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Michael J. O’LoughlinOctober 06, 2017
Pope Francis greets family members during an audience with participants in an international congress on protecting children in a digital world, at the Vatican Oct. 6. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)Pope Francis greets family members during an audience with participants in an international congress on protecting children in a digital world, at the Vatican Oct. 6. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)

While much of the debate over “Amoris Laetitia,” the controversial 2016 document from Pope Francis about pastoral outreach to families, has focused on the question of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, more than three dozen cardinals, bishops and lay theologians gathered at Boston College this week to explore the broader implications of the letter—and to strategize ways to promote it in the United States.

“I would caution us that there are other dimensions of family life that the pope treats in ‘Amoris Laetitia’ that have to do not just with the moral questions but also the social life, the economic constraints and the difficulties that people face in raising families and raising children,” Cardinal Blase Cupich, the archbishop of Chicago and a co-host of the conference, said on Oct. 5.

“We want to make sure that we keep in mind as pastors and theologians that we’re in touch with that reality as well, in terms of where God is revealing where God is working in the world,” he continued. “What are some of the questions there that need to be looked at?”

Amoris Laetitia” has yet to resonate with many black Catholics in the United States.

The conference included discussion with several theologians, reflecting on how the document has been received in local Catholic communities.

C. Vanessa White, a theologian at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, said that her research suggests that “Amoris Laetitia” has yet to resonate with many black Catholics in the United States. She said the daily challenges to family life, such as working multiple jobs to make ends meet, which leaves little time for family activities, makes digesting the letter in great detail difficult.

“Our families are struggling because we have not addressed their realities, their pain,” she said. “There must be that journey, there must be that walking with families.”

Another theologian, Natalia Imperatori-Lee, a professor at Manhattan College in the Bronx, N.Y., said that “Amoris Laetitia” has the potential to speak to Hispanic Catholics, noting that many Hispanic couples have struggled because of challenges posed by migration and poverty to enter into church-sanctioned marriage. She said some critics of Pope Francis fear that any deviation from church rules will lead to the laity “doing whatever they want.”“This is a child’s view of freedom,” she said.

“Amoris Laetitia” calls for church leaders to accompany Catholic families, learning from them along the way.

Instead, she said, “Amoris Laetitia” calls for church leaders to accompany Catholic families, learning from them along the way.

“It’s not only about walking together but walking in a direction,” she said, adding that it is not always up to the priest or theologian to pick that direction. Sometimes, she said, the couples or the families will lead the way.

Julie Hanlon Rubio, a professor at Saint Louis University, said the interaction between bishops and lay theologians present at the conference will be essential in creating the kind of church Pope Francis envisions in “Amoris Laetitia.”

“If this new model of listening and accompaniment is going to work, a part of it has got to be listening to lay theologians who are working on these issues and living in families,” she said.

The first of its kind in the United States, the conference comes at a time when a small but vocal group of Catholics have intensified attacks on Pope Francis because of “Amoris Laetitia.” About 60 people signed a statement last month accusing the pope of heresy, and Cardinal Raymond Burke, an American stationed in Rome, continues to say he plans to challenge the pope publicly.

At issue is a footnote in the document, which some bishops say opens the door to Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. Other bishops have said that the document contains no such teaching.

But organizers insisted that the footnote, while important, is not the central message of the document. Instead, they called it a formational document that is meant not to reiterate church teaching but to reorient how ministers interact with families.

“Amoris Laetitia” “is about creating a new empathy for the family, for the Catholic family.”

James Keenan, S.J., a Boston College theologian who co-hosted the conference, told participants that “Amoris Laetitia” “is about creating a new empathy for the family, for the Catholic family” and that it calls for “a new pastoral conversion among the clergy, among the episcopacy, among the entire members of the church.”

“We discovered that there are nine chapters in ‘Amoris Laetitia,’ that’s it’s more than a footnote, that it’s more than chapter 8,” Father Keenan said during the final session of the conference, referring to the chapter that deals with irregular family situations.

Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory said that pastoral care providers have largely embraced “Amoris Laetitia.”

“It has received the stamp of pastoral authenticity from those who know the territory,” he said, describing it as “a document that recognizes the real and serious problems and challenges facing families today, but at the same time it is a proclamation of hope through the mercy and grace of God.”

Pope Francis, Archbishop Gregory continued, “challenges the church and its pastors to move beyond thinking that everything is black and white, so that we sometimes close off the way of grace and growth.”

But the divorce question was discussed. Bishops from Malta and Germany, places that have implemented processes that allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion, outlined how the new processes work in their dioceses.

Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta said that creating new frameworks for pastoral care for Catholics in irregular family situations is “an expression of the discernment Pope Francis is exhorting the bishops to show.”

There were few voices skeptical of “Amoris Laetitia” and little discussion about L.G.B.T. Catholics and their families.

There were few voices skeptical of “Amoris Laetitia” and little discussion about L.G.B.T. Catholics and their families.

When it came to concrete results stemming from “Amoris Laetitia,” the pope’s point person on the family, Cardinal Kevin Farrell, suggested that lay people should be trained to accompany families, particularly newlyweds. Cardinal Farrell, former bishop of the Diocese of Dallas, serves as prefect for the recently created Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life.

Priests, he said, “don’t have credibility” when it comes to marriage preparation because they have not “lived in the reality of the situation and therefore it’s very difficult for them to accompany.”

Lay people, he said, “can best accompany married couples in moments of difficulty and moments of challenge.”

Much of the conversation focused on how best to reach out to Catholics who are hurting, either because of the church or because of their family situations, and to invite them to seek God’s grace.

Antonio Spadaro, S.J., the editor of Civiltà Cattolica who is close to the pope, stressed the importance of pastors “helping couples to grow in appreciation of the demands of the Gospel,” while Cathleen Kaveny, a theologian and law professor at Boston College, called mercy “the ultimate touchstone for the divine lawgiver.”

For his part, Cardinal Cupich said that he hears from Pope Francis a call for church leaders to “accept people exactly where they are.”

“Our job is not to point out the defects in their life in the first encounter but first of all to help them understand that God is operative in their life and present to them in their suffering,” he said. “That’s the way they’re going to be able to continue the journey.”

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Michael Barberi
6 years 8 months ago

This is a welcomed conference that will hopefully lead to a more complete integration of Amoris Laetitia (AL) into the praxis of the Church.

On a separate but closely related issue, a group of highly influential bishops and theologians, that includes Pope Francis's newly appointed Dean and Chancellor of St. John Paul II Institute on the Family (which will start to incorporate AL into the Institute's teaching curricular), will be studying the history and theology of Humanae Vitae "in light of Amoris Laetitia". This group has the knowledge and ear of Pope Francis.

As I have recently said as a comment on other articles, if the Church can find a pastoral way to permit Holy Communion for many divorced and remarried Catholics, then it can find a pastoral way of permitting the use of artificial birth control for many faithful married couples as well as a merciful and pastoral pathway to salvation for many LGBT married couples without the imposed and extreme requirement of lifetime sexual abstinence.

While these issues are highly emotional with both sides taking fundamentally different positions and understandings of what it is to be a faithful follower of Christ and Catholicism, I ask: Is being faithful to Christ following every moral law of the magisterium as some believe, or is being a faithful Catholic more inline with the questions that Christ will ask us at judgement time, namely: When did you cloth me when I was naked, feed me when I was hungry, shelter me when I was homeless, comfort me when I was dying.

While following moral norms are important, they are not the sole embodiment of our faith which is a person named Jesus Christ. Moral norms must never stand alone as though every solution to our moral dilemmas is simply a matter of black of white. Moral norms must never disregard the pain and burdens of families and the many shades of gray we often find in existential reality. AL is about the mercy and boundless love of God who meets us where we stand and never asks us to do what most of us would find extremely arduous and burdensome. The mercy and love of God is not about barking scripture at people who think it applies absolutely in all cases. Nor is God's love about throwing stones of condemnation at people who want forgiveness, understanding, mercy, respect, compassion and sensitivity.

I hope that the spirit of the law and not the stick letter of the law will be more fully embraced as a pastoral practice in the immediate future according to AL. I also hope that pastoral principles found in AL will bring back into the Church those who have been disenfranchised and not welcomed.

Pope Francis is starting to change things for the better in our Church.

Kevin Murphy
6 years 8 months ago

The most telling sentence is "There were few voices skeptical of “Amoris Laetitia." Exactly. A group of people who all think alike with nary an objection. Not exactly a Thomistic disputation. This is all a power play to ram through as much change as possible during this pontificate. In the end, Jesus' plain, forthright teachings remain. I'll hang on to that.

Anthony Noble
6 years 8 months ago

Live by the Spirit of the Law & not the Letter of the Law said Jesus. The goal of the Law is to promote a stable family with children where mutual love is the anchor during hard times & the fireworks during good times. Unfortunately, some marriage go awry for countless reasons such immaturity, naiveté, neglect, abuse, constant humiliation, a spouse deceiving the other about their values, a husband abandoning a wife when she gets cancer. Divorce is a shattering experience for all involved. If a remarried spouse wants to participate in Communion to conform to others' expectation, there is not sufficient desire these to commune with Christ. If a remarried spouse is devout, recognizes the mess of the former marriage, is committed to the current marriage as a living sacrament, and yearn to be feed by the Body of Christ, the Spirit of the Law is fulfilled. God is all love & understands our foibles. He is full of mercy and wants us to be lovingly close to Him, not pushed father away.

Kevin Murphy
6 years 8 months ago

So you're saying Jesus qualified his teaching on divorce? I don't recall Him doing so. Why can't people accept that Jesus meant what He said?

Sandi Sinor
6 years 8 months ago

Development of doctrine requires constant re-examination of once accepted interpretations of scripture. It needs to be done more or less constantly as history unfolds, as new knowledge is obtained. Jesus was a Jewish man who lived in the first century. In that era, women were the property of the men - first of their fathers, and then of their husbands. They had no rights. The parents chose their husbands. They had no say. It was a business deal. The Jewish husband had the right to divorce his wife, but the wife did not have the right to divorce her husband. She also did not have any rights to keep her children, unless her husband did not want to keep them. Women with independent wealth or families could turn to them after being cast out by their husbands. She would still not have her children unless her husband agreed. Women without wealth or family could starve to death. Some would be forced into begging or prostitution. Jesus' knew this, knew the injustices divorced women faced. If you put his saying into the context of the first century, it is easy to see that his words were meant to protect women. It is no longer the first century. Women now have rights and they have the opportunities once denied them for education and jobs. They can support themselves rather than become beggars or prostitutes. Lifespans are considerably longer than was the average in the first century. Many women died young - in childbirth or due to pregnancy. Marriages were often short by our standards because someone died. Jesus had no wish to inflict decades of misery on people whose lives two thousand years later are much longer. He did not seek to impose suffering with his words, but the opposite. He was trying to remedy the injustices that women faced in the first century.

Kevin Murphy
6 years 8 months ago

Sorry. Jesus' teachings are not open to constant reinterpretation. I'm not going to accept "Jesus said this, but what he really meant is this." He commented on those who would lead people astray, and there is much of that going on.

Sandi Sinor
6 years 8 months ago

How sad that so many "christians", including some Catholics, refuse to open their minds to receive what Jesus was really teaching. Literalist, fundamentalist readings of scriptures are best left to the fundamentalist protestants.

Kevin Murphy
6 years 8 months ago

The only sadness I'm experiencing results from the confusion caused by this Papacy and many of its supporters.

Michael Barberi
6 years 8 months ago


Some of Jesus's teaching are open to reinterpretation. Consider Matthew's exception clause and the interpretation of the word 'porneia' as one point (Matt: 5:32 and 19:9). A second point is the exceptions of Matthew and Paul as explained below as well.


> The magisterium's argument that the word 'porneia' is to be understood as an endogamous marriage is but one translation (e.g., incestuous relations between two people not far enough removed from family ties, and an unlawful marriage).. There are two others: (1) extra-marital sexual intercourse, normally considered adultery, and (2) premarital intercourse, normally considered sexual immorality committed by the woman with a man other than the one to whom she is betrothed and before the marriage. The accepted understanding of 'porneia', by Judaism and most Christian Churches, is adultery.


> The second point: While Jesus did not like divorce and remarriage (e.g., in Mark and Luke), most theologians believe that Matthew's exception clause granted an exception (divorce and remarriage is prohibited except for adultery). In other words, Matthew was explaining the meaning of Jesus's teachings to the Jews, the audience that Matthew was addressing. At that time, Mosaic law permitted divorce and remarriage for adultery.

Paul also permitted an exception. He permitted divorce and remarriage in the case of a Christian spouse married to a non-Christian if the non-Christian divorced the Christian spouse and abandoned him/her.

There is much controversy over these two points I am raising here. The meaning of the word 'porneia' is not completely clear despite that Magisterium's interpretation, but the exceptions of that Matthew and Paul made are clear.

Vincent Gaglione
6 years 8 months ago

There is great irony that this conference occurred almost simultaneously with the Trump administration’s revocation of the contraceptive requirement in medical coverage provided by religious organizations and moral objecting individuals!

Those smiling and rejoicing nuns in habits that the media show us reflect in my opinion a point of view very different than what Amoris Laetitia projects.

Just how many mainstream Catholic families or those on the peripheries rely on contraceptives?

Just who are Catholic leaders walking with? Nuns in habits? Or Catholic families, too many living in economic or social desperation?

Henry George
6 years 8 months ago

I still await an outline of Amoris Laetitia that makes it clear as clear can be. Not a "Black and White" answer(s) but what has been proposed and
why /how it may be implemented.

It would have been helpful if the conference had invited some
souls who are still puzzled as to what AL hopes to achieve and how
it fits into the tradition of Catholic Moral Teaching.

We all fall in this life and it does little good to place burdens
upon our fellow human's back when they fall.

But it also not helpful to not explain to them why they fell -
sin still exist and it still mislead/tempts us.

Sandi Sinor, you give a very thorough sociological answer as to
why Jesus forbade divorce, but the problem is that Jesus
just mentions the passage in Genesis where Adam and Eve
were created to become One - not much need for sociology
when Adam and Eve were the only two humans.

As Saint Paul reminds us - be faithful and supportive of one another
as you are now one in marriage.

Frank Pray
6 years 8 months ago

Jesus called us to be perfect even as His Father in Heaven is perfect. Matt. 5:48. How could Jesus expect such perfection? Something must be lost in the translation. Our simplistic literal readings must miss the meaning. Maybe Jesus was saying we are to aspire to the highest virtue, seek to follow Him in complete obedience, rely upon supernatural strength, and accept that we will inevitably fall short in this world. His standard of perfection went beyond merely avoiding adultery by act, but also by thought. Matt. 5:28. So, both sides on the issue of communion for the divorced may be off the mark: it is not technical adultery evidenced by a second marriage, but the state of the mind and heart that defines the adulterer per se. Maybe Jesus addressed the right principle when the rich young ruler referred to him as “Good Teacher.” Jesus replied: “Why do you call me good? No one is good--except God alone.” Luke 18:19. But Jesus went further: He said to the interrogator: You know the commandments. Then he listed several of them, including adultery. If you read all of the encounter, I think Jesus added: Don’t just follow the rules, give me your heart to receive the fullness of the Kingdom.

The Amoris Laetitia footnote debate is lost in a dialectic of all rules or all mercy. But we are to be perfect even as our Father in Heaven is perfect. That would include yielding our hearts to Jesus to be transformed into His character of perfect justice and mercy combined.

Peter Schwimer
6 years 8 months ago

Let's be real. Has anyone attended a church where there was any teaching/preaching/discussion about this? I bet not. Whatever is known comes from limited resources like America or mass media. How exactly are the layfolks supposed to respond if there are no avenues to do so? How are bishops supposed to follow if there is no one who even suspects that they might want to?

Michael Barberi
6 years 8 months ago


That is what the Boston College conference is all about but it will take time for Amoris Laetitia to be integrated into the praxis of the Church. However, I understand that some confusion exists. We already are witnessing that Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried is being implemented in Germany, Austria, Argentina, Malta and in some diocese like San Diego. I suspect we will also see countries like Ireland, France, England, Australia and Spain to follow similar guidelines over the next two years.

Also, the JP II Theological Institute and its many locations around the world will be revamping it curricular to reflect the pastoral teachings of Amoris Laetitia. Also expect moral theologians will be researching and publishing more scholarly articles and changing moral theology and moral method to reflect the pastoral theology of AL. Keep in mind that this is the first time the informed conscience-internal forum, virtue, accompaniment and discernment is being more fully integrated into the praxis of the Church.

As for clarity, there will always be some mystery and difficulty in understanding how doctrine and pastoral theology-informed conscience can exist without contradiction. These concepts are different but related as the letter of the law is to the spirit of the law. In the past, many teachings were taught as truth for centuries but were eventually changed. It will take time before both doctrine it's pastoral application can be better understood. However, it will happen.

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