Already a lot of ink has been spilled (and internet blog space occupied) in reaction to our Holy Father’s recent apostolic exhortation, “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”).  I myself issued a brief initial statement upon its release.  There is one point in my own statement that I would like to emphasize here, and it is this:  Please take the time to carefully read and study this apostolic exhortation yourself before drawing any conclusions.  Read the document and not just what the media says about the document.

Pope Francis himself cautions us against a rushed reading of the text:  “The greatest benefit, for families themselves and for those engaged in the family apostolate, will come if each part is read patiently and carefully, or if attention is paid to the parts dealing with their specific needs.” (AL, #7)  The exhortation is very long, much longer than usual, and it will take all of us time to digest it and reap its fruits.  I myself am still studying it.

That said, I would like to expand on the points I have already made in my initial statement regarding this new message from our Holy Father.  I will eventually have much more to say about this document, and I hope eventually to issue some pastoral guidelines, especially for the Church’s pastors and those engaged in ministry to marriages and families. Jason Kidd, our archdiocesan Director for the Office of Marriage and Family Life is also studying the document to help glean how we should apply it here locally.

First off, where does this apostolic exhortation come from? It is more precisely a “post-synodal” apostolic exhortation, meaning that it flows from the last two synods of the world’s bishops on the topic of marriage and family life.  Pope Francis has pulled together from his perspective the tremendous work of these two synods.  It is his own reflection, having witnessed the synods’ discussions personally, and having received the final report of the bishops who participated in the synods.

If I had to briefly summarize the work that has gone into this exhortation, I would put it this way.  The first extraordinary synod held in 2014 sought to identify the real situation of marriages and families in the world today, taking into account the unique challenges of our times.  The second synod in 2015 was a serious discussion among the world’s bishop seeking to find pastoral solutions to address these real life situations of families today.  This has resulted in the Pope’s exhortation.

The exhortation contains some very beautiful and profound reflections on the dignity and goodness of marriage and family as it comes to us from the hand of our Creator.  Pope Francis begins with a powerful reflection of the theology and biblical foundations for our proper understanding of the meaning of marriage and children in the divine plan.  He goes on to present a beautiful reflection on what love in marriage actually looks like.  

From there the Pope addresses some very practical pastoral considerations, including marriage preparation (both remote and immediate), support for young marriages, and care for families experiencing difficulties.  Following a discussion of the relationship between parents and children, our Holy Father addresses the situation of families that are bruised and broken and how to integrate them more deeply into the life of the Church. 

In this apostolic exhortation, the Holy Father has made no changes to the Catholic Church’s definitive teaching on marriage and family life.  He couldn’t.  He is bound, as are all of us, to the eternal truths established by God and revealed to us in Sacred Scripture and in the living Tradition of the Church guided by the Holy Spirit.  Doctrine does not change.  It can only develop in a way consistent with and faithful to the perennial teaching of Christ and his Church.

Pastoral practice and sacramental discipline must always be completely consistent with the teachings of Jesus and his Church.  The Church, for example, cannot on the one hand solemnly teach something and then on the other hand engage in a discipline or pastoral practice that contradicts that teaching, effectively emptying it of its meaning.  In this case the teaching is effectively “changed” by pastoral practice.  

One final point is that this exhortation cannot be read in isolation.  That is a danger that I frequently see when the Church issues a new document, even by the Pope.  Some people will latch on to the new, thinking that this is all we need to read or know. 

“Amoris Laetitia,” like any Church document, must be read within the broader body of teaching that the Church has developed over the last 2000 years, going back to the very words of Jesus himself.  For example, Vatican II did not negate Vatican I or the Council of Trent.  We understand Church teaching to develop organically under the promised guidance of the Holy Spirit.

So “Amoris Laetitia” must be read, understood and interpreted within this broader context of teaching.  I would especially recommend that it be read in relation to the profound teaching of St. John Paul II on marriage, family and human sexuality. 

Pope Benedict XVI also gave us some very relevant teaching in this regard.  This current document is Pope Francis’ contribution to this important theme.

Finally, just read the document!  It is available on the archdiocesan website.  Let us hold all of our married couples and families, and those discerning marriage in our prayers!