Tomorrow, April 8th, is the day that Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), his response to the 2014 and 2015 Vatican synods on marriage and family life. Many Catholics, especially those concerned with LGBT ministry and equality, have been eager to read what this pope, who is always full of surprises, has to say on issues of marriage, family, gender, and sexuality.
The National Catholic Reporter‘s (NCR) Joshua McElwee has provided information from a guide that the Vatican sent to the world’s bishops this week. The guide is intended to prepare bishops for the release of Amoris Laetitia, but it also gives a tiny peek into what might be in store in Pope Francis’ much-anticipated document.
The NCR article noted that the Vatican document said that “”The Pope’s concern is . . . to re-contextualize doctrine at the service of the pastoral mission of the Church,” perhaps indicating that nothing will be doctrinally novel in the text, as the Vatican has been saying for months, but perhaps there will be new directions in how to present doctrine.
The reading guide said that the document “encourages not just a ‘renewal’ but even more, a real ‘conversion’ of language.”
Language change was a much-discussed topic at the 2015 synod, and the discussion ran the gamut of bishops calling for a departure from terms like “objectively disordered” and “intrinsically evil” in regard to lesbian and gay people and relationships to calls for simply a more pastoral approach of presenting church teaching. From what the reading guide states, it looks like the pope will be pushing more for the latter type of renovation of church language than the former.
The guide states:
“The Gospel must not be merely theoretical, not detached from people’s real lives. To talk about the family and to families, the challenge is not to change doctrine but to inculturate the general principles in ways that they can be understood and practiced.”
“Our language should encourage and reassure every positive step taken by every real family.”
The guide further stated that the pope “wants to express himself in language that truly reaches the audience — and this implies discernment and dialogue.”
Using language that just tries to soften the true negative meaning of some of the Church’s doctrines will not be satisfactory. At one of the synod’s press briefings, even the very conservative Cardinal Wilfrid Napier Fox of South Africa said:
“There’s been a lot of emphasis on using language that doesn’t offend, politically correct language, if you like. I’m not sure that that’s the best way to be prophetic. It is certainly a way of trying to be more pastoral.”
The reader’s guide offers (and remember, in this post I am quoting from a reader’s guide about the apostolic exhortation, not the exhortation itself) hints that the pope may simply promote a new use of language to soften negative teachings. For instance, it states:
“Discernment … encourages us to grow from good to better. One of the characteristics of discernment, according to St Ignatius of Loyola, is the insistence not only on taking the objective truth into account, but also on expressing this truth with a good, a constructive spirit.”
Perhaps, though, there will be openings in pastoral practice that may allow for future development not only of language, but of doctrine itself. The reader’s guide offers two hints that Francis may include material in the apostolic exhortation that lean in this direction. In three different spots, it states:
- “Like his predecessors, Pope Francis asks that as pastors we discern amongst the various situations experienced by our faithful and by all people, the families, the individuals.”
- “For the culture of dialogue, the inclusion of everyone is essential.”
- “The Pope’s vision of society is inclusive. Such inclusion involves the effort to accept diversity, to dialogue with those who think differently, to encourage the participation of those with different abilities.”
These statements highlight characteristics of Pope Francis’ rhetoric which has given hope to many progressives: his willingness to acknowledge variety and diversity of life situations, and his emphasis on dialogue and radical inclusion. These are hopeful steps forward–especially if we remember the darker days of popes who would ignore diversity, dialogue, inclusion, and even sometimes condemn these ideals. They are hopeful steps that could lead the way for a serious discussion about LGBT issues. But, if they don’t go any further than that in their level of generality, they will only be first steps toward true equality and justice, with much work and advancement still to be done.
On the disappointing side, the reader’s guide notes that the apostolic exhortation will contain a summary of Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” lectures, which it says are an “important source” for the document. Numerous theologians have pointed out that “Theology of the Body” ideas rest on ill-informed understandings of gender and the role of sexuality in people’s lives and relationships. If Amoris Laetitia focuses too much on principles based in this type of thinking, it will be a sad disappointment.
Of course, we will know tomorrow what the pope actually has to say. For some earlier speculation from Bondings 2.0 posts, please see the Related Posts section below my signature.
As soon as the document is released, and we have time to digest its contents, New Ways Ministry will post its analysis and response on this blog, probably some time in the later morning, Eastern U.S. time, on Friday, April 8th.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry
Bondings 2.0: “Will Language Be the Only Thing That the Synod Updates?”