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Since Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia does not change any specific doctrines about the family, one might well ask: what’s new, if anything? And how will this document speak to the Church in Africa? I shall argue that in this post-synodal exhortation Francis challenges us to change our method of thinking about marriage and family. The main question I raise is whether this method itself is possible within the current way the Church operates in Africa and elsewhere.

Dialogue and communication is both explicit and implicit in the way in which Francis takes us through the extensive exposition of marriage and family life as a process – from love, through engagement and the liturgical celebration and continuing process that is the sacrament of marriage. Similarly in the way seminarians and priests are called to study and understand the sacrament, to accompany married couples and those preparing for marriage. It pervades the parts about parenting and the education of youth about marriage and family life. And above all it is essential to accompanying people whose marriages are troubled or have failed.

I sensed too that he’s shifting the way we think about marriage and family from a classical and deductive paradigm to one that is historical and inductive. What I call the classical and deductive paradigm starts from overarching theological ideas that seem unchanged and unchangeable, often expressed as laws that are then applied to specific cases – in effect forcing the specific cases into the pre-existing idea.  The historical and inductive approach starts with the specifics, lived reality itself, and then draws upon principles, theology and law to interpret and challenge that reality. In this approach we enter the realm – beloved of Thomas Aquinas and many moral theologians – of the formed and informed conscience.

How will this speak to the Church in Africa? Perhaps we need to backtrack first and ask two questions. First, who in the African Church will speak to this document? Second, how will these interlocutors present and re-present Amoris Laetitia?

On my first question, assuming they decide to speak to it, my suspicion is that bishops will do most of the talking, followed by their priests – some of whom may even use the text in their homilies. Some theologians may also comment on the text in greater detail, no doubt write a few articles on Amoris Laetitia, perhaps have a conference or two, and maybe even produce a book of their proceedings.

How will they present it? Given the generally conservative tone of African bishops at the two sessions of the Synod that generated the Apostolic Exhortation, where many observers noted how most of this continent’s bishops aligned themselves with North American and Roman curial conservatives, I suspect that the message sent to the people will be: no change! I would also be willing to bet that the text’s strong affirmation of conscience will be underplayed, as will be the need for dialogue and discernment, particularly when dealing with problematic marriage situations at grassroots levels. The important guidelines given in Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia will be glossed over. I hope I am mistaken.

It even remains to be seen whether diocesan marriage tribunals will be simplified and streamlined according to the Pope’s specifications he stipulated last year and affirmed in this text, or whether many dioceses in Africa and elsewhere will simply stall – in effect ‘sitting out’ the rest of this pontificate until Francis’ successor (they hope) restores the status quo.  Again, I hope I am mistaken!

Our theologians will be more open, perhaps, to giving Amoris Laetitia the attention it really deserves. One hopes that we will bring out in our reflections the innovations in method that I see as the real pearls in the document, innovations that constitute a genuine ressourcement and a return to the great tradition of moral theology so sorely missing in official Roman texts for the last thirty-odd years. No doubt too we will draw on the pope’s emphasis on the complexity of marriage to address the particularities of marriage on this continent. But will we be able to have an impact?

In Africa as elsewhere, we must face the fact that collegiality and the marvellous synergy of bishops and theologians that gave us the Second Vatican Council has broken down. I venture to go further: it has been deliberately sabotaged by a centralizing tendency that reduces bishops to local branch managers, clergy and religious to staff, and laity to customers in Roman Catholicism Inc. In cultures where deference to authority is common, especially where society itself is compromised by failing structures and endemic corruption, as we find in much of Africa, Church Inc. thrives. Elsewhere it is dying.

What has this to do with our reading of Amoris Laetitia? I would argue that our reading of the document depends on our situation, and that our situation makes a helpful reading of Amoris Laetitia difficult. Those who read the text and interpret it in our context will read and interpret it according to their own mind-set. If it is one that is deeply hierarchical, where bishops and clergy see themselves as above the people and all-knowing, though also deeply imbued with a deference to those above them, this will colour their reading of it. Though some may embrace this space the pope has given them, some may be afraid of the freedom offered.

In a church context where theologians are expected to be party propagandists, as opposed to specialist interpreters and developers of the tradition, imaginative readings of Amoris Laetitia become difficult. The spirit of dialogue that Francis exudes may change with his successor. Will a new Inquisition come after us for what we said in this new springtime of the Church? Given that the Church is the major employer of theologians on the continent, this is a serious consideration we must keep in mind.

In a culture where laity don’t read much theology, let alone read theological texts of 250-plus pages, the lay voice – the voice of the married, divorced, people in ‘irregular’ relationships who might add depth to the discussion of Amoris Laetitia – will also not be heard.

Without a courageous and honest approach from those lead the Church (bishops, clergy, religious and theologians), the spirit of collegiality, dialogue, discernment and conscience that one finds in Amoris Laetitia will not thrive. Pope Francis is a new kind of CEO of Church Inc. – certainly a change to what we’ve had for over thirty years. He wants us to think, he wants us to discern and use our consciences. Will we?