An Evangelical’s Guide to ‘Amoris Laetitia,’ Pope Francis’s Letter on the Family

On Friday, Pope Francis released the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), a lengthy letter (more than 60,000 words, 325 paragraphs, 256 pages, 391 footnotes) on the family. Here is a brief guide to the document for evangelicals:

Why should evangelicals care about a papal letter?

Any substantive document produced by a global religious leader addressed to the billion Catholics around the globe should be of interest to the evangelical community. But this letter is of particular concern because it helps shape Catholic thinking on the family, a project that affects not only the Roman Catholic Church but also the broader culture and other Christian traditions.

What is Amoris Laetitia?

Amoris Laetitia (Latin for “The Joy of Love”) is a letter from Pope Francis in the form of a post-synodal apostolic exhortation, a category of document used by popes to communicate the conclusions reached after consideration of the recommendations of a Synod of Bishops, an advisory body for the pontiff. This letter follows the Synods on the Family held in 2014 and 2015, which were asked to address the “pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization.”

What is the letter about?

The letter examines the “actual situation of families, in order to keep firmly grounded in reality,” discusses some “essential aspects of the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family,” has a lengthy reflection on marital love, and highlights some pastoral approaches that “can guide us in building sound and fruitful homes in accordance with God’s plan.”

Additionally, the letter discusses a broad range of issues dealing with the family, including a full chapter devoted to the raising of children, and includes sections addressing (and rejecting) abortion, contraception, euthanasia, in-vitro fertilization, gender theory, same-sex marriage, and surrogacy.

It also has a lengthy and controversial section on the Roman Catholic Church’s pastoral response to couples who have divorced and remarried. 

What’s the most controversial aspect of the letter?

The most controversial aspect is the concessions on conscience the pope makes on the issue of divorce and church life. “We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them,” Pope Francis says.

In The New York Times, Jim Yardley summaries it by saying, “Rules matter, Francis wrote, but so does individual conscience.” And as David Gibson says, “the larger reality conveyed by the document—and one that could unsettle Catholic traditionalists more than anything—is that the pope clearly wants the debates over church teachings and pastoral practices to continue and, perhaps, to continue to evolve.”

What does this letter mean for divorce and the Roman Catholic Church?

The Roman Catholic Church has not officially changed its position on divorce. But it has shifted the pastoral implications. As Ross Douthat explains:

Roman Catholicism . . . remains officially united. The church has a conservative wing, a liberal wing, and a low-grade civil war. But the church’s left and right have found ways to coexist, and since the 1970s any kind of rupture has seemed relatively unlikely.

That coexistence depends on a tension between doctrine and practice, in which the church’s official teaching remains conservative even as the everyday life of Catholicism is shot through with disagreement, relativism, dissent.

[…]

In his new letter on marriage and the family, the pope does not endorse a formal path to communion for the divorced and remarried, which his allies pushed against conservative opposition at two consecutive synods in Rome, and which would have thrown Catholic doctrine on the indissolubility of marriage (and sexual ethics writ large) into flagrant self-contradiction.

But what he does seem to encourage, in passages that are ambiguous sentence by sentence but clearer in their cumulative weight, is the existing practice in many places—the informal admission of remarried Catholics to communion by sympathetic priests.
 

Addendum: To get a better sense of the document, here are several key quotes from the text:

Introduction

Since “time is greater than space,” I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium. Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it. (p. 4)

It is my hope that, in reading this text, all will feel called to love and cherish family life, for “families are not a problem; they are first and foremost an opportunity.” (p. 6)

Chapter One: In the Light of the World

At the beginning of Psalm 128, the father appears as a laborer who by the work of his hands sustains the physical well-being and tranquility of his family: “You shall eat the fruit of the labour of your hands; you shall be happy, and it shall be well with you” (Ps 128:2). It is clear from the very first pages of the Bible that work is an essential part of human dignity; there we read that “the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). Man is presented as a labourer who works the earth, harnesses the forces of nature and produces “the bread of anxious toil” (Ps 127:2), in addition to cultivating his own gifts and talents. (p. 17)

Chapter Two: The Experiences and Challenges of Families

The welfare of the family is decisive for the future of the world and that of the Church. (p. 23)

“The tensions created by an overly individualistic culture, caught up with possessions and pleasures, leads to intolerance and hostility in families.” Here I would also include today’s fast pace of life, stress and the organization of society and labor, since all these are cultural factors which militate against permanent decisions. (p. 24-25)

Freedom of choice makes it possible to plan our lives and to make the most of ourselves. Yet if this freedom lacks noble goals or personal discipline, it degenerates into an inability to give oneself generously to others. (p. 25)

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. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them. (p. 27)

Many people feel that the Church’s message on marriage and the family does not clearly reflect the preaching and attitudes of Jesus, who set forth a demanding ideal yet never failed to show compassion and closeness to the frailty of individuals like the Samaritan woman or the woman caught in adultery. (p. 28)

The consultation that took place prior to the last two Synods pointed to the various symptoms of a “culture of the ephemeral.” Here I think, for example, of the speed with which people move from one affective relationship to another. They 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.” (p. 29)

We treat affective relationships the way we treat material objects and the environment: everything is disposable; everyone uses and throws away, takes and breaks, exploits and squeezes to the last drop. Then, goodbye. (p. 29)

The lack of dignified or affordable housing often leads to the postponement of formal relationships. It should be kept in mind that “the family has the right to decent housing, fitting for family life and commensurate to the number of the members, in a physical environment that provides the basic services for the life of the family and the community.” Families and homes go together. (p. 33)

The problems faced by poor households are often all the more trying. For example, if a single mother has to raise a child by herself and needs to leave the child alone at home while she goes to work, the child can grow up exposed to all kind of risks and obstacles to personal growth. In such difficult situations of need, the Church must be particularly concerned to offer understanding, comfort and acceptance, rather than imposing straightaway a set of rules that only lead people to feel judged and abandoned by the very Mother called to show them God’s mercy. (p. 39)

We need to acknowledge the great variety of family situations that can offer a certain stability, but de facto or same-sex unions, for example, may not simply be equated with marriage. No union that is temporary or closed to the transmission of life can ensure the future of society. (p. 41-42)

The verbal, physical, and sexual violence that women endure in some marriages contradicts the very nature of the conjugal union. I think of the reprehensible genital mutilation of women practiced in some cultures, but also of their lack of equal access to dignified work and roles of decision-making. History is burdened by the excesses of patriarchal cultures that considered women inferior, yet in our own day, we cannot overlook the use of surrogate mothers and “the exploitation and commercialization of the female body in the current media culture.” (p. 43)

The equal dignity of men and women makes us rejoice to see old forms of discrimination disappear, and within families there is a growing reciprocity. If certain forms of feminism have arisen which we must consider inadequate, we must nonetheless see in the women’s movement the working of the Spirit for a clearer recognition of the dignity and rights of women. (p. 44)

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. At the same time, we are called to protect our humanity, and this means, in the first place, accepting it and respecting it as it was created. (p. 45)

Chapter Three: Looking to Jesus: The Vocation of the Family

The sacrament of marriage is not a social convention, an empty ritual or merely the outward sign of a commitment. The sacrament is a gift given for the sanctification and salvation of the spouses, since “their mutual belonging is a real representation, through the sacramental sign, of the same relationship between Christ and the Church. (p. 55)

[T]he overall education of children is a “most serious duty” and at the same time a “primary right” of parents. This is not just a task or a burden, but an essential and inalienable right that parents are called to defend and of which no one may claim to deprive them. (p. 66)

Schools do not replace parents, but complement them. This is a basic principle: “all other participants in the process of education are only able to carry out their responsibilities in the name of the parents, with their consent and, to a certain degree, with their authorization.” (p. 66)

The Church is a family of families, constantly enriched by the lives of all those domestic churches. (p. 68)

Chapter Four: Love in Marriage

Married couples joined by love speak well of each other; they try to show their spouse’s good side, not their weakness and faults. In any event, they keep silent rather than speak ill of them. This is not merely a way of acting in front of others; it springs from an interior attitude. (p. 86)

The Christian ideal, especially in families, is a love that never gives up. I am sometimes amazed to see men or women who have had to separate from their spouse for their own protection, yet, because of their enduring conjugal love, still try to help them, even by enlisting others, in their moments of illness, suffering or trial. Here too we see a love that never gives up. (p. 90)

As a social institution, marriage protects and shapes a shared commitment to deeper growth in love and commitment to one another, for the good of society as a whole. That is why marriage is more than a fleeting fashion; it is of enduring importance. (p. 98)

In the family, “three words need to be used. I want to repeat this! Three words: ‘Please,’ ‘Thank you,’ ‘Sorry.’ Three essential words!” (p. 100)

Chapter Five: Love Made Fruitful

If a child comes into this world in unwanted circumstances, the parents and other members of the family must do everything possible to accept that child as a gift from God and assume the responsibility of accepting him or her with openness and affection. (p. 126)

With great affection I urge all future mothers: keep happy and let nothing rob you of the interior joy of motherhood. Your child deserves your happiness. Don’t let fears, worries, other people’s comments or problems lessen your joy at being God’s means of bringing a new life to the world. (p. 130)

The presence of the father, and hence his authority, is also impacted by the amount of time given over to the communications and entertainment media. Nowadays authority is often considered suspect and adults treated with impertinence. They themselves become uncertain and so fail to offer sure and solid guidance to their children. (p. 134)

Adopting a child is an act of love, offering the gift of a family to someone who has none. It is important to insist that legislation help facilitate the adoption process, above all in the case of unwanted children, in order to prevent their abortion or abandonment. (p. 136)

Chapter Six: Some Pastoral Perspectives

“The main contribution to the pastoral care of families is offered by the parish, which is the family of families, where small communities, ecclesial movements and associations live in harmony”. (p. 153)

The life of every family is marked by all kinds of crises, yet these are also part of its dramatic beauty. Couples should be helped to realize that surmounting a crisis need not weaken their relationship; instead, it can improve, settle and mature the wine of their union. (p. 176)

Family breakdown becomes even more traumatic and painful in the case of the poor, since they have far fewer resources at hand for starting a new life. A poor person, once removed from a secure family environment, is doubly vulnerable to abandonment and possible harm. (p. 183)

It is important that the divorced who have entered a new union should be made to feel part of the Church. “They are not excommunicated” and they should not be treated as such, since they remain part of the ecclesial community. (p. 184)

The Church, while appreciating the situations of conflict that are part of marriage, cannot fail to speak out on behalf of those who are most vulnerable: the children who often suffer in silence. (p. 186)

In discussing the dignity and mission of the family, the Synod Fathers observed that, “as for proposals to place unions between homosexual persons on the same level as marriage, there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family”. It is unacceptable “that local Churches should be subjected to pressure in this matter and that international bodies should make financial aid to poor countries dependent on the introduction of laws to establish ‘marriage’ between persons of the same sex.” (p. 190-191)

Chapter Seven: Towards a Better Education of Child

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 their children to face challenges. What is most important is the ability lovingly to help them grow in freedom, maturity, overall discipline and real autonomy. (p. 198)

Parents rely on schools to ensure the basic instruction of their children, but can never completely delegate the moral formation of their children to others. A person’s affective and ethical development is ultimately grounded in a particular experience, namely, that his or her parents can be trusted. (p. 199)

A good ethical education includes showing a person that it is in his own interest to do what is right. Today, it is less and less effective to demand something that calls for effort and sacrifice, without clearly pointing to the benefits which it can bring. (p. 201)

Freedom is something magnificent, yet it can also be dissipated and lost. Moral education has to do with cultivating freedom through ideas, incentives, practical applications, stimuli, rewards, examples, models, symbols, reflections, encouragement, dialogue and a constant rethinking of our way of doing things; all these can help develop those stable interior principles that lead us spontaneously to do good. (p. 202)

Moral education entails asking of a child or a young person only those things that do not involve a disproportionate sacrifice, and demanding only a degree of effort that will not lead to resentment or coercion. (p. 204)

The family is the first school of human values, where we learn the wise use of freedom. (p. 206)

In the family too, we can rethink our habits of consumption and join in caring for the environment as our common home. (p. 208)

The Second Vatican Council spoke of the need for “a positive and prudent sex education” to be imparted to children and adolescents “as they grow older”, with “due weight being given to the advances in the psychological, pedogogical and didactic sciences.” We may well ask ourselves if our educational institutions have taken up this challenge. (p. 211)

Chapter Eight: Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness

The Synod Fathers stated that, although the Church realizes that any breach of the marriage bond “is against the will of God,” she is also “conscious of the frailty of many of her children.” (p. 221)

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. (p. 227)

I am in agreement with the many Synod Fathers who observed that “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. . .” (p. 229)

Naturally, every effort should be made to encourage the development of an enlightened conscience, formed and guided by the responsible and serious discernment of one’s pastor, and to encourage an ever greater trust in God’s grace. Yet conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal. (p. 234-235)

It is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being. (p. 235)

By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth, and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God. (p. 237)

Chapter Nine: The Spirituality of Marriage and the Family

There comes a point where a couple’s love attains the height of its freedom and becomes the basis of a healthy autonomy. This happens when each spouse realizes that the other is not his or her own, but has a much more important master, the one Lord. (p. 250)

All family life is a “shepherding” in mercy. (p. 252)

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