Sunday, April 17, 2016

Reading Amoris Laetitia, Part 2: The Introduction

I'll just assume that many non-Catholics, like myself, have absolutely no idea what authority Pope Francis' Amoris Laetitia exerts (or exhorts) as a "Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation." So, first, a primer on Papal texts.

An apostolic exhortation is but one of many different types of communications from the Pope to the community of clerics and laypersons that constitute the Catholic Church.  It doe not define Church doctrine, so it ranks lower in Church authority than a papal encyclical.  An Apostolic Exhortation is meant to encourage the Catholic community (broadly conceived) to undertake some attitude, disposition, or activity. (If you're familiar with Paul the Apostle's epistles-- to the Romans, to the Corinthians, to the Philippians, to the Ephesians, to the Galatians, etc-- you should think of Pope Francis'  most recent Apostolic Exhortation in the same vein.) Pope Francis has so far issued only two encyclicals in his time as successor to St. Peter, one on climate change (Laudato Si': "On Care For Our Common Home") and one on charity and hope (Lumen Fidei: "The Light of Faith"). So, to begin, we should take into serious consideration the fact that Pope Francis opted to issue Amoris Laetitia as an Apostolic Exhortation, an encouragement to action or disposition, instead of a Papal Encyclical, which is second in authority only to an Apostolic Constitution (constittuo apistolica), the highest possible level of decree issued by a Pope.

That is to say, FIRST, nothing in Amoris Laetitia alters or amends anything at all with respect to Catholic doctrine or the oldest of the "official" bodies responsible for promulgating and defending Catholic doctrine, i.e., the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (founded by Pope Paul III. formally known as the Holy Office and informally known as Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office). The fact that Pope Francis has issued Amoris Laetitia as a "post-Synodal" exhortation means that the Synod of Bishops (the Pope's advisory board of Bishops) itself did not see fit to alter or amend Catholic doctrine,

However, before we begin with what Amotis Laetitia does or does not accomplish or amend, it's worth noting at least one significant intra-faith understanding of the Pope's pronouncements: whatever else the Synod may decide, the Pope himself remains the lone, infallible, Final (earthly) Authority with regard to matters governing the Catholic Church as the one, true, universal Christian congregation. the "body of Christ." whose magisterium is constituted by successors to Jesus' apostles and whose Pope is the successor to Saint Peter.

That said, and without further ado, here's my synopsis/commentary on Pope Francis' Introduction (pp. 3-6) of Amoris Laetitia:

Pope Francis begins Amotis Laetitia with a (at this point in the text, unqualified) affirmation of the Synod Fathers' past and present codification of the central role of both (traditional) marriage and the (traditional) family to the contemporary Catholic Church. However, in the few short introductory paragraphs following, Pope Francis attests that his time in counsel with the Synod has not only given him pause to think more carefully upon "a complexity of issues [that] revealed the need for continued open discussion of a number of doctrinal, moral, spiritual, and pastoral questions" but also his own confrontation with what he describes as "a multifaceted gem reflecting many legitimate concerns and honest questions,"  Pope Francis acknowledges, explicitly, that his supervening concerns have been motivated by "debates in the media, in certain publications, and even among the Church's ministers."

Consequently, Pope Francis rightly notes that he "does not recommend a rushed reading of [Amoris Laetitia],"  I just want to go on record here, at the outset, as confirming Pope Francis' recommendation.  Amoris Laetitia is a profoundly multivalent text, with profoundly significant (direct or indirect) consequences for at least 1.2 billion people in this world. It ought not be read hastily or without considerable care.

In my reading, the Introduction to Amoris Laetitia includes several noteworthy elements, most of which do not become meaningfully apparent until much later in the text, but which I will make record of here and elaborate in later posts.

FIRST, Pope Francis makes no effort to veil the fact that there exists a substantive difference between the findings and judgments of the Synod and those of his own conscience. ("Given the rich fruits of the two-year Synod process, this Exhortation will treat, in different ways, a wide variety of questions." AL ¶6) On my first read-through, I remember thinking of Pope Francis' Introduction that it sounded a lot like how I might report the minutes of a highly-dysfunctional committee meeting.  ("I must also say that I found the Synod process proved both impressive and illuminating." AL¶5) I could be reading too much into the Introduction, but having read the whole text now, I think not.

SECOND, Pope Francis makes a point of situating his Exhortation, right from the outset (AL¶5), solidly within the ideological parameters of his previous declaration of an Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy. He writes:
This Exhortation is especially timely in this Jubilee Year of Mercy. First, because it represents an invitation to Christian families to value the gifts of marriage and the family, and to persevere in a love strengthened by the virtues of generosity, commitment, fidelity and patience. Second, because it seeks to encourage everyone to be a sign of mercy and closeness wherever family life remains imperfect or lacks peace and joy.
I anticipate that last sentence is what will cause many, including myself, to feel uneasy.  What is a "perfect" family?  On that question, I suspect that the Pope and the Synod agree.  What distinguishes Pope Francis from the Synod on that question, however, is Francis' explicit willingness to reckon with what he describes as the contributions of laity to help him "appreciate more fully the problems faced by families throughout the world" (AL¶5). This is no small difference, in my opinion.

THIRD, Pope Francis intimates in his Introduction what will end up being a curious and extended theme in Amoris Laetitia, namely, that "time is greater than space."  As a philosopher, I find this incredibly interesting, not only as a theological claim but also a metaphysical, social, political, and existential claim, not to mention also a claim about actual, scientifically real, physical space and time. So, I am especially interested in how this claim plays out in the remainder of Amoris Laetitia, given its initial articulation (in ¶3) by Pope Francis as a kind of safeguard against the overreach of authority by Catholic magisterium. Here the full text of Pope Francis' claim in  ¶3:
Since “time is greater than space”, I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium. Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it. This will always be the case as the Spirit guides us towards the entire truth (cf. Jn 16:13), until he leads us fully into the mystery of Christ and enables us to see all things as he does. Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs. For “cultures are in fact quite diverse and every general principle… needs to be inculturated, if it is to be respected and applied”.
Surely-- please let it be so!-- I'm not the only one who read this passage from the Introduction to Amoris Laetitia and had to stop for a second and make sure I wasn't, in fact, re-reading Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit.

FOURTH, (and finally), it's worth noting that Pope Francis explicitly frames his Apostolic Exhortation as a hope that all who read it "will feel called to love and cherish family life, for 'families are not a problem; they are first and foremost an opportunity'." That is a direct reference to Pope Francis' visit to Cuba in 2015 and his address to the "Meeting With Families" there.  That Pope Francis ends his Introduction with this citation, combined with the fact that he begins his introduction with a hat-tip to the Synod, are reasons enough to criticize the "progressive" merits of anything that follows.  I want to acknowledge that without obviating the possibility that there is much, much more to be read in what follows of Amoris Laetitia.

Next up, Amoris Laetitia Chapter 1.  Stay tuned.

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