher gear roughly around the time the child sex abuse crisis began to hit the papers (10–15 years ago). Catholics began to worry that money once used to feed or clothe the poor, or underwrite altar flowers might now be used to pay off sexually abused plaintiffs.
About a decade ago, in Brooklyn, where I live, I saw a series of poor parishes shuttered while a half-mile away, a multi-million-dollar capital campaign to build Brooklyn’s second cathedral was under way. There appeared to be a pattern of milking parishes before closing parishes down. I believe that increasing numbers of Catholics are beginning to question tithing. Catholics in the pews are wising up to the dioceses’ practices. They now know that a fraction of their parishes’ weekly per capita contributions winds up in their diocese’s pocket. Diocese insiders know that each diocese kicks back, in one way or another, to Rome. Anyone who reads the newspapers knows that the Vatican is filthy rich. Why, then, a Peter Pence collection?
Every time I broach the question of ordaining women with a male priest, I am told it’s “inevitable” but not in my lifetime. Yet when I ask the same men how (what I have begun to call) a “Lysistrata-style” boycott would influence thinking, their answers surprise me. “What if every woman working for the church decided to boycott the basket and refuse to do church work until women were ordained? What if, at the start of Advent 2016, all women who challenge the Vatican’s position on ordaining women just decided not to tithe or work for free any longer?” Would the Vatican cave?” “Of course,” answers every Roman Catholic male priest I have ever asked.
The Vatican will shift on ordination when, and not before, economics forces its hand. Strengthening involvement at parish and diocese levels, which is a focus of Amoris Laetitia, postpones this inevitable outcome. The elevation of Jorge Bergoglio was the first step in a dramatic diplomatic approach to placating indignant, outraged Roman Catholics. I do not doubt that the pope is sincere in his belief in a less judgmental more loving church, but he has been astonishingly adept at winning great popularity while still upholding the hierarchy’s existing prejudice toward women and LGBTQ Catholics. In Amoris Laetitia Francis exhorts clerics at the diocese level to say whatever they must to divorced and remarried Catholics — -stopping short of official apostasy, of course —in order to keep pews full and diocese coffers flush. There’s almost no risk or downside to this approach because discernment and primacy of conscience are 50 year-old doctrines.
Furthermore, this more generous repackaging of Vatican II teaching paves the way for increased involvement of lay workers. The push to include lay workers — -women in particular, enables pastors and bishops to include women while excluding them. Increased power without ordination. It’s slightly analogous to awarding a title change without a pay increase. The hierarchy needs more women working because priestly vocations are low and expected to get lower. By inviting more women to do the work priests and women religious (nuns) once did — -bringing Communion to the infirm and elderly, teaching Catechism classes, serving as patoral counselors — -the bishops are able to both reduce the workloads of their already overburdened priests and placate those who complain about the Vatican’s exclusion of women from positions of power in the Church.
Nuns have historically done much of the heavy lifting in the Church for very little money. In the U.S. and Western Europe at least, women are no longer becoming nuns. In regions wherein feminism thrives, the Vatican is likely glad to see convents close, especially since it is in certain communities of women religious that the Women’s Ordination movement got its start. Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation stresses the importance of increasing involvement on the part of the laity, because without the low-cost labor of women religious (nuns) and its predominantly female volunteer workforce, parishes would not be able operate as smoothly as they do at present.
Many Roman Catholic parishes in the U.S. have Parish Pastoral Councils. Their members are lay people, but these are headed by pastors. Pastoral Councils are very much not Boards of Directors such as one finds in temples and other churches. Parish Pastoral Councils do not make policy. So what are they for? What do they do? When I sat on one, the great push was for creating strategies for making parish life more attractive and welcoming to lapsed Catholics (especially families with children.) The John Jay College study of the child sex abuse scandal was released a year or two before I joined my Parish Pastoral Council. Per capita Sunday contributions were down. Brick and mortar exigencies loomed. Poor churches in neighboring parishes were closing, and the bishop of our diocese was laying groundwork for a long-term goal of merging our parish with a neighboring one. Every month for three years, discussions about increasing membership in the parish ensued. “Why aren’t people coming to mass?” many asked, puzzled. “Where are the teenagers?” I thought it a no-brainer. People were didn’t want to rear daughters in a church with a male-only priesthood. LGBT Catholics didn’t want to hear they were “disordered” every Sunday morning. Catholic parents of young children, and survivors of sexual abuse didn’t want to support a Vatican that was going easy on bishops who abetted raping pedophile priests by shuffling them from diocese to diocese. Fix all that, I used to sit there thinking, and parishes the 9 will be Standing Room Only.
At parish and diocese levels, there is immense pressure from on high, to increase attendance, baptisms, preparation for sacraments and tithing. This canonical year’s “Year of Mercy” was designed, in part, I believe, to bring lapsed Catholics back. I believe the apostolic exhortation is part of the larger plan to bring lapsed Catholics back and prevent disgusted ones from departing. I believe the pontiff’s predecessor stepped down because he was too personally mired in the Vatican sex abuse crisis to be an evangelizing force. (Josef Ratzinger was head of the CDF — -Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith while the events we saw chronicled in the film Spotlight ensued.) Francis I was chosen to stave off a the start of a schism and to unify the warring factions. In Francis I deftly changes the spirit of Catholic law without interfering with its letter.
Amoris Laetitia does not create more lenience. It shines a spotlight on lenience that has existed for 50 years. We saw an example of this kind of reframing of teaching when Pope Francis I, recently, announced his wish that churches would include women in the Holy Thursday foot-washing ritual. The traditional view of this, it seems, is that only a man (a priest, ideally) emulating Jesus and the 12 men assuming the roles of apostles should properly take part in the foot-washing. Yet women have been washing feet and having their feet washed at every Holy Thursday mass I’ve attended for the last 20 years. I am a woman. I’ve both washed feet and had my own washed in Holy Thursday masses. This is old news, but with Amoris, the pope dusts it off and pops a new headline on it.
About a decade ago, I spent a few summers in a parish led by an extraordinarily creepy priest. His sermons were hateful and stupid. His masses were robotic and joyless. The parish was not welcoming, the sort that push each other out of the way before the Recessional hymn to get to the parking lot while still masticating the Eucharist. I left this God-forsaken assembly and began to attend masses in Spanish one town over. The assembled were joyful in their worship. Their Mariachi-style music was lovely. But I found it difficult to get used to watching two lines form at Communion: one for those receiving the sacrament, and another for those prohibited from it. Those who were banned from Communion crossed their arms across their chests asking for a blessing, while those receiving Communion held their hands clasped in the traditional prayer position. A great number of the men in attendance chose not to go up at all.
I wondered how the women must have felt when returning to the pews where they sat with their children. What kind of impression is made? (I guessed that most of the women were living with men they hadn’t married in a church, contracepting.) How did the children regard their parents lack of spiritual fitness? It was their Sabbath. What kind of message was that conveying about Jesus? Was this treatment consistent with the church Jesus instituted? I thought about the white, Irish Catholic priest celebrating the mass. How free of sin was he, actually? Had he reached out to any of these families about discernment or primacy of conscience?
It’s too bad the Vatican needed the fear of mass exodus of Catholics from the church and a slow but steadily approaching schism in order to feel some urgency to share more enthusiastically Vatican II’s good news about discernment and primacy of conscience. It can not be denied that Amoris Laetitia has delivered good news to many. All Catholics who read it will come away more aware of the generosity the principle of discernment provides. Still, I find the timing disturbing. One can, as so many do, as I do, rather like Pope Francis I, and still worry about his motives and agenda.
Whatever one’s feelings about the church, the Vatican and the pope himself, one will not find anything truly new under the sun in Amoris Laetitia. It might taste a bit salty and sweet, but it’s warmed up leftovers, not a meal prepared fresh. It’s old news with a new headline, more advertorial than editorial. Amoris Laetitia appeals; I wish it didn't read like a sales pitch. I don’t quite buy it.