For several years, a group of us have been meeting to share a meal and talk about theology. At our most recent get-together at the rectory of Louisville’s Cathedral of the Assumption, we did what we usually do: tossed our readings on the old wooden table, grabbed soft drinks and slices of pizza, and caught up on what’s been happening in each others’ lives since we last met.
Our gathering is not entirely unlike those gatherings that would take place in the early church in which believers would gather in homes to reflect in sincerity of heart on the movement of the Holy Spirit in a communal setting. Rather than the usual classic text from church history, however, this time we’d chosen something far more recent: Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”).
Along with the two of us, the group is made up of theologians and religious from Bellarmine University and St. Meinrad Seminary and priests with advanced theological degrees. The genesis for the group was an initiative sponsored by the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA), an association for Catholic theologians in the United States.
Recognizing that the relationship between theologians and the hierarchy can be characterized by acrimony, the CTSA introduced an ongoing program that encourages Catholic theologians to gather over a meal with the local bishop to discuss a classic theological text in a non-confrontational atmosphere.
The two of us saw value in this initiative and agreed that we would meet once, and see whether this would be something we’d like to continue.
Our first meeting in 2013 was small. Five of us – ourselves, a local priest, and two more theologians – met at a local restaurant to discuss the Essential Sermons of St. Augustine of Hippo. We talked about the text, but also took the opportunity to get to know one another better. By the end of the evening, we had become friends, and we’ve been meeting twice a year since that time.
We’ve branched out beyond classical works of Catholic theology, though we do still read and discuss those. We recognized that we also should talk about contemporary Catholic theological texts that might lead us into areas of disagreement, and that we could do so without fear of personal judgment. We’ve worked hard to create a space in which everyone feels welcome to express ideas and interpretations openly and honestly.
With our growing friendship and the warm atmosphere, the tenor of our discussions has also become more intimate and open.
As archbishop, I was delighted to welcome the group into the Cathedral Rectory, which has become our stable home. When eleven of us gathered to discuss Amoris Laetitia, we each brought our own perspectives and questions regarding the text.
The group received insights from someone who is a bishop, a pastor, and was a synod father at the Synod on the Family. The pastors brought perspectives gleaned from concrete pastoral experiences. And the theologians brought observations and insights gleaned from their studies, but also from their interactions with graduate and undergraduate students in the classroom.
Because a number of the theologians are married with families, they were able to speak about the text as people experiencing the joys and complexities of familial life.
What emerged at that table was genuine dialogue. Throughout his pontificate thus far, Pope Francis has focused attention on the centrality of dialogue for the church, emphasizing that, as he said to the American bishops during his visit to the United States, we must begin from a position of genuine encounter in which we approach others with love.
As the Holy Father writes in Amoris Laetitia: “Everyone has something to contribute, because they have their life experiences, they look at things from a different standpoint and they have their own concerns, abilities and insights.”
There is a diversity of theological views among the group, and of all the conversations we’ve had over the past three years, this one proceeded with the most spirited and inspiring discussion. Each person’s assessment was taken seriously, and the responses were gracious.
Dr. Patrick Cooper from St. Meinrad Seminary expressed what many of us felt when he praised the hospitality of all in the room and the resulting “honesty of our exchanges.”
In the opening paragraphs of Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis urges “continued open discussion of a number of doctrinal, moral, spiritual, and pastoral questions” raised by the document, specifically singling out the need for “pastors and theologians” to engage in “honest, realistic and creative” thinking.
By meeting and talking about the exhortation as pastors and theologians, we’re taking the Holy Father’s call seriously.
It’s in this atmosphere of dialogue that together we grew to more fully appreciate the beauty and profundity of Amoris Laetitia. Father Michael Wimsatt took from the discussion a “consistent refrain of praise for the effectiveness with which Amoris Laetitia speaks to the theoretical and theological foundations of love combined with its experiential aspect,” and noted that the discussion was able to transcend the facile categorizations that seem to characterize much of the conversation surrounding the text.
We plan to continue our regular meetings not least because, as Dr. Hoon Choi, from Bellarmine University, says, it’s “an encouraging sign” of what dialogue can be. All of us have been enriched by the experience of hearing and learning from each other, an opportunity to take seriously Pope Francis’s exhortation to dialogue.
Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky is the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Dr. Gregory K. Hillis is Associate Professor of Theology at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky.