Reflections on Amoris Laetitia: I read it so you don't have to

Last night I finally got through the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, “the joy of love,” and I wanted to share some reflections.  To be clear, there are many more people more qualified than I to make official theological pronouncements about this particular document, specifically how it resonates within the broader field of Catholic theology.  What I am offering here are personal theological reflections, particularly on the points that resonated with me—either for good or for ill.

There are two overarching points that struck me about the 261 page document as a whole:  first, its pastoral tone; and second, the fact that marriage really, really, really matters to the Catholic Church.  Let me say a bit more about both of those things.  First, repeatedly in the document Pope Francis emphasizes the need for the Church to be loving, pastoral, forgiving and grace-full in its dealings with people.  He acknowledges that specific Catholic teachings can and should be applied contextually, and that local priests and bishops should be sensitive to context when instructing and counseling individuals.  This, I think, is no small thing. 

Here are just a few examples of statements that prove the point.  “Unity of teaching and practice is necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching…Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditional and local needs” [#3].  This statement comes at the very beginning of the document, which I think is telling.  He also notes that “…while clearly stating the Church’s teaching, pastors are to avoid judgments that do not take into account the complexity of various situations….” [#79].

Also under this heading I found it helpful that the pope explicitly counseled humility and self-criticism, “…acknowledging that at times the way we present our Christian beliefs and treat other people has helped contribute to today’s problematic situation” [#36].  Here, the example of Jesus is lifted up as one who “set forth a demanding ideal yet never failed to show compassion and closeness to the frailty of individuals….” [#38].

Related here, too, I appreciated the fact that the pope explicitly rejects the subjugation of, abuse of, and mistreatment of women within a marriage [#54].  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” [#54].  Now, let’s be clear:  the pope is no feminist.  One wonders what he means when he says, “If certain forms of feminism have arisen which we must consider inadequate….”  Which forms are those?  Yet, he goes on to say, “…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].  It’s a step in the right direction, I think.

Second, it is quite clear that Pope Francis wants to reiterate and reinforce the centrality of marriage as a [if not “the”] bedrock on which a society rests.  Marriage is a “precious sign…the icon of God’s love for us” [#121].  To be clear, I am all for marriage—I believe in the institution, and the value of making a public commitment into which others are invited to participate, and to be surrounded by a loving community of people who also make promises to support this new family that is coming into being.  However, I found some of the language excessive, especially when it is clear that marriage is the ideal to which all relationships should be aimed; and especially when the only thing that is said about people who are single is in the context of “virginity,” which sounds horribly antiquated and prudish to me.

Here are a few examples of this.  In #40, the Church is exhorted to find the “right language, arguments and forms of witness” that can help encourage young people to marry.  It is just assumed that this is the most desirable goal for everyone; I wonder, is it?  And, of course, “marriage” is between a man and a women, period:  “…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” [52].  Ugh.  Why are same-sex unions “closed to the transmission of life”?  That seems both simply inaccurate and unfair.

And, marriage still has as its natural and most complete end procreation, and “no genital act of husband and wife can refuse this meaning…” [#80].  Naturally, then, the document explicitly renounces abortion, which is not unexpected; the only consolation for me in that unambiguous condemnation is that he puts opposition to the death penalty [and euthanasia] in the same paragraph.  At least he’s consistent.  I have no patience for people who are anti-abortion but pro-death penalty.  Drives me crazy….

Pope Francis also unhelpfully endorses an earlier papal document that says “Yet another challenge is posed by the various forms of an ideology of gender that ‘denies the difference and reciprocity in nature of a man and a woman and envisages a society without sexual differences, thereby eliminating the anthropological basis of the family” [#56].  A move into the 21st century would be helpful in eliminating this outdated essentialist understanding of personhood.

Given the importance of marriage, and the important role parents have in the faith formation of their children, Pope Francis also emphasizes that the Church should not perpetuate the idea that people who are divorced and remarried are somehow “excommunicated” from the Church.  He is speaking here about communion in particular, and the importance of welcoming families to the Eucharist.  Thus, he makes clear that the process of getting an annulment should be “more accessible and less time consuming, and, if possible, free of charge” [#244].  That would be quite a welcome change.
Then, in addition to these larger issues, there are a few more observations I’d like to make.
First, a rather idealistic picture of the family is painting at the beginning of the document, but a turn is made in #19, under the heading “A Path of Suffering and Blood.”  The point is that “….the Word of God is not a series of abstract ideas but rather a source of comfort and companionship for every family that experiences difficulties or suffering” [#22].  So, even though much in the document about marriage and families is idealized, the pope recognizes the pain that families can both cause and experience. And, in this, the Holy Family is described as an “icon,” to which other human families can look, especially other refugee families. [He discusses this issue of migration, particularly forced migration again in #46]. 

As always, Pope Francis is very concerned about the welfare of the most vulnerable in society: he lifts up the condition of children repeatedly, particularly those born with disabilities; and he also notes the sinful economic conditions that make affordable housing and sustainable employment difficult or impossible for too many.  It is really out of this concern [and his concern for women] that the pope makes clear that sometimes it is necessary to end a marriage: in the cases of injustice, violence, and even in the cases of disregard and indifference [#241].

It might be a small thing, but I appreciated the long quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.  In a document that spends the vast majority of its footnote space on previous papal documents, to give MLK some space here is significant, I think.  [The topic is love, and the power of love, in #118].  He also quotes the movie “Babette’s Feast,” which was a sweet and surprising moment in the document, I thought [#129].

The pope does a little marriage counseling, too, emphasizing the importance of saying “please,” and “I’m sorry;’ as well as emphasizing dialogue, spending quality time together and showing each other some affection.  A little Dr. Phil moment in the document for me!  [He also encourages the Church to take advantage of the “potential” of Saint Valentine’s Day—I’d love the see the Church try and wrest that holiday away from Hallmark! #208]

Another thing I deeply appreciate about the document is that Pope Francis is very clear and very explicit that sexuality is “a marvelous gift to [God’s] creatures” [#150].  Sexual desire is to be cherished; sexuality is an “interpersonal language wherein the other is taken seriously…” [#151]—I love that.  Many Christians still think that sexuality is something shameful, something sinful, and certainly something to avoid talking about at all costs.  In that environment, this proclamation is welcome—even if, to be clear, Pope Francis is thinking specifically of sex between a man and woman, in the context of marriage.

One more thing:  Pope Francis is very clear that the gift of marriage, and the gift of families themselves is a gift for the sake of the whole world.  In other words, any specific family is not to turn inward and focus only on itself, on the individuals’ love for one another, but rather turn outward, and live out that love for the sake of the neighbor.  Pope Francis writes, “Families should not see themselves as a refuge from society, but instead go forth from their homes in a spirt of solidarity with others” [#181].  And further, “A married couple who experience the power of love know that this love is called to bind the wounds of the outcast, to foster a culture of encounter and to fight for justice” [#139].  I love that, too. 

In general, one of the things that I love about Pope Francis [I have a little pope crush, I admit it] is that he genuinely has a heart for people, especially people who are suffering; and he genuinely believes that the church can make a positive difference in the world, and that embodying the gospel of Jesus Christ in the world for the sake of the neighbor and the stranger is at the heart of what the church is.  Thus, in this document, too, we see the “field hospital” metaphor that he has used before [#291].  He also says that “the Church is not a tollhouse [that is, an institution that calculates the grace it either distributes or withholds]; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems” [#310].

When faced with the two paths the Church could follow—that of “casting off” or “reinstating”—Pope Francis is crystal clear about his direction:  “The way of the Church is not to condemn anyone for ever; it is to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart” [#296].  Incidentally, he also says, “No one can be condemned forever, because that is not the logical of the Gospel!  Here I am not speaking only of the divorced and remarried, but of everyone, in whatever situations they find themselves” [#297].  Might this point to some version of universal salvation?  My intuition is that Pope Francis wouldn’t rule that out.

In spite of all the other things I wish he would say and do—about women, in particular—I really, really appreciate this.  I always am eager to see what he will do next.