For many Catholics, Pope Francis has been a revitalizing force for the Church, albeit not without controversy. In April 2016 the pontiff released, “Amoris Laetitia,” or “The Joy of Love,” which focuses on addressing the full range of issues facing families in the 21st century, not just doctrine concerning marriage and divorce.
The nine-chapter, 261-page document, while not explicitly altering Church teachings, is seen as a break from the past, with Francis urging bishops to move away from “cold bureaucratic morality” and be unafraid in letting their lives be “wonderfully complicated” in their ministry.
There have been conferences to discuss the implications of the “Joy of Love” in other countries, but up until last week there had been no organized discussion of how the Church in the United States might respond to Pope Francis’s call.
This frustrated Rev. James Keenan, S.J., director of Boston College’s Jesuit Institute and the Canisius Professor of Theology.
“So other people in other countries are getting people to read the document, and they really like it,” he said, noting that there was no such effort in the U.S.
Keenan began planning a conference five months ago, seeking leaders who would be “really interested in moving this forward in a positive way.” That group grew to include almost 40 people, including over a dozen bishops and distinguished theologians, who came together in a conference last week at BC.
Keenan, in conjunction with Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, hosted a symposium entitled, “Amoris Laetitia: A New Momentum for Moral Formation and Pastoral Practice.”
The principal focus was how the church in the U.S. might benefit from Francis’s teachings on the centrality of the family, with the question, “Why is it that the family is having such a hard time?”, Keenan said.
“We started using his language like accompaniment, discernment, field hospital, all those phrases,” Keenan said. “The words of Francis helped us to see that it was an urgent issue.”
“I think it was very important in the conference when we decided we would be talking about families as the key term and not marriage because they are such politics around marriage,” he added. “But families give you a notion of the complexity, it’s not two people, it could be 20 people.”
In regard to families, the Church has tended to write about sexual morality issues. But Keenan believes that this scope needs to be broadened to include other areas that are also important, like the opioid epidemic, unemployment, the internet and technology, migration and economic refugees.
“All these issues come in: discrimination, immigration, health care,” he said. “And so this was a conference in saying shouldn’t we be taking the family seriously in terms of a priority.”
And this is the heart of Francis’s message, according to Keenan.
“It’s trying to teach us that Catholic Churches and parishes should pay attention to the family more than any other entity, the needs of the family have to be addressed,” he said.
According to Keenan, the tone of the conference was collegial and constructive. One bishop told him it represented the best large-scale exchange of bishops and theologians that he had ever been apart of.
Looking to the future, Keenan hopes other universities will take initiative.
“We’re hoping universities do what we did, including what we did at BC, so we offer some hope to bishops and priests that they can do this work,” he said. “So that what BC did they should take leadership and do it again.”
“If you start doing gutsy things, people will step up. If you take risks and try to do something, people will take note. And that’s what this is about. Can we take note about what’s going on with the family?”
Featured Image Courtesy of James Keenan