I made it my weekend project to read the entire 256 page, 9 chapter Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia that is Pope Francis’ summary of two synods (and two years) worth of world wide conversation. Indeed, it is a lot to take in to be sure.
I will give a more in depth presentation on the entire document at my parishes on the evening of June 23rd, which is when all of the calendars of life aligned for a free space.
In the meantime, I can offer the following brief observations about the document and about the buzz that is swirling around it.
For one, and most importantly, the beautiful truth of the nature and purpose of Christian marriage that we have always articulated as a Church does shine through in Amoris Laetitia. Marriage is a lifelong and exclusive commitment, between one man and one woman, that is open to the gift of children, and is a means to grow in holiness. All of those points are made in this document.
Pope Francis spends a great deal of the document repeating and synthesizing what the Synod Fathers already said on the topic, which was in turn what the Church has always said by and large.
In addition, the Holy Father adds his own reflections and observations in his characteristic grandfatherly, folksy tone about the nature of love, relationships, raising kids, and persevering through the many messy realities of family life. Several pages are in many ways a long sermon directed to married couples and to all who seek to engage family life seriously.
I predict that it is Francis’ often poetic and at the same time earthy descriptions of the joys and sorrows of family life today that will be the document’s enduring strength. Anyone who is interested in living the vocation to family life well should spend some time with the Holy Father’s descriptions which are in many ways a retelling in modern terms of the ancient and beautiful truths of our teachings.
There are other parts of the document, especially the elements that attempt to tackle the difficult questions surrounding the sacramental communion of the divorced and civilly remarried, that seem destined to only prolong what is already a very confused conversation in and out of the Church.
Pope Francis (often quoting the Synod Fathers) has articulated what might be called a method, or an approach, or a pastoral practice of a very localized nature, and he has attempted to elevate it to the level of official policy, or even of official Church teaching. Indeed that is a messy thing to do, and the debate about the merits of this among more learned minds than my own will have to play out for some time.
Perhaps the best thing that can be said about those elements of Amoris Laetitia is simply that, in the long run, whatever is not of the truth of the tradition will fall away, and conversely, whatever is in conformity with the truth will be refined and will endure.
For now, it is important to know that the fullness of the truth of Christian marriage, and the grace to live it out, really are open to everyone without any exceptions.
And what that means is that if anyone finds himself or herself living in a marital or family situation that is somehow lacking a dimension of what we all, in our hearts, know to be what the Gospel asks of us, then they should approach the pastors of the Church for assistance in remedying the situation. We will of course be eager to help. That is, after all, what the Holy Father does want to reinforce.
Additionally, if questions do arise in our hearts about whether or not we should be in full sacramental communion until certain situations are remedied, then the best approach when dealing with things as sacred as sacraments, and as sacred as people, is to be cautious at first until we can be assured of what truly is appropriate for the good of ourselves and of the whole community. That is a decision that is, of course, always informed by the unbroken understanding of the Church.
It is true, as the document also makes clear, that there are many imperfect situations in families today. And it is true that in imperfect situations God can indeed be at work for the good of those involved. But, His work is always directed toward leading us to make perfect what might not be already.
To put it another way: the fullest freedom, the deepest joy, the best life, and the sweetest taste of eternal life really is found in living the truth of Christian marriage to the full. Neither the Lord, nor His Church, would ever want to deny anyone something so beautiful, even if challenging.
For all that might otherwise be in doubt right now, one thing is not in doubt: as the decades pass, the elements of truth of this moment in history, and of this document, will be made clear. God will see to that. In the meantime, we have only to be faithful.