Clergy and theologians gathered at Boston College October 5-6 to examine the papal exhortation Amoris Laetitia, finding in it a resounding affirmation of the centrality of the family in both faith and society. With that primacy comes a unique set of challenges to fulfilling the vision of moral formation and pastoral practice outlined by Pope Francis.

The two-day symposium “Amoris Laetitia: A New Momentum for Moral Formation and Pastoral Practice” was organized and hosted by the Jesuit Institute, led by Director and Canisius Professor of Theology James F. Keenan, S.J.

Media highlights from the symposium include an advance of the event in National Catholic Reporter, coverage by Religion News Service and America magazine, and four articles filed by two attendees from National Catholic Reporter: NCR 1, NCR 2, NCR 3, NCR 4 | Additional coverage included The Tablet, and an NCR reflection by the conference organizer, BC's James F. Keenan, S.J.

The product of two synods on the family convened by Pope Francis in 2014 and 2015, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) is an apostolic exhortation on love, individuality, and the family that was signed by the Pope in March of 2016. The announcement gained attention for its call to appreciate the difficulties of married life today, stress understanding over condemnation, and concern for the sacramental needs of divorced and remarried Catholics.

Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago called family life a “privileged place” where God reveals what is at the heart of Catholic faith.

“The Pope offers a penetrating and insightful comment that should keep us focused as we move forward,” Cupich told the gathering of 50 participants as the symposium opened. “If we look at scripture, God has chosen to reveal the divine reality in the privileged place of family life. How true that is if you look at opening chapters of Genesis all the way to the final scene in the Book of Revelation. The context is always families, of people coming together as families.

“That’s important for us to grab ahold of as we begin this. What we are talking about are not just ways in which we can be of service to people, to families, but for those of us involved in the pastoral work of the Church to keep in mind that that is where we find God revealing the divine reality. It is a privileged place God has chosen for us to come to know who God is. That is a key element for us to begin. It is not so much that we are treating families as a laboratory in which we do pastoral practice or theology, rather it is the privileged place we are graced to be part of to see where God is active, God is alive, and where God is doing something new.”

Keenan, in welcoming attendees, discussed Amoris Laetitia’s language of conscience, discernment, and empathy and its call for “pastoral conversion” to help Catholic families around the world confront challenges, be they social, economic or questions of faith. Keenan asked the participants to think in terms of action.

“How can we make this new momentum on Amoris Laetitia reawaken an empathy toward the condition of married life?” Keenan said. “We don't want to go to conversation, we want to go to implementation. This gathering is not just a sharing of ideas, but of strategies. How we here can explain pastoral conversion and take hold of what that means in the life of diocese, of universities, of the different communities we participate in?"

Such strategies can be used to assist the U.S. church in further "receiving" Amoris Laetitia and beginning to fulfill the vision set forth by Pope Francis.

Discussions ranged from getting more people to read the approximately 250-page document, to the impact on the daily work of clergy, to new ways to incorporate the expertise of the laity in helping those struggling with marriage and family life.

The conference attracted national media attention. Writing for Religion News Service, columnist Thomas Reese, S.J., who attended the symposium, summarized the discussion about the environment into which Pope Francis proffered the treatise.

Amoris Laetitia entered the world in a time of crisis for families,” Reese wrote. “The opioid crisis and unemployment are destroying families. The poor are less likely to get married and more likely to get divorced than those in upper incomes. In a highly mobile society, extended families are not present to help couples. Single parents cannot find day care. And young people are abandoning religion in droves.

Writing in National Catholic Reporter, Sean Michael Winters said the discussions across the two-day event “illustrated some tectonic changes in the culture of the Catholic Church.”

Furthermore, he wrote, “This conference set those in attendance (and hopefully those who will see the videos or read the papers) to the task of opening that door and letting the Body of Christ out, to walk the streets and dirty our feet and hands, serving the people of God whose experiences of family life can be sources of grace, if only someone will accompany them, encourage them, help them discern how God is already at work even and, especially, amidst the pain and the brokenness.”

In addition to Cupich, conference participants included Cardinal Kevin Farrell, prefect for the new Vatican office of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, and papal confidante Antonio Spadaro, S.J., editor of La Civilita Cattolica. Other leading clergy in attendance included bishops from Arizona, California, Georgia, Indiana, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Vermont, as well as from Germany and Malta.

In addition to Keenan, Boston College faculty participants included Professor of Theology Kenneth Himes, O.F.M., Darald and Juliet Libby Professor Cathleen Kaveny, Associate Professor of Theology Brian Robinette, Joseph Professor of Catholic Systematic Theology Richard Gaillardetz, J. Donald Monan, S.J., Professor of Theology Lisa Sowle Cahill, and School of Theology and Ministry Associate Professor Hosffman Ospino.

While even the footnotes of Amoris Laetitia have undergone intense scrutiny – and have sparked international controversy – Keenan said he wanted to focus attention on the entire document and the unique questions it asks of both clergy and lay people to examine and enrich their roles within the Church.

“All we wanted was a conversation in the U.S. among bishops, theologians and other experts on the papal exhortation that invited us to consider the full array of resources from Scripture and tradition in responding to the challenges of the contemporary Catholic family,” Keenan wrote in the National Catholic Reporter following the symposium. “We believed that our families and the pope deserved such a hearing.”

—Ed Hayward | University Communications