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In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis sets out to gather up “the contributions of the two recent synods on the family.” He describes the interventions at the synods by bishops from all over the world as “a multifaceted gem reflecting many legitimate concerns and honest questions.” Seeking to do justice to this plethora of local concerns and questions, he relies heavily on the final Relationes produced by both the 2014 and 2015 synods, and even cites occasionally the results of the pre-synod surveys of the laity. He also cites ten different episcopal conference documents on marriage and family, eight from the global South. The resulting document steers, mostly successfully, between an “immoderate desire for total change without sufficient reflection or grounding” and “an attitude that would solve everything by applying general rules or deriving undue conclusions from particular theological considerations.” 

This apostolic exhortation is long, sometimes tough going, more often inspiring, and bound to disappoint a wide range of readers. Humanae Vitae, for example, is cited a few times and reaffirmed, but the question of artificial contraception, and the seeming sensus fidei regarding it, is neither reemphasized nor revisited. Presuming Gospel teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, the exhortation refuses to offer any new set of general canonical rules on marriage or on Communion for Catholics in irregular canonical situations. Francis acknowledges “constructive elements” in the unions of those who are divorced and remarried without annulment, and the inadequacy of describing Catholics in such unions simply as “excommunicated” or living in sin. At the same time, he fails to explore the theological questions concerning how such people might participate in what St. Augustine described as the “goods of marriage.” These relationships cannot simply be reducible to sin, but how the church, by analogy with its perspective on other faiths at Vatican II, might recognize and affirm what is good and true in them is left unanswered.  Most bitterly disappointing to many, though certainly not all, American readers will be the exhortation’s failure to address the same questions regarding gay and lesbian unions. Nor does the document explore pressing theological questions about the role of LGBT people in God’s created order or about why the church cannot recognize same-sex unions as marriages.

That said, Francis’s primarily concern is neither doctrine nor theology. Rather, he’s trying to start a pastoral revolution among the bishops, clergy, and people of the Catholic Church. If his two papal predecessors were about clarity and definition in tumultuous times, Francis wants to send missionary disciples out beyond the church’s boundaries, clearly marked out over the past thirty-five years, to ecclesial peripheries where those in difficult marriage situations live. He insists all the while that Jesus’s ideal of indissoluble marriage never be watered down. Instead of a smaller, purer church, however, he offers an “invitation to mercy and the pastoral discernment of those situations that fall short of what the Lord demands of us.” If this document has a signature phrase, it is the Ignatian-sounding “pastoral discernment,” a form of accompaniment in which pastoral care for families is a fundamentally missionary going forth.

Throughout this document Francis speaks in his own recognizable, and now familiar, voice. This comes across most clearly in Chapter 8, titled “Accompanying, Discerning, and Integrating Weakness.” “I understand,” Francis writes, “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 which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness.” In preceding chapters, Francis urges on the church “a healthy dose of self-criticism” for “excessive idealization” that at times proposes “a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families.” Amoris Laetitia clears a space for pastorally attending to those situations and possibilities.

Pope St. John Paul II, who appointed Bergoglio a bishop in 1992 and was later canonized by him in 2014, hovers over this text. Of the 391 notes, almost 50 are from John Paul’s. Francis relies strongly on the late pope’s instructions from the early 1980s that became the basis for the theology of the body, and on Familiaris Consortio, his 1981 post-synod Apostolic Exhortation on the family. In discussions surrounding the two recent synods, however, voices opposed to the sort of pastoral discernment Francis urges in Amoris Laetitia appealed frequently to theological developments of John Paul II’s theology of marriage. I’m thinking specifically of strong ontological readings of language in Ephesians 5:21-32 that compares the relation of Christ and the church to that of husband and wife. Despite his obvious reliance on John Paul II’s theology of marriage, Francis is careful to distance himself from such readings, making clear that, although legitimate possible interpretations of Scripture, they are not to be equated with the teaching of the church. Theologically speaking, Francis’s treatment of Ephesians 5 and its marriage metaphor is one of the most striking aspects of this document.

Absent from Chapter 1’s survey of families in the Bible, Ephesians 5 appears first in Chapter 3, in an extended quote from the Relatio of the 2014 synod.  Redeemed in Christ, marriage and the family have been “restored to the image of the Holy Trinity … the spousal covenant, originating in creation and revealed in the history of salvation takes on its full meaning in Christ and his church.” Beginning with a citation from Familiaris Consortio, the marriage analogy of Ephesians 5 is treated at length.    

The lyrical Chapter 4 on “Love in Marriage” returns again to the marriage imagery of Ephesians 5, in Francis’s language, as the “icon of God’s love for us.” The sacrament imparts a “proper mission” to married couples, so that, “starting with the simple ordinary things of life they can make visible the love with which Christ loves the church and continues to give his life for her.” There follows what I take to be the most theologically important passage in this document: “We should not however confuse different levels: there is no need to lay upon two limited persons the tremendous burden of having to reproduce perfectly the union existing between Christ and his Church, for marriage as a sign entails ‘a dynamic process …, one which advances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God.’”

The last line of this quotation is from Familiaris Consortio and makes the appeal to “gradualism,” a key to Francis’s pastoral discernment. He goes on to attribute the “so-called ‘law of gradualness’” to John Paul II with extensive citations from Familiaris Consortio. With reference to constant growth in mutual love over time, he writes: “Marital love is not defended primarily by presenting indissolubility as a duty, or by repeating doctrine, but by helping us to grow ever stronger under the impulse of grace.” And again: “It is not helpful to dream of an idyllic and perfect love needing no stimulus to grow.”  

Francis begins the exhortation with his strange-sounding claim that, in thinking about families, “time is greater than space.” He takes that to mean that “not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium” and that “every general principle … needs to be inculturated.” He concludes with a moving meditation on families as they pass gradually through time. “Our contemplation of the fulfillment which we have yet to attain,” he writes, “also allows us to see in proper perspective this historical journey which we make as families …. It also keeps us from judging harshly those who live in situations of frailty.” Chapter 6 on Pastoral Perspectives gives lyrical expression to this sense of time’s priority, describing each marriage as “a kind of salvation history.”

If Pope John Paul II was the philosopher pope and Pope Benedict XVI the theologian pope extraordinaire, Pope Francis is the poet pope, an urban gaucho from Buenos Aires, giving voice to the dreams and wisdom of migrants and the poor and displaced. Though it will not satisfy everyone, Amoris Laetitia offers an extraordinary set of reflections on marriage, various parts of which will serve audiences as diverse as engaged couples, husbands and wives, pastoral workers, bishops, and theologians. Neither “dry and lifeless doctrine” nor “dead stones to be hurled at others,” Francis’s words about family life ring true, making his advocacy for scriptural ideals of marriage all the more attractive. I have been married for forty-five years. Chapter 4’s meditation on St. Paul’s hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13 moved me deeply. Despite its length, time spent with Amoris Laetitia is time well spent.

Published in the May 20, 2016 issue: 

William L. Portier teaches theology at the University of Dayton.

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