Top Down or Bottom Up?

I can’t say I’m waiting on baited bated breath for Bryan and the Jason’s response to Pope Francis’ latest encyclical apostolic exhortation (on the genres of papal communications, see this), Amoris Laetitia (why continue to use Latin titles when you write in the vernacular; imagine how down-with-the-peeps Pope Francis might have appeared had he used Spanish for the title). Since the main article at CtC was posted seven months ago and the current blog post is almost two months old the Reformed-turned-Roman Catholics have hardly established themselves as the go-to site for inquiring minds who want to inquire about all things audaciously papal during the tenure of one of the more audacious popes in recent history.

That being said, when you read reports like this one from John Allen, who reads more and more like the press secretary for Pope Francis, you do wonder why all the hubbub about the longest encyclical in the saeculum (and here I thought John Paul II and Benedict XVI were the thinking person’s popes). For it seems that Pope Francis is merely catching up to what is already going on in the parishes:

In effect, what he’s saying is that there may be cases in which a given divorced and remarried Catholic, after talking things out with a priest, could be justified in reaching the decision that they don’t carry the guilt that should exclude them from the sacraments, including Holy Communion.

In truth, that may not change very much in terms of in-the-trenches experience in the Church.

For one thing, that sort of pastoral adaptation, sometimes referred to as an “internal forum” solution, is already happening. In many parishes, you can find divorced and remarried Catholics who come forward for communion, and many pastors have either quietly encouraged them to do so or, at least, never discouraged them, choosing to respect whatever decision they’ve made in conscience.

For another, the language in Amoris Laetitia on the Communion question is sufficiently elastic that both sides in the debate can take consolation, meaning that those pastors and bishops inclined to a stricter reading of Church law probably won’t feel compelled to revise their thinking, and neither will those given to a more flexible stance.

In another sense, however, Amoris Laetitia represents a breakthrough of no small consequence, because for once in a Vatican text, what got enunciated wasn’t simply the law but also the space for pastoral practice – which is where the Church’s long-underappreciated capacity for subtlety and compassion usually enters the picture.

In other words, what may be astounding about Pope Francis is the recognition that the papacy doesn’t set the agenda, resolve controversies, maintain unity the way CtCer’s audaciously claim. It may be that the papacy merely reflects what already happens in the church. In which case, converting to the post-Vatican 2 church was a Doh! moment on the order of the Second Vatican Council’s determination to open the church’s windows to the modern world after four centuries of opposition. Could anyone think of a more audacious time to catch up to modern times than the decade of women’s liberation, sexual revolution, and anti-western radicalism?


Postscript: David Gibson offers this perspective on Amoris Laetitia:

Yet others would in fact see Francis’ nuanced approach as precisely in keeping with the church’s tradition of developing doctrine over time in the light of changing historical realities, and the gradual movement — guided by the Holy Spirit — “towards the entire truth,” as Francis put it.

Reformed and always reforming.