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Pope Francis’s New Document on Marriage: 12 Things to Know and Share

Pope Francis’s much-anticipated document on the family has now been released.

Here are 12 things to know and share.

1. What are the basic facts about the document?

It is called Amoris Laetitia (Latin, “the joy of love"), and it is what is known as a “post-synodal apostolic exhortation."

An apostolic exhortation is a pastoral document in which the pope exhorts the Church. Although it contains doctrine, its primary focus is pastoral care. (Apostolic exhortations are different from encyclicals, which do focus on doctrine.)

When a pope issues an apostolic exhortation in response to a meeting of the synod of bishops (a gathering of bishops from around the world), it is called a post-synodal (“after the synod") apostolic exhortation.

Amoris Laetitia was written in response to two meetings of the synod of bishops—one held in 2014 and one in 2015, both of which were devoted to the subject of the family.

2. What subjects does the document cover?

It is 255 pages long, so it covers a wide array of topics connected with the family. In his summary of its contents, Pope Francis explains:

I will begin with an opening chapter inspired by the Scriptures, to set a proper tone.

I will then examine the actual situation of families, in order to keep firmly grounded in reality.

I will go on to recall some essential aspects of the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family, thus paving the way for two central chapters dedicated to love.

I will then highlight some pastoral approaches that can guide us in building sound and fruitful homes in accordance with God’s plan, with a full chapter devoted to the raising of children.

Finally, I will offer an invitation to mercy and the pastoral discernment of those situations that fall short of what the Lord demands of us, and conclude with a brief discussion of family spirituality (AL 6).

At the two synods of bishops, two subjects of discussion were the pastoral care of those who are divorced and civilly remarried and of people with a homosexual orientation.

Although these are not the focus of Amoris Laetitiae—they represent only a small part of what it has to say—they are the subjects many people will be most interested to know about, so they are what we will cover here.

3. What does the document say about homosexuality?

It says very little. It notes that same-sex unions “may not simply be equated with marriage" (AL 52). It also says:

During the Synod, we discussed the situation of families whose members include persons who experience same-sex attraction, a situation not easy either for parents or for children.

We would like before all else to reaffirm that every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration, while ‘every sign of unjust discrimination’ is to be carefully avoided, particularly any form of aggression and violence.

Such families should be given respectful pastoral guidance, so that those who manifest a homosexual orientation can receive the assistance they need to understand and fully carry out God’s will in their lives.

In discussing the dignity and mission of the family, the Synod Fathers observed that, “as for proposals to place unions between homosexual persons on the same level as marriage, 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."

It is unacceptable “that local Churches should be subjected to pressure in this matter and that international bodies should make financial aid to poor countries dependent on the introduction of laws to establish ‘marriage’ between persons of the same sex" (AL 250-251).

And that’s it. Contrary to the hopes of some, the document did not attempt to reframe the Church’s teaching on same-sex activity or same-sex unions.

4. What does the document say regarding Cardinal Walter Kasper’s proposal to give Holy Communion to some who are divorced and civilly remarried after a “penitential period"?

Nothing. This proposal is not brought up.

5. Does the document propose a specific, concrete solution to the problem of divorced and civilly remarried?

No. After reviewing a variety of defective marital situations in which people may find themselves, the document states:

If we consider the immense variety of concrete situations such as those I have mentioned, 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 (AL 300).

Instead, the document articulates a set of principles to be applied to the pastoral care of such individuals.

6. What are these principles?

The chapter discussing them is lengthy, so we can’t cover them fully, but they include:

  • Not watering down the Church’s teaching on marriage
  • Helping people grow toward realizing the Church’s teaching on marriage in their own lives
  • Recognizing that people in defective situations are not all in the same situation
  • Helping integrate such people into the life of the Church, based on what is possible in their individual cases

7. What does the document say about not watering down the Church’s teaching on marriage?

In articulating the Church’s basic teaching, it states:

Christian marriage, as a reflection of the union between Christ and his Church, is fully realized in the union between a man and a woman who give themselves to each other in a free, faithful and exclusive love, who belong to each other until death and are open to the transmission of life, and are consecrated by the sacrament, which grants them the grace to become a domestic church and a leaven of new life for society (AL 292).

Later, it states:

In order 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. . . .

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 also of love on the part of the Church for young people themselves.

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 (AL 307).

8. What does the document say about helping people grow toward realizing the Church’s teaching on marriage in their own lives?

It says:

The Fathers [of the synods] also considered the specific situation of a merely civil marriage or, with due distinction, even simple cohabitation, noting that “when such unions attain a particular stability, legally recognized, are characterized by deep affection and responsibility for their offspring, and demonstrate an ability to overcome trials, they can provide occasions for pastoral care with a view to the eventual celebration of the sacrament of marriage" (AL 293, emphasis added).

It also says:

Along these lines, Saint John Paul II proposed the so-called “law of gradualness" in the knowledge that the human being “knows, loves and accomplishes moral good by different stages of growth" (Familiaris Consortio 34).

This is not a “gradualness of law" but rather a gradualness in the prudential exercise of free acts on the part of subjects who are not in a position to understand, appreciate, or fully carry out the objective demands of the law.

For the law is itself a gift of God which points out the way, a gift for everyone without exception; it can be followed with the help of grace, even though each human being “advances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God and the demands of God’s definitive and absolute love in his or her entire personal and social life" (ibid., 9).

9. What does the document say about people in defective situations not all being in the same situation?

It says:

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.

One thing is a second union consolidated over time, with new children, proven fidelity, generous self giving, Christian commitment, a consciousness of its irregularity and of the great difficulty of going back without feeling in conscience that one would fall into new sins.

The Church acknowledges situations “where, for serious reasons, such as the children’s upbringing, a man and woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate" (John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio 84).

There are also the cases of those who made every effort to save their first marriage and were unjustly abandoned, or of “those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children’s upbringing, and are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably broken marriage had never been valid" (ibid.).

Another thing is a new union arising from a recent divorce, with all the suffering and confusion which this entails for children and entire families, or the case of someone who has consistently failed in his obligations to the family.

It must remain clear that this is not the ideal which the Gospel proposes for marriage and the family (AL 298).

10. What does the document say about helping integrate such people into the life of the Church, based on what is possible in their individual cases?

It says:

I am in agreement with the many Synod Fathers who observed 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, which necessarily requires discerning which of the various forms of exclusion currently practiced in the liturgical, pastoral, educational and institutional framework, can be surmounted.

“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 and experience her as a mother who welcomes them always, who takes care of them with affection and encourages them along the path of life and the Gospel.

“This integration is also needed in the care and Christian upbringing of their children, who ought to be considered most important" (AL 299).

It also says:

Naturally, if someone flouts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal, or wants to impose something other than what the Church teaches, he or she can in no way presume to teach or preach to others; this is a case of something which separates from the community (cf. Matt.18:17).

Such a person needs to listen once more to the gospel message and its call to conversion.

Yet even for that person there can be some way of taking part in the life of community, whether in social service, prayer meetings or another way that his or her own initiative, together with the discernment of the parish priest, may suggest (AL 297).

And it says:

Conversation with the priest, in the internal forum, contributes to the formation of a correct judgment on what hinders the possibility of a fuller participation in the life of the Church and on what steps can foster it and make it grow.

Given that gradualness is not in the law itself (cf. Familiaris Consortio, 34), this discernment can never prescind from the gospel demands of truth and charity, as proposed by the Church.

For this discernment to happen, the following conditions must necessarily be present: humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching, in a sincere search for God’s will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it.

These attitudes are essential for avoiding the grave danger of misunderstandings, such as the notion that any priest can quickly grant “exceptions," or that some people can obtain sacramental privileges in exchange for favors (AL 300).

11. Does the document foresee any possibility for sacramentally absolving and giving Communion to people who are civilly remarried if they are not living as brother and sister?

It does. In the main text of the document, it begins by noting certain principles to be taken into account, stating:

For an adequate understanding of the possibility and need of special discernment in certain “irregular" situations, one thing must always be taken into account, lest anyone think that the demands of the gospel are in any way being compromised.

The Church possesses a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations.

Hence it can no longer simply 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," or be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin. . . .

The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly mentions these factors: “imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors" (CCC 1735).

In another paragraph, the Catechism refers once again to circumstances which mitigate moral responsibility, and mentions at length “affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen or even extenuate moral culpability" (CCC 2352).

For this reason, a negative judgment about an objective situation does not imply a judgment about the imputability or culpability of the person involved. (AL 301-302).

The document thus envisions the case of a person who may be living in an objectively sinful situation but who is not mortally culpable because of a variety of factors of a cognitive or psychological nature.

Nothing in this is new. The Church has long recognized that people living in objectively grave sin may not be in a state of mortal sin. Consequently, the document goes on to state:

Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin—which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such—a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end (AL 305).

At this point the text contains a footnote that states:

In certain cases, this [i.e., the Church’s help toward him growing in grace and charity] can include the help of the sacraments.

Hence, “I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy" (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium [24 November 2013], 44: AAS 105 [2013], 1038).

I would also point out that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak" (ibid., 47: 1039) (AL footnote 351).

The document thus envisions administering sacramental absolution and Holy Communion to those living in objectively sinful situations who are not mortally culpable for their actions due to various cognitive or psychological conditions.

Since they are not mortally culpable, they could be validly absolved in confession and, being in the state of grace, they could in principle receive Communion.

12. Does the document say how common such situations are?

No. However, the fact it only makes this application of the principles in a footnote suggests that such situations are not common and that they are not to be presumed.

The same is indicated by the large number of cautions contained in the text regarding such things as:

  • The obligation to proclaim God’s full vision of marriage, not watering it down with “a lukewarm attitude, any kind of relativism, or an undue reticence in proposing that ideal" (AL 307).
  • That people in such situations should either become sacramentally married (AL 293) or separate (AL 298) or live as brother and sister (cf. AL footnote 329).
  • People who flout Church teaching on marriage need to listen to the gospel message and convert (AL 297).
  • That misunderstandings like a “priest can quickly grant ‘exceptions’" must be avoided (AL 300).
  • That cognitive or psychological conditions must exist which keep a person’s objective grave sin from becoming mortal (AL 301-302, 307).
  • The need to avoid scandal (AL 299).

Written By Jimmy Akin


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