A little less than a month ago, Pope Francis issued an exhortation on marriage and family life entitled Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love). This document was two years in the making. The process included listening sessions from bishops and theologians as well as input from Catholics and other people of faith from around the world. Some Catholics read it and welcomed it; some Catholics read it and expressed disappointment in it; but I think it is safe to say that most Catholics did not rush out to buy a copy. It is easy to assume that an official church document on the family will be abstract and preachy, without much attention to the concrete situations in which people live or the real reasons why so many Catholics pay scant attention to church teachings on sex and marriage.
The great thing about this document is that the Pope seems to know all that. One of the words that appears most frequently in the exhortation is “concrete.” He wants the Church to change its ways. He wants the Church to minister to people as they are and not as we wish they were—not so much condemning people for not following the rules, but leading people to a greater understanding of and commitment to the virtues that are behind the rules. He calls for a reform in the way church teaching is presented and implemented, beginning with the formation given to seminarians.
While the Pope addresses a variety of relationships that exist outside of what is considered a valid Catholic marriage (i.e. a man and a woman married in a Catholic Church or with the permission of the Catholic Church), he has an obvious pastoral concern for those in civil marriages and those who are divorced and remarried. He warns priests not to be too quick to condemn: “It can no longer be said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace. More is involved here than mere ignorance of the rule. A subject may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding its inherent values.” This last sentence struck me as very deliberate. In what I have read about the meetings in Rome that led up to this document, there seem to have been two schools of thought on how to “fix” the church’s moral teaching. One group was pushing the idea that people do not follow the teachings because it has not been presented to them clearly and effectively and we must improve our teaching methods. The other group was saying that people do not follow church teaching because the teachings themselves are out of date and need to be changed. Offered two possible options, the Pope has chosen neither. He has not changed church teaching on the purpose and meaning of marriage, but he has invited individual conscience back into the conversation. In the final analysis, sin is a conversation between the individual and God. Continuing to live in an “irregular situation” is not a position to adopted lightly, but it is a possibility. And, he has invited those in irregular situations not to think of themselves as “excommunicated” (which, in fact, they never were), but as “living members, able to live and grow in the church.”
The Pope goes on to speak about cohabitation prior to marriage, a practice very common among young Catholic couples today, a practice he says that “is often not motivated by prejudice or resistance to sacramental union but by cultural or contingent situations.” The Pope notes that there is a general rejection of “anything institutional or definitive,” which makes cohabitation more common. He also recognizes that economic circumstances lead couples to live together without being married “because celebrating a marriage is considered too expensive in the social circumstances. . . . Material poverty drives people into de facto unions.” The Pope asks priests and pastoral ministers to treat situations of cohabitation as “opportunities that can lead to the full reality of marriage and family in conformity with the Gospel.” While real poverty may lead some to delay marriage, he recognizes that others delay marriage until they can afford “the perfect wedding.” Marriage should not become a status symbol. The Pope says, “Let me say a word to fiancés. Have the courage to be different. Don’t let yourself get swallowed up by a society of consumption and empty appearances. What is important is the love you share, strengthened and sanctified by grace. You are capable of opting for a more modest and simple celebration in which love takes precedence over everything else.”
While very readable, The Joy of Love is also very long! So, if you would just like to sample the exhortation, let me recommend the first part of Chapter 4. It is the Pope’s extended meditation on 1 Corinthians 13, St. Paul’s teaching on love. It makes for great spiritual reading—be one single, married, engaged, divorced, or widowed. It is about how we are all called to live as God’s family and give witness to God’s love in the particular circumstances of our life.