On Friday, April 8, Pope Francis published his apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love): On Love in the Family. This 250 page document completes the intensive reflection on the family conducted by the Synods of Bishops in 2014 and 2015 — a reflection that involved the whole Catholic Church. The new exhortation calls upon the Church to renew and intensify the proclamation of the “gospel of the family.” This requires a more loving and persuasive presentation of the Catholic vision of the family and the sacrament of marriage. In fact, Amoris Laetitia sets out to do just that.
Pope Francis leaves no one out. His challenge is addressed to all the Catholic faithful, particularly Catholic families, including those who have suffered the break-up of their marriage and divorce. He speaks to those who actively seek to follow Church teaching, but also to those who, through ignorance, anger, or weakness, do not. He addresses the clergy and all involved in pastoral ministry. He challenges us all, especially the pastors of the Church.
The “truth about marriage” is indeed beautiful, as Pope Francis eloquently demonstrates. He proposes no sudden departure from Church teaching concerning inherent nature of marriage and the family — male and female, exclusive lifelong fidelity, openness to new life, and family planning free of contraceptives and the horror of abortion. He reiterates no same-sex union can in truth claim to be marriage. This pope walks the same path, as did Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, as his frequent citations show. This will be a comfort to many and a disappointment to others.
Has nothing, then, changed, except perhaps the pope’s “tone”? Amoris Laetitia expresses the pope’s conviction of what he believes must change with regard to the Church’s ministry to families.
Pope Francis calls us to a humble realism about the present state of marriage in and out of the Church. This realism is for him a starting place for a more compassionate pastoral practice. The struggles, the hardships, the moral failure, confusion, the inner assaults of culture, the external pressures of poverty and social injustice, the ravages of violence, the ravages of greed — all these undermine and seem to overwhelm a reality so tender as the family. And what response are we to make when we look upon this sorry scene? Fear? Cynicism? Condemnation? The repetition of right doctrine? Pope Francis by his words and deeds hopes to convince us that our first response must be the outpouring of Mercy. We are not to walk away, we are to walk toward the seeming chaos, proclaiming and enacting the promise of God’s mercy.
What we will find, Pope Francis believes, is that God’s mercy is already there ahead of us. The sign of His mercy is unmistakably visible. For in spite of all that militates against the family, the desire to love, to bear children, to be faithful, even to make real sacrifices for love, is not dead. The Creator does not abandon the fallen Adam and Eve. Even if it is certainly true that sin has made a mess of things.
This pastoral perspective (the pope calls it a “gradualist” perspective) shows itself throughout Amoris Laetitia. It is responsible for his now familiar pastoral vocabulary (accompaniment, discernment, dialogue, integration). Pope Francis is aware of the tensions involved in his perspective—between upholding the true faith and morals of the Church and the dialogue that takes time to prepare the heart to embrace the “gospel of the family.” And there is the risk of scandal, the pope admits, when those whose faith is not well formed and whose life situations are “irregular” are just beginning to be integrated in the life of the parish. These risks, the pope believes are inevitable in the community of God’s love, which is why the pope calls for a new intensity in the pastoral care of families.
The nine chapters make for a long read. And the style alternates, one chapter meditative and lyrical, another more analytical. The pope himself suggests that many will not wish to read every chapter and should choose what most directly addresses their lives.
While only a brief synopsis of each chapter, the following gives you an idea of what Pope Francis’s exhortation offers the reader.
- “In the Light of the Word” demonstrates how the family, the first of all human institutions, takes on a saving role in the formation of God’s people. The sacramental meaning of marriage is anticipated in the Old Testament and fully revealed in the New.
- “The Experience and Challenges of Families” surveys the life and struggles of families, the effects of individualism on marriage, resulting in the loneliness of many.
- “Looking at Jesus: the Vocation of the Family” defines the “mission” of the family, the sacred vocation of spouses, and the family as a “domestic Church.”
- “Love in Marriage” begins with a probing reflection of St. Paul’s hymn to love in 1 Cor. 13, often read at weddings. The stress is on the patience and forbearance in marriage, given the imperfection of spouses, who must grow into their vocation to love.
- “Love Made Fruitful” is a passionate appeal for the recovery of the joy and courage of procreation. The pope forcefully reminds us that openness to new life is a part of the very definition of a sacramental marriage, and that the joys of sexual love are inherently oriented toward the gift of children, as the husband and wife become “co-creators” with God.
- “Some Pastoral Perspectives” is specifically dedicated to forming solid and fruitful families, and not just through the ministry of clergy. Equally important is the ministry that takes place as one family inspires and supports another.
- “Towards a Better Education of Children” stresses the urgency of the spiritual and ethical formation of children in an increasingly secularist cultural environment.
- “Guiding, Discerning, and Integrating Weakness.” Pope Francis, along with the Fathers of the Synod of Bishops, has given special attention to the care of divorced and re-married Catholics, particularly in the light of the pastoral discipline that forbids them from receiving Holy Communion. Chapter 8 explains why the pope has chosen not to change canon law on this matter, even as he calls for a more nuanced discernment that may eventually make reception possible. Meanwhile the divorced and remarried are not excommunicated, and should be more fully integrated into the life of the Church.
- “The Spirituality of Marriage and the Family” speaks of a domestic, family spirituality characterized not only by pious practices but by “a thousand small gestures that make up the particular spirituality of the family.”
Amoris Laetitia concludes with a prayer to the Holy Family. It begins: Holy Family of Nazareth, grant that our families too may be places of communion and prayer, authentic schools of the Gospel, and small domestic churches. Making his prayer our own, may his love of the family also be ours, that we may seek and serve the joy of love.
Father Phillip Johnson is pastor of Saint Thomas More Parish in Cherry Hill and holds a pontifical license in sacred theology as it pertains to marriage and family. Father Johnson has taught theology at the Selly Oak Colleges in England and later at the John Paul II Institute. He has been a frequent speaker at retreats and theological conferences in the U.S. and Canada and is the author of a number of articles and book chapters on theology, spirituality, ministry and ecumenism.