Today Pope Francis has made public his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, “The Joy of Love,” on marriage and the family. Over the next few weeks, Political Theology Today will offer a symposium on the document, with analyses and opinions by a number of guest writers and regular contributors. Amoris Laetitia comes on the heels of two synods of bishops, an Extraordinary Synod in 2014 and an Ordinary Synod in 2015, in which the bishops discussed the problems faced by families today and the church’s pastoral response to families.
What do marriage and the family have to do with political theology? Amoris Laetitia deals very little with hot button political issues, in the everyday sense of the word, like same-sex marriage (which gets a brief mention in #251) and civil divorce. Pope John Paul II’s earlier apostolic exhortation on the family, Familiaris Consortio, proposed a “charter of family rights” (#46), and Pope Francis also insists on the rights of the family (#44), but Amoris Laetitia is aimed at providing the church with a new pastoral orientation in addressing the needs of contemporary families.
Still, Pope Francis, following the lead of the two earlier synods, will give significant attention to how families live out their vocation in the midst of war and poverty, and to how migrant and refugee families cope with a precarious, itinerant existence (## 45-46). As Kristin Heyer has written in an earlier post here, this focus on the political context in which families make their way is a “welcome expansion of [the] threats to ‘family values’” recognized by the church’s pastoral leaders.
Of course, political theology is not only concerned with what we might narrowly consider “political issues,” but rather recognizes that in some sense all theology, no matter the topic, is political. Every theological claim assumes a certain stance on who has the authority to interpret and proclaim God’s revelation. We engage in theology from within a political context, and our response to God’s presence is always in some way tied to our response to that political context. This does not mean reducing the transcendent to the political, but God is present to us in the midst of the political.
Pope Francis organized the two synods so that they would be truly “synodal”: the participating bishops were to be free to express their opinions without a pre-set agenda or official line, and the synods would proceed as an exercise in consensus-building. To a great degree this ambition was realized, with all of the moments of tension and debate one would expect. This synodal process reflects the more collegial approach Francis has taken in exercising his papal authority; for example, in his earlier apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium and in his encyclical Laudato Si’ on numerous occasions he cites statements of bishops’ conferences from around the world, particularly the Global South. Amoris Laetitia continues this pattern, citing several bishops’ conferences and other more surprising sources, and even recognizes that different geographical regions and cultures might come to different pastoral solutions to the issues facing the family (#3).
One of the most important and commented-upon dynamics at the two synods was the tension between the pastoral perspectives of bishops from the Global North and South, respectively. In particular, a number of bishops from Europe advocated for changes in the church’s pastoral outreach to gays and lesbians and its practice on withholding communion from the divorced and remarried, while many, although by no means all, of the bishops representing Africa instead emphasized the church’s unchanging teaching on human sexuality, warning of the encroachment of Western cultural imperialism into Africa on sexual matters. It will be important to analyze how Pope Francis proposes a more merciful approach to those who fall short of the church’s ideal of married life in a way that draws on the different experiences and concerns of Catholics around the world.
Lastly, Amoris Laetitia is a political document because by necessity it addresses (sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly) the question of gender. Francis has taken a hyperbolically hostile approach to “gender theory”, denouncing it as a form of “ideological colonization” that “disfigure[s] the face of man and woman,” and echoes those criticisms in the exhortation (#56). Francis reiterates his belief that the differentiation of male and female is inscribed in the “order of creation” and is at the foundation of the family, but he also affirms that “we must . . . see in the women’s movement the working of the Spirit for a clearer recognition of the dignity and rights of women” (#54). Surely this means recognizing how gender roles and norms have changed over time. But to what extent do the teachings of the exhortation reflect the “order of creation,” and to what extent will it reflect those social structures which shape our understanding of gender?
I recognize that I have given these issues raised by Amoris Laetitia only a superficial consideration, far less than they deserve. But I am providing these reflections as an introduction to why Political Theology Today will be giving extended attention to the exhortation in the weeks ahead, through this symposium. I hope that you return to read and engage with the analyses of our contributors in the weeks ahead.