The long-awaited (in some quarters dreaded) post-synodal document on marriage and the family was released today. (My community will be publishing it, presumably in the familiar paperback edition: reserve your copy now!) I've only had a few hours to look at it (I am at Chapter 6 now), and I know that specialists will already be offering summaries that attempt to cut to the chase on the hot button questions that have been driving speculation and anticipation.
I do not generally read Church documents with a critical eye. I read them with two
basic questions: "What does the Church want me to grasp here?" (i.e.,
what can I learn?) and "How am I called to put this into practice?" That said, I have to admit that I am a bit distracted with this document. Amoris Laetitiae does not read evenly. It does not have the
consistent, objective voice I am used to in papal documents. The tone
varies from chapter to chapter. While I found that disorienting, the variations of tone, along with the citations of poetry and other "secular" voices are just what
one reader here at PBM appreciated the most about the document, saying that the many
"voices" testify that this was not an ivory-tower work composed by
someone far from the field, but draws from many people's experiences and reflections and presents a Church that is really listening. (In fact, Pope Francis tells us early on that he will be incorporating his own pastoral experience along with the input from the Synods and various Episcopal Conference documents from around the world.)
A few initial observances:
This is the only papal document I am aware of for which a "reading guide" was published beforehand and sent to all the bishops of the world. According to the report I read, the reading guide (from the Vatican's Office for the Synod of Bishops) was accompanied by a letter from Cardinal Baldiserri (head of said office) that refers to Pope John Paul's masterful Theology of the Body as "an important source" for Amoris Laetitiae. (That's my "YESSSSS!" you hear echoing from Boston, especially because I am working on the study guide for a TOB video series we will release soon.)
This is not a little booklet. The Vatican edition runs 264 pages. (For comparison, the Vatican edition of Pope John Paul's Mission of the Redeemer was 157 pages.) This is a tome, in terms of papal documents. (So expect a chunky paperback if we go with our usual hand-sized format.)
Chapter 1 echoes in many ways the "Genesis" texts of Pope John Paul's famous talks on human love. As he has already done in some of his Wednesday talks, Pope Francis highlights the creation of man and woman "in the image of God" as an icon of the Blessed Trinity. It is the capacity of their love to bring forth new life that makes the couple an image of God the Creator and Savior. The home, in which the children are "like olive plants around the table," becomes a domestic Church where the great works of the Lord are communicated from generation to generation, and the praises of God are sung. (That theme of the domestic Church and family spirituality is going to be developed toward the end--so the introduction promised--I haven't gotten there yet.)
But just as the biblical vision offers the ideal of family life, it also witnesses to suffering, betrayal and heartache in the family, including the problems that come with unemployment. Within this section, Pope Francis recalls "the social degeneration brought about by sin, as, for example, when human beings tyrannize nature, selfishly and even brutally ravaging it ... [leading to] those social and economic imbalances denounced by the prophets, beginning with Elijah" (n. 26).
Chapter 2 goes to The Experiences and Challenges of Families. This is the "you are here" of the Pope's map, and he cites documents on family life from various Bishops' Conferences, along with the Synod's "Final Report." Along with a picture of some of the more obviously problematic situations (especially couples living together without marriage; heightened, even crippling individualism and fear of commitment), there is a bit of an examination of conscience: Has excessive idealism on the part of the Church's spokespersons presented so exalted a picture of marriage that people hesitate to take on such a responsibility? Has the image of marriage been too abstract, artificial or theological? Have we failed to speak of the grace of God that always accompanies and assists those who seek it and pray for it? In other words, do we make sacramental marriage look like a burden? The theme of the special grace of the sacrament, and the infinite depths of charity will come up later in the document. It is here, too, that the Pope refers for the first time to the conscience of the married couple who "are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them" (n. 37).
Chapter 3, The Vocation of the Family, is Francis' "theology" section; it presents the model of the Holy Family and teachings related to the sacrament of Matrimony. There are more citations from Canon Law here than (it seems) in the other chapters. Preparing us for the pastoral approach to family problems that Francis will recommend, here he quotes John Paul II's post-synodal apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio where it reminds pastors of their responsibility for careful discernment, given the complexities not only of the issues themselves, but of people's greater and lesser degrees of responsibility.
Chapter 4, Love in Marriage, begins with a lengthy reflection on St Paul's famous hymn to charity, about two or three paragraphs following each line (in Greek!) of Paul's text. Pope John Paul's Theology of the Body makes its strongest appearance in this chapter, as well, beginning under the heading The Erotic Dimension of Love. I noticed that in citing the Theology of the Body texts, the English edition of Amoris Laetitiae has gone back to the earlier translation "nuptial meaning of the body," rather than the term "spousal meaning of the body." Either way, it is of fundamental importance. Chapter 4 starts with the value of erotic love, citing also the wonderful comment from Pope Benedict XVI in God Is Love: “Doesn’t the Church, with all her commandments and prohibitions, turn to bitterness the most precious thing in life? Doesn’t she blow the whistle just when the joy which is the Creator’s gift offers us a happiness which is itself a certain foretaste of the Divine?” In that very context, the Pope (much like John Paul II in TOB) says that the erotic dimension of love is protected (yes!) and fostered by the practice of self-mastery, a necessary means for preserving the freedom of human love.
The document here also considers the effect that increasing lifespans can have on marriage and the family: spouses who grow old together witness to the capacity of true love to change and grow in very different circumstances than those in which that love was born. It is in this context that the vocation to celibate love is treated. "Virginity is a form of love" (n. 159), but celibate people can learn from marital fidelity and be moved "to a more concrete and generous availability to others" (n. 162).
I look forward to continuing to receive the Pope's insights and recommendations as I finish this first reading of Amoris Laetitiae, and as I pray for all those whose lives will be most touched by what the Pope has to say (especially the priests and other pastoral ministers who are being handed the great challenge of walking these paths with families!).