In two days much had already been written about this highly anticipated document [Pope Francis’s The Joy of
Love], and much more will surely be written on it. Rather predictably, many commentators zeroed in on “hot-button
issues” of cohabitation and the question of couples in “irregular” second marriages accessing the sacraments.
These issues are dealt with largely in chapter eight where, showing the instincts and wisdom of a great and caring pastor, Pope Francis has given us all an important reminder of the Church’s teaching on conscience and an excellent primer on the basics of Catholic moral theology — stressing that “a negative judgment about an objective situation does not imply a judgment about the … culpability of the person involved … Under certain circumstances people find it very difficult to act differently … the consequences of actions taken are not necessarily the same in all cases” (n.302).
What is important is to recognise the goodness in people while offering the healing power of grace and the light
of the Gospel message — “the logic of integration is the key to their pastoral care…” (n. 299).
A number of commentators on the document, mostly Catholic, are going so far as to accuse Pope Francis of making
the Church “ruthlessly liberal” under the guise of building an inclusive Church. But there is no “new” moral
teaching in Amoris Laetitia. As one experienced New Zealand parish priest, ordained for more than 40 years, said
to me on April 10: “We were taught this approach in our moral theology and pastoral theology classes when I was in
the seminary.”
In other words, the approach taken by Pope Francis is more a case of “back to the future” — a reminder of what some have forgotten; a challenge to recognise the folly of simply imposing rules on people in very difficult situations that only leads them to feel judged and abandoned (n.49). Indeed, an honest assessment of the Church and its more recent failings in reaching out to people who are hurt is, for me, one of the things that stands out in reading this exhortation, including a tendency in our moral teaching and preaching towards “excessive idealisation” (n.36).
This is not the writing of a pope preaching down to the assembled hordes in Vatican Square from the steps of St Peter’s but a pope seated among his people reflecting on their conversations as fed back to him through the two
synods on the family.
For me it has the feel of an “adult-to-adult” discussion rather than a “parent-to-child” lecture.
It is a thoroughly grounded document which appreciates the complexities and challenges of modern living, but holds
out hope and seeks to encourage in the real sense of that word — to have and act with greater courage in the name of love, mercy and truth.
Having read many papal documents in my lifetime I am struck by its style and honesty. It is refreshingly disarming
and I’m appreciative of that. Just as Peter, who failed Jesus three times on crucifixion day, is fed by the resurrected Jesus on the beach before being asked three times, “Do you love me?” so Amoris Laetitia focuses on the need to meet and feed people where they are at and to respond to people’s failures with the sort of love that calls them on, gradually but surely, to become better disciples and even great leaders, as was the case with St Peter.
The word “love” appears in different forms a staggering 483 times throughout the document, but at the same time there is no sense that the truth and wisdom of our moral teaching has been or can be sidelined.
However, important as the questions of morality and pastoral care are, I hope that this is not all the document will be remembered for. It is a rich, broad and varied document that contains much wisdom to reflect on. In particular, I recommend reading chapter four titled “Love in marriage” — an extended reflection that carefully and tenderly describes human love in a way that is unprecedented in previous papal documents. In fact, chapter four is a great place to start reading the document.
Pope Francis states early on in the exhortation that it should be read without rushing … and I have done exactly the opposite. But I am spurred on to now go back and read it more slowly and deliberately.
I hope and pray that is what we all do for there is something in this great document for everyone, including those
who feel that there are some opportunities missed.
Dr John Kleinsman is a married man, director of the New Zealand Catholic Bioethics Centre and a lecturer for The Catholic Institute. Last year he participated in the second Synod on the Family in Rome.