Pope Francis greets newly married couples during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Sept. 30, 2015

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.”

Too often commentary about the exhortation suggests that it’s merely a sop to bourgeois

White, who teaches at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, noted that Amoris has yet to be fully received by black Catholics. Working multiple jobs, for example, is not only a stress on parents, she said, but also means there’s not really time to sit down and absorb a lengthy papal document—families are in “survival mode.”

Much of the debate about Catholics in “irregular” family situations has focused on divorce and remarriage, but the speakers asked how pastors minister to a person whose family life is “irregular” because of immigration laws or the compounding problems brought on by economic deprivation. Too often commentary about the exhortation suggests that it’s merely a sop to bourgeois, white Europeans and Americans who want a guilt-free second marriage, as if talk of “complexity” was only a euphemism for permissiveness. It’s telling that U.S. critics so frequently imagine the document in the context of Western culture wars, failing to consider the family struggles our first Latin American pope actually had in mind when he drafted Amoris.

Other lay women also made a significant mark on the conference. Julie Hanlon-Rubio helpfully brought social science to bear on a number of the issues raised by Amoris, and Meghan Clark discussed the exhortation’s treatment of women—which is surprisingly nuanced. She pointed especially to paragraph 54, which goes so far as to say that, while “certain forms of feminism” are “inadequate,” we should “see in the women’s movement the working of the Spirit for a clearer recognition of the dignity and rights of women.” Clarke underscored that Francis rejects the old-fangled ways of reading Ephesians and I Corinthians that long had been used as proof texts for the subjugation of women.

One of the most striking aspects of the conference was its mood and atmosphere, in part due to these exceptionally strong early presentations. Participants were honest and critical but not antagonistic; discussion was frank but constructive. The cardinals, bishops, and other clergy seemed to approach the deliberations with a genuine lack of defensiveness. Bishops from Germany and Malta, nations that have introduced processes that allow divorced-and-remarried Catholics to receive Communion, described what that’s been like in their dioceses. Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta said that the pope’s vision was being embraced by those responsible for pastoral care. “It has received the stamp of pastoral authenticity from those who know the territory,” he said, calling the exhortation a document that doesn’t gloss over tough problems and challenges while remaining “a proclamation of hope through the mercy and grace of God.” It was hopeful to see senior members of the American Church both answer questions raised by the presentations and admit the difficulties and constraints of their ministries. It was a sign of hope to see bishops attentively taking notes on laptops and iPads as women theologians asked tough questions about family ministry. You really did get the sense that these were men with incredible demands placed on their time, that bringing the pope’s pastoral vision to bear on dioceses and parishes involved not just wading into difficult moral and theological questions, but addressing very practical concerns about scarce resources, too few priests, and how best to draw on the wisdom of married lay people.

San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy spoke about his diocesan synod, where representatives from each parish worked through the issues presented in Amoris. He described the sense of hope the synod generated, and God’s guiding presence in the midst of debate. McElroy was struck by a number of elements of the synod process, and two of them are worth underscoring. He mentioned that the focus on families’ spirituality grew more intense as the synod went on, emphasizing the importance of cultivating the spiritual life within the context of the family. And he said that the debate offered about Chapter 8 of Amoris was unexpected, with participants taking a broader view of the matter than the exhortation did. Those at the synod were surprised by the richness of the church’s understanding of conscience—they had “never heard this before.” McElroy submitted that Catholic doctrine really does take seriously the complexity of adult moral life, even if that is often poorly conveyed.

Cardinal Kevin Farrell, prefect for the recently created Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life, suggested that Francis is particularly concerned about how Catholics live what they believe. He portrayed the pope as being in continuity with his two most recent predecessors: If John Paul II categorized and codified the faith, and Benedict XVI often provided a commentary on those efforts, then Francis could be understood as extending and continuing their work into the realm of practice and pastoral care. Farrell also suggested that laypeople could be trained to minister to families, especially newlyweds, because “it’s very difficult for [priests] to accompany” those in difficult marriages—clergy haven’t faced the “reality of the situation” a couple might be struggling through. (He noted that this idea of laypeople accompanying newlyweds had generated a fair bit of blow-black from Catholic blogs, a telling sign of the hostility the pope faces in any sort of reform.)

The conference also went beyond simply praising Amoris. A number of commentators asked who exactly the exhortation was written for. Laudato si’, for example, was addressed to all people of good will, but, at times, the intended audience for Amoris seems to shift, geared toward laypeople in one section, then aiming more at priests and pastors in others. Participants also wondered what exactly it means to “accompany” people, and pushed on what a “pastoral” approach to the family actually meant. They’re the kind of terms regularly used by those who admire Francis, but their meaning can be unclear. Such questions revealed that even sympathetic readers of Amoris find “discernment” a more perplexing task than the simple, straightforward imposition of rules.

The gathering largely was composed of fellow travelers, not marching in lockstep but sharing a general approach to questions about the family—or at least being comfortable in expressing hesitation or doubt about how best for the church to proceed. That was necessary for the conference to work, but occasionally the resistance Francis is facing from certain quarters broke in—and the recognition that even with the impressive roster of participants, it wasn’t certain how, say, the U.S. bishops as a body might respond to the conference’s deliberations.

Perhaps the Boston College conference is best understood as being animated by hope, which is not the same as naïve optimism—hope that the church’s current lack of credibility on the family, marriage, and sex was not an insuperable obstacle to reaching out anew to those estranged from the Catholic faith, that the church can and should do better. All of the deliberations were marked by what Keenan called the need for pastoral conversion, the urgency of cultivating a new empathy—to “reawaken” empathy. It was that theme that, most of all, connected the various panels, presentations, discussion sessions, and talks over coffee and lunch. There was a profound sense of the need for the church to be a source of mercy and help for those struggling and suffering. Francis, as Antonio Spadaro, SJ, put it, wants us to deal with “people, not categories.” Or as the pope recently said, “The other is not a statistic or a number. The other has a face. The ‘you’ is always a real presence, a person to take care of.” The gathering in Boston gave a sense of what this vision of the church might look like in practice, of a way beyond the stale formulations and moralizing incantations of those who seem never to have experienced the medicine of mercy.

Matthew Sitman is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Twitter.

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