We live in an age when people’s nerves are rubbed raw by information they don’t like, don’t trust and very often don’t need. We drown in ads, lobbying and a politics of malice. Meanwhile, really vital, life-giving messages float by unnoticed. And on difficult issues, it’s easier just to skip the thinking and get straight to the arguing.
Pope Francis takes a different approach. At more than 250 pages, the Holy Father’s recent Apostolic Exhortation on love in the family, Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”) can seem daunting — a bit like staring at the summit of Mt. Everest from base camp. But that’s where the likeness ends. This is a document accessible to any adult interested in his or her faith. And it deserves to be read thoroughly at a reflective pace. It also needs to be weighed carefully in light of St. John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio, the theology of the body, and other preceding Church documents on marriage and the family.
Like his earlier text Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), Francis’ post-synodal thoughts on the family are vividly written and rich with excellent teaching, offered in a style appealingly his own. Those seeking a change in Catholic teaching on marriage, divorce, family and sexuality will be disappointed, as headlines in the secular press have already shown. Others may find moments in the text of Chapter 8 when the stress on pastoral sensitivity in irregular marital situations seems ambiguous in its content.
Thus, people need to understand “The Joy of Love” in the context of the large body of Catholic thought and learned wisdom that frames it. This context will shape the response of the Church here in Philadelphia. As Romano Guardini wrote – and recall that Guardini, one of the great Catholic scholars of the last century, is a key influence on the mind of this Pope – mercy is the higher virtue than justice. But as Guardini also wrote, no real mercy can exist unmoored from truth. And the truth of Christian marriage, taught by Jesus himself, is that marriage is a permanent, irrevocable covenant, with everything that implies for Catholic sacramental life.
Every reader will have his or her own favorite passages in this text. For me, the rich heart of Amoris Laetitia lies in Chapters 4-7. The Pope’s extended reflection on Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians is exceptionally beautiful. Paragraph Nos. 178-181 on infertility, adoption, foster care and the family’s vocation are excellent. So is No. 187 on the extended family. No. 193 on the importance of historical memory is invaluable, as are Nos. 174-177 on the roles of mothers and fathers. No. 167 has some welcome praise for large families, and the text throughout has a deep understanding of the gift of children.
Paragraph Nos. 47 and 48 show a genuine sensitivity for children with special needs and the elderly. No. 80 strongly reaffirms the message of Humanae Vitae, just as No. 83 reaffirms the sanctity of all human life. And in No. 56, Francis clearly rejects gender ideology and the sexual identity confusion it promotes.
Chapter 8 is a sensitive discussion of the need for including the divorced and civilly remarried in the life of the Church, and treating all persons in irregular unions with appropriate care. In my experience, it’s a rare pastor who deliberately seeks to place obstacles in the way of anyone wanting to live a good Christian life. At the same time, we need to remember that Catholic teaching is not an “ideal” to be attained by the few, but a way of life that can and should be lived by all of us.
It would be a mistake to misread the compassionate spirit of Amoris Laetitia as a license to ignore Christian truth on matters of substance – matters that include the Catholic teaching on marriage, and the discipline of the Church in the administration of the sacraments.
As I write these thoughts this week, diocesan guidelines for understanding and applying Amoris Laetitia are already being drafted and will be widely circulated in the coming month once they’re completed.
In the meantime, especially in the wake of last year’s World Meeting of Families, Philadelphia Catholics can only be enriched by reading and praying over “The Joy of Love.”