Amoris laetitia, Pope Francis’s 2016 apostolic exhortation, is translated as “The Joy of Love,” but its reception over the last year has been anything but patient and kind. A richly textured if occasionally unwieldy document that stretches to over two-hundred pages, the controversy it’s generated has almost entirely focused on one chapter—even one footnote—that raises the issue of divorced-and-remarried Catholics receiving Communion.
A conference hosted by Cardinal Blase Cupich and James Keenan, SJ, at Boston College earlier this month sought to forge, as its title claimed, “a new momentum for moral formation and pastoral practice.” Bringing together two cardinals, twelve bishops, and over twenty other participants—some priests, but many lay theologians—the gathering clearly was an attempt to shift the way Amoris laetitia is being understood and engaged with in the United States. Most Catholics certainly haven’t read the exhortation; their knowledge of it is second hand, often filtered through fevered speculations about the pope’s “plot” to change the church or news reports about “filial corrections” from self-styled guardians of orthodoxy. When those more sympathetic to Amoris understandably respond to such criticisms, it only further establishes the narrative of controversy surrounding the document. If there was one refrain that dominated the discussions in Boston, it was that the exhortation really does have nine chapters—more than the much-debated chapter 8.
Amoris begins not with disputed questions or polemics; instead, it surveys the “families, births, love stories, and family crises” that fill the Bible and then moves on to “the experiences and challenges of families” today. It begins, in other words, not with abstract theological ideals, but attentiveness to the concrete hopes and sorrows, joys and messiness, of actual family life. It starts with examples and complexity, not pat formulations.
It’s important to underscore the word family. Often we reduce debates about such matters to arguments about the nature of marriage itself, but family is more expansive than that. It also means nursing sick parents and grandparents, helping struggling siblings, and mentoring nieces and nephews. In Amoris Francis exhorts us to acknowledge and work to overcome the pressures we all face in caring for those close to us—not least because of the “throwaway” economy the pope lamented in Laudato si’ and elsewhere, which incentivizes mobility, fosters individualism, and undermines stability and lasting commitments.
That’s why it was encouraging that the Boston College conference did not start with a series of prelates pronouncing from on high, but with a panel that included three lay women presenting on Amoris’s reception so far—Natalia Imperatori-Lee, C. Vanessa White, and Cathleen Kaveny. They very much offered reports from “on the ground,” from each woman’s specific context: a Latina theologian who also is a mother of young children, an African-American professor, and a woman working at the intersection of law and theology. It set the tone for the conference: that the experiences of lay people, especially women, were going to be taken seriously, and that the conference aimed for good-faith deliberation, a conversation without a preordained end.
Imperatori-Lee’s and White’s talks especially were helpful in emphasizing the way Amoris connects with Catholics outside of the white, middle-class enclaves that have historically dominated the U.S. church. Both talks drew attention to the challenges facing Latino and African-American Catholics and their families, which exist in specific pastoral contexts. With the former, the perils of migration, poverty, lack of documentation, domestic abuse, and other issues impinge on family life. Lee also made the connection between a passive understanding of the laity and colonization, drawing on Francis’s comment in Amoris that pastors “have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.” For Lee, the attempt to replace rather than form consciences is an “act of domination.”