Monday, March 5, 2018

Archdiocese of Washington DC offers "Amoris Laetitia: Pastoral Plan"

This weekend, the Archdiocese of Washington DC released a longish document on their implementation of Amoris Laetitia.  Like the exhortation itself, this "Amoris Laetitia: Pastoral Plan" offers (mostly) a straightforward recapitulation of the Church's teaching about marriage, some good advice about strengthening marriage prep (both remote and proximate), and a call for conversion and stability.  We all know that our culture is increasingly anti-marriage, both in terms of more and more radical individualism and relativism, and in terms of failing to support marriage in ways both practical (tax laws, welfare state policies, etc) and theoretical (no fault divorce, education policy, court-driven custody rulings, etc).  Having a solid biblical, Catholic, Christ-centered vision of what marriage is, and of what the common problems in marriage stem from, and of how to recognize and respond to those issues in healthy and faithful ways, is critical, and I applaud anything that helps build up the culture of marriage and helps actual couples live their marriages well in Christ.

There are, however, two things about this pastoral plan that strike me as failing to aim at that goal from the outset.  This doesn't necessarily take away from the practical wisdom contained in the document, but it does invite us to think more deeply about our vision and how we communicate it.

The first is the problem of failing to articulate clearly the relationship of eros to agape.  The document states:

The desire to love and to be loved is a deep,

enduring part of our human experience. God

has written onto each human heart the desire for

self-giving love, reflected in the divine plan for

marriage and family. That plan offers a profound

“yes” to true joy in love. It gives us an invitation to

experience Christian hope in the love of God that

never ends.
This "desire to love and be loved" is eros-love.  Eros is often where we start, not only in marriage but in many things we pursue.  Eros is not inherently wrong or evil; it is about choices we make at the level of the "appetitive soul."  If, however, our desire and ends remain only at this level, they tend to stagnate into selfishness and idolatry, addiction and neurosis.

As Pope Benedict taught so clearly in Deus Caritas Est, natural eros must always be purified by divine agape in order to pursue the good rather than the self.  Agape is that "self-giving love, reflected in the divine plan."  It is love that imitates Christ's perfect love from the Cross.  It therefore transcends the appetitive soul, through the action of a well-formed (not an eros-formed) conscience and divine grace, allowing the rational soul to perceive and choose the authentic good for others.

What is unclear in the above paragraph is precisely that agapic love is not "natural" to us as humans.  We must learn how to love this way.  While it's true in a sense that God has written the desire for agape into our hearts (as St. Augustine wrote, "Our heart is restless until it rests in you, O Lord"), we do not have natural means to engage this.  We require grace to transcend eros-love and be converted to love with Christ's agapic love.  To fail to distinguish this grace-for-conversion here leaves the entire pastoral plan resting on an insecure foundation.  Anyone who imagines that more eros (natural desire) can solve the problems created by unrefined eros (selfish desire) is bound to fail, but this is the conclusion being (inadvertently) invited here.

Sacramental marriage gives grace precisely to transform eros into agape.  No matter how kind and loving I am to my spouse and children, if I continue to treat them as objects of desire (i.e., they must fulfill me, they are in my life for my happiness), I am not responding to this sacramental grace.  Eros transformed into agape means I live my vocation to married life as Christ crucified - that everything I am and do is for them, rather than the reverse.  From eros fulfilled comes mere happiness; from agape fulfilling others comes joy and union with Christ.

Therefore, while it is certainly true that "That (divine) plan offers a profound 'yes' to true joy in love," it must also be stated that deviations from the divine plan offer an (at least implicit) 'no' to the same conversion, joy, and agape-love.  We must not conclude what the document leaves open to us (and what Amoris Laetitia, too, often seems to suggest), that deviations from the divine plan for marriage and family contain a partial 'yes' to God and grace.  This might be true, only if the deviations result entirely from ignorance and weakness.  When they result from a deliberate choice to pursue eros-love instead of agape-love (even when that choice is less than fully informed), they do not represent authentic modes of encountering Christ's grace, and they are therefore contrary to the divine plan.  Eliding this distinction does not serve anyone well.

The second problem risks being even more corrosive.  It suggests that the Church's doctrine is not itself useful or practical, and that lived experience is needed to understand, or interpret, or even correct that doctine.

Reflecting on the implementation of Amoris

Laetitia in the Archdiocese of Washington, we

begin first with the richness of the Church’s
perennial teaching on love, marriage, family,

faith and mercy.... Secondly, we need to remember that our task is

not complete if we only limit ourselves to faith

statements. The goal is the salvation of souls

and it is a far more complex effort than simply

restating Church doctrine. For this reason, it is

essential to recognize that our teaching is received

by individuals according to their own situation,

experience and life....

At one level, this distinction is not problematic.  I am not trying to suggest that lived experience is irrelevant to doctrine, or that the reception of doctrine is not fraught with difficulties stemming from our human weakness and falibility, or stemming from cultural presumptions at odds with the Gospel, etc.  Even given this, however, it is tendentious in the extreme to suggest that the Church's pastoral care has ever attempted to engage with actual situations merely by "restating doctrine," or that, say, St. John Paul II failed to appreciate the complexities presented to the Church by contemporary culture (see e.g. Familiaris Consortio or Veritatis Splendor, or for a different vocational context, Pastores Dabo Vobis).  Should we now discard the entire Code of Canon Law, beacuse it "limits us to faith statements?"  At this level, the dichotomy becomes a blatant lie, pitting "mercy" (which now means making excuses for deviations from the divine plan for marriage and family) against "doctrine" (which now means cruelly expecting people to be unrealistically perfect). 

If this is our vision of marriage, "our faith is vain," as St. Paul says, because this vision of marriage is indistinguishable from the world's - eros without agape (love with sacrifice, happiness without personal cost), inherently self-centered, and "mercifully" lacking any possible leverage to modify behavior which is actually inimical to marriage, to the dignity of persons, or to salvation. 

I don't actually believe that the Archdiocese of Washington is promoting this cultural vision of marriage.  But, by including these two ambiguities, it weakens the vision which it is trying to offer and sustain, of Christ's sacramental marriage.  And our culture has already weakened that vision enough; we don't need to weaken our presentation of it still futher.