Well, Amoris Laetitia is out and krazies are spattered with the fecal matter they have thrown into the fan. Everyone is reacting to it—progressives and conservatives. After Mass yesterday it was the only subject of conversation during the coffee hour. The pastor and the parochial vicar have some very different thoughts on it, though I would label neither of them “conservative.” One little old lady couldn’t stop crying as she told us how she had gone forty years without Holy Communion—“every Sunday having my heart pulled out of my chest and crushed,” because she had left an abusive husband and civilly married a man—who could provide for her five girls. She loved her second husband and she found graces every day in their relationship; she had grown deep in prayer and grace throughout the years, but her hunger for the Eucharist had to go unsatisfied. Finally able to have her marriage in the Church blessed (the abusive husband has died), she is at Mass every morning and says she never takes the sacraments for granted. Another woman told us “I am in an invalid marriage and I can go to Holy Communion every day. O, we were married by a priest—at Mass even—but we have always planned, because of a gene that runs in my family for dwarfism—not to have children. That renders my marriage invalid. But I know that before God Bob and I stand in his grace. And nothing keeps me away from the Christ in the Eucharist.”
I want to look at Amoris Laetitia not as a pastoral document about the remarried but from a different perspective, a sign of greater things to come in the Church. For almost five centuries Catholic theology, like its Liturgy, had been frozen and not allowed to develop. This was due primarily as a reaction to the Protestant Reformations and the challenges to our traditional faith. Through those Middle Ages where the Church was so strong, the universities were the center of theological debate. A particular subject of debate was whether the Blessed Virgin had been conceived with or without Original Sin. The Dominicans, ironically, opposed the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, the Franciscans and Carmelites supported it. But all matter of theological topics were up for argument and it was from the give-and-take, in the arguments pro and con, that the magisterium was able to formulate doctrines. The Reformation put an end to all that. Martin Luther posted his list of 95 theses he wanted to debate at the University Church of Wittenberg and suddenly the Church said: no more debate. We will define our doctrines sitting here in our Roman ivory towers. Students for priesthood were pulled from the universities and locked into closed seminaries where ideas could be controlled. Catechisms for the laity and manuals for the seminarians appeared: here are the questions: here are the answers. Memorize the answers. It was a time of doctrinal retrenchment. And it only got worse. In the nineteenth century as Protestant scholars begin looking at the scriptures from historical, linguistic, and structural perspectives and new insights began to emerge: there are four sources for the Book of Genesis not a single author; Paul did not write Hebrews (among other books attributed to him); there are inconsistencies in the Resurrection narrative, etc. And then scholars—both Catholic and Protestant—got into the Church Fathers and found some wide discrepancies both among the Fathers and between the Fathers and contemporary Catholicism. Rome totally freaked and the papacies of Leo XIII and Pius X built a strong firewall against “modernism.” The walls did not last. In the years after WWI, Catholic scholars surreptitiously began working again in the forbidden fields. Some were caught and silenced—Congar, Chenu, deLubac—but the tide was overwhelming. In 1943 Pius XII sanctioned biblical studies with the encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu. The work of the historians and patristic scholars came out into the light again as well. Little by little the Catholic intellectual world began to open up again.
The one area that has remained shut—indeed padlocked—is the sexual moral theology. When it comes to morality of economics, politics, immigration, human rights—no problem. The Church has made huge strides. But don’t dare say a word about human sexuality. Any number have tried—including Charles Curran—and the axe always falls. Hopefully Amoris Laetitia is the unchaining of a much-needed theological investigation into contemporary issues for which the old sixteenth-century answers no longer seem to work.
No intellectual discipline stands in a vacuum and especially today there is an appreciation for the interdisciplinary nature of sound scholarship. Theology always stood on the shoulders of Philosophy. Today—if it is to have credibility—the Church also needs both to dialogue with and to draw on the sciences: the behavioral sciences, the social sciences, and the physical sciences. This does not mean “surrendering” to the surrounding culture—far from it. In the spinning whirl of contemporary culture the Church needs to keep its compass pointed to the Truth but it does not do this by burying its head in the sands of the answers of simpler days. Today we face not only divorce and remarriage, but same-sex attraction, gender identity, artificial conception, genetic engineering, stem-cell research, embryology, various forms of contraception, abortion, surrogacy, and even potential cloning of human persons. We have a lot of work to do to catch up on our scientific knowledge and bring it into dialogue with our theology if we are to have anything credible to say—or be listened to—in the world in which we live. To quote a famous moral theologian: If the Church does not listen to the world, then the world will never listen to the Church.
Finally, one more note about Amoris Laetitia. In the years before, during, and for sometime after Vatican II there was an outstanding moral theologian teaching in Rome: Father Bernard Häring, CSsR. Häring taught moral theology in Rome from 1949 until 1987. He had a very different approach than other theologians, declaring that moral action was not about following a set of external rules, but fundamentally a dialogue between the soul and God with the soul desiring to root itself in God’s will. I think Amoris Laetitia calls us all—not only the divorced and remarried—to do just that: with rigorously honest hearts to conform our actions to the will of God as best as we can discern, and leave the laws and prescripts to the scribes and the Pharisees who choose to live by law rather than by grace. Häring was pushed into a gentle exile by Cardinal Ratzinger in the John Paul years. His methodology was seen as too dangerous to the sort of authority Rome wanted to exercise. I think that in many ways, Amoris Laetitia is a vindication of the contribution of Bernard Häring and a signal we are back on track.