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The Illuminative Ecclesiology of Amoris Laetitia (Stan Chu Ilo)

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This is the fourth post in Political Theology Today’s symposium on Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, on marriage and the family. The first three posts can be found here, here, and here. Future posts will be published on Wednesdays and Fridays in the upcoming weeks.

Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (AL) has proven controversial because of its treatment of issues such as communion for the divorced and remarried and same-sex marriage, but this has led to a superficial reading of the document. Reading AL requires sober reflection, because the document is more nuanced than meets the eye. I want to propose that AL highlights the theological aesthetics which is operative in Pope Francis’ other writings, which I would like to call “illuminative ecclesiology.” In its understanding of the life of the church, Francis’s illuminative ecclesiology puts a high accent on experience and beauty even in brokenness; moral clarity is no longer simply conceptual but performative and aesthetic.

In his book The Name of God is Mercy, Pope Francis makes a distinction between the “logic of the scholars of the law and the logic of God.” The logic of scholars proceeds from pre-conceived and rigid notions of truth, purity, etc., whereas the logic of God proceeds from mercy and love and transfigures evil into good by entering into contact with sin (66). In his earlier apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Francis calls on the church to adopt the logic of God, what he calls the “way of beauty” (#167), even in the contradictions and complexities of life. He invites the church to live in the truth by touching “the human heart and enabling the truth and goodness of the Risen Christ to radiate within it” (#167).

Pope Francis’s illuminative ecclesiology is grounded in the concreteness of God’s loving presence in every human and cosmic reality. Sin, pain, suffering, and brokenness are all invitations from God to see the presence of God even in the darkest shadows or deepest valleys of history. It is then an invitation to daily practices of hope, mercy, love, fidelity, and stewardship of oneself and others in the concrete realization in history of God’s will of abundant life for humans and the entire cosmos. It is the image of a church—in all her members and in the world—led by the Holy Spirit to be the “seeing eyes” discerning the presence of God in history.

We can see Francis’s illuminative ecclesiology in the synodal process that preceded AL. As Walter Kasper has noted, the synod demonstrated “a process-oriented, dialogical style, in which the entire people of God” were involved and in which the church became a listening church, attentive to the many voices which make up the symphony of love and grace in the church and in the world. As Annie Selak mentions in her contribution to this symposium, this dialogical process reflects the belief that God is present in the lives of ordinary people. The church teaches not from on high, but through her presence in the chaos of people’s lives; the church demonstrates the love of God not simply by proclamation but by showing the love of God in the daily lives of people.

The illuminative ecclesiology I have outlined is central to the way AL discusses family life. In the introductory part of the document, Pope Francis writes that the synod was “both impressive and illuminating” (#4). In chapter one, Francis teaches that in addressing the Christian family, the church must see things through the eyes of Christ because the light of Christ enlightens every person, even those in difficult situations or irregular marriages (##60, 70, 78). In chapters three and four, we see constant reference to illumination and the opening of the eyes, such as when he writes, “The aesthetic experience of love is expressed in that gaze which contemplates other persons as ends in themselves, even if they are infirm, elderly or physically unattractive” (#128). Indeed, love opens our eyes so that we can see the great worth of the other. The words of consent which couples give to each other “illumine all the meaning of the signs” of the sacrament (#214). Couples should allow their eyes to be illumined to see God’s gift in the embryo from the moment of conception (#168). The language of sex-education should be presented in such a way that it is an illumination for living in a mature way and embracing the joy of love (#280). The church and all Christians and family members must embrace the light of faith (#253) in order to see the goodness in everyone, especially those who are suffering and those who are weak and experiencing distress of different kinds (##296, 308).

As some of these passages suggest, Francis’s illuminative ecclesiology affects the way he addresses controversial ethical issues related to marriage and the family. Gone are the divisive categories of the “culture of death” and the “culture of life” introduced by Pope John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae (##33-65). In AL there is a broader and integrated understanding of human life not built on an anthropocentric priority but on a Trinitarian relationship of participation. Abortion (##170), birth and population control, polygamy, pornography, sexual exploitation, child abuse, etc. (##39-44, 53-57, 80-82, 135-41, 291-94), are rejected, but within the larger context of understanding that pastoral discernment and pastoral judgement and action must be connected to people’s lives (##200-1). AL hearkens back to Humanae Vitae on the use of natural methods of regulating births, and it appeals to the natural law as grounding for the church’s teaching on the nature and character of family and the goods of the family, gender differences, and the roles of mothers and fathers. In AL, however, natural law is seen as “a source of objective inspiration for the deeply personal process of making decisions” rather than “a set of rules” which impose themselves on the moral subject or on the church. Same-sex unions (##250-51, 311-12) and the annulment process (##239-47, 291) are still reinforced with teachings from the Catechism of the Catholic Church and previous popes, but there are no harsh, judgemental condemnations of people with same-sex orientations or divorced and remarried Catholics, nor is there an explicit insistence on excluding them from communion (#301).

Looking at the document as a whole, Pope Francis applies his illuminative ecclesiology to the life of the family through what he calls the “logic of integration” (#299) and the “logic of mercy” (##307-12). The logic of integration is the principle that people should be enabled to exercise full membership in the church through participation in the life of the world and the life of the church. It is about being properly and intimately connected to God, church, and society no matter one’s situation or condition. Integration is aimed at accompanying the family and every person is such a way that “they realize that they belong to the church as the body of Christ, but also to know that they have a joyful and fruitful experience of it” (#299). Francis insists that the logic of integration can be lived out through four movements:

(a) journeying with people in their concrete personal situation, having the smell of the sheep;

(b) pastoral discernment of each situation by being immersed in the situation with the person or family or couple (##79, 137-39, 234, 273, 297-98, 299);

(c) dialogue with individuals (#300), to explore the mitigating factors in that situation, strengthen the process of repentance and transformation of the situation;

(d) affirming that all family members and people of God have a vocation to participate in the life of the church and in the life of the community.

Integration is about how “various forms of exclusion currently practiced in the liturgical, pastoral, educational and institutional framework, can be surmounted” (#299). To achieve this will require prayer, humility, respect for the church’s “way of beauty”, and attention to gradualism both in discerning and embracing this way of beauty, respecting the dignity and autonomy of individual conscience, and crafting through discernment the most effective means to reach the heart of people and lead them to God, love, service and to joy (##37, 303).

The logic of mercy, on the other hand, is not an attempt to depart from the ideal of marriage (#307) or of fidelity to the Gospel, but how the church and her ministers and indeed the entire Christian community should become facilitators of mercy and goodness rather than arbiters of grace (#308). Francis makes an important point which might even sound contradictory: “Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness” (#308). The logic of mercy is a gift from God; it proceeds from the power of tenderness (##92, 127, 291, 305, 308) and it proceeds according to three movements similar to those of the logic of integration:

(a) understand the situation and context of people, forgive freely (do not put in doubt the omnipotence of God and especially his mercy, #311);

(b) accompany people in their journey to God in their different situations through mercy;

(c)  bring hope and joy where there was once sadness, alienation, and death (#312).

Although it is easy to become focused on this or that passage of Amoris Laetitia that seems controversial, a deeper, more reflective reading of the document shows that the real revolution is in its illuminative ecclesiology, its insistence that the way of the church is a way of beauty illumined by the light of Christ. The light of Christ can be found in the concrete reality of each person’s life, no matter how broken or pained, and so the church’s vocation is to be present to that light and fan it into flame.

Stan Chu Ilo is a Catholic priest and research professor at the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology at DePaul University in Chicago.

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