Consensus Exhortation

(CNS photo/Paul Haring)

(CNS photo/Paul Haring)

One of the many aspects of the apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, that I find particularly noteworthy is that it expresses the Holy Father’s engagement with the bishops who attended both the 2014 and the 2015 Synods on marriage and all of the material that was a part of those two gatherings that spoke about marriage, the challenges to marriage and of course the beauty and blessings of marriage.

Following the mind and words of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Francis has placed great emphasis on his unity with the bishops as they carry out their teaching and governance role in the Church. The Council reminds us that bishops, always with and never without Peter, share a responsibility for the life of the Church. Pope Francis has called upon all of us, but especially bishops, to recognize that it is not just one voice that guides the whole Church but the action of the Holy Spirit working in the hearts and minds of the faithful but particularly in the work, ministry and charism of the bishops.

The Holy Father has highlighted, once again, the role of bishops in collaboration with him in the overall responsibilities for leadership, teaching and pastoral ministry of the Church. You may recall that in February of 2014, the Holy Father, at a consistory of the cardinals, asked us to begin to reflect on the challenges to marriage today. He then called for a Synod in 2014 that addressed the difficulties that marriage faces and reminded us of the heavily secular culture we live in, of the materialism that is a part of the mentality of many people, the individualism that dominates our culture, particularly in the Western world and in the United States, and the relativism that is at the heart of so much of the moral judgment that is made today. Here the Pope noted that it is precisely in this context that our people live and that our teaching must help them move beyond.

In the 2015 Synod, the focus was on the substance of the Church’s teaching on marriage and family and its relevance today. The Synod affirmed that there is a difference between the teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, a doctrine of the Church, and the pastoral judgment concerning relationship to the Sacraments. The two realities are greatly related but they are not the same thing. I pointed out in earlier writings, blogs, interviews and in other communications that we must be careful not to mix together as if there were no distinctions among: God’s revelation to us in Jesus Christ; the Church’s articulated doctrine; Church law which attempts to apply the teaching, and the evaluation of the specific concrete situation of each believer. The context of both Church law and the pastoral assessment is the loving, pastoral assistance of the pastors of the Church.

What this post-synodal apostolic exhortation is highlighting is both what the Synod in 2014 said about the challenges to married people and the cultures in which they live, and then what the second Synod in 2015 also said about the beauty and the blessing of marriage and our need to foster and share that wonderful teaching.

What I find so instructive in this apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, is how our Holy Father has relied on a number of theological sources including: Saint Thomas Aquinas, the Common Doctor of the Church; the Magisterium of the Church, and in particular the teaching of Saint John Paul II. Then in the efforts to hear how that teaching is lived and applied today, Pope Francis relies greatly on the consensus that came out of the two Synods and found in the relatio synodi of 2014 and the relatio finalis of 2015.

What this says is that the Pope together with bishops from around the world have for two years discussed, prayed, listened, reflected and discussed again and again how to present the Church’s teaching on marriage in a way that it is inviting and compelling and at the same time engage people who live in a marriage that does not reflect perfectly and entirely in the Church’s teaching.

Pope Francis gives an example for all of us that if we are involved in the work, ministry and particularly in the pastoral life of the Church, we have to be aware of the teaching, of the need to internalize that teaching and at the same time of the individual circumstances in which that teaching is lived.

At the end of all of the discussions and all of the reflections carried out over two full years, there emerges now this apostolic exhortation that I would call a “consensus exhortation.”

It is important to note, notwithstanding some of the news articles and blogs, that every paragraph of the final relatio of the Synod was approved by a two-thirds majority of the bishops and that nearly every paragraph received close to 95% support. What this apostolic exhortation is confirming for us is the validity and the value of the Second Vatican Council’s call for collegial reflection, that is the bishops coming together and working together, always with and never without Peter.

This apostolic exhortation highlights in an extraordinary manner the importance of the consensus that the bishops arrived at and that he as Peter, head of the Church, and in communion with his brothers, now affirms and confirms.