Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) has arrived. Among many Catholics, the anticipation of this statement from the Holy Father was met with great angst, at least for those who paid attention to the general press’ expectation and spin that this Synod on the Family would redefine Catholic thinking regarding God’s first created institution.
So, what’s the conclusion? Will God be shocked and the media elite elated? Or is this a biblical and orthodox pastoral exhortation on the family? Or maybe it is something in between?
First, we must appreciate that this statement is the first major statement from the Vatican on the family since Pope St. John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio in 1981. While Familiaris was more philosophical and instructional, Amoris Laetitia is more “everyday” if you will. It speaks warmly and tenderly about the essence of family life in its joy and beauty as well as its sadness and difficulty. It is deeply pastoral and seeks to do so in the richness and reality of daily family life.
From the start, Pope Francis notes the centrality of family in God’s story:
The Bible is full of families, births, love stories and family crises. This is true from its very first page, with the appearance of Adam and Eve’s family with all its burden of violence, but also its enduring strength to its very last page, where we behold the wedding feast of the Bride and the Lamb.
He reminds us of each family’s divinely iconic nature:
The couple that loves and begets life is a true, living icon – not an idol like those of stone or gold prohibited by the Decalogue – capable of revealing God the Creator and Saviour. For this reason, fruitful love becomes a symbol of God’s inner life.
And it does so uniquely and exclusively in the marital love of a man and woman, husband and wife, mother and father and their children. He continues:
The ability of human couples to beget life is the path along which the history of salvation progresses. Seen this way, the couple’s fruitful relationship becomes an image for understanding and describing the mystery of God himself, for in the Christian vision of the Trinity, God is contemplated as Father, Son and Spirit of reflection. Saint John Paul II shed light on this when he said, “Our God in his deepest mystery is not solitude, but a family, for he has within himself fatherhood, sonship and the essence of the family, which is love. That love, in the divine family, is the Holy Spirit”. The family is thus not unrelated to God’s very being.
With this introduction, he is calling us to consider this truth as the divinely given nature and mission of each family, whether they realize it or not. This moves family dramatically beyond our understanding of it merely as a traditional or moral kickball in the current culture war. All Christians are required to see it as much more, and this is what the Pope is reminding us of in this truly beautifully written and reasoned pastoral document.
Francis draws regularly upon the strong teachings of Blessed Paul VI, Pope St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI on the family, as well Gaudium et Spes.
All this is good and fine, but every reader is thinking, “But what about the two big issues that have gotten all the attention since the Synod began?” These are the topics of homosexuality and the supposed “same-sex family”, and the place of the divorced person and the Eucharist.
First, it would be a dire mistake to have this as our only interest in this far-ranging document. In chapter 4, he gives us a wonderful exposition on St. Paul’s “hymn to love” in I Corinthians 13. This will and should be a gem in this document that pastors, deacons, lay leaders—as well as husbands and wives—come back to time and again for encouragement, instruction and hope.
So, regarding divorce, Pope Francis calls it “an evil” and contrary to what Christ taught us. Like the Synod Fathers in their final report, he does not recognize the topic of remarriage and access to the Eucharist as a question. It is simply not addressed. Can we conclude from this that it was never a topic on which he considered any change? It certainly seems so. The closest he comes to the topic is a section where he quotes the Synod Fathers:
“Pastoral care must necessarily include efforts at reconciliation and mediation, through the establishment of specialized counselling centres in dioceses.” At the same time, “divorced people who have not remarried, and often bear witness to marital fidelity, ought to be encouraged to find in the Eucharist the nourishment they need to sustain them in their present state of life.”
Of the divorced and remarried in the Church:
It is important that the divorced who have entered a new union should be made to feel part of the Church. “They are not excommunicated” and they should not be treated as such, since they remain part of the ecclesial community.
He continues, quoting the final report of the Synod Fathers:
These situations “require careful discernment and respectful accompaniment. Language or conduct that might lead them to feel discriminated against should be avoided, and they should be encouraged to participate in the life of the community.”
There are indeed parts of the document that could be taken as a stretching of pastoral ethics and practice when it comes to those in “irregular relationships” – the divorced, remarried and unmarried cohabitors. But like most of Pope Francis’ “trouble statements” (if we might call them that), it is not so much what they actually say, but in what they don’t take the care to make clear. An example:
Synod Fathers reached a general consensus, which I support: “In considering a pastoral approach towards people who have contracted a civil marriage, who are divorced and remarried, or simply living together, the Church has the responsibility of helping them understand the divine pedagogy of grace in their lives and offering them assistance so they can reach the fullness of God’s plan for them”, something which is always possible by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Does this mean, as every good pastor has always done, that the pastor should help his flock live under the grace rather than condemnation of God, even as we each live in the midst of our own terrible sin? Or does it mean that they are now welcome to help all comers feel good about living outside of God’s design? If that is what any reader might assume, he does so in contradistinction to the whole of what Pope Francis is teaching here and otherwise. In Amoris, he insists:
Priests have the duty to “accompany [the divorced and remarried] in helping them to understand their situation according to the teaching of the Church and the guidelines of the bishop.
So what is being said is pretty clear to the honest reader: Amoris Laetitia exhorts us that the Church must be gracious and grace-filled regarding the divorced, remarried and cohabiting in our pews and communities. John Paul II and Benedict XVI required and did the same.
Regarding the issue of same-sex sexuality and the family, the Pope is crystal clear. Undergirding the precise language of the Synod Fathers, he reminds us that:
“as for proposals to place unions between homosexual persons on the same level as marriage, there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.”
He also joins the Synod Fathers in condemning actual and threatened financial extortion from governments and other social institutions upon the Church to accept non-biblical, genderless families as legitimate. He is wise to do so, as these extortions are increasing dramatically in frequency and power in the West and will continue to do so without consideration for religious liberty.
Some in the mainstream media might take pastoral statements like the following – as they have previously - as indicating a new and more “inclusive” view of the Church toward those who are same-sex attracted:
Such families should be given respectful pastoral guidance, so that those who manifest a homosexual orientation can receive the assistance they need to understand and fully carry out God’s will for their lives.
Any such conclusion that this signals a new direction for the Church is as silly as it is ignorant. As if the Church’s position until today has been to make such people feel as bad about themselves as possible, which is very different from Christianity’s historic teaching on sexual ethics making them feel bad. That is something we must all deal with. Of course, the teaching of the Church has been to welcome all, just as they are, to submit themselves to the Lordship and love of Christ. “Come all you who are heavy laden…” This is and has been the invitation Christ makes to all people in all ages, including you and me. Nothing new, but completely worth reminding us of. The thing Francis’ words challenge are the assumptions of those who believe the Church rejects the same-sex attracted person or anyone else struggling with sexual sin. If this were not true, the pews in every church would sit empty.
To be sure, the Holy Father reminds us of the dangers of redefining the family away from the biblical and humanly universal ideal of husband and wife working lovingly together to raise their common children:
No one can think that the weakening of the family as that natural society founded on marriage will prove beneficial to society as a whole. The contrary is true: it poses a threat to the mature growth of individuals, the cultivation of community values and the moral progress of cities and countries. There is a failure to realize that only the exclusive and indissoluble union between a man and a woman has a plenary role to play in society as a stable commitment that bears fruit in new life.
And so it is. After much prognosticating from every quarter, it is a good day for the Church and a good day for family. We have a new and rich resource from which to build, defend and minister to families.