By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The same mercy and patience that are essential for building a strong family must be shown to those whose families are in trouble or have broken up, Pope Francis said in his highly anticipated postsynodal apostolic exhortation.
The 264-page document, “Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), on Love in the Family,” released April 8, contains no new rules or norms. However, it encourages careful review of everything related to family ministry and, particularly, much greater attention to the language and attitude used when explaining Church teaching and ministering to those who do not fully live that teaching.
By their very nature, apostolic exhortations do not define Church doctrine, but are rather reflections of existing teaching, typically following and in light of an assembly of the Synod of Bishops.
“No family drops down from heaven perfectly formed; families need constantly to grow and mature in the ability to love,” Pope Francis wrote. People grow in holiness, and the Church must be there to give them a helping hand rather than turn them away because they have not attained some degree of perfection.
The exhortation was Pope Francis’ reflection on the discussion, debate and suggestions raised during the 2014 and 2015 meetings of the Synod of Bishops on the family. Like synod members did, the pope insisted that God’s plan for the family is that it be built on the lifelong union of one man and one woman open to having children.
“Amoris Laetitia is a tremendously important document for all of us who teach on behalf of the Church to read ‘slowly’ and ‘with patience’ as Pope Francis requests,” said Mike Phelan, director of the Diocese of Phoenix’s Office of Marriage and Respect Life. “Once I got past the number of pages and began the obedient work of reading and thinking, I was truly blessed by it. We must know what it teaches, not what rushed readings in the media tell us it teaches.”
“Scriptural reflection is the leitmotif of the document,” Phelan added. “Reading it slowly and meditatively, patiently and carefully, as our Holy Father requests in Paragraph 7, is to experience something like personal spiritual direction from a renowned spiritual director, grounded in God’s written Word.”
Synod members, including priests, religious and laypeople serving as experts and observers, talked about everything from varied cultural forms of courtship to marriage preparation and from the impact of migration on families to care for elderly parents.
“The pope has given us a love letter to families — a love letter inviting all of us, and especially married couples and families, to never stop growing in love,” said Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, president of the USCCB, in a statement. “It is also a love letter calling the Church, the family of God, to realize more and more her mission to live and love as a family.”
Pope Francis’ document touches on all the issues raised at the synods and gives practical advice on raising children, urges a revision of sex-education programs and decries the many ways the “disposable culture” has infiltrated family life and sexuality to the point that many people feel free to use and then walk away from others.
“Everyone uses and throws away, takes and breaks, exploits and squeezes to the last drop. Then, goodbye,” he wrote.
Much of the document is tied to the theme of God’s mercy, including Pope Francis’ discussion of welcoming the vulnerable.
“Dedication and concern shown to migrants and to persons with special needs alike is a sign of the Spirit,” he wrote. Both are “a test of our commitment to show mercy in welcoming others and to help the vulnerable to be fully a part of our communities.”
The synod issues that garnered the most headlines revolved around the question of Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried, as well as Catholic attitudes toward homosexuality.
“In no way must the Church desist from proposing the full ideal of marriage, God’s plan in all its grandeur,” Pope Francis said.
He repeated his and the synod’s insistence that the Church cannot consider same-sex unions to be a marriage, but also insisted, “every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity.”
On the question of families experiencing difficulties, separation or even divorce and remarriage, Pope Francis said responses to the questionnaires sent around the world before the synod “showed that most people in difficult or critical situations do not seek pastoral assistance, since they do not find it sympathetic, realistic or concerned for individual cases.”
The responses, he wrote, call on the Church “to try to approach marriage crises with greater sensitivity to their burden of hurt and anxiety.”
Particularly in ministry to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, Pope Francis said, pastors must help each couple look at their actions and circumstances, recognize their share of responsibility for the breakup of their marriage, acknowledge Church teaching that marriage is indissoluble and prayerfully discern what God is calling them to.
Pope Francis said it would be a “grave danger” to give people the impression that “any priest can quickly grant ‘exceptions’ or that some people can obtain sacramental privileges in exchange for favors.”
At the same time, he insisted, “the way of the Church is not to condemn anyone forever; it is to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart.”
Divorced and civilly remarried couples, especially those with children, must be welcomed in Catholic parishes and supported in efforts to raise their children in the faith.
Generally, without an annulment of their sacramental marriage, such a couple would not be able to receive Communion or absolution of their sins unless they promised to live as “brother and sister.” But every situation is different, the pope said, which is why the Church does not need new rules, but a new commitment on the part of pastors to provide spiritual guidance and assistance with discernment.
“The Holy Father is giving us an active opportunity to reflect upon how each of us can belong more deeply to Christ,” said Archbishop Kurtz. “The Joy of Love is inviting us to share the treasure and medicine of Jesus. The teaching of Jesus inspires us to live out God’s hope for us, and the mercy of Jesus heals and sustains us when we fall short. Let us remember that no obstacle is too big for Christ to overcome.”
The diversity of situations — for example, that of a spouse who was abandoned versus being the one who left — makes it unwise to issue “a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases,” the pope wrote. Quoting St. John Paul II, he said, “‘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.”
Pope Francis used the document’s footnotes to specify that the consequences include whether or not the couple might eventually be able to receive Communion: “This is also the case with regard to sacramental discipline, since discernment can recognize that in a particular situation no grave fault exists,” he wrote. Those who are in a state of serious sin are not to receive Communion.
Another footnote commented on the Church’s request that remarried couples who had not received an annulment and who want to receive the sacraments forego sexual relations. “In such situations, many people, knowing and accepting the possibility of living ‘as brothers and sisters’ which the Church offers them, point out that if certain expressions of intimacy are lacking, ‘it often happens that faithfulness is endangered and the good of the children suffers,’” he wrote.
Pope Francis wrote that he understood those “who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion. But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, a mother who, while clearly expressing her objective teaching, always does what good she can, even if in the process, her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street.”
Turning to those who believe allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion waters down Church teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, the pope said, “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.”
In many respects, Pope Francis wrote, Church members themselves have presented and promoted such a dreary picture of married life that many people want nothing to do with it even though they dream of a love that will last a lifetime and be faithful.
“We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life,” he wrote. “We find it difficult to present marriage more as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfillment than as a lifelong burden.
“We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations,” the pope wrote. Yet, “we have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.”
The role of an individual’s conscience made frequent appearances in the document, not only regarding the situation of those who may determine their new union is best for their family, but also regarding decisions over how many children to have.
Phelan said that the document’s two central chapters, Four and Five, in which the Holy Father offers a Scriptural and practical reflection on St. Paul’s commentary on love in 1 Corinthians, followed by a reflection on “the beauty and supreme dignity of children, as well as the magnanimous mission of mothers and fathers” are “so deeply reflective, beautiful and inspiring that I think they will result in full retreats developed for married couples, in particular examinations of conscience that will bless the Church.”
Pope Francis praised Bl. Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life), which insisted every sexual act in a marriage must be open to the possibility of pregnancy, and included a large section reiterating what has become known as St. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body.”
“St. John Paul II is by far the most quoted thinker in the document. His Theology of the Body, and the refreshed language resulting from the great saint’s reflections on the body, mission of the person for gift, and sexuality are used often,” said Phelan. “The movement away from rules-based teaching in sexual ethics (though the 10 Commandments never change) to virtue-and meaning-based language is clear. The teaching does not change, but we need to lead our teaching through beauty and virtue, and Pope Francis does this in his Exhortation.”
The saintly pope definitively opposed an old idea that considered “the erotic dimension of love simply as a permissible evil or a burden to be tolerated for the good of the family,” Pope Francis said. “Rather, it must be seen as gift from God that enriches the relationship of the spouses.”
Pope Francis called for Church leaders to ensure more married couples are involved as leaders in designing and carrying out pastoral programs for families. Their witness is key, he said.
“Marital love is not defended primarily by presenting indissolubility as a duty, or by repeating doctrine, but by helping it to grow ever stronger under the impulse of grace,” he said. “A love that fails to grow is at risk. Growth can only occur if we respond to God’s grace through constant acts of love, acts of kindness that become ever more frequent, intense, generous, tender and cheerful.”