Summary of Amoris Laetitia: On Love in the Family
It is not by chance that Amoris Laetitia (AL), “The Joy of Love”, the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation “on Love in the Family”, was signed on 19 March, the Solemnity of Saint Joseph. It bringstogether the results of the two Synods on the family convoked by Pope Francis in 2014 and 2015. Itoften cites their Final Reports; documents and teachings of his Predecessors; and his own numerouscatecheses on the family. In addition, as in previous magisterial documents, the Pope also makes use ofthe contributions of various Episcopal Conferences around the world (Kenya, Australia, Argentina…)and cites significant figures such as Martin Luther King and Erich Fromm. The Pope even quotes thefilm Babette’s Feast to illustrate the concept of gratuity.
The Apostolic Exhortation is striking for its breadth and detail. Its 325 paragraphs are distributedover nine chapters. The seven introductory paragraphs plainly set out the complexity of a topic in urgentneed of thorough study. The interventions of the Synod Fathers make up [form] a “multifaceted gem”(AL 4), a precious polyhedron, whose value must be preserved. But the Pope cautions that “not alldiscussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of themagisterium”. Indeed, for some questions, “each country or region … can seek solutions better suitedto its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs. For ‘cultures are in fact quite diverse andevery general principle … needs to be inculturated, if it is to be respected and applied’” (AL 3).
Thisprinciple of inculturation applies to how problems are formulated and addressed and, apart from thedogmatic issues that have been well defined by the Church’s magisterium, none of this approach can be“globalized”. In his address at the end of the 2015 Synod, the Pope said very clearly: “What seems normalfor a bishop on one continent, is considered strange and almost scandalous – almost! – for a bishop fromanother; what is considered a violation of a right in one society is an evident and inviolable rule in another;what for some is freedom of conscience is for others simply confusion.”
The Pope clearly states that we need above all to avoid a sterile juxtaposition between demandsfor change and the general application of abstract norms. He writes: “The debates carried on in themedia, in certain publications and even among the Church’s ministers, range from an immoderatedesire for total change without sufficient reflection or grounding, to an attitude that would solveeverything by applying general rules or deriving undue conclusions from particular theological
considerations” (AL 2).
Chapter One: “In the light of the Word” (8-30)
Following this introduction, the Pope begins his reflections with the Holy Scriptures in the firstchapter, which unfolds as a meditation on Psalm 128 (which appears in the Jewish wedding liturgy aswell as that of Christian marriages). The Bible “is full of families, births, love stories and family crises”(AL 8). This impels us to meditate on how the family is not an abstract ideal but rather like a practical“trade” (AL 16), which is carried out with tenderness (AL 28), but which has also been confronted withsin from the beginning, when the relationship of love turned into domination (cf. AL 19). Hence, theWord of God “is not a series of abstract ideas but rather a source of comfort and companionship forevery family that experiences difficulties or suffering. For it shows them the goal of their journey…”(AL 22).
2. Chapter two: “The experiences and challenges of families” (31-57)
Building on the biblical base, in the second chapter the Pope considers the current situation offamilies. While keeping “firmly grounded in [the] reality” of family experiences (AL 6), he also drawsheavily on the final Reports of the two Synods. Families face many challenges, from migration to theideological denial of differences between the sexes (“ideology of gender” AL 56); from the culture of
the provisional to the antibirth mentality and the impact of biotechnology in the field of procreation;from the lack of housing and work to pornography and abuse of minors; from inattention to personswith disabilities, to lack of respect for the elderly; from the legal dismantling of the family, to violenceagainst women.
The Pope insists on concreteness, which is a key concept in the Exhortation. And it isconcreteness, realism and daily life that make up the substantial difference between acceptable
“theories” of interpretation of reality and arbitrary “ideologies”.Citing FamiliarisConsortio, Francis states that “we do well to focus on concrete realities, since ‘the call and the demands of the Spirit resound in the events of history’, and through these ‘the Church canalso be guided to a more profound understanding of the inexhaustible mystery of marriage and thefamily’” (AL 31).
Conversely, if we fail to listen to reality, we cannot understand the needs of thepresent or the movements of the Spirit. The Pope notes that rampant individualism makes it difficulttoday for a person to give oneself generously to another (cf. AL 33). Here is an interesting picture ofthe situation: “The fear of loneliness and the desire for stability and fidelity exist side by side with agrowing fear of entrapment in a relationship that could hamper the achievement of one’s personalgoals” (AL 34).
The humility of realism helps us to avoid presenting “a far too abstract and almost artificialtheological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of realfamilies” (AL 36). Idealism does not allow marriage to be understood for what it is, that is, a “dynamicpath to personal development and fulfilment”. It is unrealistic to think that families can sustainthemselves “simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to
grace” (AL 37).
Calling for a certain “self-criticism” of approaches that are inadequate for theexperience of marriage and the family, the Pope stresses the need to make room for the formation ofthe conscience of the faithful: “We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them” (AL 37).Jesus proposed a demanding ideal but “never failed to show compassion and closeness to the frailty ofindividuals like the Samaritan woman or the woman caught in adultery” (AL 38).
3. Chapter three: “Looking to Jesus: The vocation of the family”(58-88)
The third chapter is dedicated to some essential elements of the Church’s teaching on marriage andthe family. This chapter is important because its 30 paragraphs concisely depict the vocation of thefamily according to the Gospel and as affirmed by the Church over time. Above all, it stresses thethemes of indissolubility, the sacramental nature of marriage, the transmission of life and the educationof children. GaudiumetSpesof Vatican II, Humanae Vitaeof Paul VI, and FamiliarisConsortioof JohnPaul II are widely quoted.The chapter provides a broad view and touches on “imperfect situations” as well.
We can read, infact: “‘Discernment of the presence of ‘seeds of the Word’ in other cultures (cf. Ad Gentes11) can alsoapply to the reality of marriage and the family. In addition to true natural marriage, positive elementsexist in the forms of marriage found in other religious traditions’, even if, at times, obscurely” (AL 77).The reflection also includes the “wounded families” about whom the Pope – quoting the Final Report ofthe 2015 Synod extensively – says that “it is always necessary to recall this general principle: ‘Pastorsmust know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations’
(FamiliarisConsortio, 84). The degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases and factors may existwhich limit the ability to make a decision. Therefore, while clearly stating the Church’s teaching, pastorsare to avoid judgements that do not take into account the complexity of various situations, and they areto be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience and endure distress because of their condition”
4. Chapter four: “Love in marriage”(89-164)
The fourth chapter treats love in marriage, which it illuminates with Saint Paul’s Hymn to Love in1 Corinthians 13:4-7. This opening section is truly a painstaking, focused, inspired and poetic exegesis ofthe Pauline text. It is a collection of brief passages carefully and tenderly describing human love inabsolutely concrete terms. The quality of psychological introspection that marks this exegesis is striking.
The psychological insights enter into the emotional world of the spouses – positive and negative – andthe erotic dimension of love.
This is an extremely rich and valuable contribution to Christian marriedlife, unprecedented in previous papal documents.This section digresses briefly from the more extensive, perceptive treatment of the day-to-dayexperience of married love which the Pope refuses to judge against ideal standards: “There is no needto lay upon two limited persons the tremendous burden of having to reproduce perfectly the unionexisting between Christ and his Church, for marriage as a sign entails ‘a dynamic process…, one whichadvances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God’” (AL 122). On the other hand,the Pope forcefully stresses the fact that conjugal love by its very nature defines the partners in a richlyencompassing and lasting union (AL 123), precisely within that “mixture of enjoyment and struggles,tensions and repose, pain and relief, satisfactions and longings, annoyances and pleasures” (Al 126)
which indeed make up a marriage.The chapter concludes with a very important reflection on the “transformation of love” because“Longer life spans now mean that close and exclusive relationships must last for four, five or even sixdecades; consequently, the initial decision has to be frequently renewed” (AL 163). As physical
appearance alters, the loving attraction does not lessen but changes as sexual desire can be transformedover time into the desire for togetherness and mutuality: “There is no guarantee that we will feel thesame way all through life. Yet if a couple can come up with a shared and lasting life project, they canlove one another and live as one until death do them part, enjoying an enriching intimacy” (AL 163).
5. Chapter five: “Love made fruitful”(165-198)
The fifth chapter is entirely focused on love’s fruitfulness and procreation. It speaks in a profoundlyspiritual and psychological manner about welcoming new life, about the waiting period of pregnancy,about the love of a mother and a father. It also speaks of the expanded fruitfulness of adoption, ofwelcoming the contribution of families to promote a “culture of encounter”, and of family life in abroad sense which includes aunts and uncles, cousins, relatives of relatives, friends. Amorislaetitiadoesnot focus on the so-called “nuclear” family” because it is very aware of the family as a wider network ofmany relationships.
The spirituality of the sacrament of marriage has a deeply social character (cf. AL187). And within this social dimension the Pope particularly emphasizes the specific role of therelationship between youth and the elderly, as well as the relationship between brothers and sisters as a
training ground for relating with others.
6. Chapter six: “Some pastoral perspectives”(199-258)
In the sixth chapter the Pope treats various pastoral perspectives that are aimed at forming solidand fruitful families according to God’s plan. The chapter use the Final Reports of the two Synods andthe catecheses of Pope Francis and Pope John Paul II extensively. It reiterates that families should notonly be evangelized, they should also evangelize. The Pope regrets “that ordained ministers often lackthe training needed to deal with the complex problems currently facing families” (AL 202).
On the onehand, the psycho-affective formation of seminarians needs to be improved, and families need to bemore involved in formation for ministry (cf. AL 203); and on the other hand, “the experience of thebroad oriental tradition of a married clergy could also be drawn upon” (AL 202).
The Pope then deals with the preparation of the engaged for marriage; with the accompanimentof couples in the first years of married life, including the issue of responsible parenthood; and also withcertain complex situations and crises, knowing that “each crisis has a lesson to teach us; we need tolearn how to listen for it with the ear of the heart” (AL 232). Some causes of crisis are analysed, among
them a delay in maturing affectively (cf. AL 239).
Mention is furthermore made of accompanying abandoned, separated or divorced persons. TheExhortation stresses the importance of the recent reform of the procedures for marriage annulment. Ithighlights the suffering of children in situations of conflict and concludes: “Divorce is an evil and theincreasing number of divorces is very troubling. Hence, our most important pastoral task with regard tofamilies is to strengthen their love, helping to heal wounds and working to prevent the spread of thisdrama of our times” (AL 246).
It then touches on the situations of a marriage between a Catholic and aChristian of another denomination (mixed marriages), and between a Catholic and someone of anotherreligion (disparity of cult). Regarding families with members with homosexual tendencies, it reaffirmsthe necessity to respect them and to refrain from any unjust discrimination and every form of aggression or violence. The last, pastorally poignant part of the chapter, “When death makes us feel itssting”, is on the theme of the loss of dear ones and of widowhood.
7. Chapter seven: “Towards a better education of children”(259-290)
The seventh chapter is dedicated to the education of children: their ethical formation, the learning ofdiscipline which can include punishment, patient realism, sex education, passing on the faith and, moregenerally, family life as an educational context. The practical wisdom present in each paragraph isremarkable, above all the attention given to those gradual, small steps “that can be understood,
accepted and appreciated” (AL 271).
There is a particularly interesting and pedagogically fundamental paragraph in which Francisclearly states that “obsession, however, is not education. We cannot control every situation that a childmay experience… If parents are obsessed with always knowing where their children are and controllingall their movements, they will seek only to dominate space. But this is no way to educate, strengthenand 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” (AL 260).
The notable section on education in sexuality is very expressively entitled: “Yes to sexeducation”. The need is there, and we have to ask “if our educational institutions have taken up thischallenge … in an age when sexuality tends to be trivialized and impoverished”. Sound education needsto be carried out “within the broader framework of an education for love, for mutual self-giving” (AL280). The text warns that the expression ‘safe sex’ conveys “a negative attitude towards the naturalprocreative finality of sexuality, as if an eventual child were an enemy to be protected against. This wayof thinking promotes narcissism and aggressivity in place of acceptance” (AL 283).
8. Chapter eight: “Guiding, discerning and integrating weakness”(291-312)
The eighth chapter is an invitation to mercy and pastoral discernment in situations that do not fullymatch what the Lord proposes. The Pope uses three very important verbs: guiding, discerning andintegrating, which are fundamental in addressing fragile, complex or irregular situations. The chapter hassections on the need for gradualness in pastoral care; the importance of discernment; norms andmitigating circumstances in pastoral discernment; and finally what the Pope calls the “logic of pastoralmercy”.
Chapter eight is very sensitive. In reading it one must remember that “the Church’s task is oftenlike that of a field hospital” (AL 291). Here the Holy Father grapples with the findings of the Synodson controversial issues. He reaffirms what Christian marriage is and adds that “some forms of unionradically contradict this ideal, while others realize it in at least a partial and analogous way”.
The Churchtherefore “does not disregard the constructive elements in those situations which do not yet or no longer correspond to her teaching on marriage” (AL 292).As far as discernment with regard to “irregular” situations is concerned, the Pope states: “Thereis a need ‘to avoid judgements which do not take into account the complexity of various situations’ and‘to be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience distress because of their condition’” (AL 296).And he continues: “It is a matter of reaching out to everyone, of needing to help each person find his
or her proper way of participating in the ecclesial community, and thus to experience being touched byan ‘unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous’ mercy” (AL 297).
And further: “The divorced who haveentered a new union, for example, can find themselves in a variety of situations, which should not bepigeonholed or fit into overly rigid classifications leaving no room for a suitable personal and pastoral
discernment” (AL 298).In this line, gathering the observations of many Synod Fathers, the Pope states that “the baptizedwho are divorced and civilly remarried need to be more fully integrated into Christian communities inthe variety of ways possible, while avoiding any occasion of scandal”.
“Their participation can be expressed in different ecclesial services… Such persons need to feel not as excommunicated membersof the Church, but instead as living members, able to live and grow in the Church… This integration isalso needed in the care and Christian upbringing of their children” (AL 299).In a more general vein, the Pope makes an extremely important statement for understanding theorientation and meaning of the Exhortation: “If we consider the immense variety of concretesituations, … it is understandable that neither the Synod nor this Exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases. What is needed issimply a renewed encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment ofparticular cases, one which would recognize that, since ‘the degree of responsibility is not equal in allcases’, the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same” (AL 300).
The Pope develops in depth the needs and characteristics of the journey ofaccompaniment anddiscernment necessary for profound dialogue between the faithful and their pastors.For this purpose the Holy Father recalls the Church’s reflection on “mitigating factors andsituations” regarding the attribution of responsibility and accountability for actions; and relying on St.Thomas Aquinas, he focuses on the relationship between rules and discernment by stating: “It is true
that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulationthey cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations. At the same time, it must be said that,precisely for that reason, what is part of a practical discernment in particular circumstances cannot beelevated to the level of a rule” (AL 304).
The last section of the chapter treats “The logic of pastoral mercy”. To avoid misunderstandings,Pope Francis strongly reiterates: “To show understanding in the face of exceptional situations neverimplies dimming the light of the fuller ideal, or proposing less than what Jesus offers to the humanbeing. Today, more important than the pastoral care of failures is the pastoral effort to strengthen marriages and thusto prevent their breakdown” (AL 307).
The overall sense of the chapter and of the spirit that Pope Francis wishes to impart to thepastoral work of the Church is well summed up in the closing words: “I encourage the faithful whofind themselves in complicated situations to speak confidently with their pastors or with other laypeople whose lives are committed to the Lord. They may not always encounter in them a confirmationof their own ideas or desires, but they will surely receive some light to help them better understandtheir situation and discover a path to personal growth.
I also encourage the Church’s pastors to listen tothem with sensitivity and serenity, with a sincere desire to understand their plight and their point ofview, in order to help them live better lives and to recognize their proper place in the Church.” (AL312).
On the “logic of pastoral mercy”, Pope Francis emphasizes: “At times we find it hard to makeroom for God’s unconditional love in our pastoral activity. We put so many conditions on mercy thatwe empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance. That is the worst way of watering down theGospel” (AL 311).
9. Chapter nine: “The spirituality of marriage and the family”(313-325)
The ninth chapter is devoted to marital and family spirituality, which “is made up of thousands ofsmall but real gestures” (AL 315). The Pope clearly states that “those who have deep spiritualaspirations should not feel that the family detracts from their growth in the life of the Spirit, but rathersee it as a path which the Lord is using to lead them to the heights of mystical union” (AL 316).Everything, “moments of joy, relaxation, celebration, and even sexuality can be experienced as asharing in the full life of the resurrection” (AL 317). He then speaks of prayer in the light of Easter, ofthe spirituality of exclusive and free love in the challenge and the yearning to grow old together,reflecting God’s fidelity (cf. AL 319). And finally the spirituality of care, consolation and incentive: the Popeteaches that “all family life is a ‘shepherding’ in mercy. Each of us, by our love and care, leaves a markon the life of others” (AL 322). It is a profound “spiritual experience to contemplate our loved oneswith the eyes of God and to see Christ in them” (AL 323).
In the final paragraph the Pope affirms: “No family drops down from heaven perfectly formed;families need constantly to grow and mature in the ability to love … All of us are called to keep strivingtowards something greater than ourselves and our families, and every family must feel this constantimpulse. Let us make this journey as families, let us keep walking together. (…) May we never lose heart
because of our limitations, or ever stop seeking that fullness of love and communion which God holdsout before us” (AL 325).
The Apostolic Exhortation concludes with a Prayer to the Holy Family.
As can readily be understood from a quick review of its contents, the Apostolic Exhortation Amorislaetitiaseeks emphatically to affirm not the “ideal family” but the very rich and complex realityof family life. Its pages provide an openhearted look, profoundly positive, which is nourished not withabstractions or ideal projections, but with pastoral attention to reality. The text is a close reading offamily life, with spiritual insights and practical wisdom useful for every human couple or persons who
want to build a family. Above all, it is patently the result of attention to what people have lived overmany years.
The Exhortation Amorislaetitia: On Love in the Family indeed speaks the language ofexperience and of hope.