(Vatican Radio) Minutes after its publication on Friday, Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation on the family was being scrutinized and commented on in countries across the globe.
The lengthy document, entitled ‘Amoris Laetitia’, or The Joy of Love, draws together the work of the last two Synods of Bishops, affirming the Church’s teaching that stable families are the building blocks of a healthy society and a place where children learn to love, respect and interact with others.
But at the same time, the text warns against idealizing the many challenges facing family life, urging Catholics to care for, rather than condemning, those whose lives do not reflect the teaching of the Church.
Philippa Hitchen went along to the press conference where the document was presented by Cardinals Christoph Schonborn and Lorenzo Baldisseri, together with an Italian married couple who took part in the 2014 and 2015 Synods of Bishops on the family…
It was significant that Cardinal Schonborn of Vienna, son of divorced parents, was selected to present the key concepts at the heart of this new document. Important too, that he suggested bishops should read the text with the help of married men and women, who are grappling with all the daily frustrations and “mixtures of enjoyment and struggles” that family life presents. Because in its nine chapters, he says, Pope Francis speaks about families with a clarity that’s hard to find in any other teaching documents of the Church.
Having said that, be warned this is not a text that can be read in a hurry, or summarized in a few sentences. It ranges from biblical and spiritual reflections on the family, through very practical discussions on love, sexuality and the education of children, to the many contemporary challenges of unemployment, inadequate housing, migration and violence that have an especially damaging effect on families.
But throughout its 250 pages, as the Austrian cardinal made clear, “something has changed” in the way the Church speaks about people’s personal lives. Judgmental expressions like ‘living in sin’ or ‘irregular situations’, he says, have been replaced by a language of welcome, inclusion and accompanying every person, at whatever stage of life’s journey they find themselves. It’s clear, the document says, that “we need a healthy dose of self-criticism” to see how “the way we present our Christian beliefs and treat other people” has contributed to the crisis of family life today.
It’s not just a linguistic change either. At the core of Pope Francis’ vision in this text is the concept of “personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases”, recognizing that the Church cannot simply judge all marital breakdowns or non-conventional relationships in the same way. Instead, pastors must learn to listen to each person’s story and “make room for the consciences of the faithful….who are capable of carrying out their own discernment” in very complex situations.
But what does this mean in practice, I hear you ask? Well, the definitive answers, the cardinal said, are found in paragraph 300 where the Pope says “neither the Synod nor this Exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases”. One size just doesn’t fit all, as every parent knows perfectly well. Furthermore the Pope says, it’s not he, but the bishops in different countries who are best placed to “seek solutions” that are culturally sensitive to local traditions and practice.
Pope Francis trusts in the joy of love, though he does say he understands “those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion”. If we see everything as black and white, he warns, we close off God’s way of grace and growth. Instead we must respond to people with generous love to help them overcome barriers and be fully welcomed into the life of the Church. Including, if you read the footnotes carefully, with the help of the sacraments which are not “a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak”.
So is this document overturning traditional Church teaching on marriage and the family? Absolutely not. The text is full of quotes from previous popes and is a passionate endorsement of the joy that family life can bring to mums and dads, kids and grandparents, aunts and uncles and the whole extended network of family life which still exists in many countries of the world today. And while it doesn’t provide cut and dried answers to all the challenges, it really does try to raise the questions and ensure that the Church keeps the door open to the ongoing conversation.