Readings for 6th Sunday after Easter: Acts 15:1-2, 22-29; Ps. 57: 2-3, 5, 6, 8; Rev. 21: 10-14; 22-23; Jn. 14: 23-29.
Last week, David Swanson, the author of War is a Lie shared an interview with the great Jesuit peace activist, John Dear. The latter had just returned from Rome where he participated in a conference convoked by Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson. Cardinal Turkson authored first versions of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ landmark encyclical on the environment. He is often mentioned as a possible future pope.
Father John (who doesn’t like to be called “Father Dear”) reported the conference as “unprecedented.” That’s because activists, theoreticians, and scholars of Peace Studies ended by recommending (in a document over the signature of Cardinal Turkson) that Pope Francis publish another encyclical – this one repudiating the Church’s centuries-long endorsement of Just War Theory.
That theory, of course, lays out principles for judging whether or not a given armed conflict might be justified.
The Turkson document repudiated the idea that modern warfare might ever be justified. This is not only because of the terrible destruction caused by modern weaponry, but because, in fact, 90% of casualties of today’s wars end up being innocent civilians. For those reasons, the conference in Rome recommended that Pope Francis not only repudiate war itself, but discourage Catholics from participating in modern military forces.
Imagine what would happen if Pope Francis were to accept those recommendations – especially on top of his denunciations of capitalism-as-we-know-it, his firm embrace of environmentalism, and his statements about homosexuality (“Who am I to judge?”). Catholic radicals would love it, liberals would be inspired. Conservatives who often identify faith and the military would be shocked and scandalized.
Where would you come down?
Think about that question in the light of today’s readings. Think about what “radical,” “conservative” and “liberal” mean for us as individuals and community members in our faith tradition. How would Jesus be classified? What about Paul? What would they say about entirely rejecting the idea of just wars?
Today’s Liturgy of the Word gives us a clue. It presents us first of all with an example of a key conflict between religious conservatives and radicals within the first century infant church. Paul, Barnabas, Silas and Barnabas lead the radical-to-liberal wing. Peter and Jesus’ brother, James are the leaders of the conservatives.
Paul and his friends come from the gentile world. Their concern is to make Jesus both understandable and acceptable to non-Jews. For their audience, circumcision and dietary restrictions (like not eating pork) represent great obstacles to accepting Jesus’ “Way.”
On the other hand, Peter and Jesus’ brother, James, are Jews through and through. They remember the importance of full observance of the law within the Jewish tradition. They recalled for instance that during the second century Seleucid persecution of the Jews under Antiochus IV Epiphanes, many Jews gave their lives rather than eat forbidden foods. Faced with Paul and his colleagues, the conservative faction wondered: were those lives sacrificed in vain? And besides, circumcision was the identifying mark of Jewish manhood. What good follower of the biblical God set that all-important commandment aside?
The issue is so serious that it provoked a meeting of church leaders – what scholars call the “Council of Jerusalem.” Like Vatican II (1962-’65) it called together church leadership to discuss burning issues of the day and to make changes that responded effectively to what Gaudium et Spes called the “signs of the times.”
Today’s gospel reading implies that leaders could come together with confidence because of Jesus’ promise that his Holy Spirit would continue teaching the church even after he is gone. The Spirit would remind the church of what Jesus himself taught – and more besides.
According to today’s readings, it was the “more besides” that the Jerusalem conservatives were resisting. They didn’t deny, of course, that Jesus himself was a Jewish prophet. (It was Jesus’ prophetic radicalism that angered the Scribes and high priests.) Jesus frequently placed love and compassion above God’s most important commandment, the Sabbath law; he associated with the “unclean;” he even befriended and worked miracles for gentiles. Jesus was never bound by the letter of the law as were his conservative opponents.
At the same time however, Jesus was Jewish to the end. He had no intention of founding a new religion. He was a Jewish reformer. No one could deny that. Jesus didn’t revoke the Law. He simply gave it an enlightened, more humane interpretation. He himself had been circumcised!
It was with these understandings that the Council of Jerusalem convened. And according to Luke, the author of Acts, it was a battle royal. Luke says the meeting was filled with “dissension and debate.”
What we find in today’s first reading is the final decree of the Council of Jerusalem. Concerning circumcision, it says “never mind.” As for dietary restrictions, they could be ignored. The Council was concerned with not placing unbearable burdens on converts. In other words, it couldn’t have been less conservative. The Holy Spirit was leading them in the opposite direction.
The Council of Jerusalem is reputed to have happened no more than 30 years after the death of Jesus. But by the time John of Patmos writes his book of Revelation at the end of the first century, look where his church had come. His vision of the “New Jerusalem” which we read about in today’s second reading doesn’t even have a temple. Jerusalem without a temple?! The city is founded not on the 12 patriarchs of Israel, but on the 12 apostles. How radical is that!?
I suppose what I’m saying is that Christians shouldn’t be afraid of radical change in matters of faith. It’s our tradition – right from the beginning.
In fact, in today’s gospel, John has Jesus say specifically that we should not be agitated or fearful. Rather, our hearts should be filled with peace because of our reliance on the Holy Spirit. John’s Jesus teaches that the Spirit’s presence guarantees the community is moving in the right direction, even when the Spirit’s teachings shock and scandalize – as long as it’s moving towards Jesus’ compassion, love, and ease of burden. The guarantee remains even when the Spirit’s guidance seems to dilute what many consider essential – like circumcision, dietary laws and the Jerusalem Temple.
What “essentials” is the church being called to set aside today? Priestly celibacy? An all-male priesthood? Prohibition of contraception? Are any of these really essential?
And what about just war? Are John Dear and Cardinal Turkson right about its absolute unacceptability to followers of Jesus? Could Jesus ever endorse atomic bombs, drone strikes, cluster bombs, or any of today’s wars that end up claiming mostly civilian victims?
If we fear to say “No” to any of those questions, we should keep Jesus’ words in mind: “Don’t be afraid or agitated; the Holy Spirit guides.”
The bottom line: today’s readings teach that there is no future in timid conservatism. Instead we are called to Christian radicalism (or going to the root of things). The Holy Spirit is that root.
And so we can pray with confidence: “Holy Spirit, in our world racked by war, inspire Francis to write another encyclical. Let him surprise and shock us one more time. Wake us up as a community of faith! Move us towards compassion, love and ease of burden as you did the Jerusalem Council.
We believe that under your guidance, we can never go wrong!”
Last week I posted a (mostly) tongue-in-cheek comment on Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia. The document represented the pope’s reflections on the synod of bishops that met over the last two years to reformulate the Church’s teachings on marriage, sexuality and the family.
Obviously, all of those elements find themselves mired in profound crisis in the contemporary world. Given that fact, and despite the pope’s efforts to save the day in the face of the intransigence of the world’s episcopacy, the document proved to be highly disappointing.
Notwithstanding what I wrote last week, Amoris Laetitia left me wishing that the Church could bring itself to speak in plain language accessible to us all.
But no: the encyclical was full of platitudes and written in opaque Vaticanese. It demonstrated the out-of-touchness of Church leadership, and its inability and/or unwillingness to help today’s women and men face up to their real problems in the light of a rich faith tradition perfectly capable of providing such assistance.
No wonder so many young people – so many couples – have long since dismissed the Church as irrelevant and counterproductive in terms of making sense of their lives in a globalized world!
[News flash to the Vatican: Outside of your little realm, the major problem facing couples today is not whether divorced people should be allowed to receive Holy Communion! It’s not even whether or not artificial birth control is morally acceptable. (Catholics have long since resolved that “problem;” they use contraceptives in the same percentage as everyone else.)]
Instead, think of the real problems we all face around the fraught matters Amoris Laetitia pretends to address, but which it only dances around, and in the end avoids. These problems were recently outlined by psychologist, Dr. Harriet Fraad, in an interview with economist, Richard Wolff. They include the following:
- The introduction of the internet and easy birth control has changed the nature of dating and sexual relationships.
- Increasingly, couples meet online instead of through family and friends.
- It is no longer socially unacceptable for them to have sex before marriage.
- In fact, hardly anyone waits till marriage.
- This makes marriage less necessary and attractive as a means of achieving access to sex.
- Divorce statistics (as well as witnessing the unhappiness of their parents) similarly discourage marriage. Fifty percent of first marriages end in divorce; 60% of second marriages and 70% of third marriages finish the same way. And after divorce women are usually left holding the bag in terms of child support.
- Families are stressed when economic circumstances make it necessary for both parents to get jobs. That typically means women end up working a double shift – in the workplace and in the home.
- The prospect of overwork eventual divorce leads more and more women to choose to remain single. Many become Sugar Babies to Sugar Daddies – older, well-established men who pay off their Baby’s overwhelming college loans or credit card debt.
- Men, on the other hand, find themselves deprived of their traditional, male-defining role as bread-winners. Anger results – deflected towards guns, the military, sports addictions, evangelical religions (where women are subordinate) and pornography.
- Children suffer the consequences of it all. They are left alone after school, when most of their problems emerge – not the least of which is obesity.
- With all those realities in mind, marriage is increasingly viewed as an unnecessary hassle — a luxury good – accessible and desirable only for the well-to-do.
- So young people end up postponing or rejecting it altogether.
- They opt instead for serial cohabitations without commitment.
- Or they become “Herbivore” men, “Dried Fish” women, or MGTOWS.
It’s not that Pope Francis doesn’t bring up many of these problems. Nor is he incapable of addressing them in ways helpful to struggling families. In fact, his three major publications (including Amoris Laetitia) provide clear principles for doing so.
- His eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’, teaches clearly that all things are connected. The role of religion (which means “binding force”) is to make connections apparent.
- Similarly that encyclical along with his Exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” identifies capitalism-as-we-know-it as the connecting structural cause of contemporary problems. Its demands pits employers against their employees and men against women; it underpays them or deprives them of work; it requires them to work longer hours, drives both parents into double shifts, destroys families in the process, and then claims to represent “family values.”
- And finally, in Amoris Laetitia itself the pope identifies conscience (informed by thoughtful consideration of the Christian tradition) as the most reliable guide humans have at their disposal.
Simply highlighting those principles and calling Catholics to adult dialog about their application to dating, marriage, divorce, contraception, abortion, and child-rearing would have done much more than the largely impenetrable document the Vatican actually produced.
Last week I was reflecting on the importance of Bible courses that were central to the training I received at St. Columban’s Major Seminary in Milton, MA. I was praising my most influential teacher there, Father Eamonn O’Doherty, who introduced us to modern scripture scholarship.
Now I see that what I learned from Eamonn went far beyond the Bible. It was more about process — about thinking for myself even In the face of the strongest authority imaginable — that of God himself. It was about making connections in economic and political terms between the world of the Bible and the world of today.
The kind of historical and analytic thinking to which Eamonn exposed me eventually spilled over into other areas of my life — to personal moral decisions, and to politics. Gradually, I reasoned that if I could question what I had understood to be the authority of God about the Bible, then why not raise questions about the Ten Commandments or what I had been taught concerning the goodness of my country. Perhaps my reading of American History was as erroneous as what I had understood about the Bible.
What I mean is that from my earliest schooling, the Sisters of St. Joseph had taught me that the Bible was the very Word of God. As such it was unquestionable. To even entertain doubts about its truth was sinful.
And though the good sisters taught me how to read, it never crossed their minds (in the 1940s and early ’50s) that the Bible could be read in any other way but literally.
.After all, Pope Pius XII (1939-’58) had then only recently granted permission to Catholic scholars to follow the example of their Protestant counterparts in applying the tools of critical analysis to sacred scripture. This meant approaching the Bible as an historical document — as ancient literature. It meant recognizing the host of literary forms it contained, It meant acknowledging that none of its contents is history in the modern sense of the term, and that it all found analogue in the sacred texts of other religions.
The pope did all of that in his encyclical, Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943).
By the time my formal biblical studies began (1963) Catholic scholars had used the pope’s injunction to catch up. More than that, by ’63, the Second Vatican Council (’62-’65) had already been in session for more than a year. Its reflections and changes all stemmed from re-readings of biblical texts in the light of the scholarship I’m referencing. And the resulting changes were profound touching understandings of church, priesthood, and the relationships of Catholics to the contemporary world.
In the 1960s that world was In turmoil; it was experiencing the birth pangs of a dawning new consciousness. It was the era of the Civil Rights Movement. The missile crisis in Cuba (1962) nearly brought nuclear holocaust. President Kennedy was assassinated (1963) The Gulf of Tonkin (1964) plunged the U.S. more deeply into the Vietnam War.
.My first reaction to those “worldly” events was to dig in my heels. I was critical of war protestors.
I thought Dr. King had overstepped his competence when he criticized the War and U.S. colonialism (1967).I was more sympathetic to the government and police than to those calling for fundamental social change on behalf of African Americans, the colonized, the peace movement, feminists, Native Americans, prisoners, and the LGBTQ communities.
But after initial resistance, I couldn’t deny what I was learning about the Bible. And (as I was saying) that proved to be the thin end of the wedge for changes in other spheres. The evidence driving me to change my mind about the Bible was overwhelming. It had too much explanatory value.
So did the political and economic analysis behind what the biblical scholars I encountered over the years had to say about the connections between the ancient texts they explained and the underdeveloped world in which the majority of humankind lives. They are the ones responsible for awakening me to undeniable political and economic realities. I met them in Rome, and my travels throughout Europe, and in Brazil, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Mexico, Cuba, India, the Holy Land, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.
I’m referring most prominently to Frei Gorgulho, Ana Flora Anderson, Franz Hinkelammert, Helio Gallardo, Elsa Tamez, Pablo Richard, Maria Lopez Vigil and her brother Ignacio, Ched Myers, Norman Gottwald, Resa Aslan, Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Robert Funk, Elaine Pagels, and a host of liberation theologians.
All of them helped shape (and continue to do so) my historical, political and economic understanding of the world. It was a long process. I summarize it in the two dozen points (which I’ll list here over the next two weeks). Readers will note how the points gradually become more political and related to empire, structural violence, resistance, and the struggle for justice. That gradualness reflects my own growth in consciousness over the last 50 years.
My point here (as I struggle to explain the origin of my crazy Ideas to my children) is that it’s all grounded In faith.
[Next week: My Understanding of the Bible (and of the world) in 12 of 24 points]
My recent post, “Face It: Donald Trump Is Right about Abortion” drew many responses. (You can read more than 100 of them here.) One comment characterized my position there as “radically pro-choice.” Someone else called it “pro-abortion.”
However, it was not my intention (especially as a Catholic moral theologian) to write a piece that might be interpreted in those ways.
No, I was simply attempting to show that Republican position that “abortion is murder” can be quickly reduced to the absurd.
It was ironic, I suggested, that someone as clueless as Donald Trump should end up being the agent of moral clarity. He did so by verbalizing what the standard Republican position on abortion implies, Viz. that if abortion is murder, those involved should be charged and punished accordingly.
My point was that the immediate vilification of Trump’s impolitic assertion indicated that the judgment that “abortion is murder” is untenable.
What’s not untenable however is the fact that responses to The Donald’s Trumpian logic show that the abortions debate in the public sphere needs a dose of straight talk. So let’s try that out. In the end, it pits women’s sovereignty over their wombs against men’s control of their wallets.
Begin with the fact that few people (if any) are actually pro-abortion. Invariably, it is a painful and regrettable decision usually taken with the utmost seriousness.
From there admit two other facts. One is that abortion cannot be eliminated, no matter what laws are passed. Trying to eliminate abortion is like trying to eradicate prostitution. Large numbers of people have always and will always seek abortion services. The rich will fly their wives, lovers or daughters to the Netherlands or Belgium or wherever safe abortion procedures are legally available. The poor will go to back-alley practitioners or they’ll take drugs or use coat hangers to do the job themselves.
The second undeniable fact is that we live in a pluralistic society where people of good faith find themselves on both sides of the abortion question. And this is because they differ (most frequently on religious grounds) about the key question of when specifically personal life begins. That is, few would argue that a fetus at any stage does not represent human life and should not therefore be treated with respect. No, the real question is when does fetal life become personal? The question is when does aborting a fetus become murder?
In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas and others held the position that personal life began with “ensoulment,” i.e. when God conferred a soul on the developing fetus. According to Thomas, because of the high numbers of spontaneous abortions in the early pregnancy, ensoulment could not logically happen at the moment of conception. So in his patriarchal way, he conjectured it occurred for males 40 days after conception; for females it happened after 80 days. Before those turning points, there was no question of personal life.
Of course, Aquinas’ logical position is no longer held by the Catholic Church. Its official teaching is that personal life is present from the first moment of conception. This means that in a world where as many as 50% of pregnancies end in miscarriage, half of all “people” are “aborted” spontaneously usually before the mother even knows she is pregnant.
Such facts about miscarriage have led many to conclude that personal life begins well after the moment of conception. They locate it, for instance, at the moment of “quickening” (when the mother first feels her baby move), with viability outside the womb, with actual emergence from the womb, or (as with some Native Americans) with the “painting” of the emergent child to distinguish it from animals.
Given such differences, it seems counterproductive to impose the view of one religion on an entire culture. We might expect such imposition from the Taliban. But it has no place in a democracy characterized by separation of church and state.
Instead in a country like our own some compromise is necessary. And that is what happened in Roe v. Wade. There it was determined that in the first two trimesters, the pregnant woman can make a decision on her own and in consultation with her physician. In the third trimester, the state asserts its interest and can make laws restricting abortion to protect the woman’s health and the potentiality of human life.
However a Roe v. Wade approach can never be sufficient for genuine pro-life advocates. Abortion law must be complemented by social programs. These include pregnancy prevention measures – sex education in our public schools along with easy access to contraceptives.
Nonetheless when unplanned pregnancies occur, programs discouraging abortion needs to kick in. These would provide free counselling and pre- natal care for pregnant mothers along with post-natal services for their newborns. Job provisions would be available for new mothers along with free daycare for their pre-school children. Programs would also include low cost housing and (where necessary) help paying grocery bills.
All such measures are genuinely pro-life. They create a welcoming environment for new life.
But this is where the real debate about abortion’s relation to privacy enters the picture. Simply put the question is: which should be more vigorously protected from state intervention – a woman’s womb or a man’s wallet?
Put otherwise, the debate about life-friendly social programs pits on the one hand mostly well-to-do male legislators (in the U.S. Congress and in the Catholic Church) against poor women who cannot obtain abortions abroad. The patriarchs are quite willing to have their laws invade the privacy of a woman’s womb while defending invasion of their wallets to provide a welcoming atmosphere for all the unborn.
“I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.”
Contributing to that broader conversation is what my controversial blog post was about. So is this one.
Tell me what you think.
I don’t exactly remember what I thought about the Bible before beginning its formal study the year after receiving my B.A. in Philosophy (1961),
Ironically, although I had been in the seminary all those years (since 1954) the formal study of “religion” hadn’t at all been central in. the curriculum.
Yes, we attended Mass every day (and twice on Sundays). And there were all those daily chapel activities and devotions: morning and evening prayer, afternoon rosary, “visits” to the Blessed Sacrament before and after meals, nightly Benediction, conferences by the seminary spiritual director, etc. There were also those inspirational readings I mentioned accompanying breakfast and lunch in the “refectory.”
But formal study pretty much concentrated on languages (Latin, Greek, and French) and normal secular studies associated with high school, on the one hand, and on the other, college courses associated with a Philosophy Major.
So by the time I began the formal four year (and post-grad) theological curriculum (1962) my understanding of such matters, including the Bible was fairly uninformed. I’m sure I thought the Bible was the very word of God valid for all time.
That began to change with exposure to the teachings of Fathers Eamonn O’Doherty and Jack Moriarity, both of whom introduced us to modern scripture scholarship which emphasized the history behind the Hebrew and Christian Testaments. They introduced us to form criticism and redaction criticism as well.
Form criticism made us aware that the Bible is filled with various kinds of literature. Literary forms found there include myth, legend, debate, fiction, poetry, miracle stories, birth accounts, letters, apocalypse, annals of kings, law, riddles, jokes, parables, allegories, etc. None of that, really, is history as we understand it. And if we read poetry, for instance, as if it were history we’ll commit huge interpretational errors.
Just realizing that can change one’s entire approach to the Bible. It did mine.
I remember sitting each day for classes in “Old” and “New” Testament in our aula maxima on the second floor or our Major Seminary on 1200 Brush Hill Road in Milton, MA. The entire student body – those about to be ordained, and the three classes behind them – took those classes together. There were probably sixty of us. So I found myself edified (and intimidated) by the good students among my elders whose questions and observations always seemed so sage, perceptive, and sometimes daring.
For a long time, I pretty much kept quiet. But the wheels were whirring at top speed inside my head. For a biblical literalist like me, it was all hard to swallow
For instance, I recall the day during our study of the Gospel of Luke that the penny dropped for me that the Three Wise Men never existed. It was all a “midrash,” we were told, on the part of the gospel’s author (whose real identity remains unknown). Midrashim, it turns out, are usually fictional stories meant to elucidate particular biblical texts or beliefs.
“Say what?” I thought. “The next thing you’ll be telling me is that the resurrection never happened.”
Well, that day never came – from the actual teachings of my Scripture Profs. But it sure did for me. So I remember one day screwing up the courage to ask Father Eamonn about it in class. I asked, “Is it possible, Father, that gospel stories about what’s called the ‘resurrection’ of Jesus were also simply creations of the early Christian community to reflect their gradually dawning consciousness that Jesus’ words were true: ‘Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me’ and ‘Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in their midst?’ In other words, might the resurrection, like the tale of the Three Wise Men also be a midrash?”
I awaited Father O’Doherty’s answer with bated breath. Perhaps my question wasn’t clear enough, I feared.
Well, the question was clear enough. Father O’Doherty paused a few moments. Then he responded: “No,” he said. And that was the end of it! He moved on.
Now that might give you the impression that Father Eamonn wasn’t a good teacher. Quite the contrary. I’m confident in saying that nearly all of my peers recall him as their most influential Prof during our four years of theological training. I agree with them. Eamonn imparted to us not only essential facts about the Bible, but an entire approach that stuck with us all.
In my case, his classes provided me better than any other a firm basis for what I would learn in Rome during my doctoral studies there (1967-’72). – and for what I internalized subsequently as I continued my studies with liberation theologians in Brazil, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and elsewhere in the developing world. Of course, I’ll have more to say about that later.
But for now, I must tell you about Father O’Doherty’s teaching method. Again, it proved extremely effective. However, it’s not the sort of thing you’ll find in the best treatises on pedagogy.
The other day, I was looking at the basic primary source text we used in his New Testament classes. It’s Augustinus Merk’s Novum Testamentum Graece Et Latine (pictured above). It’s the entire New Testament in its original language, Greek on one side of the page and Latin on the other. Originally published in 1948, its footnotes are filled with scholarly critical apparati. – mostly pointing up and evaluating variant readings of the Greek texts. I[n itself, that’s interesting. We were actually dealing with texts very close to the originals (none of which, it turns out, have survived. Instead all we have are copies of copies of bad copies. But that’s another story.)]
Besides the text itself, what was even more interesting to me were my notes in the margins of each page. Each was jam-packed with cursive scribblings in my smallest possible handwriting – so small, in fact, that I needed a magnifying glass to review some of them last week.
And that was evidence of Father O’Doherty’s teaching method. It involved (1) his lecturing to us each day reading mostly from his notes, (2) our transcribing notes as fast as we could, pausing occasionally for someone to ask questions, (3) Our transferring those notes into the margins of the relevant texts during out study periods, and (4) Recopying those detailed marginal notes onto exam papers in response to our teacher’s exam questions.
To me, in retrospect, that sounds pretty much like what the great Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, excoriated as “Banking Education” – where teachers make deposits into the “accounts” of students who subsequently make withdrawals at exam time to purchase good grades.
But here’s the funny part: it worked! Father Eamonn wasn’t a particularly dynamic teacher. But what he taught us was so interesting and well-organized that we learned important lessons from a process that seems like pure regurgitation. Put that in your pedagogical pipe and smoke it!
Ask any of my peers. All of us love Eamonn. And we remain grateful to him to this day.
(Next Week: a full account of what I learned about the Bible over the years – in two dozen points)
It was like a cliff-hanger novel that had me on the edge of my seat. I’m talking about Pope Francis’ latest publication – his Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia: On Love in the Family (AL). In it the pope purposed to gather the contributions of bishops at their extended Episcopal Synod which met over the last two years. The meetings were tasked with responding to the contemporary crises of the family and human sexuality including contraception, abortion, divorce, and same-sex marriages (AL 4).
The Exhortation read as if it were the plot of a Wild West thriller:
A backward town has been taken over by a gang of crooks, frauds and perverts. They’re well-entrenched. And the Black Hats have all the locals cowering behind locked doors. Unexpectedly however, a new sheriff shows up with his shiny star and white hat. The gangsters try to bribe him to join up with them. Sheriff Frank is clearly tempted throughout most of the book. But then in the final chapter, without warning he shows his true and familiar colors. In concluding scenes reminiscent of “OK Corral,” the sheriff utterly defeats the Black Hats calling on a secret weapon no one foresaw.
That’s roughly the tale of Pope Francis, his Vatican adversaries, the Episcopal Synod, and Amoris Laetitia.
Beforehand, observers knew that many of the Synod’s participants comprised a dark gang – patriarchal traditionalists stubbornly opposed to any changes in church doctrine. They would surely uphold moralist positions which Nancy Reagan expressed so well: “Just say No!” Reaffirm tradition and law, and expect the faithful meekly to obey.
At the same time, everyone was also aware that Pope Francis’ leanings were in the opposite direction. As new sheriff in town he had won the hearts of the world from the moment he uttered his first papal words identifying him with St. Francis of Assisi — the 13th century friar whose humble simplicity has rendered him the most beloved saint in all of Christian history.
The early chapters of Amoris Laetitia are like listening to the backroom argument between Sheriff Frank and those tempting him to cross over to their dark side. It’s a back-and-forth that has readers wondering which side the pope is really on.
The Black Hat Gang insists on doing things “the way they’ve always been done around here, Sheriff.” This means:
- No change in the church’s position on contraception (AL 68, 80, 82, 222).
- Same with abortion (42, 83).
- Ditto for extra-marital sex (125)
- And trans gender identifications (56)
- “Marriage” between same sex partners has absolutely nothing to do with marriage as intended by God (52, 251,292).
- The divorced and remarried are objectively living in conditions of sin (292).
- Euthanasia and assisted suicide are strictly forbidden (48, 83).
Sheriff Frank seems confused at first. He retorts:
- Remember, we’re all just wounded human beings prone to mistakes and recovering within the Church’s field hospital (291).
- Poverty, immaturity and lack of education force people into apparently “sinful” choices only they can understand (201, 294, 295, 302).
- Women in particular have a tough time in this “man’s world” (54, 156). Men need to listen to them (203).
- And if we’re truly reject abortion and euthanasia, we must also firmly reject the death penalty (83).
- Moreover, objectively speaking, second marriages following divorce are often more loving and healthier than first. The divorced and remarried are not living in sin (301).
- As for same sex attractions and sexual transformations, remember we’re all male and female to some extent; it’s not simply a matter of biology (56, 286).
- And none of us needs to answer everyone’s problem (2, 38). That’s what consciences are for (37).
- Above all, remember square everything with the example of Jesus, his universal love and his prohibition about judging others (58, 79, and 250,296,308).
There’s much more to the argument. But you get the flavor.
What’s important is where the new sheriff comes down – how he defeats the Black Hat Gang in Amoris Laetitia’s happy ending. In short, he fires his “silver bullet” – MERCY. He makes an argument that can only be called a species of “Situation Ethics.” In the end, he says, mercy dictates that:
- Although the Black Hat Gang is correct that the objective demands of God’s law must be recognized as applying to everyone without exception (295),
- Human beings only gradually integrate the law’s requirements over the course of their entire lives (295).
- This means that circumstances such as immaturity, pace of moral development, lack of knowledge, appreciation of the law, along with a whole host of mitigating circumstances (302) often excuse subjects from the law’s requirements, at least temporarily (295).
- In the end, conscience, love, and mercy [recognition of life’s “wonderful complications” (308)] are the most reliable guides we humans have (295).
That’s the pope’s final word on the contemporary crises of the family and human sexuality including contraception, abortion, divorce, and same-sex marriages.
That, after all, is about as much as Sheriff Frank or anyone can do for Catholics. The rest, as he says, is up to us – and the sovereignty of our consciences.