A Different Perspective on Amoris Laetitia

on-amoris-laetitia-artwork

Because so much of what has been written about Amoris Laetitia has concerned what is considered the controversial eighth chapter on divorced and remarried Catholics, and others living in irregular situations, the primary purpose, beauty, and valuable insights of the document are being lost. The primary intent of the document is to extol the marriage covenant, render support and encouragement to married couples, and commend it to those yearning for a meaningful relationship.

Certain excerpts taken out of that context could be used by some to justify actions inconsistent with the Church’s longstanding teaching on marriage and the family, or cause fear among orthodox Catholics, that the Holy Father might be laying the groundwork for changes in doctrine. However, when the document is read as a whole, and in light of the Church’s perennial teaching on marriage and the family, such fears should be allayed.

Francis clearly reaffirms that marriage is a permanent covenant between a man and a woman, “which is rooted in the natural inclinations of the human person.”(123) This covenant is essential both to the existence of secular society, and the Church. With respect to secular society he writes that:

…{t}here is a failure to realize that only the exclusive and indissoluble union between a man and a woman has a plenary role to play in society as a stable commitment that bears fruit in new life.(52)

From the perspective of the Church, the deeper and primordial significance of marriage is revealed—the family is an imitation of the Trinitarian communion of persons:

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.

He challenges the members of the Church to find the right words that will attract men and women “to take up the challenge of marriage with enthusiasm and courage.”(40) In that effort, he wants to “present marriage more as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfillment” which requires dependence on God’s grace.(36-37) He notes that Christ restored marriage and the family “to their original form,” and elevated marriage to a sacrament which represents the love of Christ for the Church.(63, 71) In that latter reality, marriage becomes the pathway for the spouses’ “sanctification and salvation.”(72, 316) Matrimony has to be understood as:

set … in the context of the ultimate and definitive dimension of our human existence. We urgently need to rediscover the richness of this teaching. By heeding it, married couples will come to see the deeper meaning of their journey through life.(325)

The spouses make a covenant with each other to give wholly of themselves, to be faithful, and to be open to life.(73) Accordingly, sexual union is the physical expression of these covenantal promises. (74) Specifically citing the much maligned Humanae Vitae, he affirms that this intimate expression is integrally bound with the generation of life.(68) In this exposition, one also hears the echoes of the teachings of St. John Paul II.

He decries the gender ideologies which seek to obliterate the natural difference between male and female, “thereby eliminating the anthropological basis of the family.” He also critiques technologies which are used to separate procreation from the marriage act. Both of these developments at their root reject the Creator’s design, putting man’s desires in its place. He cautions that “{w}e are creatures, and not omnipotent. Creation is prior to us, and must be received as a gift.”(56) Consistently, he affirms the Synod Fathers’ conclusion that “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.”(251)

Some commentators have expressed concern about the Holy Father’s use of the word “ideal” when speaking of marriage. However, he is not suggesting that marriage is simply an ideal to which couples can strive. Rather, he uses the term “ideal” to describe the fullness of the marriage covenant. He affirms that the marriage “union is real and irrevocable, confirmed and consecrated by the sacrament of matrimony.”(218) He instructs that the existence of the marriage bond demands selflessness, forgiveness, prayer, and loving communication so that the couple can experience the fullness of marriage—“conjugal charity.”(120) Several other sections also lend support to this understanding. Calling upon a passage from St. John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio, Francis writes:

Thus, building on the gift of Christ in the sacrament, married couples “may be led patiently further on in order to achieve a deeper grasp and a fuller integration of this mystery in their lives.”(76)

This understanding is particularly reflected in this passage addressed to pastoral ministry of those in civil marriages, or who merely cohabit and do not live this reality. Entering into pastoral dialogue with these persons is needed to distinguish elements in their lives that can lead to a greater openness to the Gospel of marriage in its fullness.”(293)(emphasis added). Indeed, he concludes the exhortation:

May we never lose heart because of our limitations,
or never stop seeking that fullness of love and communion which God holds out before us.(325) (emphasis added)

For Francis, marriage is a permanent reality in which the spouses can together grow in all aspects of their lives, increasing their love for each other, and Christ bringing them to the fullness of the sacrament, and thus becoming the means of their salvation.

To guide the young to this view of marriage, he urges better marriage preparation, and accompaniment of married couples in the early years of their marriages.(205-206, 209-17). These efforts should assist young persons

to perceive the attraction of complete union that elevates and perfects the social dimension of existence, gives sexuality its deepest meaning, and benefits children by offering them the best context for their growth and development.(205)

This responsibility lies with the entire Christian community.(206) Parents who have remained faithful spouses are the best examples for potential spouses, for their children have the opportunity to observe, in real time, the sacrifices, compromises, selflessness, and forgiveness which marriage demands.(208) The parish community should “strongly encourage{e} {couples} to discuss what each expects from marriage, what they understand by love and commitment, what each wants from the other, and what kind of life they would like to build together,” so that when the initial enchantment recedes they have a more solid foundation on which to build their marriage.(209) Such preparation may also help a couple end a relationship which could reasonably be anticipated to fail.(209) With so many young couples fearing commitment, being driven by sexual desire, or not really getting to know each other, those entering marriage need to hear that the wedding ceremony is not the end game, but rather that marriage is “a life-long calling based on a firm and realistic decision to face all trials and difficult moments together.”(210-211)

Among the tasks of the parish community is the encouragement of couples to pray together, to participate in Sunday Mass and occasional retreats, to seek spiritual direction and frequent use of confession, and to view children as a gift.(216, 223, 227) In regard to the latter, the Pope proposes the formation of the engaged couples’ consciences by “tak{ing} up anew” the teachings of Humanae Vitae and Familiaris Consortio on responsible parenthood.(222) Specifically, he advocates understanding the natural laws of fertility which “respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them, and favor the education of an authentic freedom.”(222)

He suggests the possibility of parishes, or other Church entities, arranging for couples living in the same neighborhood to get together, or developing home missionaries to facilitate discussion about common desires and difficulties.(229) Recognizing that young persons often don’t have time to attend meetings, he proposes that experienced married couples consider reaching out to younger neighborhood couples.(230)

The Holy Father also offers advice on what might be considered mundane but, nevertheless, very real issues encountered by couples at different stages, and in various circumstances, of their marriages. They include the need to make time for each other in a world of “frenetic pace” and workplace pressures, to develop simple but daily exchanges of tenderness, to recognize crises as opportunities to grow closer by facing them openly and together, extending forgiveness when necessary, and avoiding the common pitfalls of one person withdrawing or becoming defensive. (224, 231-240) He also devotes a whole chapter to family life, and the raising of children (Chapter 7). The practical pastoral guidance extended by Pope Francis in these sections can and should be required reading in any Pre-Cana program.

In the eighth chapter, he addresses those living together, those in civil marriage, and the divorced and remarried. He asks for pastoral engagement with those cohabitating, or living in civil marriages, to guide them to sacramental marriage.(294-95) It is, though, his treatment of the divorced and remarried, without benefit of annulment, which has proved most troubling for some commentators, including this writer. This writer has, however, taken his own advice, and read that chapter in the context of the preceding seven chapters, which have been devoted to strongly reinforcing the importance, sacredness, and permanency of marriage.

The Pope instructs that, nevertheless, the Church must confront the unsettling fact that there are many failed marriages which have been caused by a variety of circumstances, and have been followed by second unions. He wants the Church to seek out and embrace these sisters and brothers, bringing them into the fold, as far as possible, consistent with truth, charity, and the absence of scandal.(299-300)

In doing so, he does not state that Catholics who are divorced, and have not obtained an annulment, can remarry in the Church. On the other hand, he proclaims that 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.”(301) He insists upon a case-by-case pastoral discernment, in light of Church teaching, to guide those in irregular circumstances to perceive their standing before God in order to determine to what extent they can participate in the Church’s life.(300) Such discernment requires “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.”(300) He warns, however, that responding to the needs of those in particularly exceptional situations “cannot be elevated to the level of a rule.”(304, 307). He also cautions that:

…if someone flaunts 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.(297)

Moral theologians can argue about the practical import of this suggested approach. What is clear is that it is not intended as an open invitation to bishops and priests to offer to those in all irregular circumstances carte blanche access to the full liturgical life of the Church.(300) Were that to occur, it would undermine and betray the overall intent of the document since, as he says toward the end of Chapter 8, “more important than the pastoral care of failures is the pastoral effort to strengthen marriages, and, thus, to prevent their breakdown.”(307) There may be those still legitimately troubled by the suggested approach to irregular situations. However, they should seek comfort in the fact that the Church continues to be guided by the Holy Spirit, who will help sort out how to best accompany the divorced and remarried.

This document is primarily a call for renewed dedication to marriage. It is intended to strengthen and celebrate marriage, to help young persons appreciate the benefits of matrimony and, most importantly, to understand that it is the pathway to holiness and salvation for the vast majority of lay persons.

Bishops and priests have to courageously and regularly proclaim from the pulpit, in spiritual direction, and in confession, the complete truth about marriage, urging Catholics to embrace matrimony in its fullness selflessly, faithfully, with forgiveness, and openness to life. Married Catholics should strive to attain the full blessings of marriage for their own good, and that of the community. They should continue to be involved in the lives of their children and grandchildren so as to be a living inspiration to them. They should be available to other couples to accompany them on their marital journey. If such a renewal is genuinely and enthusiastically undertaken, fruitful marriages will blossom with the result of less irregular situations having to be addressed.

Richard P. Maggi, Esq. About Richard P. Maggi, Esq.

Richard P. Maggi, Esq., has been a litigation attorney for the past 40 years. He is also a commentator on religion and politics having been published in Homiletic & Pastoral Review, First Things (web edition), Crisis Magazine, the Washington Examiner, Human Life Review, and Notre Dame Magazine. He recently retired from the board of the Legal Center for the Defense of Life, is a Past Grand Knight of Summit Council 783, and an active member of Our Lady of Peace Parish in New Providence, New Jersey.

Comments

  1. Avatar John Butler says:

    Richard Maggi’s emphasis on the Catholic and positive parts of ‘Amor Laetitiae’ in no way erases the serpentine, Fletcherite situation ethics hiding in it’s branches! This most questionable part is what’s set off alarm bells among moralists because Situation Ethics is a subtle form of Protestantism disguised as human compassion.. It’s ultimate consequence is Atheism demonstrated by it’s originator, Fletcher, an ordained Episcopal priest. He appeared on the Carson Show to show the world he was now a fully fledged atheist! As the Psalmist reminds us “there’s nothing new under the sun.” Pope Leo XIII insisted on Thomistic philosophy to be the foundation to Theology. Depleted Social activism is no substitute!

  2. Avatar Dave Jamieson says:

    Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?

  3. As Richard Maggi notes, it’s important to read the document as a whole, “in light of the Church’s perennial teaching on marriage and the family,” and be confident that Church hasn’t (and can’t) change the teaching on marriage, informal commentary notwithstanding. AL highlights important messages for the present, specifically regarding the need for better marriage preparation (and for families and Church communities to step up and help struggling couples keep their commitments) and the problem of gender ideology, which denies Christian anthropology, deforms our young people’s understanding of themselves as male or female, and is fast destroying the natural kinship relations of mother, father, sister, brother . Perhaps we ought to spend our energy addressing those problems, and trust the power of the Holy Spirit to safeguard the Church and its teaching.