Four keys to unlock the riches of Amoris Laetitia

Pope Francis holds a child as he leads the weekly audience in Paul VI's hall at the Vatican January 20, 2016. REUTERS/Max Rossi

[Austen Ivereigh in Arequipa, Peru]. As the Pope’s apostolic exhortation on the ‘Joy of Love’ is digested across the world, here are four keys to the reading the document. They don’t capture everything that is in it, but summarise what the Pope is seeking to achieve.

(1) Decentralization (collegiality).

True, neither words appears in the document, but the way Francis is exercising his authority in Amoris Laetitia (AL) is key to understanding what kind of teaching this is.

Popes in the past used a synod report as a springboard for their own reflections — clarifying areas of dispute, reaffirming or explaining existing doctrine or practice. But AL is expressly the fruit of the synod reports from 2014 and 2015, from which he quotes some 286 times, sometimes lifting entire paragraphs, and frequently taking a synod participant observation or insight and agreeing with it. AL has many quotes from bishops’ conference documents around the world, making this not an edict, but the fruit of a dialogue.

The traditional Catholic understanding of the papal magisterium is that it voices the Spirit-led consensus of the whole episcopate. By putting in place a careful, three-year process of discernment involving consultations of the faithful, two synods, and countless discussion and debate, Francis has enabled the Church to reach a consensus (which does not mean, of course, an absence of disagreement) of which this apostolic exhortation is the most important expression. Put simply, with AL, the Church — not just the Pope — has spoken.

And he has made clear that this process must continue, as David Gibson writes over at Crux.


“The complexity of the issues that arose revealed the need for continued open discussion of a number of doctrinal, moral, spiritual, and pastoral questions,” Francis writes in his introduction. For “honest, realistic and creative” thinking by pastors and theologians “will help us to achieve greater clarity.” This discussion must take place, going forward, through “synodality” — as laid out in his key speech last year. That mans rejecting both “an immoderate desire for total change without sufficient reflection or grounding” as well as a hard-line “attitude that would solve everything by applying general rules or deriving undue conclusions from particular theological considerations.” This allows reform within tradition, or, as Cardinal Schönborn put it yesterday, development without rupture.

Strikingly, AL also resists the temptation for the Pope to adjudicate disagreements by passing new laws. Not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by the Magisterium, he says in the introduction. “Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it,” he says, adding that “each country or region” can seek solutions suited to its culture and traditions (3).

560344265f742.imageLater, he notes how “different communities will have to devise more practical and effective initiatives that respect both the Church’s teaching and local problems and needs” (199), and again: “There are a number of legitimate ways to structure programmes of marriage preparation, and each local Church will discern how best to provide a suitable formation without distancing young people from the sacrament” (207).

In this, Francis is fulfilling his own call for a “healthy decentralization” in church governance, modelling a papacy at the service of the local Church rather than trying to control it. This is not, as some fear, an Anglican-style federalization, but a return to the genuinely collegial understanding of Catholicism that existed in the Church before the rise of nationalism and centralism in the 18th-19th centuries.

2. Discernment

As key part of synodality is the ancient spiritual art of discernment, developed in the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, which Francis wants to introduce into the modus operandi of the Church. Discernment is the art of prayerfully reflecting on God’s presence or will in the daily reality of our lives, and  — as the synod did — reading the signs of the times in light of the Gospel. It calls for a well-formed conscience, and an adult capacity to make decisions for the good in freedom — which was always the objective of Jesuit education.

The structure of AL is designed precisely to enable this process. Francis believes we cannot simply look around us with neutral eyes; we are always going to have a “hermeneutic” (in the case of the news media, for example, it is the hermeneutic of politics and power). The Church, however, needs to look with the eyes of the Gospel: what do we know of what God wants for marriage and family? Hence Chapter One surveys marriage and family in Scripture (“The Bible is full of families, births, love stories and family crises”) to discover God’s will for humanity.

Also key to discernment is starting from realities — to ‘seeing’ the current moment. Chapter Two, therefore, uses the Synod’s consideration of the present-day experiences and challenges of families, which creates a “reality-check”: this will not be a document that starts from concepts and abstractions or theories, but the truth of people’s lives. AL is the product of the most important listening exercise in the modern Church by the world’s largest civil-society organization.

Thereafter, the document is “judging” and “acting”, laying the basis for the Church’s pastoral response to these new realities.

‘Discernment’ is continually deployed in the text as an alternative to a one-size-fits-all, rule-bound inflexibility that tends to divide people between those who live up to the law and those who don’t, into sinners and saved, people who are in and people who are out.

SABBATH JESUS PREACHINGThrough discernment, Francis says, the Church must learn to distinguish and discriminate between elements that are of God and others that are the fruit of sin or unfreedom. The Pope describes the document right at the start as “an invitation to mercy and pastoral discernment of situations that fall short of what Lord demands of us”. Discernment and examination of conscience go together: what, in these complex lives, is of God and what of the “bad spirit”? Is there a sincere desire to grow in holiness, or a despair of the Gospel?

Francis is inviting the Church to get down into the nitty-gritty complexity of peoples’ lives and stories, and to walk with them, recognising Grace in their lives and opening up new spaces for growth and development. Those who are “divorced and civilly married” are not a category of people (except, of course, in the strictly legal sense) but real people with stories, each individual. Only discernment can discover that truth.

The Pope distinguishes between “pastoral” and “personal” discernment. In the first case, priests look for where God and Grace might be present in peoples’ lives, even where their situations are far from the Church’s law. On the other hand, “personal discernment” is where people (under the guidance of their pastors) examine their consciences and their relationship with God and the Church. Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna last year told the BBC that with divorced and remarried people he has a five-step way of discernment:

The question of Communion for divorced and remarried is for me is the last question. The first question is, ‘how did you handle the conflict? Has there been an attempt to reconcile? Have you still hatred in your heart towards your spouse? What happens to your spouse after the divorce?’ What does the Xn community do with the many, many abandoned people in the Christian community?”

In his Church self-critique in chapter 2 of AL, Francis notes how “We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations.” He adds, forcefully: “We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.” (37).

In many ways, AL represents the rehabilitation of conscience after a long period in which it was regarded with suspicion.

Forming consciences and encouraging them to discern runs throughout AL. The decision to marry should be “the fruit of a process of vocational discernment” (72); discernment of the Seeds of the Gospel in cultures should apply also to the family (77); pastors are obliged to “careful discernment of situations” that differ from one another (79); “special discernment is indispensable for the pastoral care of those who are separated, divorced or abandoned” (242); the situations of the divorced and remarried “require careful discernment and special accompaniment” (243), as do people who convert after marrying (249); the Church’s pastors are responsible not just for promoting marriage but also for “the pastoral discernment of the situations of a great many who no longer live with that reality” (293).

“The divorced who have entered a new union,” he says, “can find themselves in a variety of situations, which should not be pigeonholed or fit into overly rigid classifications leaving no room for a suitable personal and pastoral discernment” (298).

Meanwhile, in the key (300) paragraph of chapter 8, discussing the integration of the divorced and civilly remarried, he explictly rejects the possibilithy of new laws and norms, but calls for “a renewed encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases, one which would recognize that ‘the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases’, the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same’.”

3. Integration

One of the great achievements of the synod process was to help to abolish the distinctions between those in “regular” and “regular” marital situations, making clear that all are in need of God’s forgiveness and mercy, and therefore all are “in” the Church.

Cardinal Schönborn, who presented the document in the Vatican yesterday, describes how at the synod in 2015 two of the 13 language groups began by sharing a description of their families. “The discussion showed that in their own families were precisely the situations of irregularity and suffering they had been discussing in the synod,”he recalled.

refugees_1As a child of divorce himself, Cardinal Schönborn said he read the document “with great joy, gratitude and emotion” because church discourse has too often made a simple distinction between “regular” snd “irregular”, giving an impression of excluding. “For those like myself who come from “patchwork families” such a discourse can be “wounding”, the cardinal said, adding that that AL “is all about integrating everyone, that everyone is need of mercy …. Even the marriages that are apparently fine also know sin and failure and wounds.” That is why, he says, the reading of AL is so comforting, for “no one is excluded, condemned, despised. God’s love excludes no one.”

The large and growing number of people who are abandoned, separated and divorced is one of the great social tragedies of our time. Are they sinners, or sufferers? Are they like the widows of Gospel times, who were cast out from their society, but found special care  in the early Church?

AL continuously emphasises their inclusion and integration, especially those whose situations are ones of failure and marriage breakdown. Francis sees in this dynamic of integration the outworking of “God’s logic”, the outflowing of his mercy, that creates a new family.

Loving kindness builds bonds, cultivates relationships, creates new networks of integration and knits a firm social fabric. In this way, it grows ever stronger, for without a sense of belonging we cannot sustain a commitment to others; we end up seeking our convenience alone and life in common becomes impossible.(100)

On the divorced and remarried, Francis notes that “the logic of integration is the key to their pastoral care, a care which would allow them not only to realize that they belong to the Church as the body of Christ, but also to know that they can have a joyful and fruitful experience in it”. Such people, he adds in the same paragraph, “need to feel not as excommunicated members of the Church, but instead as living members, able to live and grow in the Church and experience her as a mother who welcomes them always, who takes care of them with affection and encourages them along the path of life and the Gospel.”

4. Pastoral accompaniment

The word ‘pastoral’ appears so often in AL that it is sometimes hard to find a paragraph that does not contain it. The term captures the nature and the purpose of the synod, which was not a theological meeting to define or to change doctrine, but an attempt to change mentalities and language.

Pope Francis at today's General Audience

As at the Second Vatican Council the style of the document is epideictic, in which the goal is to win internal assent not by the imposition of authority but through persuasion, using words of cooperation, partnership and collaboration. But its pastoral intent is also obvious from the way it starts from concrete realities – as Francis asked the synod to do through its broad consultation of the People of God in 2014.

The result is a document that “knows” the world, and especially the struggles of ordinary people. Indeed, a great part of the credibility of AL is that it is written by a pastor who has spent years listening to the joys and anxieties of real married people.

Pastoral realities and concreteness are critically contrasted by Francis with abstract, ideological, idealistic language, which he sees as part of the reason that the Church has often failed to convince people of the joy and beauty of conjugal love.

“We have often been on the defensive, wasting pastoral energy on denounc­ing a decadent world without being proactive in proposing ways of finding true happiness,” Francis writes. “Many people feel that the Church’s message on mar­riage and the family does not clearly reflect the preaching and attitudes of Jesus, who set forth a demanding ideal yet never failed to show com­passion and closeness to the frailty of individuals like the Samaritan woman or the woman caught in adultery.”

In chapter 2 he warns against presenting an artificial theological concept of marriage far removed from its messy realities. And he calls for self-criticism of Catholic approaches (one thinks of certain Catholic crusaders chastising people who fail to show sufficient orthodoxy) when he says: “We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life. We find it difficult to present marriage more as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfilment than as a lifelong burden.”

Pastoral means meeting people in their realities and caring for their wounds. It does not mean diluting or selling short the demands of the Gospel.

A lukewarm attitude, any kind of relativism, or an undue reticence in proposing that ideal, would be a lack of fidelity to the Gospel and also of love on the part of the Church for young people themselves. To show understanding in the face of exceptional situations never implies dimming the light of the fuller ideal, or proposing less than what Jesus offers to the human being. Today, more important than the pastoral care of failures is the pastoral effort to strengthen marriages and thus to prevent their breakdown (307).

And later:

The Church’s pastors, in proposing to the faithful the full ideal of the Gospel and the Church’s teaching, must also help them to treat the weak with compassion, avoiding aggravation or unduly harsh or hasty judgements. The Gospel itself tells us not to judge or condemn (cf. Mt 7:1; Lk 6:37). Jesus “expects us to stop looking for those personal or communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune, and instead to enter into the reality of other people’s lives and to know the power of tenderness. Whenever we do so, our lives become wonderfully complicated” (308).

This entering into the complexity of people’s lives and becoming close to them in their trials smacks to some of going soft on sin, or failing to deliver “clarity”. (Inevitably, AL has already been criticized by those who believe a Pope’s primary job is to deliver clarity, even at the expense of suppressing the truth of God’s mercy). To these Francis replies with a  assertion of the pastoral nature of Jesus’s love:

I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion. But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, a Mother who, while clearly expressing her objective teaching, always does what good she can, even if in the process, her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street.

A pastoral approach is also an active approach — building, looking for solutions, as I point out at Crux. For all that the attention of the media has been on the integration of divorces — and rightly, because it is a seen as a test case of the Church’s capacity to offer mercy while  upholding Jesus’s teaching — the real emphasis in the document is on rebuilding marriage by helping people live out their vows. This, says Pope Francis, is “our most important pastoral task”:

Divorce is an evil and the increasing number of divorces is very troubling. Hence our most important pastoral task with regard to families is to strengthen their love, helping to heal wounds and working to prevent the spread of this drama of our times.


[Various Catholic Speakers speakers have been appearing on a number of TV and radio programs across the world commentating on Amoris Laetitia. We will be uploading some of them shortly. See under ‘CV in the Media’.]


About catholicvoicesmedia

This blog offers comments on news stories as they relate to the Catholic Church. For more information on Catholic Voices visit
This entry was posted in Amoris Laetitia, apostolic exhortation. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Four keys to unlock the riches of Amoris Laetitia

  1. Pingback: “Amoris laetitia” en cuatro palabras por Ramiro Pellitero - Fe vivida

Comments are closed.