Everything or nothing? An initial response to Amoris Laetitia


A parish priest reflects on Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), issued in response to the Synod on the Family which met in 2014 and 2105.  The exhortation is a reflection on Catholic marriage and family life, and on how the church should conduct itself in matters of morality.

Therapists describe ‘all or nothing thinking’ as unhealthy.  It creates polarities that can be used to defend cultural wars and, in fact, any violence.   Extremes are never good but in a pastoral context they numb recognition of the uniqueness of each story, blind us to the individual face and hamper empathy with the suffering other.  No narrative is so perfect that it does not need salvation, no story so desperate that it is beyond redemption.  Aristotle’s Nicomeachean ethics teach us that virtue is always in the middle so that, walking a tightrope, Francis is proposing Amoris Laetitia (AL) as just such a middle ground, a tertia maniera!

By the time you’re reading this you may well have read commentary on the document elsewhere, even if not the document itself.  You’ll have heard of the extensive, fresh meditation on ‘the’ marriage reading, Paul in 1 Corinthians (AL 90 – 119).  Or you may have heard highlighted the very concrete practical suggestions for a framework of marriage preparation, notably using mature married lay people.  Much has already been made of the process of discernment – not surprising from a Jesuit Pope – that forms the whole of Chapter 8.  It is perhaps in this area, reasserting the sovereignty of conscience that Amoris Laetitia is most freeing and will be most controversial.  Francis has not shied clear of criticising the ecclesiastical establishment, his withering remark reminding us clergy that we are called to form consciences not replace them!  Promoting a discerning accompaniment, case by case, Francis offers a pastoral solution but may also be promoting an ecclesiastical version of an NHS lottery, as I shall describe.  In the difficulties of life, people are to be supported and encouraged, motivated inspired and formed, but they must never be diminished.  Rather they are to be treated always with compassion.

The current ecclesiastical culture of Scotland provides an immediate context against which we can frame this document.  I want to highlight three aspects, not directly linked to Amoris Laetitia but which form the context for its reception among us.

First, the current neo-clericalism.  I was uncomfortable watching the vocations promotion video in my own diocese, Do This In Memory of Me.  It wasn’t just the retro liturgical aesthetic, but the fact that no priest interviewed appeared even once in a frame with a lay person. L ay people were interviewed about priests; priests talked (only) about themselves, but never did a priest and a person appear together on camera.  This typifies a separateness currently infecting ministry.  If we are apart and distinct, above, be-cassocked and biretta’d, then it is easier to suggest that we have something to be handed (down) to the laity, how to live.  I have heard priests opine that we have to ‘teach the people the faith’ from a place of intellectual elitism and dogmatism.  This separateness stems in some part from Benedict XVI’s notion of priestly holiness, of kudosh (Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. 3) but seems to fly in the face of John Paul II’s Pastores Dabo Vobis (43) that asserts the fundamental importance of the capacity to relate to others.  Francis, as usual, puts it more directly.  The pastor must be close enough to the flock to take on the ‘smell of the sheep’.  Not much room for clerical aloofness there!

Second, the celebration of the Jubilee of Mercy.  It is important to read Amoris Laetitiae against the hermeneutical key that unlocks Francis’ whole ministry, the plea for mercy.  The extraordinary Jubilee Year is married to the Extraordinary Synod and Amoris Laetitia is born of these parents.  Each Scottish diocese has a jubilee door, but the Year of Mercy is being celebrated with differing degrees of energy.  A common denominator, however, is the encouragement to rediscover the sacrament of God’s mercy, the confessional.  The Archdiocese of St Andrews & Edinburgh has borrowed Cardinal Wuerl’s Washington campaign, The Light is On!

However laudable the desire to re-invigorate that sacrament, the proclamation of the fundamental existential reality of God-as-mercy has received little attention.  The explicit invitation of Francis, that every diocese should have a mission towards all its people, has simply been ignored (Misericodiae Vultus, 18).  In truth, the vast majority of our people are so disconnected, that getting back to confession does not even register as an issue.  That they feel unwelcomed, unworthy, unaccepted in their actual state of life – these are the realities that keep them – and here is that word again – separate.  The missionary thrust of the Year of Mercy seems to be slipping by.

Third, the creation of an ecclesiastical lottery.  It has become a truism to hear that, if your local NHS trust is well funded and run, then your healthcare will be better.  The suggestion that each familial or relational situation be accompanied, case by case basis, or that episcopal conferences form local guidelines, may indeed create an ecclesiastical version of that NHS lottery.  What if your bishop is disinclined to follow Franciscan reforms?  An alarmed parishioner – who still follows such things – expressed concerns about the twitter feed of a bishop that linked to articles largely hostile to Amoris Laetitia.  What if your local priest is cavalier about invoking the freedom of conscience or indeed if he applies a rigid interpretation of that sovereignty?  I suspect that already such a lottery already exists.  People are more likely to go where they feel nourished and sustained, depending on which end of the ecclesial spectrum they find themselves, for liturgy that expresses them or a theological and pastoral message they recognise.

I have already written of my disappointment that the Church in Scotland was not more engaged in the consultation process around the Synod (Open House June 2015); now, too, the Year of Mercy seems to be already petering out.  It is not surprising that it is two female, non-ordained theologians who help comfort me.  Tina Beattie highlights that the dominant model, now called ‘Theology of the Body’, promoted by largely educated Westerners, may not address the situations of poorer, alienated people who do not recognise the stereotypical John Paul II romanticised notion of marriage and sexuality.[1]   Janet Soskice graphically debunks that romanticism!  We want priests, she says, who have experienced trying to cook a meal, wiping the bottom of one child, giving juice to one clamouring for a drink while another throws up on you.  Family life?  It’s just one damn thing after another…![2]   The separateness I see – clergy from people, people from Church – is open to being challenged but it is precisely here that I believe Amoris Laetitia may serve to be a practical pastoral help and a catalyst for future growth.

If we can cross the gap that separates us, we might really see people’s lives, growing and forming.  To accompany them, not with answers – ideological or theological, but with the mutual comfort of friends whose horizon is the Merciful God.  Then perhaps Amoris Laetitia will have given us permission to acknowledge that life, church, world are messy places where one size does not fit all. Perhaps by showing us that the world and life cannot be reduced to a neat synthesis, Francis gives us permission to do what is right in real circumstances, even if it may not fit old models.  I think there is much more still to come!

Jim Lawlor is a priest in the Archdiocese of Glasgow.


Francis has not shied clear of criticising the ecclesiastical establishment:  his withering remark reminding us clergy that we are called to form consciences not replace them!

[1] In The Second Vatican Council: Celebrating Its Achievements and the Future eds: Gavin d’Costa and Emma Harris

[2] Janet Soskice, The Kindness of God

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.