Summary of - On Love and Family

Summary of
Amoris Laetitia: On Love in the Family

It is not by chance that Amoris Laetitia (AL), “The Joy of Love”, the post-synodal Apostolic
Exhortation “on Love in the Family”, was signed on 19 March, the Solemnity of Saint Joseph. It brings
together the results of the two Synods on the family convoked by Pope Francis in 2014 and 2015. It
often cites their Final Reports; documents and teachings of his Predecessors; and his own numerous
catecheses on the family. In addition, as in previous magisterial documents, the Pope also makes use of
the contributions of various Episcopal Conferences around the world (Kenya, Australia, Argentina...)
and cites significant figures such as Martin Luther King and Erich Fromm. The Pope even quotes the
film Babette’s Feast to illustrate the concept of gratuity.

Introduction (1-7)
The Apostolic Exhortation is striking for its breadth and detail. Its 325 paragraphs are distributed
over nine chapters. The seven introductory paragraphs plainly set out the complexity of a topic in urgent
need of thorough study. The interventions of the Synod Fathers make up [form] a “multifaceted gem”
(AL 4), a precious polyhedron, whose value must be preserved. But the Pope cautions that “not all
discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the
magisterium”. Indeed, for some questions, “each country or region … can seek solutions better suited
to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs. For ‘cultures are in fact quite diverse and
every general principle … needs to be inculturated, if it is to be respected and applied’” (AL 3). This
principle of inculturation applies to how problems are formulated and addressed and, apart from the
dogmatic issues that have been well defined by the Church’s magisterium, none of this approach can be
“globalized”. In his address at the end of the 2015 Synod, the Pope said very clearly: “What seems normal
for a bishop on one continent, is considered strange and almost scandalous – almost! – for a bishop from
another; what is considered a violation of a right in one society is an evident and inviolable rule in another;
what for some is freedom of conscience is for others simply confusion.”
The Pope clearly states that we need above all to avoid a sterile juxtaposition between demands
for change and the general application of abstract norms. He writes: “The debates carried on in the
media, in certain publications and even among the Church’s ministers, range from an immoderate
desire for total change without sufficient reflection or grounding, to an attitude that would solve
everything by applying general rules or deriving undue conclusions from particular theological
considerations” (AL 2).

Chapter One: “In the light of the Word” (8-30)
Following this introduction, the Pope begins his reflections with the Holy Scriptures in the first
chapter, which unfolds as a meditation on Psalm 128 (which appears in the Jewish wedding liturgy as
well as that of Christian marriages). The Bible “is full of families, births, love stories and family crises”
(AL 8). This impels us to meditate on how the family is not an abstract ideal but rather like a practical
“trade” (AL 16), which is carried out with tenderness (AL 28), but which has also been confronted with
sin from the beginning, when the relationship of love turned into domination (cf. AL 19). Hence, the
Word of God “is not a series of abstract ideas but rather a source of comfort and companionship for
every family that experiences difficulties or suffering. For it shows them the goal of their journey...”
(AL 22).

Chapter two: “The experiences and challenges of families” (31-57)
Building on the biblical base, in the second chapter the Pope considers the current situation of
families. While keeping “firmly grounded in [the] reality” of family experiences (AL 6), he also draws
heavily on the final Reports of the two Synods. Families face many challenges, from migration to the
ideological denial of differences between the sexes (“ideology of gender” AL 56); from the culture of
the provisional to the antibirth mentality and the impact of biotechnology in the field of procreation;
from the lack of housing and work to pornography and abuse of minors; from inattention to persons
with disabilities, to lack of respect for the elderly; from the legal dismantling of the family, to violence
against women. The Pope insists on concreteness, which is a key concept in the Exhortation. And it is
concreteness, realism and daily life that make up the substantial difference between acceptable
“theories” of interpretation of reality and arbitrary “ideologies”.
Citing Familiaris consortio, Francis states that “we do well to focus on concrete realities, since ‘the
call and the demands of the Spirit resound in the events of history’, and through these ‘the Church can
also be guided to a more profound understanding of the inexhaustible mystery of marriage and the
family’” (AL 31). Conversely, if we fail to listen to reality, we cannot understand the needs of the
present or the movements of the Spirit. The Pope notes that rampant individualism makes it difficult
today for a person to give oneself generously to another (cf. AL 33). Here is an interesting picture of
the situation: “The fear of loneliness and the desire for stability and fidelity exist side by side with a
growing fear of entrapment in a relationship that could hamper the achievement of one’s personal
goals” (AL 34).
The humility of realism helps us to avoid presenting “a far too abstract and almost artificial
theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real
families” (AL 36). Idealism does not allow marriage to be understood for what it is, that is, a “dynamic
path to personal development and fulfilment”. It is unrealistic to think that families can sustain
themselves “simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to
grace” (AL 37). Calling for a certain “self-criticism” of approaches that are inadequate for the
experience of marriage and the family, the Pope stresses the need to make room for the formation of
the conscience of the faithful: “We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them” (AL 37).
Jesus proposed a demanding ideal but “never failed to show compassion and closeness to the frailty of
individuals like the Samaritan woman or the woman caught in adultery” (AL 38).

Chapter three: “Looking to Jesus: The vocation of the family” (58-88)
The third chapter is dedicated to some essential elements of the Church’s teaching on marriage and
the family. This chapter is important because its 30 paragraphs concisely depict the vocation of the
family according to the Gospel and as affirmed by the Church over time. Above all, it stresses the
themes of indissolubility, the sacramental nature of marriage, the transmission of life and the education
of children. Gaudium et Spes of Vatican II, Humanae Vitae of Paul VI, and Familiaris Consortio of John
Paul II are widely quoted.
The chapter provides a broad view and touches on “imperfect situations” as well. We can read, in
fact: “‘Discernment of the presence of ‘seeds of the Word’ in other cultures (cf. Ad Gentes 11) can also
apply to the reality of marriage and the family. In addition to true natural marriage, positive elements
exist in the forms of marriage found in other religious traditions’, even if, at times, obscurely” (AL 77).
The reflection also includes the “wounded families” about whom the Pope – quoting the Final Report of
the 2015 Synod extensively – says that “it is always necessary to recall this general principle: ‘Pastors
must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations’
(Familiaris Consortio, 84). The degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases and factors may exist
which limit the ability to make a decision. Therefore, while clearly stating the Church’s teaching, pastors
are to avoid judgements that do not take into account the complexity of various situations, and they are
to be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience and endure distress because of their condition”
(AL 79).

Chapter four: “Love in marriage” (89-164)
The fourth chapter treats love in marriage, which it illuminates with Saint Paul’s Hymn to Love in
1 Corinthians 13:4-7. This opening section is truly a painstaking, focused, inspired and poetic exegesis of
the Pauline text. It is a collection of brief passages carefully and tenderly describing human love in
absolutely concrete terms. The quality of psychological introspection that marks this exegesis is striking.
The psychological insights enter into the emotional world of the spouses – positive and negative – and
the erotic dimension of love. This is an extremely rich and valuable contribution to Christian married
life, unprecedented in previous papal documents.
This section digresses briefly from the more extensive, perceptive treatment of the day-to-day
experience of married love which the Pope refuses to judge against ideal standards: “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’” (AL 122). On the other hand,
the Pope forcefully stresses the fact that conjugal love by its very nature defines the partners in a richly
encompassing and lasting union (AL 123), precisely within that “mixture of enjoyment and struggles,
tensions and repose, pain and relief, satisfactions and longings, annoyances and pleasures” (Al 126)
which indeed make up a marriage.
The chapter concludes with a very important reflection on the “transformation of love” because
“Longer life spans now mean that close and exclusive relationships must last for four, five or even six
decades; consequently, the initial decision has to be frequently renewed” (AL 163). As physical
appearance alters, the loving attraction does not lessen but changes as sexual desire can be transformed
over time into the desire for togetherness and mutuality: “There is no guarantee that we will feel the
same way all through life. Yet if a couple can come up with a shared and lasting life project, they can
love one another and live as one until death do them part, enjoying an enriching intimacy” (AL 163).

Chapter five: “Love made fruitful” (165-198)
The fifth chapter is entirely focused on love’s fruitfulness and procreation. It speaks in a profoundly
spiritual and psychological manner about welcoming new life, about the waiting period of pregnancy,
about the love of a mother and a father. It also speaks of the expanded fruitfulness of adoption, of
welcoming the contribution of families to promote a “culture of encounter”, and of family life in a
broad sense which includes aunts and uncles, cousins, relatives of relatives, friends. Amoris laetitia does
not focus on the so-called “nuclear” family” because it is very aware of the family as a wider network of
many relationships. The spirituality of the sacrament of marriage has a deeply social character (cf. AL
187). And within this social dimension the Pope particularly emphasizes the specific role of the
relationship between youth and the elderly, as well as the relationship between brothers and sisters as a
training ground for relating with others.

Chapter six: “Some pastoral perspectives” (199-258)
In the sixth chapter the Pope treats various pastoral perspectives that are aimed at forming solid
and fruitful families according to God’s plan. The chapter use the Final Reports of the two Synods and
the catecheses of Pope Francis and Pope John Paul II extensively. It reiterates that families should not
only be evangelized, they should also evangelize. The Pope regrets “that ordained ministers often lack
the training needed to deal with the complex problems currently facing families” (AL 202). On the one
hand, the psycho-affective formation of seminarians needs to be improved, and families need to be
more involved in formation for ministry (cf. AL 203); and on the other hand, “the experience of the
broad oriental tradition of a married clergy could also be drawn upon” (AL 202).
The Pope then deals with the preparation of the engaged for marriage; with the accompaniment
of couples in the first years of married life, including the issue of responsible parenthood; and also with
certain complex situations and crises, knowing that “each crisis has a lesson to teach us; we need to
learn how to listen for it with the ear of the heart” (AL 232). Some causes of crisis are analysed, among
them a delay in maturing affectively (cf. AL 239).
Mention is furthermore made of accompanying abandoned, separated or divorced persons. The
Exhortation stresses the importance of the recent reform of the procedures for marriage annulment. It
highlights the suffering of children in situations of conflict and concludes: “Divorce is an evil and the
increasing number of divorces is very troubling. Hence, our most important pastoral task with regard to
families is to strengthen their love, helping to heal wounds and working to prevent the spread of this
drama of our times” (AL 246). It then touches on the situations of a marriage between a Catholic and a
Christian of another denomination (mixed marriages), and between a Catholic and someone of another
religion (disparity of cult). Regarding families with members with homosexual tendencies, it reaffirms
the necessity to respect them and to refrain from any unjust discrimination and every form of
aggression or violence. The last, pastorally poignant part of the chapter, “When death makes us feel its
sting”, is on the theme of the loss of dear ones and of widowhood.

Chapter seven: “Towards a better education of children” (259-290)
The seventh chapter is dedicated to the education of children: their ethical formation, the learning of
discipline which can include punishment, patient realism, sex education, passing on the faith and, more
generally, family life as an educational context. The practical wisdom present in each paragraph is
remarkable, above all the attention given to those gradual, small steps “that can be understood,
accepted and appreciated” (AL 271).
There is a particularly interesting and pedagogically fundamental paragraph in which Francis
clearly states that “obsession, however, is not education. We cannot control every situation that a child
may experience… If parents are obsessed with always knowing where their children are and controlling
all their movements, they will seek only to dominate space. But this is no way to educate, strengthen
and prepare their children to face challenges. What is most important is the ability lovingly to help them
grow in freedom, maturity, overall discipline and real autonomy” (AL 260).
The notable section on education in sexuality is very expressively entitled: “Yes to sex
education”. The need is there, and we have to ask “if our educational institutions have taken up this
challenge … in an age when sexuality tends to be trivialized and impoverished”. Sound education needs
to be carried out “within the broader framework of an education for love, for mutual self-giving” (AL
280). The text warns that the expression ‘safe sex’ conveys “a negative attitude towards the natural
procreative finality of sexuality, as if an eventual child were an enemy to be protected against. This way
of thinking promotes narcissism and aggressivity in place of acceptance” (AL 283).

Chapter eight: “Guiding, discerning and integrating weakness” (291-312)
The eighth chapter is an invitation to mercy and pastoral discernment in situations that do not fully
match what the Lord proposes. The Pope uses three very important verbs: guiding, discerning and
integrating, which are fundamental in addressing fragile, complex or irregular situations. The chapter has
sections on the need for gradualness in pastoral care; the importance of discernment; norms and
mitigating circumstances in pastoral discernment; and finally what the Pope calls the “logic of pastoral
mercy”.

Chapter eight is very sensitive. In reading it one must remember that “the Church’s task is often
like that of a field hospital” (AL 291). Here the Holy Father grapples with the findings of the Synods
on controversial issues. He reaffirms what Christian marriage is and adds that “some forms of union
radically contradict this ideal, while others realize it in at least a partial and analogous way”. The Church
therefore “does not disregard the constructive elements in those situations which do not yet or no
longer correspond to her teaching on marriage” (AL 292).
As far as discernment with regard to “irregular” situations is concerned, the Pope states: “There
is a need ‘to avoid judgements which do not take into account the complexity of various situations’ and
‘to be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience distress because of their condition’” (AL 296).
And he continues: “It is a matter of reaching out to everyone, of needing to help each person find his
or her proper way of participating in the ecclesial community, and thus to experience being touched by
an ‘unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous’ mercy” (AL 297). And further: “The divorced who have
entered a new union, for example, can find themselves in a variety of situations, which should not be
pigeonholed or fit into overly rigid classifications leaving no room for a suitable personal and pastoral
discernment” (AL 298).
In this line, gathering the observations of many Synod Fathers, the Pope states that “the baptized
who are divorced and civilly remarried need to be more fully integrated into Christian communities in
the variety of ways possible, while avoiding any occasion of scandal”. “Their participation can be
expressed in different ecclesial services… Such persons need to feel not as excommunicated members
of the Church, but instead as living members, able to live and grow in the Church… This integration is
also needed in the care and Christian upbringing of their children” (AL 299).
In a more general vein, the Pope makes an extremely important statement for understanding the
orientation and meaning of the Exhortation: “If we consider the immense variety of concrete
situations, … it is understandable that 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. What is needed is
simply a renewed encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of
particular cases, one which would recognize that, since ‘the degree of responsibility is not equal in all
cases’, the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same” (AL 300). The
Pope develops in depth the needs and characteristics of the journey of accompaniment and
discernment necessary for profound dialogue between the faithful and their pastors.
For this purpose the Holy Father recalls the Church’s reflection on “mitigating factors and
situations” regarding the attribution of responsibility and accountability for actions; and relying on St.
Thomas Aquinas, he focuses on the relationship between rules and discernment by stating: “It is true
that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation
they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations. At the same time, it must be said that,
precisely for that reason, what is part of a practical discernment in particular circumstances cannot be
elevated to the level of a rule” (AL 304).
The last section of the chapter treats “The logic of pastoral mercy”. To avoid misunderstandings,
Pope Francis strongly reiterates: “To show understanding in the face of exceptional situations never
implies dimming the light of the fuller ideal, or proposing less than what Jesus offers to the human
being. Today, more important than the pastoral care of failures is the pastoral effort to strengthen marriages and thus
to prevent their breakdown” (AL 307).
The overall sense of the chapter and of the spirit that Pope Francis wishes to impart to the
pastoral work of the Church is well summed up in the closing words: “I encourage the faithful who
find themselves in complicated situations to speak confidently with their pastors or with other lay
people whose lives are committed to the Lord. They may not always encounter in them a confirmation
of their own ideas or desires, but they will surely receive some light to help them better understand
their situation and discover a path to personal growth. I also encourage the Church’s pastors to listen to
them with sensitivity and serenity, with a sincere desire to understand their plight and their point of
view, in order to help them live better lives and to recognize their proper place in the Church.” (AL
312).
On the “logic of pastoral mercy”, Pope Francis emphasizes: “At times we find it hard to make
room for God’s unconditional love in our pastoral activity. We put so many conditions on mercy that
we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance. That is the worst way of watering down the
Gospel” (AL 311).

Chapter nine: “The spirituality of marriage and the family” (313-325)
The ninth chapter is devoted to marital and family spirituality, which “is made up of thousands of
small but real gestures” (AL 315). The Pope clearly states that “those who have deep spiritual
aspirations should not feel that the family detracts from their growth in the life of the Spirit, but rather
see it as a path which the Lord is using to lead them to the heights of mystical union” (AL 316).
Everything, “moments of joy, relaxation, celebration, and even sexuality can be experienced as a
sharing in the full life of the resurrection” (AL 317). He then speaks of prayer in the light of Easter, of
the spirituality of exclusive and free love in the challenge and the yearning to grow old together,
reflecting God’s fidelity (cf. AL 319). And finally the spirituality of care, consolation and incentive: the Pope
teaches that “all family life is a ‘shepherding’ in mercy. Each of us, by our love and care, leaves a mark
on the life of others” (AL 322). It is a profound “spiritual experience to contemplate our loved ones
with the eyes of God and to see Christ in them” (AL 323).

In the final paragraph the Pope affirms: “No family drops down from heaven perfectly formed;
families need constantly to grow and mature in the ability to love … All of us are called to keep striving
towards something greater than ourselves and our families, and every family must feel this constant
impulse. Let us make this journey as families, let us keep walking together. (…) May we never lose heart
because of our limitations, or ever stop seeking that fullness of love and communion which God holds
out before us” (AL 325).
The Apostolic Exhortation concludes with a Prayer to the Holy Family.
* * *
As can readily be understood from a quick review of its contents, the Apostolic Exhortation
Amoris laetitia seeks emphatically to affirm not the “ideal family” but the very rich and complex reality
of family life. Its pages provide an openhearted look, profoundly positive, which is nourished not with
abstractions or ideal projections, but with pastoral attention to reality. The text is a close reading of
family life, with spiritual insights and practical wisdom useful for every human couple or persons who
want to build a family. Above all, it is patently the result of attention to what people have lived over
many years. The Exhortation Amoris laetitia: On Love in the Family indeed speaks the language of
experience and of hope.

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