Aidan Hart reviews Pope Francis’ latest gift to the universal Church. He sees it as “a papal document like no other; its underlying tone of God’s compassionate mercy for all human failure and its understanding of the realities and messiness of many peoples’ lives are outstanding.”
The papal Exhortation, as it is officially termed, is the result of a two-year long process of consultation within the Catholic Church. The laity were invited to complete an online questionnaire (very poorly designed and carried out) while a representative body of bishops and cardinals, and a few hand-picked lay people and married couples, were invited to two week-long conferences in Rome during which Pope Francis encouraged frank and open discussion among the clerics present. The Exhortation, entitled The Joy of Love, is Pope Francis’ thoughtful response to the results of all the consultation, including, no doubt, advice and written drafts from his advisers.
The challenge for Pope Francis was to reflect in his Exhortation on The Joy of Love the two opposing movements within today’s Catholic Church. These opposing forces were witnessed during some of the heated discussions among bishops and cardinals at the two consultative meetings in Rome. One movement wants change and development resulting from a fuller and more urgent implementation of both the documents and spirit of the Second Vatican Council. The other wants no change and a return to the security and ‘orthodoxy’, as they see it, of the pre-Vatican 11 Church. In the Exhortation Pope Francis walks successfully the tightrope between those two movements but, no doubt, not to everyone’s satisfaction. He avoids going too deeply into contentious issues, leaving some things unsaid and putting God’s mercy and forgiveness above doctrine, without ignoring the latter.
Another important sub-text of the document is the continuing decentralisation of authority within the Catholic Church. Diocesan bishops are restored to their centuries old traditional role of being in charge of local Churches, while remaining in full communion with the Pope. Part of this return of authority to diocesan bishops is for them to take account of local culture and its traditions in their handling of issues surrounding courtship and marriage and all aspects of human love.
The Joy of Love is not a typical 30 page or so encyclical in small booklet form which one might read from beginning to end in one sitting. It is a manual of 265 pages and 9 chapters;
- Chapter 1 – In The Light of The Word
- Chapter 2 – The Experiences And Challenges Of Families
- Chapter 3 – Looking To Jesus: The Vocation Of The Family
- Chapter 4 – Love In Marriage
- Chapter 5 – Love Made Fruitful
- Chapter 6 – Some Pastoral Perspectives
- Chapter 7 – Towards A Better Education Of Children
- Chapter 8 – Accompanying, Discerning And Integrating Weakness
- Chapter 9 – The Spirituality Of Marriage And The Family
In the introduction Pope Francis advises that it will be best read in small sections at a time, slowly and deeply reflected upon and discussed thoughtfully between spouses and between engaged couples. It is an unusual blend of theology, spirituality and down-to-earth, practical psychology to help engaged and married couples live together in loving and harmonious marriages which continue to deepen the marriage relationship and to uniting the couple to Jesus the Christ. The practical psychology used by Pope Francis is refreshing. It is the type of advice a caring parent would want to give to a son or daughter preparing for marriage or going through a difficult patch in their relationship. Pope Francis has also words of wisdom for married couples in their senior years. In addition, the Exhortation will be a most useful manual for those tasked with preparing couples for marriage and for those adjudicating on Canon Law issues surrounding marriage. Every married and engaged couple should read and reflect deeply on chapter 4 – Love In Marriage.
‘The Joy of Love’ does not change Church doctrine but it has a radically different tone from many previous papal documents. The tone is one we have come to expect from Pope Francis – divine mercy. It seeks to improve the way doctrine is interpreted and applied in particular circumstances. The primacy of each person’s conscience is emphasised, as is the active and transforming presence of God in every person’s life. Pope Francis emphasises the important, though complex, moral concepts of ‘the law of gradualness’ (AL 295; people growing gradually into virtue and into an understanding and appreciation of God’s grace) and ‘the difference between objective and subjective guilt’ (AL 302,303, 305). The Exhortation also emphasises the need for all people to experience the Church as the vehicle of God’s compassionate mercy, acceptance and forgiveness in all situations. Great understanding is shown for the complexities of modern living, the messiness in much of everyday life and the difficulties being faced by many married couples and young people. Life is never perfect. Nobody is to be stigmatised. The document gives great emphasis to the dignity of every human person and the need to bed Christianity into local cultures and their customs. It repeats the ruling on all sexual intercourse being open to creating new life but very importantly qualifies it by adding that the method for limiting one’s family according to a couple’s personal circumstances is totally up to the conscience of each married couple. On the vexed issue of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics being allowed to receive Holy Communion, the Exhortation recommends that the particular circumstances of each civilly remarried person’s situation be taken into account within the Internal Forum (Confession and discernment through an examination of conscience under spiritual guidance), particularly those situations in which a spouse has been physically or psychologically abused or abandoned and/or the care of children is an issue. This whole process is to be overseen and guided by each local bishop. If, however, the divorced and remarried person is living a normal, sexually active married life, other issues arise within current Catholic moral theology which the Exhortation does not address. That may come later or be allowed to develop further.
The Exhortation puts great emphasis on the family and home, the ‘domestic church’ as Pope Francis repeatedly calls it, as the primary vehicles for fostering the faith of the married couple, children and young people. However, it leaves it up to diocesan bishops to address the issue of the necessity for continuing parish programmes of adult faith-formation . These are urgently needed to help ensure that the parents who are supposed to be fostering the faith of their children have themselves an informed, vibrant and Bible-based faith to pass on.
Homosexuality is given a relatively light touch, but an important one none-the-less. The demand for gay marriage is strongly resisted. However nothing is said about the Church’s acceptance, or otherwise, of gay partnerships apart from saying that they do not equate with marriage. Pope Francis makes clear that gay people must not be discriminated against or suffer any form of aggression or violence. The issue is not addressed as to whether or not this applies to gay people who are sexually active or in committed, faithful and loving sexual relationships. In devolving increased authority to local hierarchies, as this Exhortation does, that issue is very important as some Catholic hierarchies (eg Kenyan and Indonesian, to name just two of several) have demanded jail for sexually active gay people in their countries. In giving advice to the parents of children experiencing homosexual orientation the Exhortation talks of such children or young people “receiving the assistance they need to understand and fully carry out God’s will in their lives.” This may be open to interpretation. It can be seen as guidance to help the child or young person accept and cherish who they are, understand the issues that will arise for them and help them feel a full and cherished member of society and of the Catholic Church, “carrying out God’s will in their lives.” On the other hand, it could be interpreted, as has already been done on the PinkNews website, of advocating attempts to counsel and assist gay people into becoming ‘straight’ or ‘non-gay’, a process often controversially advocated and practised by some evangelical groups in America.
Tighter editing perhaps should have removed the Greek words and phrases which only serve to make access to, and understanding of, the document somewhat difficult for the ‘ordinary’ Catholic. Even terms like ‘evangelisation’ and ‘domestic church’ etc need to be explained. Most Catholics will have heard of them but few may be able to say what exactly they mean and particularly what they should mean for them personally. However, this is a minor criticism.
In conclusion, let me say again that this is a papal document like no other; its underlying tone of God’s compassionate mercy for all human failure and its understanding of the realities and messiness of many peoples’ lives are outstanding. “The Church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems” (The Joy of Love) . This Exhortation speaks to all generations. It is very positive and practical. There are many gold nuggets of down-to-earth, practical advice throughout the Exhortation. If Catholic dioceses throughout the world build it into diocesan and parish programmes of marriage preparation and renewal it will help young and old alike to appreciate more deeply God’s vision for The Joy of Love.
Read or Download Amoris-Laetitia
Links to further reading:-
What Some Critics of ‘Amoris Laetitia’ Are Missing by James Martin SJ (America Magazine)
Who will bring forth Pope Francis’ vision? by Robert Mickens (NCR)