Long awaited, and prepared, after a two-year process, the very long apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis — the longest document in the entire history of the papal magisterium — invites a reading that the Holy Father suggests not be “rushed,” even as he apologizes for its length.

There will be ample time to turn to the various aspects of Amoris Laetitia, as both Robert Royal and Edward Pentin have begun to do in these pages. Yet it is now possible to evaluate the two-year process, which began in 2014. The result is as surprising as one could have expected. The same Pope Francis who threw open the Synod of Bishops to a protracted and divisive debate found himself restrained by that same synodal process in the end. As the Holy Father himself would observe, God is full of surprises.

In February 2014, Pope Francis invited Cardinal Walter Kasper to address the College of Cardinals about the possibility of admitting the divorced and civilly remarried to Eucharistic Communion, even as they continued to live in a conjugal relationship with someone other than their sacramental spouse. That was met with near-universal rejection by the assembled cardinals, but Pope Francis insisted it be on the agenda for synod 2014.

A few weeks after Cardinal Kasper’s address, a more provocative trial balloon was floated when the Holy Father, according to the woman in question, called an Argentinian parishioner and told her that she should receive Communion despite not being validly married; and if her own pastor would not permit it, she should find another parish in which to do so. The Holy See never denied that the Holy Father said such a thing, letting it stand as an indication of what the Holy Father presumably would like to do.

The synod of October 2014 included great manipulation by the managers of the synod, who presumed that they were doing what the Holy Father wanted in attempting to foist on the synod an interim report that opened the path to liberalization of Catholic doctrine. The synod fathers as a whole rejected that approach.

At the synod of October 2015, despite an intense effort by the synod managers to advance a change in pastoral practice, all the while insisting that it did not mean a change in doctrine, the synod fathers refused to endorse a change in the teaching of St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI on the question of divorce, remarriage and Communion. Out of deference to the Holy Father’s presumed preference, synod 2015 simply did not reassert that teaching, keeping silent on the most contested question. The result appeared to dismay Pope Francis, as he concluded synod 2015 with a blistering attack on the traditional party, accusing them of “throwing stones” against the suffering and afflicted.

In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis accepted what the synodal process gave him — no change in doctrine, but a decision not to speak too loudly about those aspects of Church teaching most at odds with contemporary culture. The debates will continue, and there will be many difficulties ahead, should the Cardinal Kasper party formulate formal policies in contravention of existing teaching, in effect daring the Holy Father to stop them. Whether that will materialize remains to be seen.

So concludes a tumultuous two years. And the lesson drawn is one that Francis himself has taught, even if it became manifest in an unexpected way — the Spirit moves in the Church, upending plans and the programs. The synod was thrown open by the Holy Father to create new possibilities in the pastoral care of the family. What the synod in fact did was prevent the break with the magisterial tradition desired by many who plausibly presumed to have the Pope’s backing.

It was, as they say in aviation, a near miss. From the first pages of Amoris Laetitia to the last, the exhortation evidently yearns to declare what it never declares: that the teaching on marriage and holy Communion can change. Indeed, the most critical line on the question is buried in a footnote, almost as if the editors hoped no one would notice.

To get a sense of how strange a circumstance we are in, try to imagine the moral analysis in Amoris Laetitia being applied to any moral question not raised by the sexual revolution. If the question, for example, were whether employers who were exploiting their workers were in an impossible situation that was otherwise too difficult to change, it is unlikely that the papal magisterium would propose that the general principles of justice might not apply in these complex concrete situations.

And therein lies the second key conclusion to the two years of turbulence. For many in the Kasper party, admitting the divorced and civilly remarried to Communion was the first step in accommodating Catholic teaching to the sexual revolution. If sex could be separated from marriage without sin, then the unraveling of the teaching on contraception, any sexual activity outside of marriage and homosexual acts could follow.

Pope Francis perhaps thought that the former could be done without leading to the latter, but the synod blocked that path. Most emphatically though, Francis rejects the latter project of embracing the sexual revolution, explicitly affirming Humanae Vitae on the unitive and procreative nature of conjugal life in marriage.

There is much, much more to be written about Amoris Laetitia, much of which will be of benefit to those who are married or preparing for marriage. There will be serious challenges for theologians to reconcile this exhortation into the magisterial tradition. But what is significant today is a moment in Church history. Pope Francis unleashed a synod process and, in the end, decided to accept the synod’s leash upon himself.

Father Raymond J. De Souza 

is editor in chief of 

Convivium magazine.

He has been appointed to serve as a

 jubilee year missionary of mercy by the Holy See.