Amoris Laetitia continues to be featured in a variety of writings, posts, books, and conversations in the wider Catholic world. That’s good. That’s how it’s supposed to work with the faithful—marinating in Church documents over time, letting them age and evaluating them against the shifting spirits. There should be no “media cycle” mentality here—no quick read, sound bytes, then moving on to await the next thing.
Amoris Laetitia is what’s called a post-synodal apostolic exhortation, which means it was written in response to a synod (or called meeting of a share) of the world’s bishops to discuss a particular matter. In this case it was on marriage. An apostolic exhortation is considered less authoritative than an encyclical or an apostolic constitution, the latter of which have typically concerned theological dogmas, particular practices, and especially organizational forms.
The two synods that prompted Amoris Laetitia were kind of a big deal to those of us who work in the broader marriage business. We prayed, we anticipated, we stared at the list of invitees, we wondered, we tried to figure out best and worst-case scenarios, and then we waited to see what the Holy Father would say. And in early April, he spoke. I remember my first news of it, waking up in a Mexico City hotel to learn what CNN was saying. I gulped hard. I looked around at what else was being said about it, and then went about my business in the confidence that the Church would survive, no matter what. A busy day in front of me, my own examination of it would have to wait. I didn’t think it would wait a few months. But in Catholic Standard Time, a couple months is nothing. Yes, the document isn’t quite what some of us would write on the matter. And it’s not short, at 264 pages and 325 numbered paragraphs or entries. It didn’t need to be that long. But it is, which prolongs the wider digestion of its content.
So here, late but not really, are five ways in which AL encouraged, challenged, and aggravated me.
First, one of the more noticeable traits of Pope Francis is a very frank style of writing, as if he were sitting in the therapist’s office across from me (on the couch), gently—and sometimes not so gently—coaxing me to sacrifice more, to love better, to reach out. As a scholar who tries to write in a way that is accessible, this is something I can appreciate. And at the same time, it’s a little unsettling to shift gears from JPII’s rich-but- obscure orthodoxy. I consider St John Paul’s going home to the house of the Father the beginning of my search that concluded in our swimming the Tiber. I think his Theology of the Body is dynamic stuff, necessary for the long run. But there’s no denying that Love & Responsibility is tough slogging. (Whenever someone I know claims to have read it, I wince, then privately doubt them, then question my own commitment.) Francis, ever the pastor, has elected a far more plain language—that of the people. Hence when Francis asserts that “…the fact is that only in their forties do some people achieve a maturity that should have come at the end of adolescence,” I appreciate it. Indeed, I needed to hear that one, in all honesty. Ditto for much of the first several chapters of AL. It challenges me to be a better husband and father.
Second, I resonate with the pope’s worry that the Church is perceived as singing only a few tunes about marriage:
(W)e often present marriage in such a way that its unitive meaning, its call to grow in love and its ideal of mutual assistance are overshadowed by an almost exclusive insistence on the duty of procreation. Nor have we always provided solid guidance to young married couples, understanding their timetables, their way of thinking and their concrete concerns. At times we have also proposed a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families.
The truth is, of course, that the Church has remarkable richness in its understanding of marriage. It was this that first attracted me back in 2006. But what the Holy Father seems to be saying here is that the Church has been unprepared for the role it needs to take in shepherding marriages in an era wherein no other social institution now esteems or expects people to enter such a comprehensive union. She’s the only one. This is the reality that may haunt the Church for decades yet to come before she comes to the realization that any vibrant marriage subculture in the West is because she has woken up to realize the beggars out there are looking to her for the bread here.
Third, AL hence challenged me to accept greater responsibility for helping build a subculture of marriage in the Church. It would be difficult to find me guilty of doing nothing here, but there is always a temptation to say I’m doing enough, or to presume that any particular effort of mine is meritorious at face value (when it may well not be). As Amoris Laetitia notes, “The situations that concern us are challenges. We should not be trapped into wasting our energy in doleful laments, but rather seek new forms of missionary creativity.” It is time to get creative about changing the narrative around marriage in our midst. It may be too much to hope for, but doing nothing is a far worse idea. Indeed, the Holy Father writes, “…we have often been on the defensive, wasting pastoral energy on denouncing a decadent world without being proactive in proposing ways of finding true happiness.” Moreover:
We need to find the right language, arguments and forms of witness that can help us reach the hearts of young people, appealing to their capacity for generosity, commitment, love and even heroism, and in this way inviting them to take up the challenge of marriage with enthusiasm and courage (40).
But the clergy need help in findings those new ways. In fact, the “missionary creativity” AL speaks of here will no doubt come from the laity.
Fourth, my primary aggravation with AL is its lack of specificity (at times) and—perhaps most importantly—there are some things that are missing from Amoris Laetitia that ought to be there. Language and word choice is sometimes an attempt to speak in the vernacular. But sometimes it’s a simple absence of content. I’m not one who wishes to punish people with the pen, but the lack of a discourse around adultery—even cohabitation is only named a few times—creates odd moments in Amoris Laetitia. If a cohabiting young adult were to scour this document for justification of their choices—and honestly, that’s not how they roll—he wouldn’t find too much to help his case. But nor would he find a great deal to hurt it, either. AL elects to talk a good deal about “irregular” unions, a legal term that hardly anyone uses. Some of you have personal experience with these. Most faithful Catholics who have now look back on it with a measure of regret, and can recall that at some point they were convicted of their objective guilt, not just subtly signaled that their illicit union was “non-normative.” When the challenges around us are numerous, it behooves the Church to speak frankly consistently.
Fifth and finally, it’s important to remember that despite whatever misgivings you may have about elements of Amoris Laetitia, we have a Holy Father who advocates for marriage and wants the flock to pursue this vocation. I know, I know, there are legitimate beefs here and there that give experts and pastors fits, but if you step back and glimpse the whole, it is a comforting defense of marriage against the assaults of the “culture of the ephemeral,” a consumer approach to relationships, fear of commitment, “an addiction to television,” “the obsession with free time,” and an approach to relationships that is utilitarian. The pope perceives as well the Western surge in gray divorce, “older adults who seek a kind of ‘independence’ and reject the ideal of growing old together, looking after and supporting one another,” (39) and he’ll have none of it:
No one can think that the weakening of the family as that natural society founded on marriage will prove beneficial to society as a whole. The contrary is true: it poses a threat to the mature growth of individuals, the cultivation of community values and the moral progress of cities and countries. There is a failure to realize that only the exclusive and indissoluble union between a man and a woman has a plenary role to play in society as a stable commitment that bears fruit in new life (52).
What Catholics need how to figure out how to learn what it is the Holy Father is teaching us. No, we don’t just do whatever it is the Pope tells us. (If anything, he writes because we don’t.) That’s not how papal authority works. On the other hand, it’s in poor form to openly, publicly criticize or undermine the Holy Father. He’s not your President. He’s not your boss. He’s not your priest, for that matter. He’s your father. He’s family. We owe him our respect, loyalty, love, and ear.
Mark Regnerus is associate professor of sociology at the UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT AUSTIN, a research associate of the university’s POPULATION RESEARCH CENTER, and a senior fellow at the AUSTIN INSTITUTE for the Study of Family and Culture. His areas of research are sexual behavior and family formation. He’s the author of two books (2007 and 2011) on the sexual behavior of teenagers and young adults.
His new research on the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships was published in the July 2012 issue of SOCIAL SCIENCE RESEARCH, and is available HERE. It’s understandably drawn a great deal of SCRUTINY, and so he wrote a follow-up RESPONSE TO CRITICS and made the data publicly AVAILABLE to other scholars. A dialogue about the study’s findings appeared in Slate and is available HERE. Mark has also written several short essays about DATA COLLECTION on same-sex parenting, POLLING about same-sex marriage, new evidence from CANADA, and THOUGHTFUL ASSERTIONS about how same-sex marriage may shape the wider mating market.