Church leaders from around the world hailed the tone of mercy in Pope Francis’ recent apostolic exhortation, “Amoris Laetitia” (The Joy of Love), but they cautioned against a hurried reading of the document. It is an “encyclopedic” document and, like all such documents, much of its most valuable content runs the risk of being bypassed by a preoccupation with one or two of its aspects. It contains no new rules or norms. However, it encourages careful review of everything related to family life and ministry and greater attention to the attitude and approach used when giving the Church’s teaching and ministering to those who don’t fully live that teaching.
What is new about this exhortation is its tone: it calls on all ministers “to be warm and caring in the way they deal with people in difficult circumstances. ”There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach and shepherds are urged to adapt Church teachings from the 2014 and 2015 Synods of the Bishops on family life to their particular circumstances. For example, different cultural understandings of marriage within the U.S. would give the Church here different challenges to those faced by churches in other parts of the world. As Pope Francis says, every situation is different and needs to be approached with love, mercy and openness of heart.
People looking for “juicy” headlines would be disappointed. Pope Francis is not giving individual consciences the ultimate authority to decide their spiritual state, as media pundits and liberal theologians maintain, but is trying to help us priests to be better pastors, especially when dealing with family matters. The exhortation was meant for people to read and ponder and the document could help priests and bishops realize that “nobody is beyond the care of the Church.” It touches all the realities that a family might experience.
Pope Francis is telling us that we have to help people form correctly-informed consciences. What he is doing with this exhortation is teaching people to better understand what the beautiful vision of real Christian marriage is. It’s an approach that many pastoral agents and priests have been promoting for a long time, but it now gives stronger theological foundations. Despite what the uninformed may try to assert, Pope Francis is not allowing divorced-and-remarried persons to determine whether or not their first marriage is valid. Rather, he is teaching priests to be “tactful” and “sensitive” in explaining to divorced-and-remarried couples why they might not be able to receive Holy Communion without an annulment, and to get them to “come to understand” what that means.
“Amoris Laetitia” addresses many topics regarding marriage and family life, from the Biblical foundation of the family to reflections of St. Paul on charity in his first Letter to the Corinthians, to practical advice for married couples. It invites us to take the teachings of the Bible and the Church very seriously while welcoming in a true and realistic way couples experiencing hardships. The lengthy document is full of contemplative vistas but also down-to-earth practical wisdom that could come only from long pastoral experience of spouses and their families. It moves constantly between the ideal and the real.
Chapter 8 of this document deals with “accompanying, discerning and integrating pastoral care” for those in irregular family situations. Contrary to assumptions that it demonstrates a change in Church teaching on reception of Holy Communion by divorced-and-remarried persons, the document upholds existing Church teaching. As with any other papal exhortation, it must be interpreted within the context of the texts that have gone before it. It builds strongly on St. John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation on the role of the Christian family in the modern world, “Familiaris Consortio,” following the 1980 Synod on the Family. In that exhortation, St. John Paul II had written that the Sacrament of Penance, which would open the way to the reception of the Holy Eucharist, is possible for the divorced-and-remarried only when they ‘live in complete continence’.
Pope Francis makes the “classic distinction” between an “objective state of a situation” and “subjective culpability.” Since there are three conditions necessary for a sin to be mortal: 1. serious matter, 2. sufficient reflection, and 3. full consent of the will –sometimes people enter into adulterous unions without really knowing Church teaching on this. Sometimes people even enter into these unions without having a full knowledge of what marriage is. A pastor’s job is to lead them to live in accord with Church teaching. It is the priest’s job to help form a person’s conscience so they can correctly determine if they are in this state or not. We have to accompany the people where they are in their moral life, and help them move forward. That’s going to be different for every particular circumstance, and the ways to apply pastoral care can often be “circumstantial” and “murky.” Even so, the pastor tries to “lead” the couple so that they may understand what they can and cannot do.
Any passage of the exhortation must be interpreted in light of existing Church teachings. For example, we need to consult and read the “Declaration Concerning the Admission to Holy Communion of Faithful Who are Divorced and Remarried,” which is cited in Amoris Laetitia. The exhortation “insists that we have to deal always with the facts, however messy they may be; we have to be in touch with the reality of marriage and the family, not clinging to some romanticized sense of what the family should be. A genuinely pastoral approach to marriage and the family begins with the facts.
Some people will be disappointed that it is not full of black-and-white solutions; but, it embraces the papal vision of the Church being a field hospital, treating the wounded and attending to those with needs. The Pope has underscored “…the importance of confession” throughout his papacy. Pope Francis refers “in the first place” to the Sacrament of Penance, and then to Holy Communion. This order points to Church teaching of reception of Holy Communion only after one’s sins have been forgiven in the Sacrament of Penance and they are in the state of grace.
Finally, it is not just a collection of separated chapters. As Pope Francis says, “you can’t whiz through it. It needs reflection.” It is “a precious tool, a guide for pastoral workers accompanying couples. It has particular focus on the need to walk with those who feel excluded and to let everyone know that they are loved by God and that that love is a tender love, but also a love that challenges us all to change.”