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Kitchen sink theology for a troubled world

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Stemming from a two-year worldwide consultation, culminating in the Synod on the Family in October 2015, Pope Francis’ recent Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (the Joy of Love) is an extraordinarily intimate, pragmatic and ground-breaking document which constitutes a landmark statement of the Catholic Church’s stance on family policy. In a rich reflection on the mission of the family within its own four walls as well as to the wider world, it exhorts the Church to minister to people where they are, to understand and assist with the manifold complexities of familial life, and to trust people’s consciences in wrestling with moral decisions (#37). Rather than hurling ‘dead stones’ at others (#49), the Church is urged to offer the ‘healing power of grace’ and the joy and light of the Gospel message of love.

Headlines seeking to summarize the ‘take-aways’ from this 60,000-word text have focused on its open-ended reflections on communion for the remarried (#305 & fn351), its gentle reaffirmation of papal teaching on contraception (#80) and its resistance to redefinitions of marriage encompassing same sex unions (#250-1). These are, indeed, important elements, offering guidance on some of the most explosive and divisive theological fault lines within contemporary Catholicism. Yet the truly transformative elements of teaching are to be found in its earthy, sociologically discursive and historically inflected reflections on the family as the fundamental and foundational unit of society. Reclaiming yet also refashioning previous teaching on the Holy Family more prevalent in the pre-Vatican II period, for Pope Francis the family is a social, spiritual and sacramental institution understood as both ‘a domestic church and a vital cell for transforming the world’ (#324). Characterized in the Twittersphere as ‘kitchen sink theology’, Amoris Laetitia is this and much more. It also offers an unprecedented and affirming ‘theology of the marital bed’ and an urgent ‘social gospel’ addressed to the unacknowledged suffering within many domestic settings as well as the more public traumas depicted daily on our newsfeeds.

In detailed reflections on the ‘vocation of the family’, traditional nuptial teaching is reappraised to stress marriage as a divine gift (#61), including loving marital sex, so that a couple’s sexual relationship is a ‘path of growth in the life of grace’ (#74).  Drawing upon and extending the teaching of the Second Vatican Council on ‘passionate love’, an extended section of the Exhortation considers ‘the world of emotions’, the training of ‘eros’, sexuality through the lifecycle and ‘the sexual dimensions of marriage’ which are God-given and ‘a marvellous gift to his creatures’ (#150). This is truly unprecedented, post-Augustinian stuff. Distinguishing healthy sexual desire from self-gratification, the commodification of the human person or mere entertainment, Pope Francis reworks John Paul II to proclaim audaciously that ‘the procreative meaning of sexuality, the language of the body, and the signs of love shown through married life, all become [a] … liturgical language’ and conjugal life itself therefore ‘becomes in a certain sense liturgical’ (#215). Through this theological framework, family life (and sexuality within it) should be rightly understood as both ecclesial and eucharistic. As the document colloquially stresses elsewhere, ‘moments of joy, relaxation, celebration and even sexuality can be experienced as a sharing in the full life of the resurrection. Married couples shape with different daily gestures a “God-enlightened space in which to experience the hidden presence of the risen Lord”’(#317). Alongside the Exhortation’s profound realism and pastoral strategies to address family problems like unemployment, addiction, infidelity and domestic violence (#229), the reanimation of an eschatological idea of the family, in hiatus for the last fifty years, reminds this historian of religion of the catechetical texts of the post-war years that exalted the family as ‘a paradise on earth, a foretaste of heaven’.

Yet the typical 1950s family is not unproblematically re-invoked. Recognising that there is ‘no stereotype of the ideal family, but rather a challenging mosaic’ (#57), an important section of the document explicitly rejects those who see the troubles of modern family life as attributable to ‘female emancipation’. Rejecting such perspectives as ‘male chauvinism’, in addition to domestic and sexual violence, FGM, and the ‘excesses of patriarchal cultures that considered women inferior’, the Exhortation sets a new tone in acknowledging ‘in the women’s movement the workings of the Spirit for a clearer recognition of the dignity and rights of women’ (#54). It acknowledges women’s desire to study, work and for personal development, while stressing the value of the ‘maternal presence with its feminine qualities’, such that feminism need not ‘demand uniformity or negate motherhood’ (#173). The need for a more family-orientated fatherhood is also considered (#176-7), concluding that the ‘clear and well-defined presence of both figures, male and female, creates the environment best suited to the growth of the child’ (#175). While in many ways historians of sexuality will continue to find multiple grounds for sharp critique within this reiterated language of difference, complementarity and relational feminism, nevertheless there are also signs of adaptation in the Church’s acknowledgment that ‘biological sex and the socio-cultural role of sex (gender) can be distinguished but not separated’ (#56).

Together with this focus on the hearth, Amoris Laetitia reiterates repeatedly, and with practical examples throughout, the longstanding and potentially revolutionary vision of the created order as a ‘family of families’. Addressing at various points poverty, injustice, violence, war, ecological devastation, child abuse, disregard for the elderly, and excessive consumption and materialism, one of the most vivid sections of the document expressly tackles the devastating experiences of forced migration on millions of families throughout the world (#46). Coinciding with the recent award of the Pulitzer Prize to journalists from the New York Times and Reuters for their harrowing and heart-rending photographs of refugees, many of them migrant families like weeping Iraqi, Laith Majuid, carrying his son and daughter from a boat to the safety of Kos, Amoris Laetitia is a timely reminder of the need for national governments, policy makers, local communities and individual families, each within their various remits, to reflect on their role and responsibilities in addressing and supporting the joys and sorrows, hopes and hardships of contemporary family life.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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