Pope Francis’ New Exhortation On The Family

by Fr Anthony Egan SJ

Hopes And Fears As We Wait

At the end of the week the Vatican will release Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love). This document will come after the two sessions of the Synod on the Family and will shape Catholic teaching with regard to family life going forward.

What are we to expect from Pope Francis’ forthcoming Amoris Laetitia?

It depends.

Francis might speak from his heart and from a certain approach to theology that acknowledges the moral complexities of real life. Or he might acknowledge the paralysing confusion of last year’s Synod on the Family that decades of conservative populism and over a century of invented tradition has generated among his brother bishops, priests and theologians seeking institutional approval and the illusion of certainty.

Let me explain. And I emphasize me because I speak only for myself – as a historian, one rooted in a profoundly historical understanding of the developing tradition of Catholic faith, of the Second Vatican Council and of science.

If Francis speaks from the former position – broadly that of the theologically-sophisticated German-speaking bishops, the justice-focused Latin Americans and the West, Southern and East-Asians at the Synod (for whom the real question is the survival of Christianity in environments varying from total indifference to a Christian minority to a struggle for survival against persecution) – he will embrace what some will no doubt call a ‘liberal’ standpoint: an easing of the position on divorce and remarriage something akin to the Eastern Orthodox principle of oikonomia. At best he will embrace the Orthodox position supported by folk like Cardinals Kasper and Lehmann – the recognition that sometimes marriages fail, and that with the proper penitential process re-married Catholics should be readmitted to communion. He will in some ways at very least permanently modify the cumbersome, ecclesially dubious (in effect a Catholic acceptance of divorce) and financially and emotionally expensive process of annulments that exist.

At an, highly unlikely, extreme he will recognise the fact that our official Catholic understanding of human sexuality is scientifically deficient, denying as it does the fact that a minority of men and women are biologically same-sex oriented and that attempts to deny that orientation and the natural desire to form committed relationships in accord with one’s biological nature actually violates one’s nature, and is in Catholic terms contrary to the natural law that the Church insists upon.

If Francis embraces the conservative populist position – that of the majority of American bishops, the conservative Catholic media (the very same who attack him for his progressive – some might say compassionate and reasonable – stance on refugees, the environment and human rights, it should be noted), their African allies and a significant faction of the Roman Curia – the outcome will be a status quo rooted in the conservative populism of his papal predecessors and an affirmation of an invented tradition that at best derives from the late 19th Century. It will be rooted in the theologically tenuous claims of previous popes and their theological allies, based upon an un-traditional and a-historical reading of Catholic theology that has replaced real tradition: a tradition that recognises complexity, ambiguity, the best insights of science, and the need for genuine pastoral solutions that admit no easy answers.

Such an option, if Francis takes it, will confirm in the minds of many that the hope for genuine renewal of the Church in the generous and traditional interpretation of Vatican II has died, that they live in a Church that simply refuses to embrace the complexity of human life in which ordinary souls try to find a loving and merciful God. At best they’ll quietly carry on in the Church, though they will seek their own ways to union with the God they really believe in. At worst they will drift further away – whether internally or formally, to other churches or to the individual (often lonely) forms of belief that such spiritual exile entails.

From my reading of the tradition, from my understanding of human and biological sciences (limited as they may be), my hope is that Francis will at least throw us a spiritual life-jacket or two, an acknowledgment that he sees the complexities of human life that so many in the Church cannot – or will not – see.

What is certain is that this statement will define the pontificate of Francis and determine the direction of the Church in the decades to come.

Fr Anthony Egan SJ

Fr Anthony Egan SJ (born Cape Town 1966; entered the Jesuits 1990; ordained 2002) has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for spotlight.africa. He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.

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