by Russell Pollitt SJ

Today, at midday, the much awaited and debated post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia (AL) “on Love in the Family,” was released in Rome.

Archbishop Stephen Brislin of Cape Town, President of the Southern African Bishops’ Conference, and a Synod Father, told the Jesuit Institute:

“I am delighted by the publication of Amoris Laetitia. Firmly grounded in Scripture and the teaching of the Church, it deepens our appreciation of the beauty of marriage and family as a God-given gift. Characteristically, Pope Francis calls for mercy on the part of pastors when dealing with complex situations. It is a document of hope that challenges us all to find ways of strengthening marriage and family, to form consciences and to give effective preparation to those wishing to enter into marriage.”

It is a lengthy and detailed document – 325 paragraphs distributed over nine chapters in 256 pages. In this piece I give a broad overview of the contents of the Exhortation.

The Exhortation does not affirm the ‘ideal family’ but the complexity and richness of family life. It is profoundly positive about family life and gives pastoral attention to reality. It is clearly a text that arises out of what people have lived over many years. It is written from the heart of a merciful pastor.

Pope Francis, undoubtedly, wants to express himself in a language the reaches his audience. Like Evangelii Gaudium, he writes in an accessible manner which is not detached from people’s lives. It speaks the language of experience and of hope.

Pope Francis begins AL by explaining the complexity of the topic that is in need of thorough study in the introduction. The Pope cautions that “not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium” (AL 3). He suggests that better solutions for some questions can be found in cultural contexts, which are diverse, because they are more likely to be sensitive to traditions and local needs. This would also mean, he says, that answers would be better respected and applied. He says that an approach to the family and issues that families face cannot be “globalised.”

Pope Francis says that we need to avoid juxtapositions between demands for total change and the general application of abstract norms as if they would solve everything.  

In chapter one, entitled “In the light if the Word,” Pope Francis begins his reflection on family with the Scriptures. He offers a mediation on Psalm 128. He says that the bible “is full of families, births, love stories and family crises” (AL 8). Pope Francis says that this impels us to to meditate on how the family is not an abstract ideal but rather like a practical “trade” (AL 16) which is carried out with tenderness but has also been confronted with sin from the beginning when the relationship of love was turned into dominion.

The Pontiff says that the Word of God “is not a series of abstract ideas but rather a source of comfort and companionship for every family that experiences difficulties or suffering” (AL 22).

Chapter two, “The experiences and challenges of families” builds on the biblical base of the first chapter. The Pope considers the current situations of families. He tries to keep firmly grounded in the reality of family experiences but also draws heavily on the final reports of the two sessions of the Synod.

Families face many challenges: from migration to the ideological denial of differences between the sexes – ‘ideology of gender’; from the culture of provisional to the antibirth mentality and the impact of technology on procreation; from the lack of housing and work to pornography and abuse of minors; from inattention to persons with disabilities to lack of respect for the elderly; from the legal dismantling of the family to violence against women. The Pope is concrete and real in his analysis.

The Pope warns that if we fail to listen then we cannot understand the challenges that we face today. He notes that rampant individualism makes it difficult for one person to give themselves to another generously. He says that this is an interesting situation: “The fear of loneliness and desire for stability and fidelity exist side by side with a growing fear of entrapment in a relationship that could hamper the achievement of one’s personal goals” (AL 34).

Francis says that the humility of realism helps us avoid “a far too abstract and almost artificial theological idea of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families” (AL 36). He warns that idealism does not allow marriage to be understood for what it is and has even made marriage look undesirable and unattractive. Francis also says that often we have insisted on the procreative duty of marriage which has overshadowed a call to grow in love and mutual assistance.  

The Pope stresses the need to make room for the conscience of the faithful: “We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them” (AL 37).

The third chapter, “Looking to Jesus: The vocation of the family,” is dedicated to the essential elements of the Church’s teaching on marriage and family. This is a key chapter as it describes the family concisely according to the Gospel and as affirmed by the Church over time. It stresses themes like the indissolubility of marriage, its sacramental nature, the transmission of life and the education of children. Key documents are widely quoted: Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes, Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae and John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio.

The chapter also affirms that positive forms of marriage are found in other cultures, even at times “obscurely” (AL 77). The reflection includes the words ‘wounded families’ – an expression which comes from the final Relatio of the 2015 Synod.

Francis quotes extensively from the Relatio saying that “it is always necessary to recall this general principle: Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations’ (Familiaris Consortio, 84). The degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases and factors may exist which limit the ability to make a decision. Therefore, while clearly stating the Church’s teaching, pastors are to avoid judgements that do not take into account the complexity of various situations, and they are to be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience and endure distress because of their condition” (AL 79).

The fourth chapter deals with “Love in marriage.” The chapter is structured around St. Paul’s hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. The opening of this chapter is a wonderful, inspired and poetic exegesis of the Pauline text. It describes human love in very concrete terms. This is a rich and very valuable contribution to Christian married life and is unprecedented in previous papal documents.

In this chapter Pope Francis refuses to judge against ideal standards: “There is no need to lay upon two limited persons the tremendous burden of having to reproduce perfectly the union existing between Christ and his Church, for marriage as a sign entails ‘a dynamic process… one which advances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God’” (AL 122).

On the other hand, the Pope forcefully stresses the fact that conjugal love by its very nature defines the partners in a richly encompassing and lasting union. It is in that “mixture of enjoyment and struggles, tensions and repose, pain and relief, satisfactions and longings, annoyances and pleasures” (AL 126) that marriage is lived.

Pope Francis closes this chapter by looking at the transformation love offers. He says that because lifespans have increased, and people will spend many more decades together, the initial decision has to be “frequently renewed” (AL 163). He says that loving attraction does not change as appearance changes. He says that sexual desire can be transformed over time into a desire for togetherness and mutuality.

In the fifth chapter, “Love made fruitful,” Francis looks at the fruits of marriage and procreation. He speaks about the spiritual and psychological manner in which new life is welcomed, about the waiting period of pregnancy, and about the love of father and mother.

In this chapter the Holy Father speaks about the expanded fruit of adoption and the broadness of family life – aunts and uncles, cousins, relatives, relatives of relatives and friends. Importantly, Pope Francis does not focus on the so-called ‘nuclear family’ because he is very aware of the family as a wider network of many relationships.

He emphasises the relationship between youth and the elderly as well as the relationship between brothers and sisters as a training ground for relating to others.

Chapter six, “Some pastoral perspectives”, looks at how solid and fruitful families can be formed according to God’s plan. This chapter uses the catechesis of Pope Francis himself and Pope John Paul II extensively. Francis says that families should not only be evangelised, they too must evangelise.

The Pope regrets that “ordained ministers often lack the training needed to deal with the complex problems currently facing families” (AL 202). He says that the psycho-affective formation of seminarians needs to be improved, and families need to be more involved in formation for ministry. He suggests that “the experience of the broad oriental tradition of a married clergy could also be drawn upon” (AL 202).

The Holy Father then deals with the preparation for marriage, the accompaniment of couples for the first few years of marriage – including the issue of responsible parenthood.

Francis then examines the accompaniment of abandoned, separated or divorced persons. The Exhortation stresses the importance of the recent reform of the procedures for marriage annulment. It highlights the suffering of children in situations of conflict and concludes: “Divorce is an evil and the increasing number of divorces is very troubling. Hence, our most important pastoral task with regard to families is to strengthen their love, helping to heal wounds and working to prevent the spread of this drama of our times” (AL 246).

The Pope then touches on the situations of a marriage between a Catholic and a Christian of another denomination (mixed marriages), and between a Catholic and someone of another religion (disparity of cult).

Regarding families with same-sex attraction, Francis reaffirms the necessity to respect gay people and to refrain from any unjust discrimination and every form of aggression or violence.

The last, pastorally important part of the chapter, “When death makes us feel its sting”, is on the theme of the loss of dear ones. Pope Francis writes seven paragraphs on this in which he looks at the grieving process and recommends a fellowship with deceased loved ones by praying for them.

“Towards a better education of children” is the title of the seventh chapter. Francis looks at a range of issues around the formation of children: their ethical formation, the learning of discipline which can include punishment, patient realism, sex education, passing on the faith and, more generally, family life as an educational context. The practical wisdom present in each paragraph is remarkable, above all the attention given to those gradual, small steps “that can be understood, accepted and appreciated” (AL 271).

Francis says that obsession is not education. He says that we cannot control every situation that a child experiences. He says that “If parents are obsessed with always knowing where their children are and controlling all their movements, they will seek only to dominate space. But this is no way to educate, strengthen and prepare children to face challenges. What is most important is the ability to lovingly help them grow in freedom, maturity, overall discipline and real autonomy” (AL 260).

In the education chapter there is a section entitled “The need for sex education.” The Holy Father asks if our education institutions have taken up this challenge. He says the education of children in sexuality is not easy in a time when sex has been trivialised and impoverished. Francis says that ‘safe sex’ conveys “a negative attitude towards the natural procreative finality of sexuality, as if an eventual child were an enemy to be protected against. This way of thinking promotes narcissism and aggressivity in place of acceptance” (AL 283).

Chapter eight will attract much attention, it is a very sensitive chapter and will be much debated. In this chapter Pope Francis grapples with the most controversial issues of the two sittings of the Synod. The chapter, entitled “Guiding, discerning and integrating weakness,” is an invitation to mercy and pastoral discernment in situations that do not full match what God proposes. This chapter should be read through the image of the Church as a “field hospital” (AL 291).

Pope Francis insists on using three verbs: guiding, discerning and integratingI. He says that these are fundamental to addressing fragile, complex and irregular situations. The chapter also looks at the need for gradualness in pastoral care, the importance of discernment, norms and mitigating circumstances in pastoral discernment and, finally, what the Pope calls the “logic of pastoral mercy”.

Francis reaffirms what Christian marriage is, then continues: “some forms of union radically contradict this ideal, while others realize it in at least a partial and analogous way”. He says the Synod Fathers “do not disregard the constructive elements in those situations which do not yet or no longer correspond to her teaching on marriage” (AL 292).

Through the lens of discernment Pope Francis writes about “irregular” situations. He says that “There is a need to ‘avoid judgements which do not take into account the complexity of various situations’ and ‘to be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience distress because of their condition’” (AL 296). The Pope stresses the need to reach out and help people to find their own proper way of participating in the ecclesial community and in so doing help them to be touched by “unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous mercy” (AL 297).

Francis says that “The divorced who have entered a new union, for example, can find themselves in a variety of situations, which should not be pigeonholed or fit into overly rigid classifications leaving no room for a suitable personal and pastoral discernment” (AL 298).

The Holy Father then goes on to say that the “the baptized who are divorced and civilly remarried need to be more fully integrated into Christian communities in the variety of ways possible, while avoiding any occasion of scandal”. Their participation can be expressed in different ecclesial services… Such persons need to feel not as excommunicated members of the Church, but instead as living members, able to live and grow in the Church… This integration is also needed in the care and Christian upbringing of their children” (AL 299).

Pope Francis then makes a very important point which offers a deeper understanding and gives orientation to the Exhortation. He says “If we consider the immense variety of concrete situations… it is understandable that neither the Synod nor this Exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases. What is needed is simply a renewed encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases, one which would recognize that, since ‘the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases’, the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same” (AL 300).  

Pope Francis then develops, in depth, the needs and characteristics of the journey of accompaniment and discernment necessary for profound dialogue between the faithful and their pastors. He looks at mitigating factors and situations and relies on St. Thomas Aquinas to look at the relationship between rules and discernment.

In the last part of this chapter the Holy Father examines “The logic of mercy”. To avoid misunderstanding Pope Francis says “To show understanding in the face of exceptional situations never implies dimming the light of the fuller ideal, or proposing less than what Jesus offers to the human being. Today, more important than the pastoral care of failures is the pastoral effort to strengthen marriages and thus to prevent their breakdown” (AL 307).

From the heart of a true shepherd Pope Francis wraps this chapter up by saying “At times we find it hard to make room for God’s unconditional love in our pastoral activity. We put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance. That is the worst way of watering down the Gospel” (AL 311).

He exhorts God’s people “I encourage the faithful who find themselves in complicated situations to speak confidently with their pastors or with other lay people whose lives are committed to the Lord. They may not always encounter in them a confirmation of their own ideas or desires, but they will surely receive some light to help them better understand their situation and discover a path to personal growth. I also encourage the Church’s pastors to listen to them with sensitivity and serenity, with a sincere desire to understand their plight and their point of view, in order to help them live better lives and to recognize their proper place in the Church.” (AL 312).

In the ninth, and final chapter, “The spirituality of marriage and the family”, the Holy Father says that family spirituality “is made up of thousands of small gestures” (AL 315).

Francis says that “those who have deep spiritual aspirations should not feel that the family detracts from their growth in the life of the Spirit, but rather see it as a path which the Lord is using to lead them to the heights of mystical union” (AL 316). Everything, “moments of joy, relaxation, celebration, and even sexuality can be experienced as a sharing in the full life of the resurrection” (AL 317).

The Pope says that “all family life is a ‘shepherding’ in mercy. Each of us, by our love and care, leaves a mark on the life of others” (AL 322). It is a profound “spiritual experience to contemplate our loved ones with the eyes of God and to see Christ in them” (AL 323).

In closing the Pontiff reminds us that “No family drops down from heaven perfectly formed; families need constantly to grow and mature in the ability to love …All of us are called to keep striving towards something greater than ourselves and our families, and every family must feel this constant impulse. May we never lose heart because of our limitations, or ever stop seeking that fullness of love and communion which God holds out before us” (AL 325).

The Holy Father ends the Apostolic Exhortation with a Prayer to the Holy Family.