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Gerard O’ConnellMay 06, 2022
Pope Francis greets children during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican May 4, 2022. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

An international conference of moral theology will be held at the Jesuit-run Pontifical Gregorian University May 11 to 14. It is an important event in the year-long celebration of “Amoris Laetitia,” the apostolic exhortation on the family promulgated by Pope Francis on March 19, 2016, after the two world synods of bishops met in 2014 and 2015 to discuss the subject.

“The aim of the conference is to promote the renewal of moral theology in the church according to the critical issues, provocations and ideas that emerged from the apostolic exhortation,” Miguel Yáñez, S.J., one of its main organizers, told America in an exclusive interview on May 3. A former student of the future pope when he was the Jesuit provincial in Argentina, Father Yáñez is a professor of moral theology and current director of the family ministry program at the Gregorian University, where he served previously as director of its department of moral theology.

The Continuing Significance of “Amoris Laetitia”

He recalled that Pope Francis wanted this year-long focus on the document “perhaps because he realized that the message of ‘Amoris Laetitia’ is not being fully received by the church worldwide at the pastoral level.” The pope asked the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, headed by Cardinal Kevin Farrell, to organize a series of events for this purpose. The conference takes place at the cardinal’s invitation, following up on a forum about discernment in family that took place in April 2021. Organizers of the conference believe that this magisterial teaching of Pope Francis “has continuing significance both for the theology of marriage and for moral theology in general.”

“‘Amoris Laetitia’ is the first fruit of the synodal church both because it was the result of the consultation that took place with lay people before the synod and because every one of its proposals is rooted in what the synod voted by a two-thirds majority in 2015,” Father Yáñez said. “With it, the Second Vatican Council came back to life.”

“‘Amoris Laetitia’ is the first fruit of the synodal church.”

“One of the fundamental aspects of ‘Amoris Laetitia,’” he explained, “is the relationship between pastoral practices and moral theology.” The approach adopted in that apostolic exhortation “provides something new and original and prompts us to think of moral theology in a way that is different to what was previously done,” he said.

Pope Francis’ approach in “Amoris Laetitia” is “quite different” from that taken by Pope John Paul II in his own 1981 post-synodal apostolic exhortation “Familiaris Consortio,” Father Yáñez said. The latter can be seen as “a more dogmatic document” that emphasized “what the family should be and not what the family is in reality,” he said.

John Paul II realized that the traditional notion of family was changing, but his way of facing it was different to that of Francis, Father Yáñez said. In “Amoris Laetitia,” Francis “offers a sense of humanity regarding the new realities of the family—single-parent families, ensembled families, mixed-race families and, ultimately, even ‘rainbow’ families—and went beyond what ‘Familiaris Consortio’ stated.”

“Amoris Laetitia,” he continued, seeks to face “this changing reality of family in a positive way.”

“Pope Francis, in ‘Amoris Laetitia,’ took into account what had emerged at the two synods and emphasized that we cannot continue insisting on the same messages that did not produce any results,” Father Yáñez said. “We have to find new ways to propose [the Gospel message] to the people, mostly young people, to enable them to live marriage and family life as a true way to achieve happiness.”

He recalled that, following in the footsteps of the Second Vatican Council, which spoke about “the seeds of the Word” in the cultures of peoples, “Amoris Laetitia” speaks of “the seeds of the Word” in “the imperfect realities” of the family. He described this as “a discernment in action” because “the pope is discerning the situations where there are shadows and light; where there is a crisis not only in the family institution but in every institution as well: social, political and religious ones.”

“Amoris Laetitia” recognizes that “while the family could be in an imperfect situation, nevertheless in this imperfect situation the Spirit of the Lord is active, too, God is present, he is not absent in this situation,” he said. “The pastor has to follow the action of the Spirit, not to extinguish the smoldering wick.”

“The pastor has to follow the action of the Spirit, not to extinguish the smoldering wick.”

Many bishops and pastors find this approach difficult to accept, Father Yáñez said. He recalled that after Vatican II ended in 1965, the Vatican accepted a renewal in social ethics, but it had difficulty in accepting a renewal in issues of personal morality with regards to the family, sexuality and marriage.

Indeed, “the whole problem regarding family life and marriage was reduced to sexual relations. There was a failure to see the complexity of marital life,” he said. “Familiaris Consortio,” he recalled, “stated that a person who is divorced and remarried could not receive Communion, unless the couple [were to] abstain from sexual relations.

“But if marriage is reduced to sexual relations, there is a difficulty to see the complexities and richness of marital and family life. In my view, the problem was due to the fact that sexuality and marriage was not studied in a scientific way,” Father Yáñez concluded. “The bishops and clergy didn’t know the findings of science.”

“I believe that one of the strongest calls we receive today is to make moral theological reflection on good scientific data, for which we need a good formation in all pastoral agents. This is crucially important for clergy,” he said. For Pope Francis, sexuality is a gift, he said, and we need an integral and realistic sexual education.

Father Yáñez believes it is important to know this background in order to understand why there has been and still is resistance to the magisterial teaching of Pope Francis in “Amoris Laetitia”—a magisterial teaching that he insists “is on the same level” as those of Popes Paul VI and John Paul II. He noted, however, that probably Francis “is given more to dialoguing” and has more patience with the cardinals, bishops and theologians who criticize him than his predecessors.

The Conference’s Lineup

The Argentine Jesuit theologian said the four-day conference will bring together speakers and around 200 participants from Africa, Asia, North America, South America and Europe, including Lisa Sowle Cahill and James Keenan, S.J., both from Boston College. They will not only discuss the teaching of “Amoris Laetitia” on the family but also its wider implications for moral theology in the universal church.

The first day of the conference will be devoted to “epochal change, church and society,” during which participants will learn about the reception of “Amoris Laetitia” “in pastoral practices” from speakers from Spain, Italy, Chile, Kenya and the Philippines. They will also receive input on “the complexity of family relationships” from speakers from the United States and Germany.

The discussion on the second day will center on the sacrament of marriage and the challenges that accompany it. It seeks to explore the paths opened by Pope Francis to admit the baptized in complex matrimonial situations to sacramental life.

“The purpose of this conference is to promote a renewal of moral theology, because family is just one case of moral theology.”

The aim of the third and fourth days is “to go deeper” on the broader questions of morality. Examples of the issues that the international conference will address include: How do we do moral theology? How can there be a fruitful encounter between moral theology and other disciplines? How does the socio-cultural context affect morality? How can discernment be applied to the field of morality, thus making it a method that links the moral, pastoral and spiritual?

“The purpose of this conference is to promote a renewal of moral theology, because family is just one case of moral theology,” Father Yáñez said.

The conference will seek “to go deep,” he said, “because we don’t want to remain at the level of secondary problems, or the manifestation of the secondary problems such as whether we can accept gay couples or not, or whether we can accept that people who remarry can go to Holy Communion. We want to go deeper and see why we say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to these new situations, remembering that exclusion at this point can drive people away from the church.”

“What Pope Francis is trying to do in ‘Amoris Laetitia’ is to think with the ideas of the Gospel: mercy, compassion, patience, trying to accompany people in their processes in life, such as marriage and family,” Father Yáñez recalled. “And instead of proposing rigid schemes into which they have to enter, seeking ways to accompany them in an experience of the faith, and teaching them how to pray, how to pray the Gospel, how to live love and so on.

“We need to face the new situation with creativity,” he continued. “For this, we should cultivate the art of discernment. This is Pope Francis’ proposal ‘in front of situations where you break all the patterns’” (“Amoria Laetita,” No. 37).

“With the previous approach of moral theology we can only evangelize those who are perfect,” Father Yáñez concluded, “whereas the majority will remain outside the church because it is outside the way they live. If we don’t change to the approach that ‘Amoris Laetitia’ advocates, we cannot reach the majority of society; we can only evangelize the perfect.”

As a result, “it’s clear that we need new strategies to deal with a new situation,” he said. “We have to find new ways to propose to people, especially to young people, to live out marriage and the family life as a true way to achieve happiness.”

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