Dr. Richard R. Gaillardetz is the Joseph Professor of Catholic Systematic Theology at Boston College and the director of graduate studies. He received a B.A. in Humanities from the University of Texas, an M.A. in Biblical Theology from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, and both an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame in Systematic Theology. He has published numerous articles and has authored or edited thirteen books. Dr. Gaillardetz was a Resident Scholar at the Collegeville Institute in the fall of 2015.
What key points should readers take away from Amoris Laetitia —the Pope’s recent, and much anticipated, apostolic exhortation on marriage and family?
First, the pope wants us to know that he understands how challenging marriage and family life is in our modern world. Chapter 2, in particular, offers a very perceptive overview of those challenges: economic hardship, forced migration, lack of affordable housing, domestic violence, pornography, deprivation of women’s rights, technological distraction, a “culture of the ephemeral” that undermines the pursuit of authentic relationships, and even the simple exhaustion of parents. This list is important because the pope admits that in the past church teaching has too often failed to take into account the concrete concerns of believers. “Concrete” is the key word. He uses some form of it twenty times in this document. Unlike some of his recent predecessors, he understands that the Christian life is not lived in the realm of pious platitudes and romanticized narratives about the sublime beauty of spiritual marriage but in the messiness of ordinary life.
Second, the pope emphasizes the importance of investing time and energy into the marriage relationship by way of sincere dialogue— the kind of dialogue that may call each partner to conversion. One theme running throughout much of chapter 4 on “Love in Marriage” is an emphasis on friendship as central to Christian marriage.
Third, the pope offers a positive reflection on marital sex. He celebrates the role of passion in a marital relationship and admits that in the past Catholic teaching has focused too much on the procreative dimension and ignored the importance of passion and intimacy in marital lovemaking. At the same time, he is not preoccupied with marital sex and emphasizes that human passion in marriage can take many different forms.
Fourth, the pope recognizes that many marital breakups are the result of inadequate preparation of engaged couples and pastoral support for young married couples. Marriage preparation and formation should be seen as the responsibility of the entire Christian community. I particularly welcomed his emphasis on the need for mature married couples to take on a mentoring role with engaged and newly married couples. I also appreciated his gentle encouragement for engaged couples to devote more energy to spiritual and interpersonal preparation and less to wedding planning.
Fifth the pope acknowledges that many people find themselves in “irregular” relational situations (presumably this would include cohabiting couples, divorced and civilly re-married couples, those in same-sex partnerships) that may fall short of the fullness of Church teaching. In those situations it is important for couples to engage their consciences to discern what God is calling them to in their particular situation. The pope admits that in the past there was an insufficient emphasis on a Christian’s conscience: “[w]e . . . find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.”
What—if anything—does this document change for priests, for Catholics in the pews, and for Catholics no longer in the pews?
I think the most important change is that the overall tone of the document is not one of moral judgment but of compassion, mercy, and inclusion. These are not terms so commonly associated with Catholic approaches to persons whose commitments and behaviors are at odds with church teaching.
“Liberal” and “conservative” Catholics were both concerned about what the Pope might say. Do you have any observations about Amoris Laetitia in light of that long-standing divide in the church?
In the lead up to the release of this apostolic exhortation a kind of “spin war” ensued regarding what people hoped the document would accomplish. Conservatives wanted a robust reassertion of the unchanging nature of church doctrine on marriage and liberals hoped for a clear revision of church teaching. Neither got what they wanted. This is not that kind of document, largely because this is not that kind of pope. Let me explain.
Over a period of approximately two centuries Catholicism shifted from seeing the papacy as a doctrinal court of final appeal to seeing it as the chief expositor and arbiter of doctrinal orthodoxy. Consequently, most Catholics now presume that the authoritative articulation of doctrine is one of the pope’s most essential responsibilities. This explains in part the heightened anticipation surrounding the promulgation of this document. Pope Francis is refashioning our very understanding of the magisterium, that is, the authoritative teaching office exercised by the pope and bishops. Fifty years ago, at the opening of the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII called for a truly pastoral magisterium. His call was mostly ignored by his next four successors who emphasized their roles as guardians of doctrinal orthodoxy. Then came Francis. At the very beginning of this document he admits that, “not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium.” Many pastoral solutions are best pursued, he insists, at the local level, where there can be more attention to the rich diversity of cultures.
Many who were hoping for change will doubtless be disappointed that this exercise of a “pastoral” magisterium did not lead—in the document—to changes in church teaching on such topics as homosexuality and contraception. But to some extent these concerns miss the point. A pastoral magisterium calls for an exercise of teaching authority that never forgets that, as the pope puts it, “time is greater than space.” It does not claim to have all the answers nor does it provide definitive solutions to every controverted issue. A pastoral magisterium acknowledges the normative character of current church teaching while keeping open the possibility of further dialogue. A pastoral magisterium commits itself above all to a faithful listening to, and accompaniment of, God’s people on their pilgrim journey toward that final marriage banquet to which all are invited.
Could this document lead to any future important shifts in the Catholic Church?
Were the church, particularly its ministers, to take seriously the pope’s commitment to the primacy of listening, dialogue and mercy, we might begin to see more people look to the church as a source of wisdom and encouragement.