Amoris Laetitia is the latest Papal Encyclical from Pope Francis. It’s already been the subject of a storm of articles, clashing like armies on the Internet with a variety of interpretations of what the document actually says. It’s a little disorienting for a new Catholic. I’m used to only fuzzily knowing if my denomination was discussing XYZ, and only through church channels. To see discussions, documents and pronouncements scattered dizzyingly over the entire Christian and non-Christian Internet with a variety of imaginative and conflicting glosses is very confusing.
Part of the problem is the sheer size of Amoris Laetitia. The PDF is 264 pages, which in today’s fast paced culture, is a significant investment of time that many won’t make. This is part of why so many people are relying on summaries. So here’s why you should make that investment (and what to bear in mind when reading summaries of Amoris Laetitia.)
Jesuits don’t play someone else’s game
…and Pope Francis is Jesuit. The Society of Jesus has its own unique culture. One of my Jesuit professors last semester was very insightful in this regard. I may be misquoting him, but according to him part of an Ignatian approach to dialogue is not to get trapped by another’s agenda, but to have a better agenda. That’s Amoris to a tee. It’s not a “conservative” document – that is to say, it’s not a tidy summary of Church teaching – nor is it a “liberal” document – it makes absolutely no changes to Church doctrine, as Pope Francis makes clear in places by referring to this document as a series of reflections. (Paragraphs 4 & 309 are good bookmark examples.) In fact, right out of the gate in paragraph 2, Amoris rejects these two competing agendas in favor of a better agenda.
In that sense, any article about Amoris Laetitia that makes the claim that Pope Francis changes X or Pope Francis simply reaffirmed Church teaching is wrong (though the second of these is much closer to what he did.) The Pope is reflecting on what marriage means to Christians and its place within the Church.
Amoris Laetitia is beautiful
Many articles jump straight to the controversy, the fodder for which starts on page 221 if you are inclined that way. But the first 200+ pages are not window dressing, and if the second third is divorced from the first two thirds, we miss the deeply Biblical, traditional, beautiful reflection on the family that Pope Francis offers. Just look some samples:
The word of God tells us that the family is entrusted to a man, a woman and their children, so that they may become a communion of persons in the image of the union of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Begetting and raising children, for its part, mirrors God’s creative work. The family is called to join in daily prayer, to read the word of God and to share in Eucharistic communion, and thus to grow in love and become ever more fully a temple in which the Spirit dwells. (29)
Each person, with all his or her failings, is called to the fullness of life in heaven. There, fully transformed by Christ’s resurrection, every weakness, darkness and infirmity will pass away. There the person’s true being will shine forth in all its goodness and beauty. This realization helps us, amid the aggravations of this present life, to see each person from a supernatural perspective, in the light of hope, and await the fullness that he or she will receive in the heavenly kingdom, even if it is not yet visible. (117)
Young love needs to keep dancing towards the future with immense hope. (219)
Each marriage is a kind of “salvation history”, which from fragile beginnings – thanks to God’s gift and a creative and generous response on our part – grows over time into something precious and enduring. Might we say that the greatest mission of two people in love is to help one another become, respectively, more a man and more a woman? Fostering growth means helping a person to shape his or her own identity. Love is thus a kind of craftsmanship. When we read in the Bible about the creation of man and woman, we see God first forming Adam (cf. Gen 2:7); he realizes that something essential is lacking and so he forms Eve and then hears the man exclaim in amazement, “Yes, this one is just right for me!” We can almost hear the amazing dialogue that must have taken place when the man and the woman first encountered one another. (221)
…is all about Chapter 8. There, Pope Francis reflects on irregular unions (such as divorced Catholics who have civilly remarried.) The controversy hinges on whether the Pope left the door open for Catholics in these situations to be admitted to Communion. Most proponents of this view have to go to the footnotes to make their case. This seems odd to me. It is clear that some people can and have interpreted this section to mean “change.” What’s not clear is that it was intended to lead to this. Pope Francis says in the midst of this controversial section that he is not proposing any new rules. (300) If there’s an existing rule (and there is) and Amoris defends the foundational vision that led to that rule (and it does) why would one read a “vague” section as proposing an incredible new change in a footnote of all places?
This is why you should read Amoris Laetitia. It’s absolutely beautiful, and once you read it you’ll realize there’s really no controversy. The controversy is mostly manufactured. Reflecting on the difficulties facing married couples in irregular situations shouldn’t make anyone jumpy. Personally, I blame the jumpiness on the media continually hoping (or fearing, depending on the outfit) that Pope Francis has some sort of super secret agenda to “change everything.” Unfortunately, the media, (including smaller outfits) is not of particularly high quality to begin with and does a shoddy job of covering things related to religion (Christian or otherwise.) They don’t really know what they’re talking about. After you’ve read Amoris Laetitia, you’ll see what I mean. It might not be the document you wished for if you belong to one of the two “agendas” that Pope Francis didn’t pursue, but it is beautiful and faithful to historic Christian teaching.
So, go read the source! Don’t let someone else jump to conclusions for you. It’s right here.