Earlier this month at Boston College, an important theological conference took place on Amoris Laetitia, the apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis that has occasioned so much controversy.

The conference, entitled “Amoris Laetitia: A New Momentum for Moral Formation and Pastoral Practice,” was organized by the Jesuit Institute and hosted by its director, Jesuit Father James Keenan, and the archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Blase Cupich.

The speakers gathered included some of the leading proponents of the view, plausibly proposed as the one held by the Holy Father himself, that Amoris Laetitia permits a change in the sacramental discipline regarding confession and Holy Communion for those living in a conjugal relationship while being validly (and perhaps sacramentally) married to someone else. 

Among the notable speakers were Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, the Holy Father’s confidant and de facto papal spokesman; Cardinal Kevin Farrell of the new Roman dicastery for the laity and the family; Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, author of the Maltese guidelines, which proposed a new understanding of conscience; and a good representation of the more prominent liberal Catholic theologians in the United States. It was an impressive lineup.

The proceedings of the conference are not yet published, but some initial reports are collected at the Boston College website.

Since the publication of the “filial correction” last month, two senior cardinals have proposed that a more serious dialogue is required about the document — Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, and Cardinal Gerhard Müller, former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

In that spirit, I would offer a few initial responses to some of the themes of the conference speakers, according to reports in the Catholic press, with an eye to how such dialogue might be advanced.

“Who knew that there were eight other chapters in Amoris Laetitia?” was apparently heard more than once at the conference.

Yes, there are nine chapters in all, and it should be widely agreed that there is much that is beautiful, in theology and spirituality, in Amoris Laetitia. Ambiguities or difficulties in the eighth chapter dealing with “irregular” couples ought not to diminish the value of what is good and what offers real practical help to married couples.

At the same time, to say that 95% of a document is brilliant does not mean that the remaining 5% can be overlooked. If Pope Francis had written an exhortation on the Eucharist that rivaled St. Thomas Aquinas in the Lauda Sion and Pange Lingua, but included a footnote that suggested that maybe the Sunday Mass obligation could be revised, it would be entirely appropriate to give sustained attention to the latter.

Important matters remain important. Indeed, part of the urgency of clarifying the disputed passages in Amoris Laetitia — which have been interpreted in contradictory ways by different bishops — is precisely so that the “other eight” chapters of Amoris Laetitia can be more fully proposed to the Church.

“I must confess that there is a gap between those who approve of the Pope showing pastoral understanding toward family matters and those who fear the Pope might be fueling relativism by admitting that many people live in gray situations without being deprived from God’s grace,” said Msgr. Philippe Bordeyne, rector of the Institut Catholique of Paris. “In the second category, there are quite a number of young, highly committed Catholics who expect from the Pope a rhetoric of the ideal rather than a realistic view on the real situation of families.” 

The respectful dialogue called for by the Holy Father’s secretary of state will be better served by focusing on the arguments made rather than on those making them. Perhaps at the conference it was thought that concerns voiced by “young, highly committed Catholics” were less valid because of that. Others might think that the concerns are all the more serious if they are shared by those most earnestly attempting to live the faith. In any case, characterizations of those making arguments usually raises the temperature without illuminating the issue.

I wrote critically about the “filial correction”  precisely on those grounds, proposing that it was better to focus on issues at stake rather than on employing the inflammatory language of “heresy.”

“The ‘theology of the body’ received only a couple of mentions, and each time to point out how inadequate it is,” reported Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter. “Yet there are seminaries and campus ministries that make this the center of their teaching about sexual ethics. It is one of the outstanding challenges of those engaged in formation to come up with authentic, Catholic alternatives.”

Many of us with long experience of campus ministry would give that a raised eyebrow and furrowed brow. We regard the “theology of the body” as precisely the authentic Catholic alternative to the older rules-based approach to chastity. Certainly there are thousands of students who have found in it a genuine liberation from the false freedoms of the sexual revolution. But if indeed the most enthusiastic proponents of Amoris Laetitia find St. John Paul’s vision “inadequate,” it indicates that the dialogue envisioned by Cardinal Parolin is a broader one than just about sacramental discipline.

Father Keenan, who selected the speakers, explained that he wanted a good number of lay speakers, and he chose six men and six women. That broader conversation is welcome, though, understandably, the Jesuit Institute conference was weighted toward academic theologians.

As the dialogue continues, it ought to involve the vast numbers of lay Catholics who have developed innovative marriage-preparation programs and family ministries, as well as those missionaries who work in campus evangelization. That would involve at least some of those “young, highly committed Catholics” to be sure, but many of them have far more experience in the marriage and family ministry than is usually possible for academic professionals.

The conference was planned long before, but took place after, the “filial correction.” There was, therefore, some attention paid to the critics of Amoris Laetitia, who were usually dismissed as a small number of conservatives or traditionalists. Fair enough. Those engaged in ecclesial controversies are always a small number.

It should be noted that the most vocal proponents of Amoris Laetitia are also relatively few in number. That many of them could be comfortably accommodated at a small conference in Boston indicates this.

While critics of the apostolic exhortation have been vocal, as have some of the critics of the critics, the reality is that the overwhelming majority of Catholic bishops around the world have remained silent, itself unusual in response to a major papal document that specifically asks them to formulate guidelines for implementation. What that silence betokens is not certain, but that it prevails, even among the closest collaborators of the Holy Father in Rome, is notable.

The argument that critics are few in number is, therefore, a little odd. Is that not what would be expected for an apostolic exhortation? Is it not more curious that the vocal proponents are also few?

It is not a fair criticism of the Boston College conference that it gathered the like-minded; almost all conferences do. But the serious contributions there can be engaged elsewhere and the dialogue in the Church about the potential and perils of Amoris Laetitia can continue.

Father Raymond J. de Souza 

is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.