Papal pundits are already entertaining themselves endlessly with the pope’s new letter on marriage and family, Amoris Laetitia, parsing each paragraph that touches on vexed questions and struggling to determine what, if anything, has changed as a result.
The danger of course, is that bloggers will hungrily scour the document looking for declarations to support their favorite causes, and that married couples will only read filtered commentaries on the letter rather than the text itself. This would be a true pity.
I confess that I began reading the letter that way myself, yet was caught up short when I hit chapter four. Suddenly, the endless citations from the synod discussions cease, and Pope Francis seems to find his own voice. What follows is a moving reflection on the beauty of marriage and the practical ways to keep love alive, and indeed make it grow.
The chapter begins as an extended, line-by-line meditation on St. Paul’s hymn to charity in the context of married love. While the pope clearly had help in drafting this chapter (he has no pretensions to the sort of Greek philology that peppers his interpretation of 1 Cor 13), this is vintage Francis, where he shines brightest as a witness to God’s word, a preacher who knows how to connect to his audience with simplicity and candor.
As I began reading through his pointed reflections on each one of Paul’s descriptors of love—patient, at the service of others, not jealous, not boastful—I suddenly found a letter that was written to me and for me, and I cannot help but think that many others will have a similar experience.
I would dare suggest that chapter four will constitute the enduring legacy of this letter, and the reason people will go back to it ten or twenty years from now. When the dust settles around discussions on divorce and Communion, and few remember the names of Cardinals Walter Kasper or Raymond Burke, Catholics will still be meditating on the pope’s winsome description of marital love and his gentle promptings of how to keep it fresh.
Indeed, chapter four could be a plan for a retreat or a marriage encounter, the outline for a pre-Cana conference, or even an examination of conscience. It is a document spouses can read to each other and pray over, or send to young relatives who have just gotten engaged. It is Catholic marital spirituality at its finest.
“Marital joy can be experienced even amid sorrow,” Francis writes, “It involves accepting that marriage is an inevitable mixture of enjoyment and struggles, tensions and repose, pain and relief, satisfactions and longings, annoyances and pleasures, but always on the path of friendship, which inspires married couples to care for one another.”
Reading the text, one gets the sense of a deep pastoral wisdom of a person who has spent long hours listening to married couples, hearing confessions, listening to problems, praying for solutions. What results is not a formulaic set of prescriptions, but a personal letter to married couples full of sound, kind, practical advice.
“The most intense joys in life arise when we are able to elicit joy in others, as a foretaste of heaven,” he writes. “It is a joy and a great consolation to bring delight to others, to see them enjoying themselves. This joy, the fruit of fraternal love, is not that of the vain and self-centered, but of lovers who delight in the good of those whom they love, who give freely to them and thus bear good fruit.”
Francis reminds us of our better, nobler selves and calls us back to the ideals of love that each of us has experienced, but few of us remember in the day-to-day commotion of married life.
The pope acknowledges that marriage is an enormous, frightening commitment, but insists that it is worth it. His words constitute a challenge to the doubtful and a jolt to the wavering.
So, while committing oneself exclusively and definitively to another person “always involves a risk and a bold gamble,” unwillingness to make such a commitment “is selfish, calculating and petty,” Francis declares, because it “fails to recognize the rights of another person and to present him or her to society as someone worthy of unconditional love.”
This is a far more bracing argument against cohabitation in place of marriage than one typically hears from pastors and social commentators, and yet it is done without threats or an appeal to rules.
And so, he continues, 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.”
This is the Francis touch, and nowhere does it shine brighter than in the midst of this letter on marriage and family, for the benefit of all who choose to read it.
Thomas D. Williams, PhD, is a Rome-based theologian and author of 15 books, including Who Is My Neighbor? Personalism and the Foundations of Human Rights (CUA Press).