Friday, April 15, 2016, by Vanni Xuereb

I was tempted to write about Pope Francis’s post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Lætitia, published a week ago today. The synod in its present form was set up by Pope Paul VI as a direct consequence of the Second Vatican Council.

It is an advisory body more than an exercise in greater collegiality between the bishop of Rome and the bishops in the various local Churches belonging to the Catholic communion. Initially, the synod issued its own post-synodal document but since 1974, Paul VI took matters into his own hands and started to issue a post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation.

Amoris Lætitia, Latin for ‘The Joy of Love’, is a lengthy document that follows an extraordinary synod on the family held in 2014 and the ordinary assembly on ‘The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and the Contemporary World’ held in 2015.

Media coverage of the two events referred to two main trends among bishops: those wishing to reaffirm traditional Church teaching on the family and those who expressed their views in favour of a more open attitude towards persons in situations that are not fully in conformity with such teaching.

The papal exhortation seeks to do both by reaffirming Church teaching yet recognising that “unity of teaching and practice”, though “certainly necessary in the Church … does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it”.

In what I consider to be a very significant statement by Pope Francis, he clearly reaffirms his belief that the Catholic Church needs to become more decentralised. Referring to the importance of respecting diverse cultures, the Pope says that “each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs”. He had already done so in practical terms when, last year, he simplified the processes leading to declarations of nullity by devolving greater authority to local bishops in an effort to ensure “an easier access to justice”.

I am not seeking to express any profound theological reflections on Amoris Lætitia, yet there are some passages which struck me.

Referring to the process of the synod and to the need for a broader vision on marriage and the family, as well as the complexity of the issues involved, the Pope highlights “the need for continued open discussion of a number of doctrinal, moral, spiritual, and pastoral questions”.

Hence, even Amoris Lætitia is not the final word. This is a positive development that could also allow the Church the possibility to dialogue with contemporary society. Approaching issues related to the family from a merely doctrinal or moral point of view that is the result of positive as well as not so positive developments over two millennia has led to a situation where many individuals feel pushed to the sidelines and excluded from the Christian community.

Over the past three years, Pope Francis has shown that he is ready to dialogue with all and, as a result, has also been the object of criticism particularly by traditionalists in his own Church whom Archbishop Emeritus Paul Cremona, when addressing the 2008 synod, had described as living in nostalgia.

I am pretty sure that such individuals do not look favourably upon the practice initiated by the present Pope to celebrate the Maundy Thursday commemoration of the Last Supper not in St Peter’s Basilica or in that of St John Lateran like his predecessors, but in a refugee centre.

Moreover, he has, after having openly contravened the rule whereby only men were allowed to have their feet washed during the celebration, now formally changed this norm. Furthermore, not only has he included women but also non-Christians among the group of individuals whose feet he washed in memory of Christ’s washing of his apostles’ feet during the Last Supper, thereby interpreting the expression ‘people of God’ to include non-Christians.

We are all, together -Muslims, Hindus, Catholics, Copts, Evangelicals – “brothers and children of the same God”, he said on this occasion.

Another significant passage of Amoris Lætitia is when the Pope calls for a healthy dose of self-criticism then adding: “At times we have also proposed a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families.” As a result, rather than making marriage appear more desirable and attractive, the opposite result has been achieved, he observes.

He also refers to the Church as being on the defensive, wasting energy “on denouncing a decadent world without being proactive in proposing ways of finding true happiness”. This has led, he adds, to many people feeling that what the Church teaches on marriage and the family does not clearly reflect the preaching and attitudes of Jesus Christ.

When referring to de facto or same sex unions, Francis acknowledges that they can offer certain stability yet can never be equated to marriage because “no union that is temporary or closed to the transmission of life can ensure the future of society”.

One must recall that for the Church, the sacrament of marriage has two fundamental aspects: the unitive and the procreative. In another passage of the exhortation, the Pope refers to married couples who cannot have children and quotes the Catechism of the Church which refers to “spouses to whom God has not granted children”.

I have always found this difficult to reconcile with my image of a loving God – how could God choose that some couples are to have children and others not? And is a childless couple less of a family than acouple who bear offspring?

In another passage, Pope Francis states that “there is no stereotype of the ideal family, but rather a challenging mosaic made up of many different realities, with all their joys, hopes and problems”. Amen to that.

My final point for today on Amoris Lætitia is a passage which contradicts what we have been so used to hearing over the past decades – which many of today’s problems facing the family are the result of the emancipation of women and, for example, married women and mothers having a job.

The Pope describes such an attitude as false, untrue and a form of male chauvinism. He adds that “we must nonetheless see in the women’s movement the working of the Spirit for a clearer recognition of the dignity and rights of women.”

Moreover, he mentions the need to eliminate unacceptable customs whereby women are treated as inferior to men such as verbal, physical, and sexual violence that women endure in some marriages and also their lack of equal access to dignified work and roles of decision-making.

As I stated earlier, I hope that although Amoris Lætitia represents the conclusion of the synodal proceedings, it will initiate a more open discussion which is not restricted within the confines of the Vatican but encompasses the entire ‘people of God’ in a spirit of true dialogue and respect for diversity.