‘Amoris Laetitia’ Offers Marriage Motivation

EDITORIAL: U.S. bishops discuss the Christian vision of marriage that pervades papal document.

(photo: Shutterstock)

After a two-year synodal process punctuated by both euphoric and dire predictions of a “revolution” in Church discipline regarding reception of Communion for divorced-and-remarried Catholics, the faithful had reason to hope that the April 8 release of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (Love in the Family) would finally offer time for much-needed reflection.

The Pope himself directed his flock to switch off from social media and patiently read the 256-page document, informally named “The Joy of Love,” a suggestion echoed by U.S. bishops in statements following the release of the exhortation and in interviews with the Register.

“The first sentence of the document — ‘The joy of love experienced by families is also the joy of the Church’ — is really the prism for understanding the whole document,” Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the Register in an April interview.

Archbishop Kurtz said he was “saddened” by some media coverage that sought to reduce the exhortation to a sound bite that heralded seismic changes in Church discipline. “We are Americans. When we receive a document, we want it to be implemented immediately. Pope Francis has said, ‘Please read it slowly and carefully,’” said Archbishop Kurtz.

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco told the Register that the Holy Father’s “reflection on the spirituality of marriage and family life reinforced the teaching of the Church and the insights of his predecessors.” The Pope, he added, is building on the key themes of his pontificate, inviting the universal Church to take part in a “culture of encounter and accompaniment” that welcomes those who have drifted to the margins of the parish and “supports them if they need to regularize their situation.”

That confident, enthusiastic and nuanced response will likely set the tone for upcoming meetings between local bishops and pastors that will focus on the exhortation and its call for more intense, creative efforts to improve marriage preparation and engage cohabiting couples, while supporting spouses in shaky marriages and counseling divorced-and-remarried Catholics.

Amoris Laetitia asks Catholics to drill deeper into the teachings of their faith, but the Pope also implores the world at large to reverence and defend the institution of marriage before it is too late.

“The Pope focuses on two related themes: the call of the family in the Church and the modern world and the mission of the family in the Church and the modern world,” noted Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston in an April 8 statement. “The weaving together of the themes allows the Holy Father to celebrate the sacrament of marriage and analyze what is at stake in the call to marriage; the weaving also permits him to urge and encourage couples and their families to witness to the gift of love in the world, the love that has its origin in God the Father and in his Son, Jesus Christ.”

Catholics today are invited to ground their search for true love in the teachings and sacrificial love of Christ, even as the culture perceives the indissolubility of marriage as a threat to personal autonomy.

Pope Francis “is lifting up for the whole world [the Church’s teaching that] marriage, fidelity, children and the sanctity of life are all real,” Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington told the Register. “You can live a beautiful and happy life in a marriage in which people are faithful, loving, caring and fruitful and, at the same time, totally human. Marriage is God’s gift to us, and it is worth all the challenges couples face.”

Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles highlighted the exhortation’s critique of a hyper-individualistic “throwaway culture” in an April 14 column published in the archdiocesan newspaper, The Tidings.

“People have come to believe ‘along the lines of social networks, that love can be connected or disconnected at the whim of the consumer, and the relationship quickly ‘blocked,’ the Pope writes. ‘Everything is disposable; everyone uses and throws away, takes and breaks, exploits and squeezes to the last drop. Then, goodbye,’” said Archbishop Gomez, referencing passages in the exhortation. 

The Los Angeles archbishop deplored the “frenzy of reaction in the media, much of it confusing.” The Pope, he said, “has no intention of changing Church doctrine or teaching. Instead, he wants to change our hearts so that we can better know and live what he calls ‘the primordial divine plan’ for our lives and our society.” 

At present, however, the release of the exhortation has failed to calm the controversy and debate sparked by the synodal process, and there are signs of fresh challenges ahead, as dioceses prepare to apply the Pope’s guidance and insights.

In recent weeks, some Church leaders and thinkers have stated that the exhortation offers implicit support for a relaxation of Church discipline, at least in some cases. Meanwhile, media commentators have offered their own spin on ambiguous passages in Chapter Eight of the exhortation.

“‘The Joy of Love’ … rejects black-and-white rules for the faithful,” reported the Chicago Sun-Times in its coverage of the exhortation. “Francis insisted that individual conscience be the guiding principle for Catholics negotiating the complexities of sex, marriage and family life.”

Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago offered a more nuanced assessment of the exhortation at an April 8 press conference. But while most Church leaders have been cautious about raising expectations that divorced-and-remarried Catholics will now be able to receive the Eucharist, he appeared more forthcoming.

“The Pope urges the Church not to step away from proposing the full ideal of marriage,” Archbishop Cupich told reporters. “At the same time, he makes clear that doctrines are at the service of the pastoral mission.”

When asked to outline “specific situations [in which] he would allow a divorced-and-remarried person to receive Communion,” Archbishop Cupich replied, “I would like our pastors to have discussion with all of those folks who are in these kinds of situations. … I know in my experience as a pastor, if you’ve seen a marriage, then you’ve seen one marriage. There is no instance that can be replicated.”

In a reference to concerns that a relaxation of Church discipline would undermine Jesus’ foundational teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, the Chicago archbishop said that pastoral accompaniment “is not a slippery slope, but a path forward for people who find themselves stuck.”

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia also addressed the exhortation’s challenging and sometimes “ambiguous” language dealing with pastoral outreach to Catholics in “irregular marital situations” in an April 14 column in his archdiocesan newspaper. To avoid confusion, he said the document should be read in conjunction with Pope St. John Paul II’s body of teaching on the family. He also emphasized the importance of welcoming Catholics who feel alienated from the Church.

Then he offered words of caution. “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.”

Archbishop Chaput noted that the Philadelphia Archdiocese has already begun to draft “diocesan guidelines for understanding and applying Amoris Laetitia.” And in the weeks and months ahead, local bishops across the nation will oversee similar efforts.

After an inspiring and, at times, controversial synodal process, the U.S. bishops finally have a document in hand to help pastors guide the faithful and reach alienated Catholics. The secular media’s efforts to frame the exhortation as a seismic event — a rupture in the continuity of the Church’s distinctive witness to the full truth of married love — mark the importance and gravity of this moment.

Thus we pray that the Christian vision of marriage that pervades this document will spark a revolution that begins with the conversion of the heart.   

“The joy of love experienced by families is also the joy of the Church.”


This editorial appears in May 1, 2016, print issue.

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