Today, the feast of St. Joseph, begins a year of reflection on Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation based on the Synod of the Family. This document was released five years ago on this feast which celebrates St. Joseph as the spouse of Mary and as a patron of families.
Pope Francis has declared the coming year, starting today, as a time for the entire church to read and study Amoris Laetitia. To answer the pope’s call for reflection, and to be sure that LGBTQ perspectives and dimensions are included in our church’s discussions of this document, Bondings 2.0 is inaugurating a new series today: “The Joy of Love: LGBTQ People and the Year of Amoris Laetitia.“
Once a month for the coming year, Bondings 2.0 will be present reflections from theologians–seasoned scholars and new voices–about what Amoris Laetitia does and could mean for LGBTQ people.
Our first reflection comes from Lisa Fullam, a moral theologian at the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University, California, and an occasional blogger here at Bondings 2.0.
You can find our past coverage about Amoris Laetitia by clicking here.
What’s Love Got to Do With It?
by Lisa Fullam
On the fifth anniversary of the publication of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (AL), one refrain keeps coming to my mind “What’s Amor Got to Do With It?”
First, I think the importance of AL for the LGBTQ community hinges on Francis’ reply to that question, which is “Everything!” A second piece of good news is this document begins to erode the rigid sex/gender essentialism and complementarity of Pope John Paul II. Essentialism and complementarity are the untenable notions that whatever the doctor declared when looking at a baby’s genitals determined not only its assigned sex (an imperfect biological test) but also most of what that baby’s social roles and personality traits should be. Little girls grow up to be nurturant and generally motherly, while little boys become active protectors of the receptive little girls. Third, AL refocuses attention on the central importance of an individual’s well-formed conscience for moral decision-making, in line with centuries of Catholic tradition.
OK—like so many aspects of Francis’ papacy, there’s good news and bad news. Let’s get the bad news out of the way. He directly condemns marriage equality. (This stance was reiterated by the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog recently when it forbade priests to bless even the civil same-sex unions Francis seems to approve of. It should be noted that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that issued the decree is not in the business of developing Church teaching, but merely enforcing it. They’re muscle, not brains.) There had been hope that Francis would say something more positive in AL, as when he said of a gay priest “who am I to judge?” but he did not, and has not since then.
So let’s start with that most important point. Francis complains: “we often present marriage in such a way that its unitive meaning, its call to grow in love and its ideal of mutual assistance are overshadowed by an almost exclusive insistence on the duty of procreation.” This focus on relationship overturns the first (almost) two millennia of Christian moral teaching in which procreation was taught to be the first goal or purpose of marriage. Vatican II elevated the love of the spouses to an equal footing with procreation; John Paul II insisted that the reciprocal procreative function of genitalia of heterosexual couples was a necessary aspect of loving union, in essence putting procreation on top again.
Francis will have none of that: the longest chapter of AL focuses on love—holistic, embodied love. He quotes the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes: “conjugal love ‘embraces the good of the whole person; it can enrich the sentiments of the spirit and their physical expression with a unique dignity and ennoble them as the special features and manifestation of the friendship proper to marriage.”
He continues: “For this reason a love lacking either pleasure or passion is insufficient to symbolize the union of the human heart with God.” (142) And lest we still miss the point that it’s about sex: “The ideal of marriage cannot be seen purely as generous donation and self-sacrifice, where each spouse renounces all personal needs and seeks only the other’s good without concern for personal satisfaction. We need to remember that authentic love also needs to be able to receive the other, to accept one’s own vulnerability and needs, and to welcome with sincere and joyful gratitude the physical expressions of love found in a caress, an embrace, a kiss and sexual union.” (157)
Second, Francis throws subtle shade on John Paul II’s essentialist straitjacket of gender complementarity. He states: “masculinity and femininity are not rigid categories…a rigid approach turns into an over-accentuation of the masculine or feminine, …[and] such rigidity, in turn, can hinder the development of an individual’s abilities, to the point of making him or her think for example, that it is not really masculine to cultivate art or dance, or not very feminine to exercise leadership. This, thank God, has changed, but in some places deficient notions still condition …legitimate freedom and hamper…authentic development.” (286)
There’s one more opening to doctrinal development here: John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis himself (including here in AL) have written strongly against a straw man called “gender ideology,” a contention that our bodies and our gender expression are completely unrelated (a radical gender constructivism). However, Francis also cites here a point made by the bishops of the Synod on the Family: “It needs to be emphasized that ‘biological sex and the socio-cultural role of sex (gender) can be distinguished but not separated.’” (56) This statement, I believe, begins to undercut John Paul II’s false binary of radical sex/gender essentialism (sex determines everything about how one should express gender) vs. the bugaboo of radical gender constructivism. The rejection of the false dichotomy opens the possibility of seeing the relationship of biological sex to gender expression as a spectrum, a stance which should respect the powerful insight of many of our trans and genderqueer siblings that bodily sex and gender can neither be completely separated NOR completely merged without doing violence to the person.
And, finally: conscience. One part of AL that got a lot of press when it was released was its emphasis on discernment regarding those who remarried without annulling a previous marriage. Francis writes: “individual conscience needs to be better incorporated into the Church’s praxis in certain situations which do not objectively embody our understanding of marriage.” He concludes: “it is can no longer simply be said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace.” (301). Like all God’s children, LGBTQ people have consciences too, which must be obeyed. Respecting decisions of conscience means that it is no longer acceptable to declare that relationships entered into with loving hearts are automatically immoral.
So it all comes back to the priority of love. Where love—real, holistic, embodied, devoted, sloppy-kisses love—comes first, then the historical rejection of same-sex relationships, and all the physical, psychological, and spiritual trauma inflicted in the service of that tradition, must end. What’s amor got to do with it? Everything.
—Lisa Fullam, Santa Clara University, March 19, 2021
For Bondings 2.0’s coverage of the Vatican’s recent ban on blessing same-gender couples, click here.
To sign a statement opposing the Vatican’s ban, click here.