Amoris Laetitia and the Spirit of Vatican II

The Source of Controversy

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Mariusz Biliniewicz
Routledge Focus on Religion
  • New York, NY : 
    Routledge
    , May
     2018.
     78 pages.
     $60.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780815382560.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Sometimes small books, such as this one, are precious. This is not just due to the thoroughly reviewed and carefully presented bibliography concerning theological reactions to Pope Francis’s post-synodal document, Amoris Laetitia (2016). Above all, it is the language in which this book is written—honest and respectful to both sides of the great divide—that characterizes the Catholic Church today. It is about how the author deals with a highly controversial issue for Catholic self-understanding: whether (and possibly, under which conditions) divorced and remarried Catholics could be granted access to sacramental confession and the eucharist. 

With Amoris Laetitia and the Spirit of Vatican II: The Source of Controversy, Mariusz Biliniewicz demonstrates to a bickering and dis-functional Catholic community that it is possible to talk to each other, try to understand the perspective of the other party, and above all, to listen to each other. Of course, this is pre-eminently a stylistic question, but this is not a small accomplishment in a time when, in the Catholic Church, language is wielded as a weapon for blaming the other side and to carry on the destruction of truth and faith.

The Catholic cultural wars are surely exacerbated under Pope Francis but, as the author correctly shows, they trace back to the theological ground-concept of Vatican II. Francis and the Council share two basic issues: first, an open textuality that requires “creative fidelity” (12-18; 27-34)—through which a plurality of interpretations could be acknowledged as plausible and consistent with the authoritative word of the Church; and second, an understanding of language as an event (18-21; 34-42) that continuously attempts to bridge the existing gap between concrete situations in which faith is really lived, and the ideal of a Catholic way of life according to the gospel—as interpreted by the magisterium of the Church.

Creative fidelity and language as an event, with its brokenness and historicity inside the authoritative frame of Catholic theology, should make space for concrete life. In this sense, the same Church doctrine cannot continue to avoid dealing with it’s own history and limitations. According to Biliniewicz, Amoris Laetitia represents the tipping point of a paradigmatic shift in “the relationship between the ideal and the real” (37), a shift that lies at the heart of Pope Francis’s ecclesiological vision of Catholic faith. If the real comes first—and should be acknowledged in its priority over the ideal—then it also changes the role and self-understanding of the magisterium within the Catholic Church. This shift, made possible by Vatican II, comes into full extension (and realization) with Pope Francis’s Amoris Laetitia.

If Vatican II was divisive, then it will become more so given its implementation through the legacy of Pope Francis. Now, should we accept the parting of the ways that is happening within the Catholic Church? Or can we find a path for reconciliation between the opposing sides of the Catholic faithful? Biliniewicz is convinced that the latter is not just possible for Catholicism, it is an imperative. 

In the final chapter of Amoris Laetitia and the Spirit of Vatican II—attempting to reach this objective—Biliniewicz proposes a “restorative reading” (50-59) of Francis’s Amoris Laetitia, engaging with John Paul II’s Familiaris consortio (1981), where access to the sacraments by divorced and remarried Catholics was made dependent upon their willingness to agree to a marital life without a sexual relationship (such as a that of a brother and sister). Biliniewicz’s argument considers Amoris Laetitia as the real, and Familiaris consortio as the ideal: namely,  that the meaning of the real is to reach the ideal, and then disappear. In other words, while it is true that the Amoris Laetitia may (sometimes) open the door to the sacraments for individual cases among divorced and remarried Catholics, it does so intending to bring these faithful to the realization that their marital life should be the ideal expressed in Familiaris consortio.

This is a possible, but from my point of view problematic, reading of Francis’s Amoris Laetitia. On the one hand, Biliniewicz argues that this document represents “one of the evident linguistic shifts” concerning “the relationship between the ideal and the real” (37) yet, on the other hand, with his “restorative reading,” he affirms that this shift is only temporary—instrumental to the permanent primacy of the ideal over the real. In this way, the Amoris Laetitia would be nothing more than a provisional acknowledgment of real life’s imperfection, though silently agreeing that the perfection of the ideal is what truly matters.

Biliniewicz’s “restorative reading” understands marital life as the realization of the same (theological and sacramental) relationship that exists between Christ and the Church. The question is whether human life can achieve anything close to the realization of divine life. Furthermore, the Church itself is often unable to realize its theological relationship with Christ. Should we then demand more from the faithful than from God, viewing the Church as the sacrament of his presence on Earth? The relationship between Christ and the Church promises one thing: whatever may happen, the loving and merciful God of Jesus will be with us and among us—regardless of our status and registered personal data.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Marcello Neri is Professor of Theology and Catholic Studies of Religion and Politics in European Cultures and Society Studies at the Europe-University of Flensburg, Germany.

Date of Review: 
May 6, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mariusz Biliniewicz is Associate Dean and Senior Lecturer in Theology at the University of Notre Dame, Australia.

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