AMORIS LAETITIA – THE JOY OF LOVE – A reflection on the recent Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Francis, by Archbishop George Stack



On 19 March 2016, the third anniversary of his Inauguration as Bishop of Rome and the feast of St. Joseph, Pope Francis issued his Apostolic Exhortation on Marriage and Family Life. It is called ‘Amoris Laetitia’ or ‘ The Joy of Love’. It follows the two meetings of the Synod of Bishops in October 2014 and October 2015.

‘Amoris Laetitia’ is a long letter comprising nine chapters, three hundred and twenty five paragraphs and over fifty thousand words. Little wonder the Pope says in the Introduction that people should not rush through the document. Covering topics such as Love in the Bible, the Vocation of the Family, Love in Marriage, Love made Fruitful, Pastoral Perspectives, the Education of Children, Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness as well as the Spirituality of the Family, this is truly a compendium of the Church’s teaching on Marriage and Family Life. It draws on the teaching of Paul VI, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI in its presentation of the joys and hopes as well as the struggles and failures in married life.

In asking people to read this letter slowly and reflectively, Pope Francis “… refuses to limit himself to the controversial issues that have monopolised attention both inside and outside the Church in the last three years. Rather than offering clear and concise answers to concrete questions, it seeks to put them within the context of a broader reflection on the way the Church teaches and pronounces on moral questions in general”. (1) In other words, unless we understand and accept the “why” of Church teaching, we will not be able to understand and live by the “how” of that teaching. To know Jesus Christ is the purpose and the means of our relationship with God and the cause of our salvation. Knowing him means more than knowing about him. Following a crucified Saviour has huge implications for those who believe in him, not least in the way we each carry our cross and follow him.

Nonetheless, the Pope does address painful issues surrounding the breakdown of marriage and the various questions of those who are divorced and in second marriages. He does so in the light of paragraphs 307 and 308.

“I would point out that in no way must the Church desist from proposing the full ideal of marriage, God’s plan in all its grandeur” (n. 307)

“At the same time, from our awareness of the weight of mitigating circumstances – psychological, historical and even biological-it follows that without distracting from the evangelical ideal, there is a need to accompany with mercy and patience the eventual stages of personal growth as these progressively appear” (n. 308)

“Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness” is the title of Chapter 8. This is probably the most practical chapter of the whole document. It deals with what are called “irregular” situations in terms of marriage. This is the focus of much discussion as to whether the divorced and civilly remarried are to be permitted to receive Holy Communion reflecting, as it does, on their status and the status of their marriage in the eyes of the Church. The Pope does not give a universal answer to an individual question, and does not accept a discipline or a practice for a category called “the divorced and remarried”. He is more concerned with the subjective status of individual couples as they engage with the teaching of the Church and apply it to their own situation. The prayerful accompaniment of pastors and other competent people in exploring where individuals and couples stand before God lies at the heart of this process.

For some it will mean an examination of a previous marriage in terms of nullity. For others it will mean the moral certainty that a marriage was not valid, even though this cannot be proved in the eyes of the law of the Church. For others, it will involve the recognition of culpability in the breakdown of marriage and the implications of that in the sight of God. In a footnote, the Pope writes:

“In certain cases this can include the help of the sacraments. I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the lord’s mercy”

And elsewhere:

“The Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak”(2).

In this letter, Pope Francis does not give universal approval for the reception of Holy Communion by those who are divorced and remarried.

In this Apostolic Exhortation, Pope Francis is addressing the many complexities of life, love, marriage, fidelity, failure, forgiveness and healing. Often, many of those different realities are at play in one relationship or one life. The ‘discernment’ for which the Pope calls is a constant effort to be open to the Word and Will of God, not just in marriage but in the whole of life. Discernment leads us to be docile to God’s Spirit, even when this contradicts the choices we sometimes make. Discernment cannot be separated from the Gospel demands of charity and truth. The Holy Father’s extended reflection on St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians on the nature of love which comprises chapter 4 is a constant reminder of the dignity, the comfort and challenge of true love: “Always patient and kind…never rude or selfish…enduring all things” (1 Cor.13:4-7).

(1) Mark Drew Catholic Herald 15 April 2016

(2) Amoris Laetitia Paragraph 305 footnote 351

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