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Looking at “The Joy of Love”

Archbishop Paul S. Coakley          April 17, 2016

“The Joy of Love” (Amoris Laetitia) is Pope Francis’s just released apostolic exhortation “On Love in the Family.” It serves as a fitting complement to his first apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel” (Evangelii Gaudium) released in 2013.

While both are characterized by their fresh approachable writing style and concreteness, this latest exhortation is much longer, and considerably more complex, dealing as it does with the many realities facing families and married couples around the world. “The Joy of Love” is the fruit of the deliberations of two recent Synods of Bishops on marriage and family that were held in 2014 and 2015.

“If we consider the immense variety of concrete situations,” Pope Francis writes, “it is understandable that neither the Synod nor this exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases (AL 300).

He takes a very different approach. He does not propose new teaching or change any doctrine of the Church as many people had either hoped or feared. He situates this exhortation within the living tradition of the Church, rooting it in the Scriptures, the teachings of previous popes, the Second Vatican Council and various bishops’ conferences. It is a teaching, however, that must be applied through a careful pastoral discernment of the particular situations in which people find themselves, and through a loving accompaniment by the Church’s pastors and pastoral workers.

“Christian marriage as a reflection of the union between Christ and his Church is fully realized in the union between a man and a woman who give themselves to each other in a free faithful and exclusive love, who belong to each other until death and are open to the transmission of life, and are consecrated by the sacrament.” This is a good summary of the traditional understanding of the Christian ideal of marriage. “Some forms of union radically contradict this ideal, while others realize it in at least a partial and analogous way” (AL 292).

Speaking of the former, Pope Francis affirms 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 … and deplores that local Churches should be subjected to pressure in this matter” (AL 251).

At the same time, speaking of persons experiencing same-attraction, he reaffirms “that every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration,” deploring any sign of unjust discrimination, aggression and violence (AL 250).

In the introduction to “The Joy of Love,” Pope Francis writes, “I do not recommend a rushed reading of the text. The greatest benefit, for families themselves and for those engaged in the family apostolate, will come if each part is read patiently and carefully or if attention is paid to the parts dealing with their specific needs” (AL 7). One of the risks, of course, is that certain portions may be taken out of context or that the text will be used only to glean sound bites, without making the effort necessary to really understand the teaching in its richness and nuances.

The 260-page text includes two extended meditations on the Scriptures, Psalm 128 found in Ch. 1 and Saint Paul’s Hymn to Love (1 Corinthians 13). The latter meditation is found in Ch. 4 called “Love in Marriage,” which is arguably the very heart of this exhortation. It is the chapter that probably will be of most interest to married couples. The psychological insights and appreciation of the emotional world of spouses, including the erotic dimensions of their love is unprecedented in papal documents.

Other chapters treat the real experiences and complex challenges of families, the varieties of ways that love is made fruitful in marriage, including, of course, through procreation and welcoming children. There are chapters that address the education of children and the spirituality of marriage and family life.

While holding up the full ideal of Christian marriage and calling all to a fuller response to God’s grace, Pope Francis returns to an image that he has used often: the Church as field hospital (AL 291). All of us experience brokenness in our lives. We need to experience the healing touch of mercy through the Church.

Ch. 8 is titled, “Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness.” This is the chapter that will probably be of most interest to priests who are called to minister to those couples whose lived experience often falls short of that full ideal.

The pastoral approach that the Holy Father proposes calls for a careful personal and pastoral discernment of all of the circumstances in those “irregular” cases, including those couples who are divorced, cohabiting or who are not in a sacramental marriage, or who are divorced and only civilly remarried. He invites pastors to patiently accompany these couples in the hope of gradually reintegrating them as fully as possibly into the life of the Christian community.

Accompaniment is the key. Pope Francis writes, “a pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in ‘irregular’ situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives” (AL 305). Through pastoral accompaniment and discernment, pastors help couples find possible ways of responding to God and growing in the midst of limits. The Holy Father acknowledges the challenges and messiness of this approach.

“I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care, which leaves no room for confusion. But, I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness that the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, a mother who, while clearly expressing her objective teaching, ‘always does what good she can, even if in the process shoes get soiled by the mud of the streets’” (AL 308).

Ultimately, Pope Francis notes that it is providential that these reflections come during the Jubilee of Mercy as he cautions us lest “we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators.” The “Church after all is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems” (AL 310).

Read Amoris Laetitia