This essay initially ran in May 2016.
Amoris laetitia is a long and sometimes frustrating document, even to those familiar with Pope Francis’s discursive style. In the initial paragraphs, he defends its length and lays out his overall approach, urging readers eager for his views on current contested issues to jump to Chapter 8. However, the pope says that the “two central chapters” (4 and 5) are those on love, followed by practical and pastoral advice with regard to marriage and parenting.
So how does Francis think about love? Some of the pope’s language, while familiar, is not particularly helpful. For instance, the over-interpreted phrase “domestic church” is invoked, and the family is described as an icon of the inner life of the Trinity—an unbiblical idea that has appeared in some recent magisterial teaching, largely due to the influence of Hans Urs von Balthasar. Francis’s thinking becomes clearer after reading the first three chapters. Love and marriage, he notes, are not identical, but marriage is the appropriate home for love precisely because the essential character of marriage is indissolubility. More important, the end of marriage is conformity to Christ. These two theological ideas—indissolubility and growth in the likeness to Christ—sum up how Francis thinks about love.
Indissolubility is defended as part of the intentionality of love, which entails a whole shared life. Perpetuity, Francis says, is simply part of the language of love. Lovers do not see their relationship as temporary; those marrying really mean their vows. It is the nature of love—of conjugal love—to be “definitive.” The expectations of children reflect this natural longing for indissolubility. Children want their parents to love each other and to stay together. Indissolubility is not “a yoke,” but rather a sharing in God’s faithful, “indulgent love,” which should “heal and transform hardened hearts.”
In a striking commentary on St. Paul’s hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13, the pope lays out the virtues necessary for living in “definitive” union with another. Envy, he observes, is contrary to love because it is a kind of sadness at the good fortune of another. Real love observes the virtue of justice, and therefore does not covet. Francis often reminds us of how hurtful lovers can be to one another through slander, resentment, self-assertion, or a “lack of concern for others.” To speak well of another is not simply to put on a good “public face,” or manifest a naïve adoration. Love requires us to see with realism the faults and limitations of others, but then to see them as part of a much larger picture. Love, he says, “does not have to be perfect for us to value it. The other person loves me as best they can, with all their limits.” To “bear all things” is to abide with another despite his or her inevitable limitations. This lengthy and winsome study of love’s virtues is often right on the mark, as well as deeply Christological in its spirituality.
Several themes emerge from the two central chapters. Love is hard because forgiveness is hard; love is not a feeling but a desire for the good of the other; love is generous, since charity is more about the desire to love than the desire to be loved; love is imperfect because no person can be God to us or “serve all my needs.” Although the pope affirms the warmth of the first flush of love, and the tenderness of intimacy, love in the fullest sense is described as a hard labor and as an enduring friendship. Marriage, he says, is a challenge. In it, love is something to be fought for, cultivated, and renewed. Joy is found in “expansion of the heart”; it is not about seeking pleasure, but about the joy of “helping and serving another.”
Surprisingly Amoris laetitia seems addressed to a privileged and distracted audience, rather than the global South that is so often Francis’s concern. While acknowledging the special support needed by the poor and the elderly, the pope focuses on the social and cultural problems associated with the secular “West.” He opens Chapter 2 with a strong critique of an individualistic culture. A desire for authenticity and personal fulfillment is fine, but it can lead to “suspicion, unwillingness to commit, and self-centeredness.” He criticizes a desire for freedom that lacks “noble goals or personal discipline.” He observes that fear of loneliness co-exists with fear of “entrapment in a relationship” that might hinder personal development or professional advancement. The church must not be defensive or overly critical, but it must speak plainly about what is unhealthy in culture or contrary to the Gospel. Subjecting love to the logic of consumption, using others for pleasure or narcissistic self-interest, or being closed to the possibility of children, are all serious failings. The allure of instant gratification and the feeble offerings of an ephemeral culture should be resisted. All these temptations are deeply contrary to the form and end of marriage, which is consistently described as a process of ongoing spiritual discernment and personal growth.
Two signal accomplishments should be highlighted and further discussed. First, Pope Francis conceives of marriage in strong terms as a public or common good. Married love is fruitful; it is outward looking to its community, to its parish, and to the world. Sacrificial self-giving must spill beyond the walls of the home. For example, families must reach out to their larger family, supporting teenage mothers in their community, children without parents, and the disabled. Francis warns that marriage is often seen as a “mere spontaneous association...a private affair,” rather than a “firm decision to leave adolescent individualism behind.” As such, marriage is a “social institution...a shared commitment, for the good of society as a whole.” In this regard, Francis is closer to a Thomistic understanding of sexual intimacy as ordered to the common good than to the emphasis on the “unitive-procreative” nature of the conjugal act characteristic of recent theological reflection.
As a second notable accomplishment, the pope calls for local development and creative adaptation of his pastoral recommendations for the support of family life. For example, in Chapter 6 he calls for better seminary preparation to help priests minister to families with complex problems. In this regard, priests need to understand their own family wounds. At the same time the mutual support and illumination that ideally flow from the interaction of celibates and married couples need to be encouraged. Still, much of the work of marriage preparation and support must come from the laity, especially during the early years of marriage. The wedding ceremony receives critical attention: this event is not the end of the road, but rather an initiation into a lifelong calling. Dispense with the costly venues and clothes, Francis says, and make the marriage ceremony again a solemn witness, and a “more modest and simple celebration” for the entire community. This might seem a trivial point, but imagine what a powerful witness wedding ceremonies could become as occasions to celebrate and proclaim the Gospel if they were restored to the center of parish life. In short, the parish is identified as the crucial locus, both sacramental and practical, for the formation and renewal of Christian love. This is a tremendous challenge and invitation for the church in this country.
Missing from this lengthy document is a sense of how theological reflection might contribute directly to marriage and a healthy sense of Christian love. The relationship between the church and the family is also underdeveloped. This absence is mitigated by the practical approach to the challenges of married love that gives us a surprisingly moving exhortation to a demanding, courageous, and sanctifying way of life. Amoris laetitia offers what the church must offer the world right now: an attractive and noble presentation of a high and courageous calling.