by Clyde Christofferson
Pope Francis is opening wide church doors, like John XXIII before him. And he is not shy about facing difficult challenges. Early in his pontificate he asked his bishops to assemble to address some of the most neuralgic issues facing the Church, concerning marriage and the family. After two Synods on the Family Francis issued Amoris Laetitia, an exhortation that has focused attention on the very controversies with which the bishops struggled.
What has happened to Jesus Christ? The Jews of his time followed the law, and Jesus called them to the reign of God. How can it be that the Church that follows Jesus continues to be so focused on the law that it has lost sight of the reign of God?
The beauty of Amoris Laetitia is that Pope Francis is trying to move the institutional Church beyond the law to the reign of God, as Jesus taught (Mark 1:15). It sounds obvious to put it this way, but following Jesus means following Jesus, not becoming preoccupied with the law.
Jesus was and is a different kind of leader. He has a quality of leadership that leads us to him because we want to not because we have to. It is sometimes very hard to follow -- "give what you have to the poor and come with me" -- but Christ's very presence makes difficult self-sacrifices works of joy. They sometimes call this "command presence". Outstanding leaders would much rather have command presence than the authority of their position.
Should not the Church seek to emulate Jesus and seek governance by "command presence" rather than by the authority of the law? Most pastors and bishops I know do exactly that. It is personal, and not afraid of the messiness of life. When leaders must rely upon the authority of the law, this is a sign of failure as a leader. In some circumstances use of authority becomes necessary, but a good leader knows it must be the exception rather than the rule.
We call the Magisterium the "teaching authority". This is a mistake, as good pastors and bishops know. We should say "teachers" who learn to lead like Jesus, through their very presence. Francis -- and I love him for it -- is doing just that. What he says in Amoris Laetitia is carefully and gently designed to help pastors follow the leadership of Jesus in dealing with important areas of life -- marriage and the family -- that have become so encrusted with authority that the Church is losing its ability to give life.
Is this confusing? For those who have become reliant upon authority, of course it seems confusing. It is confusing. It is confusing because we are looking for rules, and we have failed to see the command presence of the living Christ.
I am a lawyer. I love the law. But the authority of the law is being greatly abused by our Church. Jesus is changing the world not by law but by his very presence in the hearts of his people. The Church as an institution sees itself as established by Jesus Christ. Yet it has too often put its pastors in the position of having to follow the authority of the law and put the command presence of Jesus in the back of the bus. The "teaching authority" of the Church needs to bring Jesus from the back of the bus, out of the hearts of the people, to teach not reliance upon the law but the joy of love in Christ.
That's what Amoris Laetitia means -- the “Joy of Love”. Pope Francis is poetry in motion.
It is better to be confused and seeking Christ than to always rely upon the law.
I understand those who are unsettled by challenges to the authority of the law. If society seems to be coming unglued, it is a comfort to know that the law will be enforced. But the Church has long recognized that there is a priority. The greatest commandments are love of God and neighbor. "All the law and the prophets" follow from these, whose roots are in the continuing command presence of the living Christ in every human heart. Thomas Aquinas understood that as we seek more detailed understanding of what love means, our formulations of law become less secure guides. Or, more simply, if we put the joy of love in the back of the bus we lose touch with the command presence of Jesus, our Savior.
I look forward with hope to the discussions coming in Boston tomorrow and the next day of thoughtful and humble members of the people of God. I hope they conclude, along with Amoris Laetitia, that the way out of our human confusion is the joy of Christ's love. The law is a sorry substitute. Indeed -- to avoid further confusion -- we would be better off to assign the law a distinctly different role. Limit the law -- and enforcement of the law by the ecclesial community -- to those matters which are truly necessary for the good order of the community. Is not this the meaning of Luke 11:46?
It will take some time for such a change of role to be fully effective, and in the meantime the Magisterium can work on teaching discernment of the command presence of Jesus. Amoris Laetitia is a good start by Pope Francis. Bishops and pastors have a good example to follow.