Amoris Laetitia is an epic bid to convert the Church worldwide to a mission to rescue the family, not by finger-wagging or table-thumping nor even by persuasion, but by a concrete strategy of rebuilding from the ground up.
It will shape the Church’s actions and attitudes for generations to come.
Unconvincingly self-effacing, Pope Francis claims in the introduction that he wants merely to highlight “some pastoral approaches that can guide us in building sound and fruitful homes in accordance with God’s plan”, and in chapter six even denies presenting a “pastoral plan for the family.”
But that is what the document’s 325 paragraphs and nine chapters add up to — a roadmap to the reinvigoration of marriage and family. At its heart is what Francis calls a pastoral or missionary conversion, a new approach that involves both teaching people a demanding ideal while being compassionate and close to them in their frailty.
The key to the document is the mercy of God, a response that enters into human realities, avoiding the Pharaisaical temptation — which Francis believes the Church has succumbed to — of standing far-off, with crossed arms and rolling eyes.
Amoris Laetitia is, in many respects, a long polemic against rigorism.
Chapter 8 — concerned with people in “irregular” situations such as cohabitation and remarriage — is the heart of that polemic. On the vexed question of access to the sacraments for the civilly remarried, Francis makes no new law that would be applicable in all cases; he does not establish any kind of ‘pathway’ back to the sacraments, of even the ‘discernment’ kind mentioned in the synod final report.
But nor does he apply what Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, recently described as “always valid Catholic teaching”, namely paragraph 84 in St John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio that requires spouses to refrain from sex if they wish to receive Communion.
In effect, Francis has cleared the ground for maximum pastoral flexibility, refusing to treat civilly remarried divorces as a category, and urging the Church “to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases, one which would recognize” — here he quotes St Thomas Aquinas and the final synod document — 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’.”
The footnote spells out that the same is true with regard to the sacraments, for “discernment can recognize that in a particular situation no grave fault exists”.
The following paragraphs in effect lay out the conditions for that discernment, which Francis sees as a practical application of God’s mercy.
“I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion,” he says.
“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’.”
Yet while this is a significant development, it is unlikely to affect that many people. The heart of the document, and the area where most Catholics will see a change, is in chapter 6, which sets out a vision for how the Church should in future prepare people for marriage.
This will involve trained lay people, a “missionary conversion” of parishes to offer advice and guidance to couples, especially in the early years of their marriage, as well as changes to seminary formation and a host of other areas.
In the second chapter, Francis offers a frank self-criticism of what he sees as the Church’s failures to challenge young people to embrace marriage, taking refuge in dogmatism and abstraction and offering an “excessive idealization” of marriage. He wants to move the Church to practically helping.
So while it contains a sober diagnosis of the state of the family, Amoris Laetitia continually warns against “simply decrying present-day evils, as if this could change things” and deplores the way the Church has so “often been on the defensive, wasting pastoral energy on denouncing a decadent world.”
Francis instead calls for the Church to act to enable people to live the truth of marriage.
“Our most important pastoral task with regard to families,” he says later, in a reference to the “evil” of divorce, “is to strengthen their love, helping to heal wounds and working to prevent the spread of this drama of our times.”
In chapter 8 he spells it out again: “More important than the care of failures is the pastoral effort to strengthen marriages and thus to prevent their breakdown”.
In each of the remaining chapters, Francis offers, in effect, the template for that agenda.
It is easy to imagine the material in Amoris Laetitia being turned into course-books and formation programs, using Scripture, Church teaching, as well as his many insights into married love, the education of children, and the spirituality of marriage.
Francis doesn’t just call for a whole new formation program for people entering marriage, he supplies its content — dealing in extraordinary detail with a whole series of dimensions: From helicopter parenting to pregnancy and adoption, the role of the elderly and siblings, how crises in a marriage help a relationship go deeper, through to the “healthy autonomy” that comes with a couple’s realization that they each belong to God first of all.
Amoris Laetitia is an unusually grounded document — rich in insight, practical, and comprehensive, a “how-to-restore-marriage” manual that cries out to be implemented.
Although Francis stops short of suggesting that in future such programs will be a prerequisite for a valid Catholic marriage, that will surely be the effect over time. Just as, at different times in the past, the Church created its own seminaries and schools, Amoris Laetitia marks the moment when Catholics ceased to rely on culture and law to supply marriage’s meaning.
If Francis’s bold vision is put into practice, the Catholic Church will become the world’s leading school of married love.
Austen Ivereigh is a writer, journalist, broadcaster, and author ofThe Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope (now out in Picador paperback, with a new, updated epilogue).