Deputy Principal - Mission & Faith

Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love)

Amoris laetitia (Latin for The Joy of Love) is the post-synodal apostolic exhortation by Pope Francis. Dated 19 March 2016, it was released on 8 April 2016. It follows the Synods on the Family held in 2014 and 2015.

The English text runs to about 250 small-format pages with almost 400 footnotes. Its introduction and nine chapters comprise 325 numbered paragraphs. Quotations are drawn from earlier popes, documents of the Second Vatican Council and regional bishops' conferences, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. It includes what is thought to be the first reference to a film in a papal document, Babette's Feast (1987), along with references to works by Jorge Luis Borges, Octavio Paz, Antonin Sertillanges, Gabriel Marcel, and Mario Benedetti.

Initial reactions to Francis’ exhortation have highlighted several of the issues of contemporary morality and church practice that had proved contentious during the synods' presentations and discussions, surrounding access to communion, divorce, sexual mores, and pastoral practice.  The first thing to point out is that as US Cardinal Raymond Burke has said, Amoris Laetitia is the personal reflection of Pope Francis and is not to be taken as official Church teaching: "Pope Francis makes clear, from the beginning, that the post-synodal apostolic exhortation is not an act of the magisterium.  The very form of the document confirms the same. It is written as a reflection of the Holy Father on the work of the last two sessions of the Synod of Bishops."

Having said that, many on the liberal side of the Church are claiming that it represent a significant shift in the Church’s tradition teaching.  This is achieved not through a change of teaching but through a change on tone.  As the editorial to the 16 April 2016 edition of the Tablet says: 

Francis was well aware when he was elected Pope that the basic weakness in the Church’s mission to evangelise was its reputation as a stern and unforgiving teacher in the field of sexual and marital ethics, something that touches people’s lives most intimately.  Put simply, it did not sound like the gentle voice of a loving mother.  Francis had to respect as far as possible the content of the teaching.  But he could change the one thing that may matter more than content for ordinary Catholics – its tone.

As the Tablet suggest Pope Francis is “Christianising the Church afresh”.  Pope Francis knows the future of the Church is with the laity and is saying to them it all boils down to conscience.  Francis is asking the laity to grow in maturity and to take responsibility for their spiritual lives.

Francis’s goal seems to be to present a positive view of the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family. He starts with the Biblical foundation, spends half of chapter four meditating on St Paul’s hymn of love, and ends with a call to family prayer. Chapter 5-7 provide positive initiatives the Church can do to help marriage and the family. Only chapter 8 deals with specific tricky situations, like the divorced and civilly remarried, and even this needs to be seen in the context of the rest of the document.

Francis refers to a family’s home as a domestic Church, a setting for the Eucharist with Christ seated at the table (para. 15).  He says:  “We must be grateful that most people do value family relationships that are permanent and marked by mutual respect.” (para. 38)  He reflects on love and says:  “Love opens our eyes and enables us to see, beyond all else, the great worth of a human being.” (para. 128) Francis indicates that, “the family is the setting in which a new life is not only born but also welcomed as a gift from God.” (para. 166)

Pope Francis then does go on to deal with particular pastoral issues such as divorce or same sex unions.  He says of these who have been through a divorce: 

Respect needs to be shown especially for the sufferings of those who have unjustly endured separation, divorce or abandonment, or those who have been forced by maltreatment from a husband or a wife to interrupt their life together.” (para. 242)

Divorced people who have not remarried and often bear witness to marital fidelity, ought to be encouraged to find in the Eucharist the nourishment they need to sustain them in their present state of life. (para. 242)

The divorced who have entered a new union should be made to feel part of the Church.  They are not excommunicated. (para 243)

Later Francis says of same sex unions that while there are no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage, he wishes to:

…reaffirm 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. (para 250)

Francis specifically focuses on individual conscience.  He says in paragraph 37, “…the traditional belief that individual conscience is the final arbiter of the moral life has been forgotten here.  The Church has been called to form consciences, not to replace them.”  Later Francis says, “Individual conscience needs to be better incorporated into the church’s practice in certain situations which do not objectively embody our understanding of marriage.” (para. 303)  Francis clearly says that after “mitigating factors” and through counseling in the “internal forum” individuals decisions about their participation in the church should be left to a person’s conscience. (para 305)

All are welcome says Francis.  The church must help families of every sort, and people of every state of life.  These people need to know, that even in their imperfections, they are loved by God.    Pastors must work to make people feel welcome in the church.

As Clifford Longley of the Tablet says in his blog:  It hands back to people the right to exercise their own moral judgments, asking their pastors for help when appropriate.  It does not leave those pastors in the seat of judgment:  they are no longer gatekeepers of the Sacraments, checking the passports of those who apply.