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Gerard O’ConnellJune 03, 2022
Pope Francis greets newly married couples during his general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on Sept. 30, 2015.Pope Francis greets newly married couples during his general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on Sept. 30, 2015. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Many themes cropped up at the recent conference on moral theology and “Amoris Laetitia,” but, according to Lisa Sowle Cahill—an ethicist and professor of moral theology at Boston College—one that stood out was “the gap between received church teaching and the experiences of families.”

At the conference, which was held at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, Dr. Cahill focused on this discrepancy between teaching and experience in her paper to the conference, which was titled “Complexity of Family Relationships: Social Realities, Pastoral Dilemmas, Moral Understanding.” (Her text, like those of the other speakers, will eventually be published in a book stemming from the conference.)

Dr. Cahill spoke on the topic not only as a moral theologian—who, in her own words, “has a special interest in gender equality, the diversity of cultures and perspectives in the global Catholic Church”—but also as a married woman and mother of five children.

In an interview with America,conducted during the conference, she acknowledged that in the church’s teaching in past decades one can see “very rigid and static ideals that are missing some of the good things that are going on in the lives of married couples and families.” Speaking from her decades-long experience of married life, she said, “I see families can involve struggle; there’s pain, there’s disappointment. But in and through all of that there’s still survival, there’s love, there are family bonds, and I think that is the original standpoint of ‘Amoris Laetitia.’”

She noted that “what the church in the past tended to look at was irregularity or sin or what is not acceptable.” “Amoris Laetitia,” in contrast, “is about authentic faithfulness, courage, perseverance, real fidelity and authenticity that is still present in families.”

Pope Francis “frequently gives interviews or makes off-the-cuff remarks that are very striking at times,” Dr. Cahill said, adding that she was “really struck” by what he said about accompanying transgender people during a press conference on an airplane as he returned from Georgia on Oct. 2, 2016. But Dr. Cahill says that she believes his “remarks can be applied more widely.”

The pope emphasized that “not every case is the same, but we have to accompany, we have to discern, we have to integrate, we have to learn, and that is what Jesus would do today.”

Younger generations are not pained by church teaching “because they are disregarding what the church has to say.”

“I think that attitude—‘What would Jesus do?’—is the hallmark of ‘Amoris Laetitia,’” Dr. Cahill said. She sees this criterion for applying church teaching being replicated at the conference, but she has also seen it reflected in recent years; she says that she has seen “a changing perspective” at both the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family and at the Pontifical Academy for Life. This is happening, she said, “while staying within the Catholic tradition, of course, and being faithful to those values.

“There’s a broadening of perspective and a widening of the conversation that includes not only marriage and family in the traditional sense but more openness to L.G.B.T.Q. individuals and their families and recognition that they too are already part of the church,” Dr. Cahill continued. “It’s not that the church must reach out; they are here.”

She noted that this “widening of the conversation” is something that has developed into “a movement within the church from Vatican II,” following the publication of Paul VI’s “Humanae Vitae” and John Paul II’s “Veritatis Splendor” and a subsequent “alienation that has arisen in many cultural situations between the teaching church and the realities of people who live their lives in families.”

Dr. Cahill said there has “sometimes been the assumption, maybe even of Pope Francis in ‘Amoris Laetitia,’ that all these families are very oppressed by the teachings of the church, and they are in pain and they want greater room.” But, she said, “what you see in many countries—like the United States, Australia, [and those in] Western Europe—is an alienation of the younger generations. They are not really in pain because they are disregarding what the church has to say.”

She said this is“so unfortunate.” Although young people sometimes adopt new values that “are an improvement,” Dr. Cahill said, “sometimes [these values] don’t offer much in terms of a moral and value framework with which to encounter the cultures that they live in.” She cited so-called hook-up culture and “the very free-ranging sexual ethos” on many U.S. college campuses as one example of a negative development.

Dr. Cahill emphasized, however, that “this doesn’t mean that we need to go back to pre-Vatican II Catholic sexual teaching, or even to Vatican II-era moral teaching. Rather, what we need today is a sensible and Christian perspective on relationships that is viable in the world in which we live.”

More people have begun to realize that in “Amoris Laetitia,” Pope Francis is going beyond a single issue to something much deeper, more radical.

But to achieve this, she said, “I think more of a conversation should happen between official church teaching and its interpreters, and the supposed audience to which it is addressed— recognizing that it is not just an audience that is limited to compliant members of the church and that multiple voices are important to hear.”

She agreed that with the publication of “Amoris Laetitia,” Pope Francis has opened a door for pastors, moral theologians, and Catholics in general to take a new look at all human questions in the light of Vatican II.

Part of this post-conciliar attitude is reflected in the personal humility of Pope Francis in official documents. “I appreciate that Pope Francis often uses the first person even in official documents: ‘This is what I think,’” she added. “There’s a humility in that and an invitation to join the discussion.”

In “Amoris Laetitia,” Francis “makes a radical return to an old idea but revivifies it in today’s context. He takes the idea from Aquinas that all moral knowledge is practical knowledge and that it always arises in a context,” Dr. Cahill said. “But discernment of what the context requires is necessary before knowledge is authentic and true. And so, in Chapter 8, he quotes Aquinas in saying that if you can have knowledge of a rule or knowledge of a practical reality, it’s the knowledge of the practical reality that is more important than the knowledge of the rule in terms of making a correct discernment, an authentic discernment, of what is required in a situation.”

“This is not something that Pope Francis has just invented,” Ms. Cahill said. “It goes back in the tradition. But it does present quite a significant and fundamental challenge to the assumptions that many people have about what moral theology is, and how it works, and also how—at the practical level—knowledge of what is right and wrong arises.”

“It’s not that rules are no longer important,” she said, referring to the teachings in “Amoris Laetitia.” “But they have to be constantly retested in the light of the realities and regenerated, re-energized, reformulated, re-appropriated in light of the experience. To me that’s really huge!”

“I think when the post-synodal exhortation first came out, some people really recognized” a radical change in moral theology, Dr. Cahill added. “But others said, ‘Pope Francis is not saying anything new.’ In the years since “Amoris Laetitia,” more people have begun to realize that in “Amoris Laetitia,” Pope Francis is going beyond the single issue to something much deeper, more radical, and much of the media reporting on the exhortation did not grasp this, Dr. Cahill said. “That has caused consternation in some quarters, and so there’s resistance.”

She concluded by expressing a concern that as conferences like this provide a deeper and more complete appreciation of “Amoris Laetitia” and its impact on moral theology and the lives of people, there is resistance and the danger of “a struggle for power between two orthodoxies: one, an old guard that is being overthrown; and one, a new power center that is now going to arise and take over.”

She said “it would be really unfortunate” if that were to happen. She hopes that both sides “will try to create the kind space that we don’t have now, which is the space of dialogue, and to realize that theology is not trying to be the magisterium. “We don’t see our own views as final and never beyond revision,” Dr. Cahill added. “You know we have changed our ideas. I certainly have and many have over these past decades. So, if we could create more of a climate of shared inquiry and mutual respect that would be great. But maybe I’m hoping for the reign of God.”

She is concerned, however, that the debate in moral theology “is sometimes like politics in America, where there is polarization, and one side doesn’t want to listen to the other. It’s not that you have to say both sides are equal.”

Speaking from her own experience she said, “I have very strong views about the equality of women, the acceptance of L.G.B.T.Q. [people] in the church, a more flexible and bottom-up view of sexual norms and gender norms—yet I don’t feel that I am called to condemn people that come from another experience, that are struggling to find their own voice and to find ways to express their own values in a new way. I think we have, still, to be in consultation.”

She rejoiced at seeing “a newer sensibility and an openness to a different discussion gaining ground and expanding” at the conference. She also expressed the hope this broader discussion can take hold at the international level among Catholics because “often our debates are so European, American and Western centered,” and not all the issues discussed are necessarily the issues of concern to Africans, who are a growing part of the church.

The debate in moral theology “is sometimes like politics in America, where there is polarization, and one side doesn’t want to listen to the other.”

“I just think the global church has to be much more on the horizon,” she added. At the same time, she said this “makes Pope Francis’ job that much trickier. Because when you start looking at global diversity, the norms around family and gender are also very diverse and not necessarily in keeping with ‘Amoris Laetitia.’”

She notes that people “often say, ‘Pope Francis needs to change the rules to what the reality is.’” But, she said, “he’s the pope of a global church, and I think he’s very aware that the debate in the family synod clearly demonstrated that not every change he might be willing to make would be acceptable in the societies that the African cardinals come from, or indeed some of the other cardinals.

“So, he has a very daunting task making a huge move forward without tipping the boat he’s steering too far to one side or the other and without throwing people overboard,” Ms. Cahill continued. “He’s got to be a leader for the whole church, and without being paternalistic, he has to try to keep the family together.”

[Read another perspective from the conference on moral theology: Spanish priest: ‘Amoris Laetitia’ allows the church to ‘untie the knots’ in Catholic morality since ‘Humanae Vitae’]

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