The Joy of Love

pexels-photoAmoris 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)
The (non) controversy

…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.


16 thoughts on “The Joy of Love

  1. I realize you don’t choose to see it that way, but the footnote (no. 351) does strongly imply that the Eucharist should be available to certain people “in an objective situation of sin”. At the very least it’s ambiguous, and that’s the problem. The media have already trumpeted it as a dramatic change, and there are a large number of Catholics, who can’t or won’t read papal documents, who will believe what the media are saying, especially if their own pastors don’t strongly contradict it. But how can pastors strongly contradict it in light of the ambiguous way in which it’s expressed?

    People tend to see things in black-and-white, and if the Pope says that “some people” in “some situations” can receive Communion in a state of sin, people will understand that as “receiving Communion in a state of sin is now allowed”. And thus a strong disincentive to committing mortal sin is eliminated.


    • It does more than imply, no. 351 boldly asserts that in certain situations the Eucharist ought to be available. What most people are missing is that this isn’t new…

      AFAIK, moral theologians already distinguish mortal sin as something that has grave subject matter and must be committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent. Paragraphs 301 – 302 of Pope Francis’ exhortation outline a number of criteria that could possibly diminish culpability and make this irregular situation not a mortal sin. For instance, the Pope mentions duress, which would make the sin something committed without deliberate consent and therefore not mortal. So his footnote in 305, which does explicitly deal with Confession and the Eucharist in those cases, isn’t a “get out of jail free” card for bold sinners it’s simply restating what the Church already teaches about mortal sin.

      Jimmy Atkin has a great post at Catholic Answers that makes this same point.

      Anyways, I don’t see how the Pope is supposed to account for the lazy, biased media and Catholics who get their information from the media. The media really has a mind of its own. I’ve seen all kinds of ridiculous assertions about different Popes (including Pope Benedict) and I’m sure there will be many more in the future. I’m sure the Pope didn’t set out to make sure the media was confused.


  2. I see your point, and if that’s all that was intended then there is indeed nothing new, and AL, and the Synod itself, were just a reflection and reiteration of things we already knew. Is that how you see it?

    The thing that I have a hard time with, though, is the idea that people in an *ongoing* relationship involving acts which are objectively mortally sinful, can remain inculpable on an ongoing basis. It’s one thing to commit an act under duress or without realizing how bad it was until after the fact; and then repent of it and be restored to the sacraments. But is it possible to be informed of the objective sinfulness of a situation (after consultation with one’s pastor, say), and consciously decide to *continue* in that situation, while yet remaining inculpable? Do you think this is what the Pope is saying might be the case?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think with the Synod, there was a much more radical proposal on the table by Cardinal Kasper that would have provided a process for all civilly remarried Catholics to be admitted to Communion after a penitential process that did not involve ending the new “marriage.” The media (or at least, most of the articles I read) seemed to think that certainly Pope Francis would be of the same mind, but this proposal doesn’t appear in the exhortation.

      I think (and this is simply a hypothesis based on my reading of AL) that Pope Francis is primarily thinking of new unions that have produced children. (Paragraphs 298-300 mention or deal with children) Let’s say a woman was baptized Catholic, but was not faithful and ended up marrying a guy, divorcing, then remarrying and having four kids. Now she’s rediscovered her Catholic faith, wants to come back to the Church, and is trying to set her life right, and really wants to receive Jesus. She’s willing to live as brother and sister with her “husband”, but he is not having it. He tells her that if she stops having marital relations with him, he’ll leave. He’s the breadwinner, and that would leave her without income and a father for her children. What’s the right thing to do in this situation? Is she fully culpable, or is this a form of duress?

      I think trickier situations like this may be what Pope Francis has in mind. I can think of a number of others (some fairly contrived though.) He says in a couple places that its not appropriate to make a set of new rules, because he has in mind “irregular” or out of the ordinary situations.


      • Granting for the sake of argument that the woman in your example is not culpable of a mortal sin due to being under duress of a sort, do you think she is not even guilty of a venial sin in continuing to sleep with her “husband”?


      • Sure, but venial sins, while concerning, do not bar one from the Sacraments. There would also still be the issue of determining her culpability, which would probably require a detailed exploration of her circumstances not possible in the shallow example that I gave.


    • I know this discussion is a little old, but I just read an interesting article that provides a clarification of AL VIII from a Pope Francis-approved source. According to this, AL is offering the sacraments only in situations where the couple are living as brother and sister, making my other example here somewhat erroneous at least as far as AL goes. I thought you might be interested in it:


      • Without subjecting the linked article to a very careful scrutiny, I will just point out that my contention has not been that AL explicitly condones communion for those in a state of objective adultery. But rather, that it’s ambiguous about it, which may lead to confusion — and in fact, already has in my opinion. The fact that the author of the post is having to argue his point at all, against “One Vader Five”, et al., is evidence of that. This type of thing did not happen when, e.g., Familiaris consortio was issued. And that’s because FC was not long and rambling (74 pages compared to 264) nor ambiguous in its plain reaffirmation of traditional Church doctrine.

        Nevertheless, I personally find it hard to believe that all Francis meant was that couples living together as man and wife, but living continently and therefore without mortal sin, can receive communion. There were a hundred ways he could have said that without the least ambiguity. If he did mean that, we are apparently only able to figure it out by watching a video of Schonborn interpreting Francis by way of JP2. Why couldn’t Francis have simply said that himself if that’s what he meant? And if that’s what he meant, why doesn’t he issue his own clarification?

        Maybe he will, and if so, I will certainly receive it with relief and gratitude.


      • I’m sorry, I did not mean to construe anything about your position by posting this article. I agree that it is trying to address a very different audience and that this is still a roundabout way of providing clarification. I simply thought it might be of interest to you, as it was of interest to me in examining some parts of my own understanding of AL.


  3. What do you make of Cardinal Newman’s statement that “The Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse.”


    In other words, can we tell someone that it’s OK to continue in a situation involving ongoing venial sin? I realize that other evils might result if the woman’s second “husband” were to abandon her and their children. But at least those would not constitute sin on her part. Should we not be willing to suffer evils rather than commit deliberate sin?

    I get that strictly speaking, she might be eligible to receive Communion in this scenario. She’s under duress so her sin isn’t mortal. But shouldn’t her pastor also tell her that it’s better to suffer rather than stay in a situation in which she continues to deliberately commit venial sins?

    It’s just hard for me to imagine any situation where this should be considered morally acceptable as a voluntary ongoing situation; apart from someone being physically threatened, in which case some kind of a rescue would seem to be called for.

    I can’t imagine it being even tolerable to live in such a situation, as a devout Catholic, where I must commit sin as the price of my spouse not abandoning me. Not only that, but I must have “marital” relations with this person — what kind of marital relations would these be? What if he or she not only insisted on having relations, but having relations in non-procreative ways?

    Whereas in times of persecution, it used to be considered a blessing to be tortured and killed rather than submit to such things, e.g. St. Lucy and St. Agnes. Or consider the story of Susanna and the Elders in Daniel chapter 13, where she resigns herself to being stoned rather than submit to the unchaste advances of the old lechers:

    “I am hemmed in on every side. For if I do this thing, it is death for me; and if I do not, I shall not escape your hands. I choose not to do it and to fall into your hands, rather than to sin in the sight of the Lord.”

    However you may see aspects of the problem that I’m missing. What do you think?


    • I don’t think Amoris Laetitia directly addresses what you’re talking about, since we both agree that strictly speaking communion in some hypothetical “irregular unions” may be legitimate. All AL says with regard to counselling those in these irregular unions is that in certain cases the subject may initially be only capable of steps in the right direction. (See paragraph 295) Pope Francis draws a careful distinction between maintaining the consistent teaching of the Church on marriage and particularly its indissolubility and providing room for a pastor to examine the specific situation and determine concrete steps that will help the individual reattain the Gospel ideal in stages. (See for example paragraphs 300 and 303) In no case does it say, ‘One can continue in sin, that’s okay.’


  4. AL doesn’t say expressly that ‘One can continue in sin, that’s okay’, but that’s part of the problem; that’s part of the ambiguity of the document, which I think is harmful. He neither says that people may receive Communion on an ongoing basis, in situations which are objectively sinful; nor does he say that people are morally obliged to get out of such situations, even if they’re only venially sinful in terms of culpability. Is he abandoning the traditional Church teaching that one must avoid sin at all costs, even to the point of shedding blood? (Heb. 12:1-13, especially v. 4.)

    I notice that he has no patience for what he perceives as a lack of compassion, or for pharisaism. He harps and harangues people to be compassionate and flexible in applying the law of morality to concrete situations (not just in AL but generally). What you don’t see him doing is harping and haranguing people to be chaste. If he spent one entire encyclical driving home the absolute necessity of chastity at all costs, I wonder if he might get through to a lot of the people who find themselves in situations of objective sin. In that way, perhaps many of them would realize the necessity of leaving such situations, and become eligible to receive Communion, thereby accomplishing his goal of having them participate fully in the sacramental life of the Church. Would that not constitute mercy?


  5. Actually, in paragraph 303, Pope Francis specifically says that the process of discernment he is advocating must be dynamic, always be open to new stages that come closer to the Gospel ideal. This seems pretty clear that there’s no “stop” short of obedience to Church teaching.

    I agree that the “backseat Pope” in me would like Pope Francis to be much clearer on moral issues. However, many non-Christians have a poor impression of “religious conservatives” and think they have no sense of kindness or mercy. In this regard, Pope Francis has worked wonders. You gotta take the good with the bad… there has never been a perfect Pope, and there never will be.


    • Paragraph 303 doesn’t completely allay my concerns (there is again that questionable word “ideal”), but your point is taken, that it does seem to say that one may not simply rest in a state of objective sinfulness.

      I agree that the Pope has worked wonders as far as non-Christian perceptions of the Church are concerned. But I’m afraid he has done so mainly by giving the impression of having abandoned objective standards of morality. If you don’t mind me posting a link (otherwise feel free to delete it), here are a couple examples of how people have come to like him precisely because they perceive him as having a relaxed attitude towards morality:

      You are certainly right that we have no ground upon which to expect a perfect pope.

      Liked by 1 person

      • You are very welcome to post links. I certainly agree that Pope Francis has left a lot of people confused, though I would assume and hope this was not his goal. Maybe it’s part of the settling in process? I have only been Catholic for weeks at this point, so I’m not used to paying such close attention to the Pope and I don’t have practical experience with another Papacy to compare with (apart from reading old documents.)


      • I don’t think it’s his goal to cause confusion either. I think he means every word he says. But I think he’s a common type of Christian, who is terribly concerned about people not feeling loved, whether by God or by the Church or by anyone else, and he’s entirely focused on remedying that problem, pretty much to the exclusion of all other considerations. It would be equally bad if his only concern were to browbeat people into obeying the commandments lest they burn in hell. Either tendency is bad when not balanced by the other.

        In my opinion both John Paul and Benedict did pretty well with respect to that balance, of affirming traditional morality while being compassionate towards those who don’t yet know the Gospel or have trouble living it. A lot of people didn’t love them as much as they love Francis, precisely because they balanced out compassion with the requirements of morality. If only they had not insisted on the latter, they might have been as widely loved as Francis is. : )

        By the way, congratulations on being received into the Church!

        Liked by 1 person

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