by Fr. Lawrence Mduduzi Ndlovu

The opening lines of Amoris Laetitia (AL) reminds one of the opening lines of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.”  AL positions its conversation by appealing to the experience of the human person – the person of the world is the person of the Church.  It is for this reason that AL begins with a solid statement “the joy of love experienced by families is also the joy of the church.”  AL is part of the project, it would seem, that advances the conversation with the modern age with all its beauty and frailty.  It is the advancement of the opening of the doors that began at the Second Vatican Council.

AL affirms the traditional doctrinal position of the Church and at the same time if also recognises the complex and different situations of family life from one country to another and from one person to another.  By so doing it situates the church as being with and among people in whatever their circumstance.  It is because of these complexities that Pope Francis invites different regions to seek solutions that suit the local culture and are sensitive to local needs.  Here there is a deliberate option to preserve what is already known and what the church has upheld, but also it grants countries and regions strength to assess and respond adequately but always with the teaching of the church in mind.  Spurred by these complexities and differences Pope Francis writes about real concrete situations.  A lot has been said about issues like communion for divorced and remarried persons – such issues have been highlighted in the media. However, there are some other important points in AL which are of interest to the African continent.

Marriage and family life has love as its foundation.  For Pope Francis approaching marriage without this foundation means that there is something already disordered.  So even the conversation about sexual relations comes from the same foundation of love. This challenges us directly in Africa where sex is used as a tool for control as Pope Francis puts it: “as something depersonalised, an instrument of self-assertion and personal desires.”  Instantly we are drawn to the ghastly levels of rape in the continent and in the world.  In addition, the absence of the foundation of love manifests itself concretely in our continent in the many forced marriages and child marriages. (UNICEF data for child marriage in some African countries suggests it is higher than 50%).  Pope Francis speaks about love with a clear reciprocal understanding in mind – that’s why he presents, in his scriptural analysis, the image of an equal couple (AL 9,11,12). Furthermore he adds that this conversation about sex and sexuality should be held much earlier and not just when preparing for marriage or when people are older.  This is another challenge, it would seem, because schools always teach in a rather biological fashion.  This means that parents and indeed the church have a particular role to teach about the full depth of sex and sexuality. Our context, in Africa, is such that these issues are left to be discovered as one grows to discuss them is a source of great discomfort. 

Pope Francis also points to a tendency in the church that emphasises the procreative dimension of marriage, neglecting the unitive dimension.  The unitive dimension of marriage is fundamentally a fruit of love which Pope Francis painstakingly explores in the fourth chapter of AL.  This is key in the formation and preparation for marriage especially in the African context where child bearing in marriage seems to trump the unitive dimension.  Too many woman (and some men) suffer the indignity of being referred to pejoratively because they cannot or struggle to have children.  The pain of many childless women who have to be subjected to songs like “Gabi gabi mfazi ongazalanga” – a popular Zulu folk song which is sung at different occasions like weddings. In that song those with children show off the success of their children to woman with no children. In addition this inability to be have children often becomes a license for unfaithfulness and even polygamy.  It must be said that Pope Francis is not downplaying the importance of procreation in marriage because it is a very key component to marital life.  However what Pope Francis is doing is going even further (or deeper) by discussing the entire structure of marriage and family life as facilitated by love. 

Pope Francis takes this conversation about love to its logical end by asserting that love is fruitful. By saying this he unequivocally suggests that marriage should produce children. He acknowledges also that for some couples this is not always possible.  It is interesting to note that Pope Francis seems to be taking this conversation about procreation back to its fundamental position – as a fruit of love.  When one juxtaposes what the Pope Francis is talking about and the highly politicised conversations about contraception, abortion and other such discussions it becomes evident that even though the subject matter is the same the conversation, Pope Francis is facilitating is a different one. The highly politicised conversation is often directed at Africa because of poverty and therefore there is an interest in population control, in infant mortality and even women’s rights.  Those who read AL with this view in mind run the risk of not understanding what Pope Francis is talking about.  He draws attention to the fact that the logical end of conjugal love is fruitfulness and this fruit is children. Francis does not make any new pronouncements about these major issues but he draws attention to that which important.

Pope Francis also goes further, it would seem to me, that the Church in Africa (taking its cue from AL) has an opportunity to create something special.  The Pontiff broadens the conversation to include other extended members of families and communities to assist each other in whatever situation –including an event like when a child comes into the world in unwanted circumstances.  Pope Francis sees fruitfulness as extending even to those married couples who cannot have children by expressing the fruits of their love through adoption. He further acknowledges that marriage is deeply social in its character (AL 166). 

Here Pope Francis strikes a chord in many Africans. Communitarianism is deeply engraved in African’s outlook. Even personhood is defined communally – “Ubuntu”. Here there is a real tangible avenue for the church in Africa to enculturate the sacrament of marriage because in the African context marriage is not just about those getting married it is also a marriage of families, tribes and communities.  There is a richness that can be of great assistance to the entire church.  In addition to this, the notion that every child belongs to the community still exists strongly in African communities. Pope Francis expounds on the relationships between the old and the young and between siblings and peers as perhaps pointing to the need for a holistic and integrated person in a network of significant relationships. When this section is read, with Pope Francis’s concern about the growing threat of individualism, it becomes even more evident that Africa has something to offer the entire church.  Real pastoral reflection work along these lines will have to emerge soon in order to give AL the regional character it is asking for.

Another striking feature about AL is how balanced it is. Even though Francis speaks about the communal aspects of family life he also speaks about the individual and his or her own conscience. In an aggressively communitarian context (like that of Africa) the aspect of individual conscience can be weakened.  It should be mentioned that Pope Francis is not speaking personal opinions or views but rather the end result of discernment as influenced by the teaching of the Church and the education instilled by your family and the community.  It is for this reason that he maintains and affirms the duty that parents have in educating their children. This individual conscience has a lot to do with an ongoing evaluation of the harmony between the self and the teaching of Jesus Christ. In addition, an informed conscience is not narcissistic in its outlook but also influences our treatment of the other including those that are less understood – like homosexual persons.

AL affirms the position of the Church on homosexuality. This position seems unknown or not properly understood (or conveniently ignored) in many parts of the African continent.  Homosexual persons should be respected “in his or her dignity and treated with consideration, and ‘every sign of unjust discrimination’ should be carefully avoided, particularly any form of aggression or violence” (AL 250).  Interestingly, this statement is taken almost word for word from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 2358).  Francis goes further, however, and adds that aggression and violence should also be avoided.  Violence against Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgendered (LGBT) persons in the African continent (and other places outside Africa) is virulent.  AL speaks directly to this problem.  In South Africa the scourge of so-called ‘corrective rape’ is real.  The notion of aggression also refers to those who, even though they would not physically attack a homosexual person, are generally hostile. This hostility is not just social but can also exist in the domestic space.  There has been many a story of persons being disowned by their own families because of their sexual orientation. AL goes into the eye of the storm where even the gay person’s very dignity and existence is not recognised.  There is a clear call for some kind of pastoral guidance and response for families and individuals in this regard and, perhaps, an acknowledgement that avoidance and indifference are no longer an option.

If this document is read with the intention of looking for the doctrinal changes or even with a certain position in mind, then there is a risk of missing its real depth and call to reflection. Many African bishop’s conferences and communities will appreciate that AL offers doctrinal certainty.  However that is not the only telos of the document.  The telos of the document is what many in Africa will find difficult: the invitation to be open to the realities of family life and thus respond primarily from a place of mercy.  Responding from the place of mercy does not mean blind forgiveness but the preparedness to help reintegrate and to accompany those who find themselves outside the teaching of the church.  Mercy is the hermeneutic of AL.  That is a real challenge for Africa because it is asking for dialogue, listening and a certain vulnerability on the side of the Church. In fact, Pope Francis cites John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio: “Pastors are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations.”  It is interesting to note that here a mandamus is given to pastors. It is from the doctrinal position of the church, coupled with the knowledge and compassion for the specificity of each case, that the African church can respond adequately and pastorally in every circumstance. That rattles us as Africans because it means that not all questions are going to be met by an immediate answers.

Fr. Lawrence Mduduzi Ndlovu is a priest from the Archdiocese of Johannesburg. He is currently studying at Heythrop College in London, UK.