Married love “advances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God” (#122), says Pope Francis in his Apostolic Exhortation on the Joy of Love in the Family. There is no limit to the spouses’ ability to participate in the infinite charity which is the Holy Spirit (cf. #134). “Even amid unresolved conflicts and confused emotional situations, they daily reaffirm their decision to love, to belong to one another, to share their lives and to continue loving and forgiving. Each progresses along the path of personal growth and development. On this journey, love rejoices at every step and in every new stage” (#163). On this journey to full maturity in Christ, the Church accompanies married couples and assists them in the lifelong task of formation of conscience which, as the Catechism says (#1784), “guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart.”
Two gifts of God are necessary in this lifelong task of conscience formation: the light of God’s word and the authoritative teaching of the Church (Ibid, #1785). For good reason, then, Pope Francis affirms both of these as the primary foundation for his document. Literally and organically, he puts at the center of his Exhortation both these gifts of God: the Sacred Scriptures and the Magisterial teaching of the Church. In chapter four, he reflects on God’s teaching on love from the famous text of 1 Corinthians 13; and in chapter five, the Holy Father affirms the Church’s teaching on fruitfulness in marriage.
To assist married couples in the journey to mature love in Christ, the Church “seeks the grace of conversion for them” (#78), and encourages them to have confidence that forgiveness is always within their reach: “When we have been offended or let down, forgiveness is possible and desirable, but no one can say that it is easy. … We need to learn to pray over our past history, to accept ourselves, to learn how to live with our limitations, and even to forgive ourselves, in order to have this same attitude toward others” (#106f).
EN ESPAÑOL: Formación de la conciencia garantiza la libertad
Throughout the entire Exhortation, and indeed throughout all of his papacy, the Holy Father has gone to great lengths to show that God’s Plan for marriage and family is truly good news, and that it is possible, with God’s grace, to know His plan, to accept it in faith and to live it with joy and ever deepening love.
As a good shepherd, Pope Francis focuses special attention on those who walk on the edge of despair because of personal failures and problems they have suffered in their families, and because of the complex and contradictory situations in which they find themselves now. He calls for deeper and sustained pastoral accompaniment of these suffering families, assuring them that they are welcome in the Church family, and that we are eager to seek ways to integrate them more fully into our local communities. This situation does not, it is important to note, mean that the Catholic persons are excommunicated from the Church. They should be encouraged to pray, attend Mass, and rectify the situation in communication with their pastor, who remains their pastor despite the case of objective sin. Accompaniment is possible and should be the case in our parishes.
This does not, however, include receiving Holy Communion for those who are divorced and remarried. Pope Francis specifically calls those in this situation “to seek the grace of conversion” (#78). Throughout Amoris Laetitia we see a continuity with the Church’s Magisterium especially that of Blessed Paul VI, St. John Paul II, and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI which reaffirm the constant tradition of the Church.
In Familiaris Consortio #84, for example, St. John Paul II taught, “… I earnestly call upon pastors and the whole community of the faithful to help the divorced, and with solicitous care to make sure that they do not consider themselves as separated from the Church, for as baptized persons they can, and indeed must, share in Her life. They should be encouraged to listen to the Word of God, to attend the Sacrifice of the Mass, to persevere in prayer, to contribute to works of charity and to community efforts in favor of justice, to bring up their children in the Christian faith, to cultivate the spirit and practice of penance and thus implore, day by day, God’s grace. Let the Church pray for them, encourage them and show Herself a merciful Mother, and thus sustain them in faith and hope. However, the Church reaffirms Her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and affected by the Eucharist.” Similarly, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI affirmed this consistent teaching and practice of the Church in Sacramentum Caritatis #29.
With wisdom, the Catechism teaches that (#1785), “we must … examine our conscience before the Lord’s Cross … assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit.” Without embracing the Cross of Christ, we cannot have life in Him. Only when we “take up our cross each day” and follow Him can we be His disciples. The Lord gives us the command and also the grace to do this, every day, beginning within the family in which by God’s grace we live.