Understanding "Amoris Laetitia" - A missionary gaze

2017-11-08 L’Osservatore Romano

 The title of Pope Francis’ post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia: The Joy of Love contains, in two words, the whole of the message. It connects joy with love like two sides of the same coin, one marked by the seal of the Holy Trinity, “the mystery from which all true love flows” (63). By choosing this title, the Holy Father confesses his faith in the human love that flows from divine love and is imbued with its grace, to the point that the family is celebrated in the pages of the text as an imperfect but genuine reflection of the Holy Trinity: “The triune God is a communion of love, and the family is its living reflection” (11).

Let us keep clearly before our eyes this biblical and theological vision that permeates the whole text, for it is that vision that ensures the depth, originality, and proper interpretation of the text in the face of such reductions in meaning as may be imposed by superficial readings. “The Joy of Love” is much broader, an unveiling of a rich Trinitarian anthropology in response to the pressing challenges of cultures without God and without joy; it proposes a peaceful dialogue with the anthropological transformation we are living, by showing the effective path of the new evangelization.

I propose to illustrate this guiding principle of the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, one that answers a passionate quest of the Church ever since the Second Vatican Council, not only by offering a vision filled with hope but also a pastoral approach that has been deeply renewed and adapted to the current situation of couples and families. This long meditation is worth reading and re-reading, for it deserves more attention in itself than merely the public debate that has occurred around its disputed points.

The challenge of reading anew

Measured by the standards of the contrasting reactions that followed its publication, Pope Francis’ post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia forced itself on the public mind, delighting some, worrying others, leaving none indifferent. Some saw in it the good news of an openness, at last, however small, towards access to the sacraments for the divorced and remarried; others lamented such an openness, one that ran the risk, in their eyes, of bringing about a break with the traditional doctrine and discipline of the Catholic Church. Chapter 8, which treats this question, immediately captured people’s attention and - depending on the expectations of the reader - provided an interpretive key for the whole document, thereby judged to be positive and welcome, or else ambiguous and risky. [1]

Beyond this initial glance, influenced by the media hype around the two synods on the family (2014-15), many less hurried readers took the time to assess a full and complex text, far deeper and rich in possibilities than the first interpretation might suggest. Pope Francis himself provided keys for reading that invite us to a wholesale reconsideration of Amoris Laetitia ’s message in order not to miss its meaning. He identified chapters 4 and 5, on love, as the centre of the document, which must be read as a whole in order to understand rightly the limits and the extent of a number of pastoral orientations that were widely commented on, but were often removed from their context. In short, following the prevailing enthusiasm at the time of its publication there came a pause for reflection, re-reading, and development in order to appreciate its value and ensure a proper implementation. Several bishops’ conferences have already published more precise guidelines for their own contexts, with a view to clarity and inculturation.

Such an undertaking seems to me especially urgent and needed in Canada where we see the huge gap between the official teaching of the Church and the lived experience of couples and families; this gap has widened progressively after Vatican II, under the influence of a culture of contraception, divorce, and abortion, to such an extent that our country stands out globally for its legislation on abortion without restriction, euthanasia, the pseudo-marriage of same-sex couples, assisted suicide, and so on and so forth, which reflect what Saint John Paul II called “the culture of death”. We could add that, in this context, magisterial statements on the family, such as the encyclical Humanae Vitae and the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, have received a muted welcome, if not one of passive dissent on the part of theologians and pastors, which has not helped with their pastoral implementation. These observations, which are sadly not unique to our country, concern the predominant attitudes of our secular Western societies. They oblige us to reflect seriously and above all to carry out that “pastoral conversion” urged by Pope Francis, if we wish to propose “the joy of the Gospel” and “the Gospel of the family” in dialogue with today’s realities.

In my view, AL is the hub of this conversion, following the general orientations of Evangelii gaudium, thanks to the hard work carried out by the synods of 2014 and 2015, which took stock of current cultural transformations and sought to adapt pastoral methods to them, beyond a bitter and sterile critique of contemporary secular excesses. On this point, Pope Francis provides the example as he repeatedly makes statements in the popular media, preaches by means of his gestures of closeness and compassion, attentive to the dignity of each person but especially the very poorest, aware that in order to evangelize the world of today we must first love it and find ways to connect with its values, even when they are clouded by ideologies that are opposed to Christianity.

Hence the constructive tone of AL, its incisive language and the lively hope that emerges from it, for the encouragement of families and the reshaping of pastoral care of the family. The “joy of love” proposed by Pope Francis to the men and women of today has what it takes to enliven and strengthen all families, but it seeks above all to renew the family’s mission as the Domestic Church by proclaiming its beauty and the grace that dwells within it. Yet history will no doubt remember better the contribution he has made to pastoral care by the attitudes he proposes and by the methods of accompaniment and discernment that seek to connect with the hopes and respect the very diverse lived experiences of couples and families today. He affirms from the outset, along with the Synod Fathers, that, among our contemporaries, despite the many signs that marriage is in crisis, “the desire to marry and form a family remains vibrant, especially among young people, and this is an inspiration to the Church” (AL 1).

Towards a right hermeneutic

So we must re-read Amoris Laetitia in a spirit of pastoral conversion that assumes, first of all, a genuine and unprejudiced receptivity to the pontifical teaching; secondly, a change of attitude in the face of cultures that are far from the faith; thirdly, a convincing testimony to the joy of the Gospel that emerges from faith in the Person of Jesus and his loving and merciful gaze upon all of human reality. The hermeneutic practiced by the Pope himself starts with the Word of God and Jesus’ gaze on the family to describe the joy of love in a realistic and evangelical perspective, contemplating on the one hand the “Trinitarian” ideal of love and the primacy and efficacy of grace in the couple’s life, and on the other hand the gradual and progressive quality of the human experience of love, its cultural trappings, its fragilities and imperfect (sometimes sinful) manifestations. Such a perspective presupposes the personalist anthropology of love found in the Bible, as well as a corresponding pedagogy that imitates God’s patience, his attentive nearness to his children’s wounds, and above all his mercy.

In Francis’ own words, “the two central chapters are dedicated to love”. These two chapters contain the most important reflections with respect to the Pope’s original proposal to extend and complete the Church’s teaching on the subject. These remarkably dense pages describe conjugal and familial love in a way that makes concrete the grace of the sacrament of marriage. Basing himself on the “gift” of the sacrament which consecrates the mutual, total, definitive self-gift of the spouses, the Pope describes love in the family in terms of St. Paul’s hymn to charity that is every baptized person’s ideal, and especially the ideal of those who have embarked on the journey towards the perfection of conjugal charity. Such a perspective, “top-down” in a manner of speaking since charity proceeds from grace, is complemented by a “bottom-up” anthropological vision inspired by St. Thomas Aquinas, who also describes the love of spouses as a friendship, in other words an intimate sharing that implies the mutual appreciation and support of persons, beyond the strictly conjugal elements of their bond.

The fact that grace and charity are dealt with first does not relegate the specific nature of conjugal and family love to second place; on the contrary, we find in Amoris Laetitia a delicate analysis of the psychology of love, of the sentiments and emotions that accompany it, of the erotic dimension and the dimension of passion, all of it expanding and confirming a Trinitarian anthropology of love that explicitly integrates Paul VI’s doctrinal premises on the conjugal love’s openness to life ( Humanae Vitae) as well as the essence of St. John Paul II’s catecheses on the “theology of the body”, especially its specifically nuptial character etched into the dynamic of love and the physical and spiritual complementarity of man and woman. We will come back a little later to the image of God in man, which functions as the doctrinal basis for this whole pastoral approach to the family on its journey.

The key to pastoral care of the family: education for love

The enthusiastic and realistic proposal of conjugal and familial love in the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia would be illusory and pointless without its strong emphasis on education. Pope Francis’ goal is to offer a genuine apologia for training in real love, which is a fundamental reality lived out in time, requiring a process of growth and maturation along clearly-marked paths and with accompaniment, so that love might be understood and lived as a reality that is deeper and more beautiful than a fleeting emotional romance. Such training is founded on God’s plan which reveals that humanity, man and woman, is created in God’s image to reflect his love through a permanent commitment and the total gift of persons in an “intimate partnership of married life and love” (GS 48) which constitutes a basic unit of the Church, Christ’s Body and his Bride. Education for love thus takes place in the context of the family, the Domestic Church, including the transmission of the faith, the learning of human and Christian virtues, education in sexuality, and accompaniment of engaged couples and their suitable preparation for sacramental marriage through a genuine process of catechesis that they might realize how their sacramental marriage is rooted in their baptismal consecration.

In this context of dialogue, spouses-to-be are accompanied by their elders along a path of maturation and love, which is marked by the discovery of the other as he or she truly is, by the acceptance of differences, by reciprocal respect and openness, and with a view to an ever-greater mutual understanding, help and forgiveness. They are invited to start over when misunderstandings arise and to cross thresholds of growth in order to deepen their love. Pope Francis bases this pedagogy on certain fundamental principles that he returns to repeatedly in different contexts, such as “time is greater than space”, “the whole is worth more than the part”, “the real predominates over the idea”, which allow us to shape an effective pastoral approach to accompaniment that imitates that of God. In other words, one that is shaped by mercy, patience, and by light shed on truth and love. But it is also shaped by realism in the face of human limitations, by an openness to acknowledging values and to embracing them progressively by means of decisions in conscience of whose many cultural dimensions we are now more aware. Hence the needed and demanding taking-into-account of couples in “irregular” situations, who swim in the sea of a hedonistic and relativistic culture that prevents them from fully recognizing the moral and sacramental shortcomings of their situation.

Elements of pastoral conversion

It is for this reason that pastors are invited to a conversion of their way of seeing and to a welcoming attitude, one that keeps in view the Christian ideal of conjugal and familial love, but also strives to affirm the good that already exists in people’s lives and that accompanies them progressively towards a fuller response to God’s plan for their lives. This presupposes first that one sees the values being lived concretely in the variety of situations, second that one accompanies people in their search for truth and their corresponding moral decisions, and third that one discerns the steps to be taken to live fully the sacrament already received, or to make progress bit by bit towards a conscious and fruitful reception of the sacrament, or else to regularize a situation that is objectively irregular but not always morally ascribable.

A pastor’s conversion in his way of seeing consists in perceiving not only a norm being lived perfectly or imperfectly, but in perceiving the concrete “person” in their tendency toward the good, in affirming the good they are living, and in accompanying them in a gradual discernment of possible options towards greater holiness or a fuller integration into ecclesial communion - regardless of their public status, be it as a believer in good standing, as a catechumen on the journey, of fallen-away baptized person, as cohabitee or divorced-and-remarried. Without this conversion of affirming the person in their gradual progression, it is impossible to adopt the appropriate pastoral attitude of welcome, listening, dialogue, and mercy. The Pope explicitly calls for a “missionary conversion by everyone in the Church” (201), suggesting in various places that more is gained for the mission when we strive to integrate people who are in the gradual process of conversion, than to keep the faithful in an adherence that may be juridically correct but often superficial (201, 293-295, 305, 308).

Such an approach is characteristically missionary because it does not stop at verifying the compliance of the faithful with the obligations they have contracted through baptismal or matrimonial identity. Rather it consists of extending a hand to everyone whom one perceives to be somewhat marginalized or outright estranged with respect to the community. It presupposes a capacity to discern the seeds of the Word scattered throughout creation and in the human heart, which are also foreshadowings of the proclamation of the gospel of the family in all its beauty and its demands. It also presupposes greater respect for the moral conscience of people and for the complexity of their decisions (303), by taking into account the cultural factors and the moral hurdles “which limit the ability to make a decision” and consequently the “imputability and responsibility for an action” (301-302). Moreover, the formation of an upright and enlightened conscience as to the moral stakes of a decision can take time and therefore must entail respect for personal decisions even if the choices made are not yet entirely in keeping with the Gospel ideal taught by the Church.

Pastoral care of divorced and remarried persons

In this respect, chapter 8 of the Apostolic Exhortation deserves to be treated separately, given the complexity of the questions and the implications of certain overtures that may entail difficulties in interpreting and applying the criteria that guide the pastoral care of divorced and remarried couples. Accompanying, discerning, and integrating weakness: these are the three crucial verbs that amount to as many pastoral directions to follow in caring for persons in situations of weakness and to reconcile them, as far as possible, with God and the Church. To accompany means to have confidence in the grace that is at work in people’s lives, with the Christian ideal clearly in view but also keeping in mind the principle of gradualness, which doesn’t mean a “gradualness of law” but a gradualness in internalizing its values on the part of those subjects who are concretely living it out. [2] The art of discerning in irregular situations draws on these same principles, and on those of moral theology which allow us to define situations and their causes, mitigating circumstances, possible adjustments depending on a person’s moral awareness, exceptional cases that arise given the gap between general norms and particular circumstances, and even considering the possibility of subjectively living in grace in an objective situation of sin (301, 305). This may open the door to receiving the help of the sacraments of Penance and Eucharist “in certain cases” as we read in a footnote, not in such a way as to generalize or trivialize, but in a way that discerns carefully with a logic of pastoral mercy. We are indeed dealing here with “exceptions” which do not mean changes to doctrine or to sacramental discipline, but an application of them that is more differentiated and adapted to concrete circumstances and the good of persons (300). I must emphasise that any alarmist interpretation that decries here a break with tradition, or a permissive interpretation that celebrates an access to the sacraments granted at long last to the divorced and remarried, is unfaithful to the text and to the intention of the Supreme Pontiff. In short, the entire chapter lays the foundations for a new pastoral conversation that may comfort many suffering persons and help them journey towards a greater integration in the community and a more perfect fulfilment of their vocations.

What hope is there in the face of current challenges?

The survey we have just carried out of the document as a whole serves as a kind of general framework for a pastoral proposal whose value and potential we may now appreciate. Its first advantage is perhaps to bring to bear, boldly and realistically, the biblical legacy and ecclesial tradition on opposing cultural trends and on the limits of existing pastoral approaches.

In this sense, Amoris Laetitia is a response to the major challenges that hinder understanding and reception of the Church’s doctrine on the family. These challenges are first of all cultural, above all the very widespread “individualism” that manifests itself, among other things, in a certain unlimited “freedom of choice” that “degenerates into an inability to give oneself generously to others” (33). Hence the bewilderment before “the ideal of marriage, marked by a commitment to exclusivity and stability, [which] is swept aside whenever it proves inconvenient or tiresome” (34). Another challenge consists in acknowledging that “the way we present our Christian beliefs and treat other people” calls for “a healthy dose of self-criticism” (36). For example, the exclusive insistence in a certain era on “the duty of procreation”, or else the “excessive idealization” of marriage, without the essential complement of trust in grace “has not helped to make marriage more desirable and attractive, but quite the opposite” (36).

Other cultural factors run counter to the Christian vision of the family: the failure of many marriages; a purely emotional and romantic notion of love; a narcissistic, unstable, and changeful affectivity; an anti-birth mentality cultivated by coercive policies; unfavourable material conditions and extreme poverty, forced migrations, and the aging of the population, which entail new threats to the family. Besides euthanasia and assisted suicide (48) we must add numerous addictions, violence, sexual abuses, the imposition everywhere of the ideology of “gender” and, last but not least, the omission of God in secularist societies. The Pope concludes: “Let us not fall into the sin of trying to replace the Creator. We are creatures, and not omnipotent. Creation is prior to us and must be received as a gift” (56).

The challenges we have just enumerated affect the transmission of the gospel of the family and make it more difficult, but not impossible, to incarnate it; for in contrast to the wisdom of the world, the gospel of the family rests on the gift of Grace, that is on Christ Jesus, who took up anew God’s plan for the family and made it a key institution in his Kingdom, a sacrament of his own Love. This is what the second chapter of Amoris Laetitia explains, beginning with the proclamation of the kerygma of the death and resurrection of Christ, who restores conjugal and familial love “in the image of the Holy Trinity, the mystery from which all true love flows” (63). This proclamation is not merely the statement of an ideal, it is the announcement of a concrete and incarnate gift offered first of all to the Holy Family of Nazareth and is extended to every family in whom the grace of Christ dwells. Francis highlights the grace of the sacrament by reiterating Vatican II’s Christological vision: “Christ the Lord ‘makes himself present to the Christian spouses in the sacrament of marriage’ and remains with them” (67).

In this light, the sacrament of marriage manifests a far superior status which cannot be reduced to “a social convention, an empty ritual or merely the outward sign of a commitment”. It is a “gift” that is not a “thing” or “power” but is Christ himself who loves his Church and makes that love present in the communion of the spouses” (73). Their whole lives are sanctified and strengthened by the grace of the sacrament that springs forth from the mystery of the Incarnation and of Easter. For their part, the spouses are “called to respond to God’s gift with commitment, creativity, perseverance and daily effort. They can always invoke the assistance of the Holy Spirit who consecrated their union, so that his grace may be felt in every new situation that they encounter.” (74).

This synthesis of the sacrament by the Holy Father is rounded out by a very timely and relevant reminder of certain givens in the teaching of the Church, especially the intrinsic bond between conjugal love and the generation of life” (68) which Blessed Paul VI affirmed in his encyclical Humanae Vitae . “No genital act of husband and wife can refuse this meaning” (80). He also dwells on the merciful gaze of Christ upon the faithful “who are living together, or are only married civilly, or are divorced and remarried.” With respect to this, he recalls with prudence and determination St John Paul II’s exhortation to pastors to “careful discernment of situations”, and to an accompaniment that is patient and merciful and that tends towards a more complete fulfilment of the sacramental reality of marriage.

The hymn to conjugal charity, the fullness of eros

Pope Francis devoted 70 pages to considerations of love, which is to say nearly a third of the document (89-199), already an indication of the importance of this theme to which he adds quite a few elements that complement the teachings of his predecessors. In the absence of a summary, I wish to draw attention to a few original features of Amoris Laetitia. First, the hymn to charity from First Corinthians meditated upon in close connection with the virtues that are indispensable to the daily life of couples and families (89-119): patience, humble service, amiability, detachment, forgiveness, and hope. The Pope writes that “in family life, we need to cultivate that strength of love which can help us fight every evil threatening it. Love does not yield to resentment, scorn for others or the desire to hurt or to gain some advantage. The Christian ideal, especially in families, is a love that never gives up” (119).

He then moves explicitly to the conjugal charity, which unites the spouses in virtue of the grace of the sacrament of marriage. “It is an ‘affective union’ [cf. St. Thomas], spiritual and sacrificial, which combines the warmth of friendship and erotic passion, and endures long after emotions and passion subside” (120). It is a love that “reflects” God’s love for us, however imperfectly, as an effective sign that implies - as the Pope warns, along with St. John Paul II - “a dynamic process…which advances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God” (122, FC 9). It is, moreover, the “greatest form of friendship” (Thomas), and entails seeking the good of the other, intimacy, tenderness, stability; to which marriage adds the exclusive mutual belonging and the permanent character of conjugal love (123). This love also integrates sexuality, of course, into its all-encompassing nature, its demand for faithfulness, and of openness to procreation. “It shares everything [“even sexuality”, as the French text of Amoris Laetitia remarks] in constant mutual respect” (125).

“In marriage, the joy of love needs to be cultivated” (126), the Holy Father repeats - a seemingly trivial observation but one that is the key to his whole message. Such an expression presupposes an “expansion of the heart” created by the charity that arises from grace, a charity that protects against selfishness. “When the search for pleasure becomes obsessive, it holds us in thrall and keeps us from experiencing other satisfactions” (126). This joy of love can coexist with sorrow and limitations, for marriage is not merely an emotional romance but an inevitable combination of “enjoyment and struggles, tensions and repose, pain and relief” which demands appreciation for the “great worth” of the other person even if they lose their beauty, their health, or their cheerful mood.

The Pope writes elsewhere of pastoral care for the conjugal bond which must be founded on the importance of “marrying for love” through a public commitment, for love calls upon the “institution” of marriage for its stability and its real, concrete growth. “Its essence derives from our human nature and social character” (131), implying by that very fact a series of obligations that arise from love itself, “so serious and generous that it is ready to face any risk” (131).

After a number of delicate reflections on the importance of and the conditions for dialogue among the spouses, Francis dwells on passionate love the realm of the emotions. With help from his predecessors he defends the dignity of eros and the positive nature of the Church’s teaching on training in the areas of emotion and instinct (148). “Sexuality is not a means of gratification or entertainment; it is an interpersonal language wherein the other is taken seriously, in his or her sacred and inviolable dignity”. With its erotic dimension, it is not only a source of fertility and procreation but it includes “the capacity of expressing love, that love in which the person becomes a gift” (Catechesis of January 16, 1980) (151).

Consequently, Francis concludes, we cannot consider the “erotic dimension of love simply as a permissible evil or a burden to be tolerated for the good of the family [but] as gift from God that enriches the relationship of the spouses” (152). He adds realistically that this gift remains susceptible, nonetheless, to sin, selfishness, violence, and manipulation, recalling that sexuality “must involve communication between the spouses” (I Cor. 7:5). Commenting on Eph. 5:22 in the same vein as John Paul II, he affirms strongly that “love excludes every kind of subjection whereby the wife might become a servant or a slave of the husband… the community or unity which they should establish through marriage is constituted by a reciprocal donation of self, which is also a mutual subjection” (August 11, 1982) (156).

Openness to the fruitfulness of love

In the fifth chapter, on “Love Made Fruitful”, the horizon is broadened to the welcoming of a new life as an openness to the surprises and gifts of God. This is true in all instances, even when the child is not wanted or expected. The child is always worthy of love because “children are a gift. Each one is unique and irreplaceable… We love our children because they are children, not because they are beautiful, or look or think as we do, or embody our dreams. We love them because they are children” (Catechesis of February 11, 2015) (170).

The love of a father and mother is indispensable for a child’s growth. To pregnant mothers he offers this discreet advice: “keep happy and let nothing rob you of the interior joy of motherhood. Your child deserves your happiness” (171). As for fathers, “in our day, the problem no longer seems to be the overbearing presence of the father so much as his absence, his not being there”, so absorbed is he in his work, forgetting the priority of the family over his own self-fulfillment.

The Pope broadens these horizons still further by extending the theme of fruitfulness to include adoption, especially for couples without children, and by exhorting us to be open to family in the larger sense whose fraternal bonds we must cultivate, to pay special attention to older persons, and to organize generous mutual assistance among the families of a parish or neighbourhood. “A married couple who experience the power of love know that this love is called to bind the wounds of the outcast, to foster a culture of encounter and to fight for justice” (183).

I will be dealing with other pastoral perspectives in my reflections on accompanying, discerning, and integrating couples and families, particularly those living through difficult circumstances . Let me just say before concluding that Pope Francis’ overall direction is to insist on the fact that Christian families, through the grace of the sacrament of marriage, are the main agents of pastoral care of the family, not so much through their apostolate as through the “joy-filled witness” of spouses and families “as domestic churches” (200).

Conclusion: Joy of love, hope of the world

At the end of this overview of the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, it is clear to me that the theme of family deserved not only renewed attention in the face of cultural shifts, but also a new pastoral approach that Pope Francis summarized in three verbs: accompanying, discerning, and integrating.

One of the significant contributions of Amoris Laetitia is how it expands and deepens the Church’s reflection on “the law of graduality”, which perhaps has not received sufficient attention and development. In fact, the continued deterioration of marriage and family life in the West, caused by certain negative currents in society over the past thirty years, has made this deepened reflection more urgent.

This universal approach is not limited to situations deemed “irregular”; It is based on the primacy of grace and charity in the Christian experience of conjugal and familial love. Its goal is to renew the pastoral dialogue between pastors and faithful to close the chasm that has opened up in the last few decades.

The strength of his message is that it proposes an open and appealing vision of human love, in the image of the Trinitarian communion, surrounded by mercy and thus rich in hope. If welcomed enthusiastically and without prejudice, this teaching can represent a major step forward in the hope that all families might become the Church’s great resource for the evangelization of the world. The family is the road and the oasis of humanity in our day, where Christ and the Church meet and dwell and where, through the grace of faithfulness in spouses along with their children, the Trinitarian witness of the Joy of Love might shine out.

Card. Marc Ouellet, Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops


[1] Cf. various authors, Amoris laetitia : bilancio e prospettive , Anthropotes 2016/2, Cantagalli, pp. 219-354; Philippe Bordeyne with Juan Carlos Scannone, Divorcés remariés, ce qui change avec François , Salvator, Paris, 2017, 142 pp.

[2] “This is not a ‘gradualness of law’ but rather a gradualness in the prudential exercise of free acts on the part of subjects who are not in a position to understand, appreciate, or fully carry out the objective demands of the law.” (295). See also FC 34.