“Amoris Laetitia”: Church Thinking Needs to Move from the Abstract to the Particular

In March 2021, the Vatican launched a year of reflection on Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) about family. To ensure that LGBTQ perspectives and dimensions are included in our church’s discussions of this document, Bondings 2.0 has published a series of theological reflections over the year. Today’s post is the final reflection in the series

Today’s post is from Daniel P. Horan, OFM, who is Professor of Philosophy, Religious Studies and Theology, and the Director of the Center for Spirituality at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana. He is a columnist for National Catholic Reporter and is the author of more than a dozen books, including Catholicity and Emerging Personhood: A Contemporary Theological Anthropology (Orbis Books, 2019) and A White Catholic’s Guide to Racism and Privilege (Ave Maria Press, 2021).

We are nearing the end of a year in which Pope Francis invited the church, which is all the baptized, to reflect on family life and love, while also having the opportunity “to focus more closely on the contents of the document [AL].”

Because a lot of my own research has focused in recent years on theological anthropology, or the way we understand human personhood within the Christian tradition, I found myself reading the text with the question: “how does AL understand the human person?”

While I agree with many commentators that the tone and style of AL is refreshing in its pastoral sensitivity and respect for the complexity of sacramental married life and family dynamics, I also join others in taking issue with a significant lacuna in the text when it comes to the practical erasure of LGBTQ persons and, in turn, their families. Although there are some times in which “same-sex unions” (AL 52) or “persons who experience same-sex attraction” (AL 250) are mentioned, the experiences of LGBTQ folks are notably absent as is updated information from the natural and social sciences that affirm the normalcy of queer identities. The result is a talking around or obliquely talking about LGBTQ folks in a way that does not reflect the fullness of reality.

Fr. Daniel Horan

Certainly, there is a softer tone taken when it comes to the subgroup of gay and lesbian Catholics in AL, with recourse to the well-trod passage in the Catechism no. 2358 that reads: “They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided” (see AL 250). However, what is oftentimes quickly ignored is that the sentence that immediately precedes that call to compassion and respect in the Catechism describes homosexual orientations as “objectively disordered,” which has been the source of continued justification for discrimination against queer Catholics and frequent dehumanization and even violence against them.

Far worse things are implied about transgender people, including the oft-cited paragraph 56 in AL that decries “an ideology of gender,” which vaguely attacks any medical, psychological, or social research that aids in our collective understanding about the diversity of sexual and gender identities as well as psychological and medical interventions to treat and support gender non-conforming individuals.

How do these forms of LGBTQ erasure and dehumanization come to exist in a teaching document written within the last five years?

As I have written about previously, I believe that an outmoded understanding of the human person is at the foundation of such claims. The prioritization of what constitutes human personhood rests in adhering to a vision of a common nature. According to this way of thinking, a singular pattern or form of what it means to be human exists, and everyone conforms to this ideal to a greater or lesser degree. Everyone who shares this common nature is ordered to a singular goal that shapes and informs what is considered appropriate in terms of behaviors or moral actions. This teleological vision of human personhood, which also frequently places the importance of actions over inherent dignity and value of persons, is what leads to the condemnation of LGBTQ folks as “objectively disordered”—it is “objective” because the divinely designed pattern is universal; it is “disordered” because it departs from the singularly envisioned path (in this case, reproduction) guiding ethical action.

Another way to describe AL’s underlying vision of the human person is that it consistently prioritizes abstraction over particularity. This prioritizing follows the Roman cultural emphasis on the striving toward a universal goal or aim, as opposed to the more British-American cultural emphasis on evaluation based on the lowest-common denominators as seen in the tradition of Common Law. That’s fine when such dynamics are deployed in assessing speed limits or job performance, but it gets trickier when they are used to evaluate persons and families.

What would it look like to rethink our theological anthropology—and, by extension, our understanding of human relationships and family systems—if we began not with an abstract, ideal for human personhood, but if we instead started our theology with the concrete, particular, diverse people that actually exist in the world?

AL begins to do this somewhat reservedly in Chapter Eight, which some readers consider controversial. In his thoughtful commentary on this chapter, Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio entitles a short section on this chapter: “The problem of the relationship between doctrine and the rule in general and individuals in particular.” While not directly addressing questions of LGBTQ persons or families, but focusing as AL does on pastoral responses to so-called “irregular” sacramental marriages, Coccopalmerio makes the important point that reality beckons the church and its ministers to consider the particular circumstances in specific cases rather than assuming some universal application of an abstraction.

What is needed to achieve this shift in pastoral and theological thinking? Coccopalmerio says that the church needs to emphasize the particularities of individuals’ human existence alongside those “common elements” shared among all people. He writes:

“On the one hand, everyone has common elements that constitute the reality of the person, these are the ontology of the person considered in its generality, that is, precisely, in the elements that are common to all people. On the other hand, each person, while he or she posses the common elements referred to above, has at the same time individual elements, which constitute the reality of the person, these are also the ontology of the person, considered, however, in its individuality, in its singularity, in its concreteness (35).”

This is an important instruction that has significant pastoral implications for how the church and its ministers encounter and welcome women and men in relationships that do not fit with the abstract or ideal sacramental definitions.

AL struggles with applying this principle to LGBTQ persons and families. By definition, these non-sacramental unions and relationships are “irregular,” but there are real people involved in these loving relationships and families. Too often the church’s ministers have used abstractions to reject, condemn, or otherwise harm queer people. Sadly, such prioritizations have been wrongly used to justify refusing the sacraments to LGBTQ folks or their children.

While AL indeed offers a positive contribution to the discussion about the tensions between idealized circumstances and the reality of human existence in practice when it comes to heterosexual relationships, it still falls short of recognizing the divine gift of diversity among the human community in general and LGBTQ folks in particular. As I have ventured to show elsewhere, there are numerous orthodox resources in the Catholic theological and philosophical tradition that can help us renew our theological anthropology such that it is in keeping with both the tradition and the best of human knowledge and experience. The first step forward involves moving from the abstract to the particular as our shared theological and pastoral starting point.

Daniel P. Horan, OFM, March 3, 2022

5 replies
  1. Duane Sherry
    Duane Sherry says:

    The Church claims to know God’s divine plan while ignoring the creation made for all to see.

    “Nature loves diversity; unfortunately society hates it.” – Milton (Mickey) Diamond, PhD

    Reply
  2. DON E SIEGAL
    DON E SIEGAL says:

    “Amoris Laetitia:” Church Thinking Needs to Move from the Abstract to the Particular

    I would like to thank Fr. Daniel Horan for exposing “Amoris Laetitia” for the short comings of the text of the document. It didn’t really say anything about here and now queer families in the church. I did get a copy of the exhortation and read it when it was initially published. I was aware that there was an essential absence of the queer community in the text, but I did not have sufficient theological formation to identify the omission. Thank you Fr. Horan for your very thorough scholarly theological critique of the document.

    It was, however, very clear to me that it was a document that was more likely to be used in an unfavorable and harmful way toward queer families rather than for their common good. I also remember that at the end of the year after of its publication it made both New Ways Ministry’s best of and the worst of LGBTQ news of the year lists.

    Reply
  3. Loretta
    Loretta says:

    Irregular…?
    I remember when children and adults with one less chromosome were labeled retarded. To label a person is the first step of dehumanizing her or her. Then they were institutionalized.

    Is that person irregular? And when they fall in love is that irregular too?
    When they remind us of unconditional love, is that regular or irregular?
    Labels. Dehumanizing

    Reply

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