It was billed as the document that would change everything, but there were no bombshells in Pope Francis’s “Amoris Laetitia” (“Joy of Love”), which was released Friday morning. Instead, Francis stood by Catholic teaching and offered a beautiful, intensely pragmatic and deeply sensitive discussion of the joys and hardships of marriage and the family.
It is beautiful, but it’s not different. Even the most impactful change — the suggestion that divorced and remarried Catholics might potentially receive the Eucharist again — was a ratification of the statements of previous synods that was buried in a footnote.
For those hoping for more sweeping changes, “Amoris Laetitia” seems toothless, even if it is pastorally sensitive. The well-intentioned and commendable, pragmatic advice that men should do housework seems barely to bring the Catholic Church into the 1960s.
Yet from the beginning of his papacy it has been abundantly clear that Francis has shifted the tone of the Catholic Church. Compassion springs to life from the pages of his encyclicals and in the sincerity of his encounters with ordinary people. The claim that he is a pastorally minded Pope has, to some extent, shielded him from the attacks of conservatives who see him as abandoning tradition. For those hoping for reform, this pastoral tone has been welcome but also frustrating. When would real change come?
Certainly not in “Amoris Laetitia.”
Instead, Francis looks to the bedrock of the Church — her people. In the document he repeatedly refers to the importance of local church organizations and individual couples in implementing his advice and supporting the family. While acknowledging that unity is key, Francis says, “not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by the interventions of the magisterium.” Instead he suggests that, “each country or region…can seek solutions better suited to its culture.”
When it comes to individual marriages, Francis concedes that while the church must do more to counsel young couples, the real resource is other married Catholics. He calls upon them to evangelize and to bear witness to the joy of marriage. It’s about love and family, but he also acknowledges the wisdom of the laity. Indeed, he is inviting married couples to share in the work conventionally allocated to priests.
This kind of power-sharing and collective evangelization was evident in the means by which Francis amassed information for the exhortation. Not only did he consult bishops at multiple synods, he invited nonvoting married couples to weigh in and conducted a survey through various dioceses.
Last year, when he reminded priests that the power to forgive the sin of abortion lies in the confessional, he likewise decentralized structures of Church judgment. Similarly, his tentative suggestion that some divorced and remarried people may one day be able to receive Communion again places decision-making in the hands of individual bishops and priests. There are no doctrinal changes in Francis’ exhortation. Instead he empowers the church on the ground to change practice.
Even as he grants power to the people, he is wary of the manner in which popular pressure can shape church teaching. In one instance, the question of same-sex marriage, Francis condemns popular movements. He says that it is “unacceptable” that churches be subjected to pressure on this point. It’s a disappointing statement for LGBT Catholics, but it’s also one that reveals something about the Pope’s mindset. He knows that change comes from the people and here he is trying to channel that impulse.
Changing the Church from the ground up is slow business, but Francis himself is proof that it can work. The late-20th-century Latin American religious movement known as liberation theology, which aimed to help the poor through political activism, was strongly condemned by John Paul II. But it has found its doctrinal feet in Argentine Francis’ teachings on poverty.
Francis does not and never did approve of every brand of liberation theology but his teachings are undoubtedly shaped by its principles. Over the course of a half-century this popular movement has received a Papal imprimatur.
Perhaps it’s this kind of ground-up, locally sprung change that Francis wants to nurture. He will not use the magisterium or papal dictates to force progress. Perhaps — and there’s good reason to think this — he’s not looking to engender radical change himself. But by seeding the grassroots of the Church, he makes change inevitable.