Major papal documents often get limited media coverage when they first appear and later are forgotten except by scholars and church leaders. Truly important documents are studied in seminaries and incorporated into religious education textbooks, and their ideas trickle down to the faithful.
Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “The Joy of Love” (“Amoris Laetitia”), the product of the pope’s thinking after two synods of bishops on the topic of the family, received wide coverage both in the Catholic and secular media when it came out in 2016. Much of the coverage was focused on the document’s opening in Chapter 8 to the possibility of divorced and remarried Catholics, who had not received an annulment of their first marriage, receiving Communion.
A small but vocal group of Catholic commentators (including some bishops and cardinals) felt this was an unacceptable breach of church teaching. Most of the faithful (62 percent), however, favored extending Communion to divorced and remarried Catholics, according to a Pew Research Center poll.
As the pope says, one of the great sins of the church is its infantilization of the laity.
On Oct. 5 to 6, 2017, a group of theologians and bishops met at Boston College to reflect on “Amoris Laetitia.” The conference was convened by Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago and James F. Keenan, S.J., of Boston College’s Jesuit Institute.
Participants noted that the reception of “Amoris Laetitia” has been positive from laypeople who have read the document or experienced programs based on it. People have found it realistic in its description of the challenges facing families. Hispanic and black theologians described how the document’s ideas resonate in their communities.
But everyone quickly acknowledged that more needs to be done. The opioid crisis and unemployment are destroying families. The poor are less likely to get married and more likely to get divorced than those in upper income bracket. Extended families are often not present to help couples. And young people are abandoning religion in droves.
It is time for the laity to educate themselves, speak out and act like true disciples of Christ in spreading the joy of the Gospel.
Parishes need to be more welcoming to families, especially families in difficulty. “Amoris Laetitia” encourages “listening” as the first response. “Accompanying” is another key word: accepting people where they are and then traveling with them in their journey toward God.
But who is going to do this accompanying? Priests ordained under John Paul II and Benedict XVI are often suspicious of the document. Until seminary faculties and administrators change, there is little hope that new priests will be open and welcoming. Alienated Catholics who give the church another try often do not meet priests like Francis in their parishes. When they experience condemnation and exclusion, they leave, never to return.
The conference participants were certainly encouraged by what they heard about the reception of “Amoris Laetitia” in France, Germany and Italy from visiting bishops and theologians. Also hopeful was the participation of Cardinal Kevin Farrell, prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life. Antonio Spadaro, a fellow Jesuit and close confidant of the pope, was also a participant.
What role does the laity play in all of this? First, laypeople should read Chapter 4 of “Amoris Laetitia” and give that chapter to any couple preparing for marriage or experiencing the ups and downs of family life. Next, the laity must speak up. Bishops and priests hear mostly from the disgruntled. Tell them how much you like Pope Francis and his stress on compassion and mercy.
As the pope says, one of the great sins of the church is its infantilization of the laity. It is time for the laity to educate themselves, speak out and act like true disciples of Christ in spreading the joy of the Gospel. As Cardinal Farrell noted at the conference, priests have no direct experience of marriage, and it is therefore up to lay people to become leaders in reaching out to families in parish communities.