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Putting the family Church forward

The apostolic exhortation on love in the family by Pope Francis, The Joy of Love (Amoris Laetitia), is a landmark document in the history of modern papal teaching.

It approaches the hot-button issues of marriage and sexuality and, even more so, contains a vision of Church.

The ecclesiology that underpins the encyclical is both collegial and synodal.

As well as quoting The Joy of the Gospel and the document on the Church in the Modern World, Pope Francis makes reference to 10 other documents issued from bishops’ conferences around the world.

But what’s new is the extensive use of the documents from the 2014 and 2015 Synod on Marriage and Family Life. He quotes them 136 times.

While previous popes have quoted synod documents, they did not come from the type of synodal process that Pope Francis opened up during the two gatherings, both of which were characterised by real freedom of debate.

However, the pope’s ecclesiology is not limited to the collegiality of the bishops, but seeks to expand the notion of a synod beyond the formal gathering of bishops. This entails a radical new understanding of the role of the bishop of Rome, as he suggests in the opening lines of the exhortation:

“I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium.

“Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it.”

Second, the ecclesiology of The Joy of Love is historical and existential.

The pope quotes several times from The Joy of the Gospel to show that “time is greater than space.” This is an invitation to take a close look at reality.

In paragraph six he sets out to “examine the actual situation of families, in order to keep firmly grounded in reality” (#3).

In paragraph seven he invites us to see ourselves in the weaknesses of families saying that everyone should feel challenged by accompanying, discerning and integrating weakness.

In paragraphs 35 to 38, he says that the Church cannot try to impose rules by sheer authority (35); it is a Church that is humble and realistic (36); a Church called to form consciences, not to replace them (37); a Church that cannot be defensive, wasting pastoral energy on denouncing a decadent world without being proactive in proposing ways of finding true happiness (38).

This is the ecclesiology of Vatican II, but also an ecclesiology humbled by the 50 years of change in the role of religion in society and the Church’s own tragic mistakes.

The pope talks of abuse, saying, “The sexual abuse of children is all the more scandalous when it occurs in places where they ought to be most safe, particularly in families, schools, communities and Christian institutions.”

The ecclesiology in the encyclical sees the Church and society as being in constant dialogue and communication.

He invites families to be part of a larger society and make a Church that integrates all people. He goes back to his field hospital image and talks of the shepherd of the 100 sheep, not just of the 99.

Pope Francis is blunt in pointing to the temptation to embrace an exclusive ecclesiology.

“There are two ways of thinking which recur throughout the Church’s history: casting off and reinstating. The Church’s way, from the time of the Council of Jerusalem, has always been the way of Jesus, the way of mercy and reinstatement…” (#296).

This is a statement about the need for a change in paradigm in the Church today.

Pope Francis defines the Church as being a family of families.

If there is something lacking, it maybe a direct appreciation of the ministerial dimension of married couples and families in the Church.This does need to be further developed and based on a sacramentality that is deeply connected with an understanding of the human person, is concrete and not idealised.

This pontificate has been a reality check for a Church that, for quite some time, believed in a flawless, philosophical view of itself, as well as of love and sexuality.

A reality check is probably something to which real families are more accustomed than the clergy. And so we see that Pope Francis’ view of the family reveals much about his view of the Church (UCAN).