Amoris Laetitia. On Friday, April 8, Pope Francis issued his Apostolic Exhortation on the family, called Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love). This document follows almost 3 years of efforts by some Catholics to convince the Pope to change some fundamental Church teachings on issues like who can receive Holy Communion, the indissolubility of marriage, mortal sin, and even so called “same-sex marriages.”
From most of the headlines in the media you would think that those efforts had been at least partially successful: especially suggesting that the Pope was allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion.
Of course, none of this is true. It is true that he sometimes used some confusing language, but he kept coming back and insisting very clearly, on upholding the ancient doctrines.
Because Pope Francis understands, first of all, that the Church and its doctrine are not his to do with as he wants—they belong to Jesus. And he also understands that he is only one of 266 popes to sit on the chair of St. Peter, so he cannot override the authoritative explanation of that doctrine by another earlier pope. And so in Amoris Laetitia he repeatedly quotes and cites the teachings of other popes, especially the great St. John Paul II, the great scholar and teacher on Marriage and Family.
So what did Pope Francis actually say? First of all, he gave a beautiful description of married life, the good and the bad, the troubles and the joys, giving excellent insights and advice, both practical and theological.
And building on that, citing the beautiful and clear explanations of his two immediate predecessors, Popes John Paul and Benedict, he went on to uphold the constant teaching of the Church on the indissolubility of marriage (i.e., no divorce), stating: “the Church realizes that any breach of the marriage bond ‘is against the will of God.’” Then he vigorously insisted that, “to avoid all misunderstanding, 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.” And he condemned anything less, saying: “A lukewarm attitude, any kind of relativism, or an undue reticence in proposing that ideal, would be a lack of fidelity to the Gospel.” And He went on to add that anyone who rejects that teaching, “can in no way presume to teach or preach to others; this is …something which separates [them] from the community.”
As for so-called “same-sex marriage,” he categorically stated: “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.”
He also defended the church’s teachings against contraception, in vitro fertilization, and abortion, and specifically rejected, “the various forms of an ideology of gender that ‘denies the difference…in nature of a man and a woman.’”
And despite all the hype, expectation and pressure he made no mention of “changing” the Church’s constant practice of not allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion. (Note: when Pope Francis refers to “divorced and remarried Catholics” he means only those who do not have a Church annulment, so that although divorced in the eyes of civil law they are still married to their first spouse in the eyes of God. When these try to marry a second spouse, they commit the sin of adultery, as Jesus insists in Matthew 19.)
Yet the media and others still insist on clinging to other aspects of the document as if they override all this. For example, they point out that Francis promotes greater efforts to include the divorced and remarried in the life of the Church, but they ignore that he insists that that inclusion, “avoi[d] any occasion of scandal.” Maybe they don’t know that in Catholic teaching the term “scandal” means any action that might confuse the faithful to think that what is truly sinful is okay or not so bad; for example, dads don’t curse in front of their kids because that will lead the kids to think it’s okay. In Familiaris Consortio (which Francis repeatedly cites and quotes) John Paul II explained that this is one of the primary reasons divorced and remarried Catholics can’t receive Communion: “If [they] were admitted to the Eucharist the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.”
The media also point to Pope Francis’s emphasis on individual “conscience” and “discernment” in these cases. But they ignore that he also clarifies: “discernment can never prescind from the Gospel demands of truth and charity, as proposed by the Church” saying that it must “necessarily” be governed by, “love for the Church and her teaching, …and a desire to make a more perfect response to it.”
The problem is, that sometimes Pope Francis says confusing things. We know this, and he admits it. One of the most confusing statements in the document is in a footnote that some say implies that in some circumstances divorced and remarried Catholics might receive the sacraments. But it’s only in a footnote, which is very ambiguous, and seems incongruous with the rest of the document, especially its multiple citations of Familiaris Consortio, which definitely rejected that suggestion, as well as another footnote citing another key document of John Paul II’s papacy that also strongly supported the ancient teaching.
The bottom line is, Amoris Laetitia is very clear on the important issues, but people will be confused by some of the less clear statements, unless they put them into the context of the whole document and the constant teaching of the Church.
Pope John Paul II was famous for his ability help us to grasp the beauty of the truth of Catholic doctrine, and Pope Benedict XVI helped us to understand that true doctrine even more clearly through his systematic and reasoned approach. For 37 years these two brilliant teachers explained the beauty and clarity of Catholic doctrine.
Now Pope Francis comes along, and his emphasis is more on God’s mercy. Even so, he repeatedly tells us to refer to the beauty and clarity of the teaching of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. But in the process he can be a little confusing.
John Paul and Benedict were great and holy Popes, but John Paul was sometimes too philosophical and poetic, and Benedict XVI sometimes lacked boldness. And sometimes Francis lacks clarity.
Except when he doesn’t lack clarity— as in Amoris Laetitia, where he clearly upholds the constant and ancient teaching of Jesus and His Church on marriage and family, and on sin and the sacraments.
Do not be misled by false explanations of Church teaching, but rather learn the truth about that teaching, and strive to live it every day. And pray and extend true fraternal support and charity for our brothers and sisters in Christ who find themselves in relationships that are not true marriages. May they, by the grace of Christ and with our kindness, have the courage and faith to conform their lives to God’s will.
Oremus pro invicem. Fr. De Celles