The secular media and even some Catholic media are describing the recently issued post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, “Love in the Family,” as a revolution in the Church, as a radical departure from the teaching and practice of the Church, up to now, regarding marriage and the family.
Such a view of the document is both a source of wonder and confusion to the faithful and potentially a source of scandal, not only for the faithful but for others of goodwill who look to Christ and his Church to teach and reflect in practice the truth regarding marriage and its fruit, family life, the first cell of the life of the Church and of every society.
It is also a disservice to the nature of the document as the fruit of the Synod of Bishops, a meeting of bishops representing the universal Church “to assist the Roman pontiff with their counsel in the preservation and growth of faith and morals and in the observance and strengthening of ecclesiastical discipline and to consider questions pertaining to the activity of the Church in the world” (Canon 342). In other words, it would be a contradiction of the work of the Synod of Bishops to set in motion confusion regarding what the Church teaches, safeguards and fosters by her discipline.
The only key to the correct interpretation of Amoris Laetitia is the constant teaching of the Church and her discipline that safeguards and fosters this teaching. Pope Francis makes clear, from the beginning, that the post-synodal apostolic exhortation is not an act of the magisterium (3). The very form of the document confirms the same. It is written as a reflection of the Holy Father on the work of the last two sessions of the Synod of Bishops. For instance, in Chapter Eight, which some wish to interpret as the proposal of a new discipline with obvious implications for the Church’s doctrine, Pope Francis, citing his post-synodal apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, declares:
I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion. But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, a Mother who, while clearly expressing her objective teaching, “always does what good she can, even if in the process her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street” (308).
In other words, the Holy Father is proposing what he personally believes is the will of Christ for his Church, but he does not intend to impose his point of view, nor to condemn those who insist on what he calls “a more rigorous pastoral care.” The personal, that is, non-magisterial, nature of the document is also evident in the fact that the references cited are principally the final report of the 2015 session of the Synod of Bishops and the addresses and homilies of Pope Francis himself. There is no consistent effort to relate the text, in general, or these citations to the magisterium, the Fathers of the Church and other proven authors.
What is more, as noted above, a document which is the fruit of the Synod of Bishops must always be read in the light of the purpose of the synod itself, namely, to safeguard and foster what the Church has always taught and practiced in accord with her teaching.
In other words, a post-synodal apostolic exhortation, by its very nature, does not propose new doctrine and discipline, but applies the perennial doctrine and discipline to the situation of the world at the time.
How, then, is the document to be received? First of all, it should be received with the profound respect owed to the Roman pontiff as the Vicar of Christ, in the words of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council: “the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity of both the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful” (Lumen Gentium, 23). Certain commentators confuse such respect with a supposed obligation to “believe with divine and Catholic faith” (Canon 750, § 1) everything contained in the document. But the Catholic Church, while insisting on the respect owed to the Petrine office as instituted by Our Lord himself, has never held that every utterance of the Successor of St. Peter should be received as part of her infallible magisterium.
The Church has historically been sensitive to the erroneous tendency to interpret every word of the pope as binding in conscience, which, of course, is absurd. According to a traditional understanding, the pope has two bodies, the body which is his as an individual member of the faithful and is subject to mortality and the body which is his as Vicar of Christ on earth, which, according to Our Lord’s promise, endures until his return in glory. The first body is his mortal body; the second body is the divine institution of the office of St. Peter and his successors.
The liturgical rites and the vesture surrounding the papacy underline the distinction, so that a personal reflection of the pope, while received with the respect owed to his person, is not confused with the binding faith owed to the exercise of the magisterium. In the exercise of the magisterium, the Roman pontiff as Vicar of Christ acts in an unbroken communion with his predecessors, beginning with St. Peter.
I remember the discussion that surrounded the publication of the conversations between Blessed Pope Paul VI and Jean Guitton in 1967. The concern was the danger that the faithful would confuse the pope’s personal reflections with official Church teaching. While the Roman pontiff has personal reflections that are interesting and can be inspiring, the Church must be ever attentive to point out that their publication is a personal act and not an exercise of the papal magisterium. Otherwise, those who do not understand the distinction, or do not want to understand it, will present such reflections and even anecdotal remarks of the pope as declarations of a change in the Church’s teaching, to the great confusion of the faithful. Such confusion is harmful to the faithful and weakens the witness of the Church as the body of Christ in the world.
With the publication of Amoris Laetitia, the task of pastors and other teachers of the faith is to present it within the context of the Church’s teaching and discipline, so that it serves to build up the body of Christ in its first cell of life, which is marriage and the family. In other words, the post-synodal apostolic exhortation can only be correctly interpreted, as a non-magisterial document, using the key of the magisterium, as it is described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (85-87).
The Church’s official doctrine, in fact, provides the irreplaceable interpretative key to the post-synodal apostolic exhortation, so that it may truly serve the good of all the faithful, uniting them ever more closely to Christ, who alone is our salvation. There can be no opposition or contradiction between the Church’s doctrine and her pastoral practice, since, as the Catechism reminds us, doctrine is inherently pastoral:
The mission of the magisterium is linked to the definitive nature of the covenant established by God with his people in Christ. It is this magisterium’s task to preserve God’s people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error. Thus the pastoral duty of the magisterium is aimed at seeing to it that the people of God abides in the truth that liberates (890).
The pastoral nature of doctrine is seen, in an eloquent manner, in the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family. Christ himself shows the deeply pastoral nature of the truth of the faith in his teaching on holy matrimony in the Gospel (Matthew 19: 3-12), in which he teaches anew the truth of God’s plan for marriage “from the beginning.”
During the past two years, in which the Church has engaged in an intense discussion of marriage and the family, I have frequently recalled an experience from my childhood. I was raised on a family dairy farm in rural Wisconsin, the youngest of six children of good Catholic parents. Ten o’clock Sunday Mass at our parish church in the nearby town was clearly at the heart of our life of faith. At a certain point, I became aware of a couple, friends of my parents from a neighboring farm, who were always at holy Mass but never received holy Communion. When I asked my father why they never received holy Communion, he explained to me that the husband was married to another woman and, therefore, could not receive the sacraments.
I recall vividly that my father explained to me the Church’s practice, in fidelity to her teaching, in a serene manner. The discipline obviously made sense to him, and it made sense to me. In fact, his explanation was a primary occasion for me to reflect on the nature of marriage as an indissoluble bond between husband and wife. At the same time, I must say that the parish priest always treated the couple involved with the greatest respect, even as they took part in parish life in a manner appropriate to the irregular state of their union. For my part, I always had the impression that, even though it must have been very difficult to be unable to receive the sacraments, they were at peace in living according to the truth about their marital state.
Over more than 40 years of priestly life and ministry, during 21 of which I have served as a bishop, I have known numerous other couples in an irregular union for whom I or my brother priests have had pastoral care. Even though their suffering would be clear to any compassionate soul, I have seen ever more clearly over the years that the first sign of respect and love for them is to speak the truth to them with love. In that way, the Church’s teaching is not something which further wounds them but, in truth, frees them for the love of God and their neighbor.
It may be helpful to illustrate one example of the need to interpret the text of Amoris Laetitia with the key of the magisterium. There is frequent reference in the document to the “ideal” of marriage. Such a description of marriage can be misleading. It could lead the reader to think of marriage as an eternal idea to which, in the changing historical circumstances, man and woman more or less conform. But Christian marriage is not an idea; it is a sacrament that confers grace upon a man and woman to live in faithful, permanent and procreative love of each other. Every Christian couple who validly marry receive, from the moment of their consent, the grace to live the love that they pledge to each other.
Because we all suffer the effects of original sin and because the world in which we live advocates a completely different understanding of marriage, the married suffer temptations to betray the objective reality of their love. But Christ always gives the grace for them to remain faithful to that love until death. The only thing that can limit them in their faithful response is their failure to respond to the grace given to them in the sacrament of holy matrimony. In other words, their struggle is not with some idea imposed upon them by the Church. Their struggle is with the forces that would lead them to betray the reality of Christ’s life within them.
Over the years, and, in a particular way, during the past two years, I have met many men and women who, for whatever reason, are separated or divorced from their spouse, but who are living in fidelity to the truth of their marriage and continuing to pray daily for the eternal salvation of their spouse, even if he or she abandoned them. In our conversations, they acknowledge the suffering involved but, above all, the profound peace which is theirs in remaining faithful to their marriage.
Some say that such a response to separation or divorce constitutes a heroism to which the average member of the faithful cannot be held, but, in truth, we are all called, whatever our state in life, to live heroically. Pope St. John Paul II, at the conclusion of the Great Jubilee Year 2000, making reference to the words of Our Lord at the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount — “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48) — taught us the heroic nature of our daily life in Christ with these words:
As the [Second Vatican] Council itself explained, this ideal of perfection must not be misunderstood as if it involved some kind of extraordinary existence, possible only for a few “uncommon heroes” of holiness. The ways of holiness are many, according to the vocation of each individual. … The time has come to re-propose wholeheartedly to everyone this high standard of ordinary Christian living: The whole life of the Christian community and of Christian families must lead in this direction (Novo Millennio Ineunte, 31).
Meeting men and women who, notwithstanding a breakdown in marital life, remain faithful to the grace of the sacrament of matrimony, I have witnessed the heroic life that grace makes possible for us daily, every day.
St. Augustine of Hippo, preaching on the feast day of St. Lawrence, deacon and martyr, in the year 417, used a beautiful image to encourage us in our cooperation with the divine grace that Our Lord has won for us by his passion and death. He assures us that in the garden of the Lord there are not only the roses of martyrs, but also the lilies of virgins, the ivies of spouses and the violets of widows. He concludes that, therefore, no one should despair regarding his vocation, for “Christ has died for all” (Sermon 304).
May the reception of Amoris Laetitia, in fidelity to the magisterium, confirm spouses in the grace of the sacrament of holy matrimony, so that they may be a sacrament of the faithful and enduring love of God for us “from the beginning,” which reached its fullest manifestation in the redemptive incarnation of God the Son. May the magisterium, as the key to its understanding, see to it “that the people of God abides in the truth that liberates” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 890).
Cardinal Raymond Burke is the patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.