Three months after the publication of Amoris laetitia ("The Joy of Love"), the reception is underway, and various commentators already are noting the wide differences in the hermeneutics of the post-synodal exhortation. If we want to identify the two main approaches, we can say that one has a rather constrained view of the text and, especially, of the two synodal gatherings. It focuses on categorizing different kinds of couples, telling them what they can do in the church and what the church can do for them, while generally ignoring the novelty of the exhortation when it comes to enforcement of discipline toward people who are divorced and remarried or homosexual. Favoring this approach are those such as Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, selected by Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to coordinate an “informal working group” of five bishops assigned the task of “furthering the reception and implementation” of Amoris laetitia across U.S. dioceses.
The other interpretation focuses on the exhortation’s renewed emphasis on conscience as opposed to legalistic approaches to moral theology, and its acknowledgment of the need for theological and pastoral attention to new situations. Cardinal Christoph Schönborn has articulated this position, most recently in an interview with Antonio Spadaro in the semi-official Vatican publication La Civiltà Cattolica: “Amoris laetitia is the great document of moral theology that we have been waiting for since the time of Vatican II and that develops the choices already made by the Catechism of the Catholic Church and by [John Paul II’s] Veritatis splendor.”
How will this “interpretation gap” play out in the global Church? Schönborn’s view is much closer to Francis’s and offers something very close to the authentic (even though not official) interpretation of Amoris laetitia, not only because he expressed it in interviews in La Civiltà Cattolica, but also given that Schönborn was invited by Francis to present the text in the Vatican to the press on April 8, 2016. Now sides also appear to be forming in the U.S. Catholic Church; for example, Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich in a July 7 tweet recommended the interpretation offered by Cardinal Schönborn. But it is not clear how many bishops and pastors will follow Schönborn, and how many will follow Chaput. The problem is that reception seems to be a matter of individual interpretation. In other words, some see relativism in Amoris laetitia, but the way the bishops are receiving the text is precisely an example of the relativism of the church hierarchy: every bishop by himself, without coordination at the national level.
In the lives of many lay Catholics, especially the post-Vatican II generation, Amoris laetitia could be the most consequential document since Humanae vitae, which makes a comparison with that controversial teaching particularly instructive. Recall that Humanae vitae was published by Paul VI after the majority report of the special commission he appointed recommended that he change the teaching of Pius XI’s Casti connubii (1930). But Paul VI did not accept the majority report, accepting instead the minority report recommending the continued teaching of Pius XI on contraception. The reception of Humanae vitae was traumatic—for the pope (who in the remaining ten years of his pontificate did not publish another encyclical); for the vast majority of Catholics (that is when dissent in the Church became something different than the previous dissent of professional theologians); and for the bishops (many of whom felt blindsided by Paul VI’s decision). But Humanae vitae came less than three years after the great event of Vatican II, where the council never had the opportunity to debate marriage and contraception collegially (even though the constitution Gaudium et spes par. 47-52 addresses the issue of marriage). Still, the ethos of collegiality was alive at the bishops’ level; in 1968, expectations for the newly created Bishops’ Synod were still high. Typically, national episcopates sought to secure the authority of the papal teaching while simultaneously maintaining credibility with their local churches by coming out with collective statements on the encyclical. It wasn’t just theologians, but bishops’ conferences. And this was the case in several European countries, as well as the United States and Canada.
Nothing like that is happening for Amoris laetitia. The informal working group appointed by Archbishop Kurtz is not meant to open a debate in the bishops’ conference about a coherent interpretation and a coherent set of guidelines for U.S. dioceses. It rather seems to have the opposite intent. The situation is similar in many other countries, where interpretation will thus be left to individual bishops and cardinals. The process of discernment within the bishops’ conferences seems not to be part of the script, even though Amoris laetitia invites local churches to be an active part of the process (AL par. 3, 199, 207). Though the exhortation does not specify the need for the bishops’ conferences to be part of the reception, the foundational document of the pontificate, the exhortation Evangelii gaudium (2013), is clear about the need for more action from the national and continental bishops’ groups.
This episcopal, magisterial individualism isn’t just a matter of there being individual interpretations of Amoris laetitia among the bishops; it’s that among the majority of Catholic bishops in the early 21st-century Church, there is no longer an ethos of collegial debate. This is paradoxical, given that Francis published the exhortation after the synodal process that he called, and that culminated in the synods of 2014 and 2015. (This crisis of collegiality may also tell us something about the crisis of democracy.) Strange as it may sound, there was more synodal collegiality during the reception of Humanae vitae than there is with a document that is supposed to be received synodally as the fruit of a bishops’ synod. Simply stated, the Catholic Church is today less collegial than it was immediately after Vatican II, a period The New York Times’s Ross Douthat in his latest Francis-bashing column labeled “Catholicism’s 1970s-era civil wars.”
Collegiality became part of the post-Vatican II identity of some national and continental churches (especially for the Latin American Episcopal Council after the Medellin conference of 1968), but the lack of it elsewhere can be traced to two main factors. The first is the appointment by John Paul II and Benedict XVI of bishops who saw collegiality and synodality as naïve, if not a dangerous appeasement to a democratic culture that would ultimately void the Church’s prophetic voice. The second is the doctrinal policy of John Paul II and Benedict XVI (culminating in the motu proprio Apostolos suos in 1998) that affirmed that bishops’ conferences have no theological foundation, but only pastoral and practical goals. This produced an episcopal individualism according to which the authority of the individual local bishop is the only one with an ecclesiological foundation, different from the practical and derivative authority of the bishops’ conferences (which are the modern equivalent of local councils and synods in the early Church—a fact that many, including Joseph Ratzinger, always questioned).
It’s true that the complexity of the reception process is related to the complexity of a document like an apostolic post-synodal exhortation: a papal document, issued by the pope, that claims to be the fruit of a synodal process among pope, bishops, and local churches. It is a complexity rooted in the doctrine of episcopal collegiality, which the final texts of Vatican II articulated as one of the possible ways for the pope to exercise the papal primacy when he chooses to do so.
But the fact is that collegiality has never really characterized synods or post-synod documents. There is a problem of synodality (which involves the whole Church, not only the bishops), and also of collegiality (the bishops and the pope). Synodality is a relatively new concept for the Church magisterium, as it was never part of the theological developments of Vatican II: Francis is the first pope talking directly about synodality. But collegiality is not a new concept: it was one of the most important achievements of Vatican II, based on a pre-conciliar theological and ecclesiological debate on the sacramentality of episcopacy and on the need for an aggiornamento of the bishops’ ministry.
For a long time, until the election of Francis, many in the Church thought that the issue of collegiality had been solved by reducing it to an “affective collegiality” (affectus collegialis): collegiality as a new way to name the brotherly love of the bishops for all the other members of the episcopal college and for the pope, as the bishops are consecrated bishops not just for their own diocese but for the universal Church. “Affective collegiality” was a euphemism to say that after Vatican II, not much was about to change for the governance of the global Church.
The problem is that “effective collegiality” (effectus collegialis), that is, a real influence of the world episcopate on papal teaching, was never really part of the experience of the episcopate after Vatican II, and especially in the long, second half of the post-Vatican II period (the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI). Pope Francis acknowledged the gap between “affective” and “effective” collegiality in a letter to Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the Bishops’ Synod, on April 1, 2014, when he talked about “the affective and effective communion which constitutes the Synod of Bishops’ primary purpose.”
It is clear by now that a culture of discussion and discernment must be rebuilt among the episcopal leadership of the Catholic Church, starting from the national and continental bishops’ conferences. The reception of The Joy of Love requires a true commitment to a collegial and synodal church, not just mere affect.