“This Exhortation changes the way the Church talks. Like Evangelii Gaudium, Amoris Laetitia marks a linguistic revolution.” With these words, Cardinal Schönborn presents Laetitia Amoris (The joy of love), the post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation “on love inside the family.” It is not by chance that Amoris Laetitia (AL), “The Joy of Love”, the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation “on Love in the Family”, was signed on 19 March, the Solemnity of Saint Joseph. It brings together the results of the two Synods on the family convoked by Pope Francis in 2014 and 2015. It often cites their Final Reports; documents and teachings of his Predecessors; and his own numerous catecheses on the family. In addition, as in previous magisterial documents, the Pope also makes use of the contributions of various Episcopal Conferences around the world (Kenya, Australia, Argentina…) and cites significant figures such as Martin Luther King and Erich Fromm. The Pope even quotes the film Babette’s Feast to illustrate the concept of gratuity.
The length and the articulation of this document are striking. It is divided in nine chapters and 325 paragraphs and opens with seven introductory paragraphs set out the complexity of the topic. Francis argues that the interventions of the Synod Fathers make up [form] a “precious polyhedron” (drawing on Evangelii Gaudium), which must be preserved. From this point of view, the Pope writes: “Not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium.” Indeed, for some questions, “each country or region… can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs. For ‘cultures are in fact quite diverse and every general principle … needs to be inculturated, if it is to be respected and applied”. This principle proves important to the way we formulate and understand problems that cannot be “global.” In particular, from the very first pages, the Pope clearly states that we need to avoid “sterile juxtaposition” between demands for change and the general application of “abstract norms”.
Following these premises, the Pope articulates his reflections taking cue from the Bible in the first chapter. The whole chapter unfolds as a meditation on Psalm 128, which characterizes both Jewish and Christian wedding liturgies. The Old and New Testaments “are full of families, births, love stories, and family crises”; taking cue from this fact, we may meditate on how the family is not an “abstract ideal”, but rather like a practical “trade, which is carried out with tenderness, but which has also been confronted with sin from the beginning, when the relationship of love turned into domination”. Hence, the Word of God “is not a series of abstract ideas, but rather a source of comfort and companionship for every family that experiences difficulties or suffering. For it shows them the goal of their journey…”
Building on the biblical base, in the second chapter the Pope considers the current situation of families. Keeping “firmly grounded in [the] reality”, he also draws heavily on the final Reports of the two Synods. Families face many challenges, from migration to “the ideological denial of differences between the sexes”, the so-called “ideology of gender”; from the culture of the provisional to the antibirth mentality and the impact of biotechnology in the field of procreation; from the lack of housing and work to pornography and abuse of minors. Questions ranging from people with disabilities who need our attention, lack of respect for the elderly; from the legal dismantling of the family, to violence against women, were not forgotten either. Bergoglio insists on concreteness, which is a key concept in the Exhortation. And it is concreteness and realism that make up the substantial difference between acceptable “theories” of interpretation of reality and “ideologies”.
Citing Familiaris consortio, Francis states that “we do well to focus on concrete realities, since ‘the call and the demands of the Spirit resound in the events of history’, and through these ‘the Church can also be guided to a more profound understanding of the inexhaustible mystery of marriage and the family’”. If we fail to listen to reality, we cannot understand the needs of the present or the movements of the Spirit. The Pope notes that “rampant individualism makes it difficult today for a person to give oneself generously to another, thus depicting the situation in which we live at present: “The fear of loneliness and the desire for stability and fidelity exist side by side with a growing fear of entrapment in a relationship that could hamper the achievement of one’s personal goals”.
Realism, when we consider it humbly, helps us to avoid presenting “a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families”. Idealism, on the contrary, does not allow marriage to be understood for what it is, that is, a “dynamic path to personal development and fulfilment”. That is the reason why, the Pope says, we should not think that families can sustain themselves “simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace”. Showing “self-criticism” with regard to an “inadequate presentation” of the “experience of marriage and the family”, the Pope stresses the need to make room for the formation of the conscience of the faithful: “We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them”. It is true that Jesus proposed a demanding ideal, but He “never failed to show compassion and closeness to the frailty of individuals like the Samaritan woman or the woman caught in adultery”.
In the following chapter, Bergolgio outlines some essential elements of the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family. The 30 paragraphs of this chapter concisely portray the vocation of the family according to the Gospel and as affirmed by the Church over time. Above all, it stresses the themes of indissolubility, the sacramental nature of marriage, the transmission of life and the education of children. Gaudium et Spes of Vatican II, Humanae Vitae of Paul VI, and Familiaris Consortio of John Paul II are widely quoted in this chapter.
Francis touches also on “imperfect situations”. Citing Ad Gentes, he writes: “‘Discernment of the presence of ‘seeds of the Word’ in other cultures can also apply to the reality of marriage and the family. In addition to true natural marriage, positive elements exist in the forms of marriage found in other religious traditions’, even if, at times, obscurely”. The reflection also includes the “wounded families” about whom the Pope – quoting the Final Report of the 2015 Synod – says that “it is always necessary to recall this general principle: Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations. The degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases and factors may exist which limit the ability to make a decision. Therefore, while clearly stating the Church’s teaching, pastors are to avoid judgements that do not take into account the complexity of various situations, and they are to be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience and endure distress because of their condition”.
The fourth chapter treats love in marriage. It takes cue from Saint Paul’s Hymn to Love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. The chapter as a whole is a painstaking, focused, inspired, and poetic exegesis of the Pauline text. We may say that it is a collection of brief passages that carefully and tenderly describing human love in absolutely concrete terms. The psychological insights enter into the emotional world of the spouses – positive and negative – and the erotic dimension of love. This is an extremely rich and valuable contribution to Christian married life, unprecedented in previous papal documents.
In its own way, this chapter is a brief treatise inside the wider, fully aware description of the day-to-day experience of married love, which is the enemy of all idealism: “There is no need to lay upon two limited persons the tremendous burden of having to reproduce perfectly the union existing between Christ and his Church, for marriage as a sign entails ‘a dynamic process…, one which advances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God’”. On the other hand, the Pope forcefully stresses the fact that “it is in the very nature of conjugal love to be defiitive”, precisely within that “mixture of enjoyment and struggles, tensions and repose, pain and relief, satisfactions and longings, annoyances and pleasures”, which indeed make up a marriage.
The chapter concludes with a very important reflection on the “transformation of love” because “longer life spans now mean that close and exclusive relationships must last for four, five or even six decades; consequently, the initial decision has to be frequently renewed”. Physical appearance obviously alters, the loving attraction does not lessen, but changes: sexual desire can be transformed over time into the desire for intimacy and “complicity”. “There is no guarantee that we will feel the same way all through life. Yet if a couple can come up with a shared and lasting life project, they can love one another and live as one until death do them part, enjoying an enriching intimacy”.
The fifth chapter is the core of the whole Exhortation: it is entirely focused on love’s fruitfulness and procreation. It speaks in a profoundly spiritual and psychological manner about welcoming new life, about the waiting period of pregnancy, about the love of a mother and a father. It also speaks about the expanded fruitfulness of adoption, of welcoming the contribution of families to promote a “culture of encounter”, and of family life in a broad sense which includes aunts and uncles, cousins, relatives of relatives, and friends. In Amoris Laetitia, the Pontiff does not focus on the so-called “nuclear family” because it is very aware of the family as a wide network of relationships. The spirituality of the sacrament of marriage itself has a deeply social character. And within this social dimension, the Pope emphasizes the specific role of the relationship between youth and the elderly, as well as the relationship between brothers and sisters as a training ground for relating with others.
The sixth chapter treats some ‘‘pastoral perspectives’’ that are aimed at forming ‘‘solid and fruitful families according to God’s plan’’. In this chapter, the Exhortation widely resorts of the Final Reports of the two Synods and on the catechisms of Pope Francis and Pope John Paul II. It reiterates that families should not only be evangelized, they should also evangelize. Bergoglio points out “that ordained ministers often lack the training needed to deal with the complex problems currently facing families”. On the one hand, the psycho-affective formation of seminarians needs to be improved, and families need to be more involved in formation for ministry, on the other hand, “the experience of the broad oriental tradition of a married clergy could also be drawn upon”. The Pope talks also about the preparation of the engaged for marriage, from the accompaniment of couples in the first years of married life, including the issue of responsible parenthood, but also in certain complex situations and especially in crises, knowing that “each crisis has a lesson to teach us; we need to learn how to listen for it with the ear of the heart”. Some causes of crisis are analyzed, among them a delay in maturing affectively.
Mention is also made of accompanying abandoned, separated or divorced people, stressing the importance of the recent reform of the procedures for marriage annulment. It highlights the suffering of children in situations of conflict: “Divorce is an evil and the increasing number of divorces is very troubling. Hence, our most important pastoral task with regard to families is to strengthen their love, helping to heal wounds and working to prevent the spread of this drama of our times”. It then touches on the situations of mixed marriages and couples that present disparity of cult, and even on the situation in families that have members with homosexual tendencies. It reaffirms the necessity to respect them and to refrain from any ‘‘unjust discrimination’’ and every ‘‘form of aggression or violence’’. The final part of the chapter is precious: “When death makes us feel its sting”, on the theme of the loss of dear ones and of widowhood.
The seventh chapter is entirely dedicated to the education of children: their ethical formation, the value of punishment as motivation, patient realism, sex education, passing on the faith and, more generally, family life as an educational context. The practical wisdom that comes out of every paragraph is noteworthy, above all the attention given to those gradual, small steps “that can be understood, accepted, and appreciated”. There is a particularly interesting and pedagogically fundamental paragraph in which Francis clearly states that “obsession, however, is not education. We cannot control every situation that a child may experience… If parents are obsessed with always knowing where their children are and controlling all their movements, they will seek only to dominate space. But this is no way to educate, strengthen and prepare their children to face challenges. What is most important is the ability lovingly to help them grow in freedom, maturity, overall discipline and real autonomy”.
Another important section is that on education in sexuality, which is entitled: “Yes to sex education”. Bergoglio claims that it is necessary: “if our educational institutions have taken up this challenge … in an age when sexuality tends to be trivialized and impoverished”. Sound education needs to be carried out “within the broader framework of an education for love, for mutual self-giving”. Francis warns us against the expression ‘safe sex’ because it conveys “a negative attitude towards the natural procreative finality of sexuality, as if an eventual child were an enemy to be protected against. This way of thinking promotes narcissism and aggressivity in place of acceptance”.
The eighth chapter is an invitation to mercy and pastoral discernment in situations that do not fully match what the Lord proposes. There is continuity between this chapter and the current year of Jubilee, as well as with the Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. The Pope uses three very important verbs: guiding, discerning, and integrating. These are fundamental in addressing fragile, complex or irregular situations. Thus the Pope presents the need for ‘‘gradualness in pastoral care’’; the importance of discernment; norms and mitigating circumstances in pastoral discernment, and finally what he defines as the “logic of pastoral mercy”.
In some ways, chapter eight is a sensitive one; in reading it, one must remember that “the Church’s task is often like that of a field hospital”. Here the Holy Father deals with the findings of the Synods on controversial issues. It reaffirms what Christian marriage is and adds that “some forms of union radically contradict this ideal, while others realize it in at least a partial and analogous way”. The Church therefore “does not disregard the constructive elements in those situations which do not yet or no longer correspond to her teaching on marriage”.
As far as ‘‘discernment’’ with regard to “irregular” situations is concerned, the Pope notes: “There is a need ‘to avoid judgements which do not take into account the complexity of various situations’ and to be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience distress because of their condition’”. And he continues: “It is a matter of reaching out to everyone – he goes on –, we have to help each person find his or her proper way of participating in the ecclesial community, so they can experience the touch of ‘unmerited, unconditional, and gratuitous’ mercy”. And further: “The divorced who have entered a new union, for example, can find themselves in a variety of situations, which should not be pigeonholed or fit into overly rigid classifications leaving no room for a suitable personal and pastoral discernment”.
In this line, gathering the observations of many Synod Fathers, the Pope states that “the baptized who are divorced and civilly remarried need to be more fully integrated into Christian communities in the variety of ways possible, while avoiding any occasion of scandal. Their participation can be expressed in different ecclesial services… Such persons need to feel not as excommunicated members of the Church, but instead as living members, able to live and grow in the Church… This integration is also needed in the care and Christian upbringing of their children”.
On a more general level, Bergoglio makes an extremely important statement for understanding the orientation and meaning of the Exhortation: “If we consider the immense variety of concrete situations, it is understandable that neither the Synod nor this Exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases. What is needed is simply a renewed encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases, one which would recognize that, since ‘the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases’, the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same”. The Pope develops in depth the needs and characteristics of the journey of guidance and discernment, which are necessary in a profound dialogue between the faithful and their pastors.
For this purpose the Holy Father recalls the Church’s reflection on “mitigating factors and situations” regarding the attribution of responsibility and accountability for actions; and relying on St. Thomas Aquinas, he focuses on the relationship between rules and discernment by stating: “It is true that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations. At the same time, it must be said that, precisely for that reason, what is part of a practical discernment in particular circumstances cannot be elevated to the level of a rule”.
To avoid misunderstandings, in the last section of the chapter, entitled “the logic of pastoral mercy”, the Pontiff strongly reiterates: “To show understanding in the face of exceptional situations never implies dimming the light of the fuller ideal, or proposing less than what Jesus offers to the human being. Today, more important than the pastoral care of failures is the pastoral effort to strengthen marriages and thus to prevent their breakdown”. But the overall sense of the chapter and of the spirit that Pope Francis wishes to impart to the pastoral work of the Church is well summed up in the closing words: “I encourage the faithful who find themselves in complicated situations to speak confidently with their pastors or with other lay people whose lives are committed to the Lord. They may not always encounter in them a confirmation of their own ideas or desires, but they will surely receive some light to help them better understand their situation and discover a path to personal growth. I also encourage the Church’s pastors to listen to them with sensitivity and serenity, with a sincere desire to understand their plight and their point of view, in order to help them live better lives and to recognize their proper place in the Church”. On the “logic of pastoral mercy”, Pope Francis emphasizes: “At times we find it hard to make room for God’s unconditional love in our pastoral activity. We put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance. That is the worst way of watering down the Gospel”.
The ninth (last) chapter is devoted to marital and family spirituality, which “is made up of thousands of small but real gestures”. It clearly states that “those who have deep spiritual aspirations should not feel that the family detracts from their growth in the life of the Spirit, but rather see it as a path which the Lord is using to lead them to the heights of mystical union”. Family life in its entirety, with “moments of joy, relaxation, celebration, and even sexuality can be experienced as a sharing in the full life of the resurrection”. Then it speaks of prayer in the light of Easter, of the spirituality of exclusive and free love in the challenge and the yearning to grow old together, reflecting God’s fidelity. And finally the spirituality ‘‘of care, consolation and incentive’’. “All family life is a shepherding in mercy. Each of us, by our love and care, leaves a mark on the life of others”, the Pope writes.
As can readily be understood from a quick review of its contents, the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia seeks emphatically to affirm not the “ideal family” but its extremely rich and complex reality. Its pages provide an openhearted look, profoundly positive, which is nourished not with abstractions or ideal projections, but with pastoral attention to reality. The document is a close reading of family life full of spiritual insights and practical wisdom useful for every human couple or persons who want to build a family. Above all, it is clearly the result of the concrete life of people who have experienced the meaning of family and that of living together for many years.