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'Discernment charged with merciful love': Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia, on Love in the Family

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April 14, 2016

francisREFLECTION - Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, published on 8 April 2016, transposes church teaching on marriage and the family from the key of law to that of virtue and should be celebrated, says Nicholas Austin SJ. This powerful new document offers ‘a Gospel-inspired vision of what family life can be, a word of encouragement for those who are not yet there, and above all another example of the discerning way of proceeding that the pope has modelled’.

The topic of family and marriage in the Church today is often associated with words like ‘crisis’, ‘problems’ and ‘impasse’. In this context, Pope Francis’ latest, much-anticipated document, Amoris Laetitia,[1] ‘The Joy of Love’, is, in contrast, infectious in its enthusiasm and, indeed, its joy.

This apostolic exhortation is the culmination of a process that began on 8 October 2013, when Francis convoked an Extraordinary Synod of Bishops to discuss the pastoral challenges of the family. ‘Extraordinary’ is a word that characterises the whole process since that day, both in the new level of openness to discussion and debate within the synodal process itself, and in the unprecedented consultation of all the faithful. Francis’ intention has not merely been to address the pastoral issues posed by what is widely seen as a crisis in family life, but to lead the Church into a more discerning way of proceeding, one that respects the role of the Bishops and also listens for the voice of the Holy Spirit expressed in the hearts and minds of the lay faithful. These reforms alone are an extraordinary contribution to the life of the Church.

What does Francis say about how best to respond to the challenges facing marriage and the family in the 21st century? Does he have solutions for those whose situations do not fit the Church’s teaching on marriage? Whatever commentators may say, or wish Francis had said, he is not changing Church teaching, as he goes out of his way to explain. Nor does he offer a set of rules, let alone a raft of new permissions. Rather, what he gives the Church is a Gospel-inspired vision of what family life can be, a word of encouragement for those who are not yet there, and above all another example of the discerning way of proceeding that he has modelled from his first days in office as leader of the Catholic Church throughout the world.

Those on either side of what the media have liked to portray as a polarised debate will be disappointed. Anyone looking for a ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal’ pope will feel as let-down as those hoping for a straightforward reaffirmation of the status quo. The pope’s attempt to address the complex issues of the family in the 21st century Church is all the more valuable because he transcends the lazy polarities that are used too often to characterise discussions within the Church. In the kind of striking image that we have come to expect from this pope, he refers to the bishops’ discussions as ‘a precious polyhedron shaped by many legitimate concerns and honest questions’. Francis insists on the many-sided, complex nature of the problem, and therefore resists viewpoints that cling too tightly only to one side of the truth. Because he is a holistic thinker, he consistently works to integrate opposites. When it comes to moral and pastoral issues, Francis is therefore neither ‘revisionist’ nor ‘traditionalist’, but simultaneously faithful, honest and creative. The result is one, the pope is happy to remark, that ‘everyone should feel challenged by’.

What, then, more concretely, are the contributions of Amoris Laetitia to pastors and above all to family life? The media will no doubt focus on what is said (or not said) about the ‘neuralgic issues’ such as second marriages, gay unions, reproductive technology, feminism. However, Francis believes that the pastoral effort to strengthen marriages is an even more urgent need than the response to cases that fall short of the ideal. The way in which the text addresses this theme, and humbly acknowledges how the Church has fallen short in its own attempts to do this, is something to be celebrated. While the contested questions cannot be ignored, to skip straight to those passages where the pope tackles many of them head on would be to marginalise what is really the central piece of the whole document, the chapter on love, based on the famous ‘hymn to love’ in 1 Corinthians 13. It is there that we must begin.


The primacy of love

The Pauline hymn to love, which paints a portrait of love by expanding upon the virtues it exemplifies and the vices it avoids, is a natural choice for Francis, given his reiterated emphasis upon the virtues. He sees the Year of Mercy as an invitation to all families ‘to persevere in a love strengthened by the virtues of generosity, commitment, fidelity and patience.’[2] He commends the virtue of tenderness to both spouses and pastors, as something that can ‘stir in the other the joy of being loved.’[3] He notes the importance of cultivating virtues in the upbringing of children. He warns against vices such as those of envy, vainglory and resentment. And he appeals to many other virtues, such as those of forgiveness, kindness, humility and joy. So Francis’ selection of scriptural text expresses his desire to speak about marriage above all in the key not of law, but of virtue, of character, of the kind of persons we are called to become through grace.

To take just one example, we can look at his interpretation of Paul’s claim that ‘love is not rude’. Francis takes this as an occasion to expand upon the virtues of courtesy and gentleness. Courtesy, he notes, is an ‘essential requirement of love’, and is a kind of school of respect, sensitivity and disinterestedness. [4] In referring to the ‘gentleness of love’ he talks of the need to speak words of ‘comfort, strength, consolation, and encouragement.’[5] In this, Christ is, as ever, our exemplar:

These were the words that Jesus himself spoke: ‘Take heart, my son!’ (Mt 9:2); ‘Great is your faith!’ (Mt 15:28); ‘Arise!’ (Mk 5:41); ‘Go in peace’ (Lk 7:50); ‘Be not afraid’ (Mt 14:27). These are not words that demean, sadden, anger or show scorn. In our families, we must learn to imitate Jesus’ own gentleness in our way of speaking to one another.[6]

We are so familiar with St Paul’s hymn to love that it can appear merely sentimental. In passages such as these, Francis, breaks open the word for us afresh, and shows in a down-to-earth way how it is relevant to us all.


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Source: thinkingfaith.org, April 8, 2016

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