A striking feature of Pope Francis’ 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) is its length — it is some three times longer than St. John Paul II’s 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio that similarly resulted from a synod on marriage and family.
One reason for the massive size of the document is its unprecedented engagement of the two synods that immediately preceded it. By my unofficial count, Pope Francis references the final report of the 2014 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops more than 50 times and the 2015 Ordinary Synod of Bishops more than 80 times. He tells us that the document is in many ways the fruit of intensive listening on his part (see Paragraph 4) — something I can verify from watching him in the 2015 synod at which I served.
An event like a synod, he said in his opening remarks to us, is an act of discernment on the part of a group of bishops, but this discernment must always take place with and under Peter (cum Petro et sub Petro). Amoris Laetitia (AL) is the fruit of this exercise of discernment on the part of the Church.
The purpose of his document, Pope Francis says, is to present “the full ideal of marriage, God’s plan in all its grandeur” (307). Before, during and after Amoris Laetitia, the Holy Father has insisted that he is not changing or modifying the Church’s doctrine on marriage. But he does clearly want to change the tone in which that teaching is heard. This is an idea to which he returns repeatedly in the document. In one of the most striking instances, he says:
“... the Church must be particularly concerned to offer understanding, comfort and acceptance, rather than imposing straightaway a set of rules that only lead people to feel judged and abandoned by the very Mother called to show them God’s mercy. Rather than offering the healing power of grace and the light of the Gospel message, some would ‘indoctrinate’ that message, turning it into ‘dead stones to be hurled at others’” (49).
The Church’s teaching is not meant to be weaponized — it is meant to be an invitation to encounter Christ, who is the face of the Father’s mercy.
Thus, we must begin with the encounter with Christ, which is at the heart of Christian life (see Evangelii Gaudium, 3) or with “the gaze of Jesus” (AL, 60). It is then that Christian life and teaching becomes a “message of love and tenderness,” rather than “the defense of a dry and lifeless doctrine” (59). And, as its name implies, Amoris Laetitia is very much about love.
On receiving a copy of the document a day ahead of its release, I tore through it (contrary to the Holy Father’s recommendation to proceed slowly, 7), knowing that I would spend the coming days explaining it to the media. When I reached the commentary on St. Paul’s hymn to love (1 Corinthians 13) in Chapter 4, I was forced into a slower reading. What can often sound almost trite because of the frequency with which we hear it at weddings, in the hands of Pope Francis’ deft and meditative exegesis, becomes a beautiful illumination of the power and demands of love not only in the family, but in any state of the Christian life.
One commentator called this section (90-119) “the beating heart of the document” — a rare statement about Amoris Laetitia to which I could give unqualified agreement.
A question that I heard raised by many bishops and other analysts at the synod was, “What has become of the theology of the body (TOB) in the ministry of Pope Francis?” For those of us who knew its value as a tool to evangelize and catechize a culture such as ours that has been so deeply wounded by the sexual revolution, this was a pressing question.
The query was answered generously and extensively by Amoris Laetitia, which demonstrates a deep, careful and consistent reading of the catecheses of St. John Paul II. This is true not just in the section on erotic love (150-152), which offers a rich synthesis of the theology of the body centered on the body’s nuptial meaning. TOB is engaged in Pope Francis’ extension of the teaching of his predecessor on mutual submission in marriage to the couple’s sexual relationship (156), the relation of virginity to marriage (159-161), motherhood (168, 173), the spirituality of married life (216), and chastity education for the young (284).
In short, the TOB is alive and well in Pope Francis’ ministry and his vision for the Church.
In this document, we hear clearly Pope Francis’ voice as a pastor — a voice that is different from his two more scholarly predecessors. As a pastor, he gives couples an array of wise practical advice, ranging from communication and conflict resolution, to building and sustaining intimacy, to aging together, to navigating crises or dealing with old wounds. He challenges couples to keep wedding celebrations simple and warns against unrealistic expectations.
As a teacher, he is at once innovative and traditional. He breaks new ground in challenging the Church to accompany couples and continue to form them after their weddings (217-30), which is a game changer for the way in which we think about marriage ministry.
He offers the strongest condemnations of domestic violence that we have heard from the Church to date (51, 54). At the same time, he is unequivocal in defending the Church’s perennial teaching on openness to life articulated in Humanae Vitae (80) and in recommending natural family planning (222).
But, says the skeptic, what about Chapter 8 and its infamous Footnote 351, which seems to imply inclusion of the divorced and civilly remarried in the Church’s sacramental life?
I take much of the Holy Father’s invocation of distinctions made in classical casuistry (developed largely by Jesuit moralists) to be an effort to adopt a more merciful tone toward those in irregular unions. Even he acknowledges that the result is not wholly clear (308).
Yet the document is clear and emphatic that there has been no alteration of the Church’s doctrine nor general changes to its sacramental practice or canon law (300), other than the recent streamlining of the annulment process (244).
At most, the document may walk back a general presumption against sacramental participation for those in “conflict cases” (i.e., cases where a couple believes in conscience that their previous marriage was invalid but is unable to make this case before a tribunal — see 298).
But to fixate on Chapter 8 and what it does or does not say is to miss the proverbial forest for the trees. For Pope Francis, the point of the two synods and of Amoris Laetitia is to form and equip families to not just be objects of evangelization, but active subjects of the Church’s evangelizing mission. As the Holy Father says:
“Christian families, by the grace of the sacrament of matrimony, are the principal agents of the family apostolate” (200).
Pope Francis looks at family in the light of the New Evangelization. Evangelization will also be the focus of the synod on young people in October.
In this focus on evangelization, he is in complete continuity with the teaching of his three major predecessors: Benedict XVI, St. John Paul II and Blessed Paul VI. Part of what is “new” in the New Evangelization is that it must involve the whole Church — families and laity alongside of clergy and religious.
Hence, when we attend to the whole of its message, Amoris Laetitia is an invitation for Christian families to fulfill their call to be “missionary disciples.”
John Grabowski, Ph.D., is associate professor
of moral theology and ethics at
The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.