This is the second post in Political Theology Today’s symposium on Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, on marriage and the family. The first post can be found here. Future posts will be published on Wednesdays and Fridays in the upcoming weeks.
Pope Francis’s inclusion of down-to-earth, everyday experiences of the family in Amoris Laetitia is immediately striking. The apostolic exhortation includes issues of everyday life, such as being tired when returning home from work, addiction to watching television, and the lack of common meals (#50); empty nest syndrome (#235); and “those personal crises that affect the life of couples, often involving finances, problems in the workplace, emotional, social and spiritual difficulties” (#236). The inclusion of the daily reality of families is an encouraging shift in tone, for it reflects a desire to respond to the lived experience of a family rather than to speak only about lofty ideals of family life that can feel far removed from that experience.
Despite this positive shift, a distance remains between the examples in the text and their sources. In a document that rightfully addresses the dangers of patriarchy, the phrase “synod fathers”— used 24 times in total— jumps off the page in a startling fashion. The synod fathers all presumably have families and experience aspects of family life in their ministry, although in a unique fashion given their role in the church. There are many statements and examples in Amoris Laetitia that are not incorrect, but rather miss the mark in fully capturing the realities faced by families. For example, consider this statement discussing the relationship between celibacy, singleness, and married life:
Celibacy can risk becoming a comfortable single life that provides the freedom to be independent, to move from one residence, work or option to another, to spend money as one sees fit and to spend time with others as one wants. In such cases, the witness of married people becomes especially eloquent. Those called to virginity can encounter in some marriages a clear sign of God’s generous and steadfast fidelity to his covenant, and this can move them to a more concrete and generous availability to others. Many married couples remain faithful when one of them has become physically unattractive, or fails to satisfy the other’s needs, despite the voices in our society that might encourage them to be unfaithful or to leave the other (#162).
While this passage captures something true, it fails to recognize that many families “move from one residence, work or option to another,” often for economic reasons, or that often family members remain separated from one another for extended periods of time. The distinction between married life and single life cannot simply be equated with a distinction between stability and transience, for either can be stable or transient. Looking at the latter part of this paragraph, the comment about attractiveness seems out of place. While nothing in this statement is wrong per se, it does not ring true or at least lacks context.
The point of this example is not to tear apart every small detail of the document. Rather, it is an example of a situation where voices from people who experience the lifestyles under discussion would enrich the document, and thus add to the robust teaching of the church. What might it look like for church documents to include voices of people throughout the world, most especially those marginalized whose voices are too often excluded? This section is an example of an area that would be greatly enhanced by the inclusion of a voice other than the synod fathers. As Kevin Ahern has noted, Amoris Laetitia is noteworthy for using a variety of sources. Imagine if an even wider array of voices were used.
There is a need to ground the issues covered by the exhortation in the reality of the lives of the faithful. I propose that including narratives in apostolic exhortations, and perhaps other official documents as well, is one way of rooting theology in lived experience and representing a diverse range of voices.
What M. Cathleen Kaveny has recently written about narrative and common law could easily be applied to the doctrinal teaching of the church, as well:
The idea that each human being is an unrepeatable and irreplaceable icon of God, made in the divine image and likeness, and called to friendship with God, helps to explain why it is so important to link legal judgments permanently with the names and persons they first affected. Conversely, the common law practice of linking case holdings to the names and stories of the parties can assist Christian ethicists in thinking about what it might actually look like to place particular persons at the center of systematic normative analysis. For example, the process of naming the parties in common law cases can encourage—although not ensure—that we do not develop the normative frameworks governing our communities in a manner that is entirely abstracted from the persons whose lives those norms regulate and restrict.
Narrative highlights the role of human dignity and calls attention to God’s ongoing revelation. The use of narrative implicitly acknowledges these theological themes, displaying the relevance of this method for use in a church document such as an apostolic exhortation. As a result, the inclusion of narrative and diverse voices would further enhance the apostolic exhortation.
As the culminating document of the two synods on the family, it is helpful to examine the inclusion of voices in the apostolic exhortation in light of this process. The first place to look in analyzing the inclusion of voices is the synodal structure itself. The 2014 and 2015 synods were marked by an inclusion of many voices beyond the participating bishops. At the 2014 synod, there were thirty-eight auditors and sixteen experts present, of whom twenty-four persons total were married. While the inclusion of married couples in a synod on the family is to be commended, the implementation was not without problems. Though the married couples spanned nationalities, as Massimo Faggioli points out, they each were affiliated with a movement, such as the Natural Family Planning Advisory Board of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Focolare movement in Africa, and the organization “Couples for Christ” in the Philippines. While it is impossible to have fully representative auditors address the synod, it is striking that the married couples appear to be unrepresentative of mainstream Catholics given their affiliation with these movements. For example, the experience of the couple affiliated with the Natural Family Planning Advisory Board is not representative of the 77% of US Catholics who support the use of birth control and 98% of US Catholic women who use a method of birth control other than Natural Family Planning. Affiliation with specific movements took precedence over mainstream experience, resulting in the bishops hearing a limited, unrepresentative experience from the overwhelming majority of the Catholic faithful.
We can also look to the surveys that were sent prior to the synod. Might those be considered the inclusion of people’s voices? While the surveys were a step in the right direction, they were far from perfect. The synod secretariat sent a thirty-nine-question document to the bishops and asked for it to be distributed widely and immediately in preparation for the synod. There was much confusion surrounding the distribution of the questionnaire, for it was handled differently in many countries, and even handled differently within dioceses of the same country. The bishops were specifically asked by the synod secretariat to engage with the members of the church on the topic of the family, thereby broadening the conversation and grounding it in the lived experience of the faithful. “Engagement,” however, became equated with “distributing a questionnaire.” Polling, rather than dialogue and conversation, is indicative of a view of the faithful that sees them more as survey subjects and less as conversation partners. While the questionnaires were an important step, the overall engagement remains flawed. Furthermore, the survey process remains several steps removed from a robust inclusion of voices in the final document itself.
The potential use of narrative in church teaching would not be an example of universalizing a particular instance, but rather a method that emphasizes the continued revelation of God in the lives of the people. This affirms the basic theological message undergirding the entire process of Amoris Laetitia: God is with us and continues to reveal Godself to us. As James Martin has summarized, “The key, then, to Amoris Laetitia is the belief that God is at work in people’s lives.” Martin rightly sees this belief reflected in the document’s sustained reference to conscience, and it is only fitting that the theological insight of ongoing revelation should be captured in the sources for the document, as well.
The inclusion of narrative may not be the perfect solution to including a diverse array of voices in the church. However, it does provide an interesting thought experiment for imagining how documents such as an apostolic exhortation might function in the life of the church. A greater incorporation of voices through narrative can serve to enhance our experience of God’s continued revelation and build connections in the global church.
Annie Selak is a Ph.D. student in Systematic Theology at Boston College, focusing on ecclesiology. She studies power and authority in the Roman Catholic Church, examining leadership structures and dialogue. Prior to studying at Boston College, Annie served as a Lay Ecclesial Minister in the Catholic Church, working with young women at Catholic high schools and universities.
 M. Cathleen Kaveny, “Law and Christian Ethics: Signposts for a Fruitful Conversation,” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 35 (Fall/Winter 2015): 11.