What is so special about Amoris Laetitia, or The Joy of Love? If you don't have time to read the document itself, here's a must-read article of twelve things you should know about it.
What is it?
What in the world is an apostolic exhortation and why is this one important? This document is important because the Church has always emphasized the value of families and there is a lot of confusion about changes in the cultural landscape and what the Church teaches about these things—divorce, remarriage, contraception, gay marriage, and sex education, just for starters.
Following last fall’s synod on the family, Pope Francis issued this apostolic exhortation in keeping with a long tradition of communicating the work of the synod in this way. Cardinal Raymond Burke notes that such a document “by its very nature, does not propose new doctrine and discipline but applies the perennial doctrine and discipline to the situation of the world at the time.”
Pope Francis is a leader who knows that it’s not always what you say, but how you say it. He emphasizes mercy (Year of Mercy, anyone?) over rigorism and recognizes that many people are living lives that do not align perfectly with Church teaching. In fact, the Church urges us to be perfect, and pretty much all of us are not.
Families are important
“The welfare of the family is decisive for the future of the world and that of the Church” (31). Francis opens this document by underscoring the primacy of family. They are essential for any healthy society:
“No one can think that the weakening of the family as that natural society founded on marriage will prove beneficial to society as a whole. The contrary is true: it poses a threat to the mature growth of individuals, the cultivation of community values and the moral progress of cities and countries” (52).
The Church itself is a “family of families” (87) and, as noted in Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium, the family is a domestic church (LG, 11). Far from being some secluded lacuna of doctrine, our understanding of family is essential to our understanding of Church.
Families are complicated
Family life in the modern age is characterized by a tension between the extremes of individualism and self-denial. “Freedom of choice makes it possible to plan our lives and to make the most of ourselves. Yet if this freedom lacks noble goals or personal discipline, it degenerates into an inability to give oneself generously to others” (33). “We encounter problems whenever we think that relationships or people ought to be perfect, or when we put ourselves at the centre and expect things to turn out our way” (92).
But central to any understanding of family is love. “All that has been said so far would be insufficient to express the Gospel of marriage and the family, were we not also to speak of love” (89). “Love always has an aspect of deep compassion that leads to accepting the other person as part of this world, even when he or she acts differently than I would like” (92).
Pope Francis is a realist. Even in a traditional family, “All of us are a complex mixture of light and shadows. The other person is much more than the sum of the little things that annoy me” (113) and “there is no need to lay upon two limited persons the tremendous burden of having to reproduce perfectly the union existing between Christ and his Church” (122).
This vision of the perfect family, he suggests, is not the product of Church teaching, but of advertising agencies,
“As the Bishops of Chile have pointed out, ‘the perfect families proposed by deceptive consumerist propaganda do not exist’” (135).
Marriage is hard
This is especially true in the current culture which accepts and even encourages the commoditization of people and makes others seem like merely tools for our own happiness. “This is hardly to suggest that we cease warning against a cultural decline that fails to promote love or self-giving” (39).
“The ideal of marriage, marked by a commitment to exclusivity and stability, is swept aside whenever it proves inconvenient or tiresome. The fear of loneliness and the desire for stability and fidelity exist side by side with a growing fear of entrapment in a relationship that could hamper the achievement of one's personal goals” (34).
Even moderately well-off parents do not encourage their children to marry or have children if a future career or earning potential might be compromised. “At the risk of oversimplifying, we might say that we live in a culture which pressures young people not to start a family, because they lack possibilities for the future.
Yet this same culture presents others with so many options that they too are dissuaded from starting a family” (40). We live in a culture that simultaneously insists that marriage should be for everyone, while privately some think that marriage is not for anyone.
People are not disposable
A consumer culture thrives on the notion that everything is replaceable, upgradeable, disposable. This facet of modern life is particularly troubling to Pope Francis:
“We treat affective relationships the way we treat material objects and the environment: everything is disposable; everyone uses and throws away, takes and breaks, exploits and squeezes to the last drop. Then, goodbye” (39). “Narcissism makes people incapable of looking beyond themselves, beyond their own desires and needs.
Yet sooner or later, those who use others end up being used themselves, manipulated and discarded by that same mind-set. It is also worth noting that breakups often occur among older adults who seek a kind of ‘independence’ and reject the ideal of growing old together, looking after and supporting one another” (39).
Abuse Is Still Not OK
Abuse was never OK and its stock has not risen with this pontiff. “The shameful ill-treatment to which women are sometimes subjected, domestic violence and various forms of enslavement which, rather than a show of masculine power, are craven acts of cowardice. The verbal, physical, and sexual violence that women endure in some marriages contradicts the very nature of the conjugal union” (54).
Coming as he does from a culture in which machismo is often valued, the pope is that much more opposed to the subjugation of women. He decries their lack of access to equal decision-making and such practices as surrogacy and “exploitation and commercialization” of the female form. Further, he says,
“There are those who believe that many of today’s problems have arisen because of feminine emancipation. This argument, however, is not valid, it is false, untrue, a form of male chauvinism. The equal dignity of men and women makes us rejoice to see old forms of discrimination disappear, and within families there is a growing reciprocity. If certain forms of feminism have arisen which we must consider inadequate, we must nonetheless see in the women’s movement the working of the Spirit for a clearer recognition of the dignity and rights of women” (54).
Divorced? Not from the Church
For a lot of Catholics, good-bye to a spouse meant good-bye to the Church. Some thought that divorce meant automatic excommunication (it doesn’t) or constituted an unforgivable sin (it doesn’t). The pope makes a special effort to reach out to these people:
“It is important that the divorced who have entered a new union should be made to feel part of the Church.… Language or conduct that might lead them to feel discriminated against should be avoided, and they should be encouraged to participate in the life of the community” (243).
Acknowledging those who are cohabiting, civilly married, or remarried, he says, “the Church turns with love to those who participate in her life in an imperfect manner: she seeks the grace of conversion for them; she encourages them to do good, to take loving care of each other and to serve the community in which they live and work” (78).
Abortion Is Still Not OK
If you thought this was going to change, you haven’t been paying attention.
“If the family is the sanctuary of life, the place where life is conceived and cared for, it is a horrendous contradiction when it becomes a place where life is rejected and destroyed. So great is the value of human life, and so inalienable the right to life of an innocent child growing in the mother’s womb, that no alleged right to one’s own body can justify a decision to terminate that life” (83).
For the pope, this is not an issue of women’s rights (as it is often positioned in political discourse); it is a continuation of the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of human life, the dangers of an overemphasis on individuality (see #5), and of viewing people as objects (see #6).
Sex Is Important and Children Should be Taught about It.
Vatican II taught the importance of sex education, but that memo was not as widely circulated as it might have been. Thus, it raises the odd eyebrow to read the pope’s words: “It is not easy to approach the issue of sex education in an age when sexuality tends to be trivialised and impoverished. It can only be seen within the broader framework of an education for love, for mutual self giving. In such a way, the language of sexuality would not be sadly impoverished but illuminated and enriched” (280). He continues:
“Sex education should provide information...at a proper time and in a way suited to [children’s] age…. Young people…should be helped to recognise and to seek out positive influences, while shunning the things that cripple their capacity for love” (281).
Human Dignity Is Paramount
Gay marriage, a civil-rights issue in the US and a criminal offense in some parts of Africa, remains a divisive issue. While in no way altering the Church’s teaching on marriage, Pope Francis affirms 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, particularly any form of aggression and violence” (250).
There is a softening of language about homosexuality, and a conspicuous absence of the problematic reference to “intrinsic disorders” in documents past. However, Francis restates that “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family” (251).
The pope doesn’t single out homosexual unions, though. While perhaps the most high-profile case, he makes the point that many sorts of relationships miss the mark: “We need to acknowledge the great variety of family situations that can offer a certain stability, but de facto or same-sex unions, for example, may not simply be equated with marriage. No union that is temporary or closed to the transmission of life can ensure the future of society” (53). Polygamy is no good, arranged marriages are out, living together is still not OK by the magisterium.
Image: CNS/Paul Haring
He recognizes that many “traditional” forms of marriage were also not ideal: “Many countries are witnessing a legal deconstruction of the family, tending to adopt models based almost exclusively on the autonomy of the individual will. Surely it is legitimate and right to reject older forms of the traditional family marked by authoritarianism and even violence, yet this should not lead to a disparagement of marriage itself, but rather to the rediscovery of its authentic meaning and its renewal” (53).