The Catholic Church, a multi-century institution, moves at glacier speed. Pope Francis’s recent post-synodal apostolic exhortation finally moved the Church into the 20th century. Like his earlier apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (EG), Francis attempts a joyful evangelical call for a renewed encounter with Jesus Christ and Christ’s covenant with humanity. For this, and for his humble pastoral tone, we can be grateful.
Decentralizing solutions to pastoral needs by linking praxis to cultural sensitivities and local needs (AL 3) is an important step away from a centralized hierarchy. And before Baptists start throwing stones, they should recognize that when it comes to family and sexuality, Amoris Lætitia (AL) remains a progressive document.
But for the rest of us who live in the 21st century, the document remains highly problematic because of the way it continues the patriarchal structure of marriage, relegates women to sexist roles, and denies basic human dignity and civil rights to our LGBT brothers and sisters.
Marriage life throughout Amoris Lætitia is depicted and romanticized in a way that only celibate men lacking actual experience can describe. I am keenly aware that I did my best husbandly and parenting philosophizing before I got married and had children. In both apostolic exhortations, the heteronormativity of marriage remains intact. Thus, sex is to be enjoyed in heterosexual marriages blessed by the Church. All other relationships remain sin. Others forms of expressing love and commitment (i.e., same-gender-loving relationships, remarried divorcees, or couples living together) remain in an “imperfect manner” (AL III:78) or an “irregular situation” (AL VIII:296); nevertheless, those engaged in those forms are welcomed and should be tolerated and provided with pastoral guidance so they can see the errors of their way. But these other forms of relationships neither need nor ask for tolerance. They require dignity and full acceptance as being blessed by God.
The Pope may proclaim that “the strength of the family ‘lies in its capacity to love and to teach how to love’” (AL II:53); still, this capacity is limited to heterosexuals whose goal for marriage remains procreation. While sex is not limited to procreation and can be enjoyed for its own sake (a tremendous acknowledgement considering centuries of anti-body and anti-sex attitudes which permeated Christian thought), children nevertheless remain the primary goal of marriage. “The conjugal union is ordered to procreation ‘by its very nature’” (AL III:80).
Because the primary purpose of marriage is children, unions incapable of achieving said goal fall short of nature. “We need to acknowledge the great variety of family situations that can offer a certain stability, but de facto or same-sex unions, for example, may not simply be equated with marriage. No union that is temporary or closed to the transmission of life can ensure the future society” (AL II:52). This obsession with procreation leads to all types of dysfunctional views concerning sexuality. Any sexual act that prevents procreation (same-sex unions, anal sex, oral sex, birth contraceptives) remains outside the realm of acceptable behavior — if not outright sin.
Deeply problematic is the imposition of these views upon those who do not belong to the Church. “Those who work in health care are reminded of the moral duty of conscientious objection” (AL III:83). Good Catholics working at health-care facilities should object to selling birth control because it is contrary to the Pope’s understanding of the purpose of marriage. And while I defend the Pope’s choice concerning control over his own womb, and the womb of all who are Catholic priests, still, it remains disturbing in any society valuing free conscious of all its citizens when he imposes his view on the bodies of others — specifically women who actually have wombs. And yet, with all the celebration of having children, to have them “born outside of wedlock” remains a thing of shame (AL II:45). “Respecting a child’s dignity means affirming his or her need and natural right to have a mother and a father” (AL V:172).
While one should appreciate the one and only bold statement in the defense of children from predatory ministers — “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” (AL II:45) — nevertheless, it is too little, too late. Maybe a future apostolic exhortation dealing with the Church complicity of abused children matched with meaningful praxis, restitution and punishment of abusers might begin to heal this festering wound that prevents joy in too many lives.
Pope Francis boldly recognizes “women’s rights and their participation in public life,” calling for the elimination of “unacceptable customs” (AL II:54) — except, of course, in the Church where women cannot join the priesthood. He subscribes to the Christianization of the ancient honor-shame tradition manifested as the choice between the virgin or the whore, Mary or Eve. Pope Francis’s dualist understanding of women leads to the paternalism found in Evangelii Gaudium where he speaks of the “icon of womenhood” (EG 5:II;284), essentializing women when he “acknowledges the indispensable contribution which women make to society through sensitivity, intuition and other distinctive skill set which they, more than men, tend to possess” (EG 2:II:103). For this reason, women may “wish to study, work, develop their skills and have personal goals”; nonetheless, “we cannot ignore the need that children have for a mother’s presence. … [T]he weakening of this maternal presence with its feminine qualities poses a grave risk to our world” (AL V:173).
Men too are essentialized, for they “play an equally decisive role in family life, particularly with regard to the protection and support of their wives and children” (AL II:55). And rather then thinking of men as the primary caregivers of children, they are instead told: “[to take] on domestic chores or some aspect of raising children does not make him any less masculine or imply failure, irresponsibility or cause for shame” (AL VII:286). Thus husbands’ domain remains protection of family from the outside world, while wives’ domain remains in the home.
Women may be “indispensable,” and “unacceptable customs” need to be eliminated due to their feminine characteristics; nevertheless, they cannot fully participate as man’s equal. Pope Francis may claim that “Mary is more important than the bishop;” nevertheless, he insists that “the reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the spouse … is not a question open to discussion” (EC 2:II:104). Neither Pope nor Church can ever be a symbol of liberation as long as it remains complicit with the oppression of half of the global population, regardless of the flowery compliments about indispensability expressed.
Although it was touching when the Pope met privately with his former student Yayo Grassi, an openly gay man, along with his partner, Iwan Bagus, at the U.S. Vatican Embassy, his views concerning homosexuality remain damning to his former student. Pope Francis best expresses his views on homosexuality when he writes: “Marriage now tends to be viewed as a form of mere emotional satisfaction that can be constructed in any way or modified at will” (EG 2:I:66). For the Pope, “the clear and well-defined presence of both figures, female and male, creates the environment best suited to the growth of the child” (AL V:175). Unfortunately, empirical evidence seems to contradict the Pope’s faith statement. Numerous studies reveal the genders of parents have no impact in raising a healthy, well-adjusted child. But why rely on research and facts when heterosexism provides better faith claims?
Mercy may be paternalistically offered to sinners in a “love the sinner, hate the sin” fashion; but to discuss what exactly is sin remains outside the possibility of discussion. “If someone flaunts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal, or wants to impose something other than what the Church teaches, he or she can in no way presume to teach or preach to others. … Such a person needs to listen once more to the Gospel message and its call to conversion” (AL VIII: 297). Mercy is offered in the hopes of changing “sinners” so they conform to the ideals of marriage as defined by the Church. “In considering a pastoral approach towards people who have contracted a civil marriage, who are divorced and remarried, or simply living together, the Church has the responsibility of helping them understand the divine pedagogy of grace in their lives and offering them assistance so they can reach the fullness of God’s plan for them” (AL VIII:297).
In spite of my critique of the Pope’s view on the family, I truly respect this Pope’s commitment to the poor and marginalized, as well as his deep pastoral concerns. Believe it or not, he is one of my favorite Popes. Nevertheless, his antiquated views on the family reinforces social and structural oppression, and thus, most be called out. My critique is not an attempt to discredit him and his work, but an attempt to push the discussion toward the relevancy for the 21st century.