What could a Protestant – even more, a Baptist – have to say about Pope Francis’ new exhortation on marriage and the family, Amoris Laetitia? I feel the irony in reading and commenting on a papal document on the same day I am heading to a conference whose theme is “We Are Protestant.”

But I believe it is important for us to keep an eye on Roman Catholicism’s doctrinal developments and pastoral application in part because, whether we like it or not, the pope is the face for Catholicism, and Catholicism is, globally speaking, the most visible face for Christianity as a religion. Which means that, even for those of us who reject the office of the papacy and are at odds with Catholic teaching on a number of essential points of doctrine (most importantly, the doctrine of justification by faith alone), the pope’s exposition of Catholic teaching on marriage, children, and the family will be discussed as if it is the Christian position on these matters.

Thankfully, when it comes to marriage and family, there is considerable overlap between Catholics and evangelicals, most notably on issues related to the gift of gender and male-female complementarity as essential to marriage. There are also some important differences: evangelicals do not believe marriage to be a sacrament or that the union is indissoluble. Most evangelicals freely welcome repentant divorced and remarried couples to the Lord’s Table and accept the legitimacy of some forms of birth control forbidden by the Church.

So, when it comes to internal squabbles over Catholic teaching and practice, conservative evangelicals are in an awkward position. Because we disagree with the papacy and with Catholic doctrine in a number of places, our differences with Catholicism are usually more profound and foundational than the disagreements between conservative and progressive Catholics. On some contested issues, we disagree with the most conservative of Catholics, and yet strangely enough, don’t want the Church to change its teaching because we hold precious many of the other truths that Catholic teaching on marriage protects. We worry that change in one area might eventually jeopardize other, more foundational doctrines.

The Background for Catholic Controversy

That leads us to one of the most pressing issues in the Catholic Church today. Some bishops have advocated for a change in doctrine regarding the indissolubility of marriage, to allow divorced and remarried couples to partake of the Eucharist. Other bishops have pushed back against such an idea, partly because it poses a direct challenge to the internal consistency of Catholic teaching throughout the centuries, and because it would imply that second and third marriages (while the previous spouses are still living) are acceptable in the eyes of the Church.

You need to understand the ongoing debate about admitting remarried couples to the Eucharist if you’re going to understand the controversy surrounding Francis’ recent apostolic exhortation. From the outset in Amoris Laetitia, Francis makes clear that he is trying to steer a middle way. He shuns people who have “an immoderate desire for total change without sufficient reflection or grounding” as well as the “attitude that would solve everything by applying general rules or deriving undue conclusions from particular theological considerations.” In other words, he’s saying, “I’ve got liberals on the left and fundamentalists on the right. I’m choosing a middle road.”

That middle road looks like this: Francis will uphold historic Catholic teaching, while cracking open the door for freedom among local priests making pastoral decisions. Throughout the document, he pits pastoral compassion against doctrinal fidelity, as if one gets in the way of the other. And he pushes change by sliding a footnote under the door, a footnote that could lead to greater divisions in the Catholic Church. (More on that below…)

Here’s what I’m going to do in this lengthy post. I’m going to summarize and quote from some of the most important parts of the document. At the end, I’m going to get to the most controversial aspect (including that footnote). If you want to skip the summary, go to the bottom of this post.

Why Marriage is In Trouble

Much of this exhortation is devoted to explaining the trends that make it harder to enter into and sustain healthy marriages today. At times, Francis sounds like Charles Taylor, the philosopher who coined the phrase “The Age of Authenticity” as an apt description of Western Culture. Francis writes why ‘authenticity’ is both good and bad:

“We rightly value a personalism that opts for authenticity as opposed to mere conformity. While this can favour spontaneity and a better use of people’s talents, if misdirected it can foster attitudes of constant suspicion, fear of commitment, self-centredness and arrogance. 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.” (para. 33)

Next, Francis explains what this view of authenticity does to our vision of marriage:

“When these factors affect our understanding of the family, it can come to be seen as a way station, helpful when convenient, or a setting in which rights can be asserted while relationships are left to the changing winds of personal desire and circumstances. Ultimately, it is easy nowadays to confuse genuine freedom with the idea that each individual can act arbitrarily, as if there were no truths, values and principles to provide guidance, and everything were possible and permissible. The ideal of marriage, marked by a commitment to exclusivity and stability, is swept aside whenever it proves inconvenient or tiresome. The fear of loneliness and the 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.” (para. 34)

Here, Francis has put his finger on the cultural trends that make marriage difficult in our age. “To believe that we are good simply because ‘we feel good’ is a tremendous illusion,” he writes (para. 145). Because of these cultural developments, divorce is widespread.

“It is becoming more and more common to think that, when one or both partners no longer feel fulfilled, or things have not turned out the way they wanted, sufficient reason exists to end the marriage. Were this the case, no marriage would last.” (para. 237)

The Christian Doctrine of Marriage

The response to these challenges is to uphold the beauty of Christian teaching on marriage, a move that should cheer conservatives in the Church. Marriage mirrors the Trinitarian God (para. 11, 29, 121) and is a public institution with benefits for the world (para. 31, 131, 181, 184).

Birth Control

Amoris Laetitia reaffirms the Catholic prohibition of birth control, but it does so by showing the beautiful openness to life inherent in this teaching:

“From the outset, love refuses every impulse to close in on itself; it is open to a fruitfulness that draws it beyond itself. Hence no genital act of husband and wife can refuse this meaning, even when for various reasons it may not always in fact beget a new life.” (para. 80)


On abortion, Francis urges us to consider the value of the embryo and to see new life with the “eyes of God” (para. 170):

“Here I feel it urgent to state that, if the family is the sanctuary of life, the place where life is conceived and cared for, it is a horrendous contradiction when it becomes a place where life is rejected and destroyed. So great is the value of a human life, and so inalienable the right to life of an innocent child growing in the mother’s womb, that no alleged right to one’s own body can justify a decision to terminate that life, which is an end in itself and which can never be considered the ‘property’ of another human being.” (para. 83)

Same-Sex Marriage

Not surprisingly, the document contains multiple wholesale rejections of the idea that same-sex unions are marriages. “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,” he writes (para. 251). He worries about the “legal deconstruction of the family” in many countries, and the rise of models “based almost exclusively on the autonomy of the individual will” (para 53), and he decries the pressure exerted by international bodies that would make financial aid to poor countries “dependent on the introduction of laws to establish ‘marriage’ between persons of the same sex” (para. 251).

Even so, Francis believes that “every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration, while ‘every sign of unjust discrimination’ is to be carefully avoided, particularly any form of aggression and violence” (para. 250).

Transgender Ideology

Francis connects marriage and family by reaffirming the right of every child to “receive love from a mother and a father” (para. 172), because “the clear and well-defined presence of both figures, female and male, creates the environment best suited to the growth of the child” (para. 175). That emphasis on “male and female” is clear in his outright rejection of the ideology of the Transgender movement as well as its legal agenda:

“Yet another challenge is posed by the various forms of an ideology of gender that denies the difference and reciprocity in nature of a man and a woman and envisages a society without sexual differences, thereby eliminating the anthropological basis of the family. This ideology leads to educational programmes and legislative enactments that promote a personal identity and emotional intimacy radically separated from the biological difference between male and female. Consequently, human identity becomes the choice of the individual, one which can also change over time… It is one thing to be understanding of human weakness and the complexities of life, and another to accept ideologies that attempt to sunder what are inseparable aspects of reality. 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.” (para. 56)

Freedom for Priests to Bend Church Teaching?

This document tries to steer a course between doctrinal faithfulness and pastoral compassion, and as I mentioned above, Francis often pits fidelity and compassion against each another. He warns about the “trap” of “wasting our energy in doleful laments” and advocates instead “new forms of missionary creativity” (para. 57). He urges patience and respect for people who are not living up to the ideal of Christianity’s vision of marriage, noting that “irregular unions” can have good features (para. 78). He asks pastors to “avoid judgments 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” (para. 79).

On the matter of divorced and remarried people, Francis reminds the Church that they remain part of the ‘ecclesial community,’ and deserving of care and counsel.

“The Christian community’s care of such persons is not to be considered a weakening of its faith and testimony to the indissolubility of marriage; rather, such care is a particular expression of its charity” (para. 243).

The key sections on “irregular” situations come near the end of the document. Francis decries the flaunting of “objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal” and calls for the conversion of such people, which indicates that anyone pushing for a wholesale change of Christian teaching on divorce, marriage, or same-sex unions, show themselves to be “separate from the community” (para. 297). (Not much hope here for revisionists captive to the Sexual Revolution’s ideology.)

But what of people who are divorced and civilly remarried? It’s clear that they can participate in the life of the Church, but can they partake of the Eucharist? That’s the crucial point where Francis pivots to local discretion.

“What is possible 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…” (para. 300).

Francis believes the “individual conscience needs to be better incorporated into the Church’s praxis.” In other words, patience with people who need their consciences to be better formed by the gospel, but openness to participate in all aspects of church life so as to bring them along to that greater formation.

In a footnote Francis adds:

“In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, ‘I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy’.”

Depending on future developments, that may be the footnote that splits the Catholic Church. I’m not a Catholic historian and don’t want to overstate the significance of this encyclical or this footnote, but stranger things have happened – like when the Eastern and Western Church split in 1054 over the “filioque clause” of the Nicene Creed. Of course, the East / West split involved many issues, dating back centuries, but the same is true today. There have been various fault lines in the Catholic Church for decades, and who knows? What if this particular footnote became the moral filioque of the 21st century, exposing existing fault lines and irreparably dividing the church?

Shortly thereafter, Francis writes:

“I understand 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.”

Conclusion and Responses from Catholic Thinkers

Already, Catholics are reacting to this document, with some disappointed that Francis’ reforms don’t go further and others discouraged that his reforms only widen the split between traditionalists and liberals. As an evangelical, I’m keeping my ears attuned to this conversation and will occasionally link to commentaries and articles that show how Catholics are processing the new developments.

Below are a few responses from Catholic thinkers.

Ross Douthat, a Catholic columnist in the New York Timesdescribes liberal and conservative Catholic wings as co-existing in a “low-grade civil war” with 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 Douthat’s view, Pope Francis has reaffirmed this truce in a way that gives hope to the liberal wing.

This move means that the truce is still in effect, but its terms have distinctly changed. There is still a formal teaching that remarriage without an annulment is adultery, that adultery is a mortal sin, that people who persist in mortal sins should not receive communion. And there is no structure or system in church life that contradicts any of this. This much conservatives still have, and it’s enough to stave off a sense of immediate theological crisis.

But there is also now a new papal teaching: A teaching in favor of the truce itself. That is, the post-1960s separation between doctrine and pastoral practice now has a papal imprimatur, rather than being a state of affairs that popes were merely tolerating for the sake of unity. Indeed, for Pope Francis that separation is clearly a hoped-for source of renewal, revival and revitalization, rather than something that renewal or revival might enable the church to gradually transcend.

Again, this is not the clear change of doctrine, the proof of concept for other changes, that many liberal bishops and cardinals sought. But it is an encouragement for innovation on the ground, for the de facto changes that more sophisticated liberal Catholics believe will eventually render certain uncomfortable doctrines as dead letters without the need for a formal repudiation from the top.

Former priest James Carroll, writing in The New Yorker, sees this document as affirming his previous practice of using pastoral compassion as a way to defy the Church’s official teaching:

Priests like me, in counselling our fellow-Catholics, operated under the rubric of the so-called pastoral solution, which allowed us to quietly defy Vatican dogma when the situation seemed to call for it. In the confessional booth or the rectory parlor, we could encourage our parishioners to decide for themselves, by examining their own consciences, whether the doctrine of the Church applied to them in their particular circumstance…

Francis’s watchword is mercy, but mercy adheres, first, not in alterations of doctrine but in the new way that Catholics are invited to think of doctrine…

Pope Francis’s emphasis on mercy toward the divorced and remarried doesn’t only mean that those people will more freely partake of Communion. It also means that the doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage, however much it is still held up as an ideal, will not grip the moral imagination of the Church as it once did.

From Religious News Service, Cathy Grossman sums up a number of responses from different organizations and people.

Writing for Crux, Carl Olson believes the document starts strong but then unravels due to its own internal inconsistencies.

Conservative Catholic writer, George Weigel, believes the document upholds Catholic teaching and forbids a departure from that doctrine in practice:

As this discussion unfolds, it will be important to keep in mind that AL cites the Final Report of the 2015 Synod on the key point: that all pastoral accompaniment of the divorced and civilly remarried, including discernment of ways in which they can be better integrated into the life of the Catholic community, is to take place “according to the teaching of the Church” — which means, in this context, the Church’s settled teaching on indissolubility and on worthiness to receive holy communion. It will also be important to keep in mind, as this discussion continues, that the kind of pastoral accompaniment and discernment so strongly urged by Pope Francis is in fact what goes on in the Catholic parishes and dioceses with which I’m most familiar. There are exceptions, I’m sure, and I’ve heard my share of horror stories about unfeeling and incompetent priests — and they are horrific, and disgraceful. But the priests and bishops I know bend every possible effort to be sensitive to difficult situations, and to see how they might be resolved in ways that serve both mercy and truth.