Monday, April 11, 2016

How to Enter Into "The Joy of Love"

Amoris Laetitia: "The Joy of Love"

"The pope's new Apostolic Exhortation is way too long..."; "Media coverage makes it sound like the pope didn't make any of the changes I was looking for..."; "Media coverage makes it sound like the document is not written as clearly as I would like..."; "I don't even know how to pronounce laetitia...!"

Although these may be some of the common reactions to the much anticipated publishing of Pope Francis' major teaching on marriage and the family, perhaps we should begin with the essential question of how best to approach the text. The Holy Father himself suggests the following:

"I do not recommend a rushed reading of the text.
The greatest benefit...will come if each part is read patiently and carefully..."
 (AL, n. 7)

From the inevitably rushed reading presented by much of the media, the message seems to be: no changes on the hot-button issues of the day (yet?!); more freedom of conscience (than before?!). But, if this is the case, then why does Pope Francis take 250 pages to tell us what the Catechism already says?  The Catechism clearly outlines teachings on marriage and family, and it also spends 26 paragraphs describing the fundamental role of conscience (starting with Vatican II's statement that "Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey..." [n. 1776 ff.]).  

So what is Pope Francis up to in "The Joy of Love"?  Without having had time to dive in deeply, it seems to me that Pope Francis has offered us a rich resource for ongoing conscience formation.  Or perhaps for the re-formation of our consciences.  

In other words, I think the best way to enter into this magisterial text is with an eye to how the Holy Spirit is stretching me personally to grow and change--to better conform myself to the law "which I have not laid upon myself."  This might be toward deeper doctrinal understanding; it might be toward more Christ-centered pastoral sensitivities.  It might be toward bold new perspectives which differ from what the world continues to impose on people's consciences.

But such a "conscience [re]formation" approach necessarily implies how NOT to enter into "The Joy of Love":
  • NOT with a "hermeneutic of suspicion," which would have us interpret the text through the lens of distrust ("I did not like the process of the Synod..."; "I don't buy the Church's agenda on these issues..."; "I'm not sure what Pope Francis is really up to..."; etc.).  Like all conspiracy theories, this approach is guaranteed to confirm one's suspicions, since nothing is capable of "disproving" deeply held distrust.
  • NOT with a "hermeneutic of self-justification," which would have us interpret the text with an eye to anything that confirms my already deeply held positions ("I know that I am right about dissenting from Church teachings on X, so let me find signs to support that the Church will someday embrace my position..."; "I have convinced myself that some of my questionable moral decisions were good for me, so let me find signs that the Pope would approve..."; etc.). Like every other self-centered endeavor, this approach is always guaranteed to justify one's current positions and to close off the possibility of conversion, since all contrary evidence is pre-emptively dismissed as irrelevant.

To state it more positively, here are a couple options for how we might enter into "The Joy of Love" with more openness to being more fully [re]formed, both objectively and subjectively:
  • With a "hermeneutic of continuity," which would challenge us to look not for rupture and disintegration but for points of organic growth ("How is the Holy Spirit leading the Church into the fullness of the truth?"; "How does the Church see 'seeds of the Word' even amid the complications and brokenness brought on by worldly ways of life?").  The world desperately wants the Church to be refashioned in its image and so spins the tale of discord and discontinuity at every turn.
  • With a "hermeneutic of transformation," which would invite us to interpret the text in light of what most challenges us and propels us down the path of holiness and missionary conversion ("The Gospel is always calling me to grow..."; "I am certainly in need of a change of mind and heart..."; etc.). This approach is guaranteed to help the Kingdom of God expand in my heart, rather than letting myself get caught up in all the ways that the Church and the pope and everyone else need to change (to become more like me!).
Let's accept the Holy Father's invitation to prayerfully ponder this text over the next number of months, and let's pray that the full wisdom of Pope Francis' reflections will open new doors during this Jubilee Year of Mercy!