Monday, April 18, 2016

An Unspontaneous Joy

I was uncertain just what an "apostolic exhortation" is until the current Pontifex Maximus issued his Amoris Laetitia, which I've seen translated as "The Love of Joy."  It's apparently an encouragement, made by the Pontiff, that we or someone engage in conduct of a particular kind.  In this case, it appears that we are encouraged to act in a given way regarding the Family, or families and marriage.

Just where the "joy" comes in isn't immediately obvious to such as me.  Wouldn't "Love of the Family" or "Family Love" or "Joy of Marriage" have been more appropriate?  Laetitia, it seems, was a Roman goddess of joy, but this fact makes the relationship to families even less clear.  Love of joy is evidently for purposes of this exhortation at least related to marriage and the family in some sense.

But the document itself doesn't seem to evoke joy.  It is a massive, careful, studied exhortation.  One ceases reading it with a sense of relief, like the one I used to experience at the end of mass when we were told it was ended:  "The mass is ended, go in peace."  Then, I could genuinely say "Thanks be to God."  All this is not to condemn it, but merely to note it isn't particularly joyous. It is more in the way of a dissection of marriage and the family--more kindly, an analysis of them--than a celebration of them

Reading it, I'm reminded of how seemingly legal--even legalistic--papal pronouncements tend to be.  Scripture is cited much as legal precedents are in briefs and case law.  Sometimes, though, the citations are more perfunctory.  One has a sense of an author going through the motions or acting on compulsion, feeling called upon to mention some source even when the point being made isn't controversial.  Other times, the citation isn't clear authority on its face, but its "true meaning" is explained.  St. Paul is mentioned with some frequency, for example, and it's difficult to take the position that when he says a wife is to be subject to her husband this isn't the case and, moreover, God who inspired his writings didn't mean what Paul said although he said it.

It's encouraging in its way to see the Pope acknowledge that Paul was influenced by an unenlightened and primitive culture when he said certain things.  But how he was so influenced when also influenced by God can be puzzling.  One can understand God trying to work within a culture in order to be comprehended by mere humans, but it takes a considerable amount of speculation, even presumption, to contend that was what God was really doing, all appearances to the contrary.

Puzzling too, of course, is why the Pope or any Pope or priest, or even synod of priests or bishops, should pontificate, as it were, on marriage.  There's no question they experienced a family at some point, and perhaps remain part of one, but unless they were married before becoming part of the clergy they have never been married.  Presumably, they may have never experienced sexual relations with a woman.  What they know of marriage or sex or love or even joy between a man and a woman as husband and wife is therefore necessarily at second hand.  Why, then, do they speak of such things with such assurance?

It would seem that their view of marriage is necessarily abstract or idealized if not uninformed  And this would certainly seem to be true of this exhortation, as marriage and family is variously compared to the relationship of the three persons of the Trinity, the relationship between Jesus and the Church in the position of his bride, and the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph (ignoring, for a moment at least, those confusing references to the brother of Jesus appearing in the Gospels and the Acts). 

Now while the Trinity is maintained to be made up of three separate persons, those persons are said to be of the same substance, each of them equally God.  Much as we may try, we can't say the same of the human family at all.  Even by metaphor the comparison is clumsy.  Humans in a family are not at all like the Trinity, nor can they be.  Indeed, it's not clear even what the Trinity is so it's impossible to speak of it as analogous to anything at all.

As for the Holy Family, comparing the human family to it doesn't work either.    Joseph obviously wasn't Jesus' biological father, but there are stepfathers enough in the world and they may be considered part of the family.  The true Father in the case of the Holy Family was a rather remarkable one, though, and a virgin mother isn't very common either.  So, the Holy Family was profoundly unusual.  It's questionable whether drawing such a comparison is very helpful to understanding families, and doing so may justly be said to create expectations which simply cannot be fulfilled.

It's clear, however, that a real effort is being made by the Pope (and even others in the Church) to recognize that traditional strictures if not entirely misguided should be ignored or treated as mere technicalities.  Efforts are made in this document to recognize "mixed marriages", to allow those divorced to participate in Church ritual and be treated with respect, and to liberalize the mysterious process of annulment.  There are even suggestions that "irregular" relationships may be beneficial, even worthy, though same sex marriage remains unholy and inappropriate and efforts are made to make that clear.

These are not easy assertions to make in this kind of document, and that may well explain how careful, and unspontaneous, it is when read.  It's an argument of sorts, in favor of change of sorts, and that is something in such an ancient and rigid institution.  But this particular "Song of Joy" isn't one you can dance to, and though it may be possible to be encouraged one can't rejoice in it.

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