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By Eileen P. Flynn


The Montréal Review, June 2016



On April 8, 2016 the Vatican issued the English translation of Amoris Laetitia, the Joy of Love, written by Pope Francis. The document consists of 325 paragraphs arranged in eight chapters and takes the form of an apostolic exhortation. An apostolic exhortation is different from an encyclical in that it does not define doctrine. Amoris Laetitia conveys Pope Francis' conclusions about how the family should be understood and how everyone in the Catholic Church should exercise their roles in regard to the family. The exhortation is a wide ranging document which addresses many audiences: those preparing for marriage, husbands and wives, children, the widowed, gays, seminarians, priests, members of the hierarchy, government officials and society at large. In Amoris Laetitia Pope Francis reveals himself to be many things: a listener, a pastor, a psychologically astute counselor, a teacher, and a cautious leader who seems to be taking the Church in a new direction. Let us consider each of these roles in turn.

 It is obvious from the exhortation that Pope Francis listened to the synod fathers who met in two sessions to address the family and he took their wisdom and experience into account. Matthew 10:6 was cited in the synod as the scriptural basis for Catholic teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. Pope Francis acknowledged that what God has joined together no one should put asunder, but suggested that the passage not be viewed as a yoke imposed on humanity but, rather, a gift granted to those who are joined in marriage.1 

Chapter Six of the document is entitled "Some Pastoral Perspectives" and in it Pope Francis commented on many of the suggestions and insights offered during the sessions. In particular the pope cited the contributions of Italian bishops who facilitate interaction between married couples and engaged couples in order to transmit Christian ideas about marriage to those preparing for the sacrament.2 The Kenyan bishops related their experience of couple's putting undue emphasis on preparations for the wedding day at the expense of preparing for a lifetime together, and the pope agreed that this is a matter of concern.3 Pope Francis seconded the thinking of synod fathers who said that the early years of marriage are a time of difficulty for many couples and agreed that married people with more experience could be of help to them.4

Pope Francis noted that many synod fathers spoke about the cumbersome nature of the annulment process, requesting that it be simplified and streamlined.5 To this end, in 2015 he issued two documents. Unless an annulment decision is contested by one of the parties, only one Church court will be required to hear the case. Formerly, two courts were involved. In cases of appeals, local dioceses can now consider them rather than requiring the oversight of a court in the Vatican. In addition, going forward annulments will be free; no fees will be charged. Pope Francis' decisions on annulments aimed to better serve people in failed marriages whose belief was that elements necessary for a valid marriage were missing from the outset.

In adopting what could be characterized as a liberal attitude towards reintegration into the Church for divorced and remarried Catholics, Pope Francis explained, "I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves room for no confusion,"6 but opted, instead, for a merciful approach because of Jesus' examples of compassion and outreach recorded in the gospels. He chose to formulate a merciful response because he needed to decide between two alternatives, resolving the tension between certitude and pastoral sensitivity by opting for sensitivity to the struggles of people in complicated situations.

Pope Francis' writing shows him to be a kind and gentle pastor. A pastoral approach on the part of clergy is generally understood to be one of empathizing with people who find themselves in real life situations and responding to them in an appropriate manner. A clergy person who is pastoral does not employ language that ordinary people are unfamiliar with and does not give lengthy, tedious and impractical answers to their questions.

At the beginning of Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis admitted a limit on the reach of the Church's teaching authority: "Not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium."7 In so saying Pope Francis suggested that Catholic laity and clergy have the ability to think through the sexual and family issues they face and to come to reasoned conclusions with the help of God's grace. He did not rule out the value of official Church doctrine on issues of sexuality and marriage but he hinted that the Church should not be looked to for the last word on each and every complex question facing families.

It is important to understand that changing times bring new challenges to spouses and families and the pope acknowledges that there is "less support from social structures than in the past"8 making it more important than ever for the Church to provide help and guidance to today's families. Noting that human equilibrium is fragile,9 Pope Francis also pointed out that physical, emotional, spiritual and psychological factors can make it difficult for individuals, spouses and families to function. Given the context of the world in which we live and the pressures of life, Pope Francis likened the Church to a field hospital serving the pressing needs of those bruised by the battles of life.10 

When he stated that "We often present marriage in such a way that its unitive meaning, its call to grow in love and its ideal of mutual assistance are overshadowed by an almost exclusive insistence on the duty of procreation,"11 the pope acknowledged a pastoral failure on the part of the magisterium which he is seeking to correct in his exhortation. The focus needs to shift from a concentration on the act of intercourse and its orientation towards procreation and take due account of the dynamics of love and mutual support which are essential to a good marriage.

Families live in a world full of problems and the hardships they face can make it difficult to live with dignity and to thrive as God intends. Low wages, housing issues, unemployment, separation from family due to long hours of work – Pope Francis lists these stresses on families and says that pastors need to understand their repercussions.12 In addition, families affected by war, terrorism, migration and sexual trade involving children suffer enormously and the Church needs to advocate for them and do whatever possible to counter these social evils.13 Pope Francis encouraged the praiseworthy nature of outreach when he said, "I would stress that dedication and concern to migrants and persons with special needs alike is a sign of the Spirit."14 His sensitivity is apparent when Pope Francis declared that the Church should offer support to single mothers, not a set of rules that cause people to feel judged and abandoned.15

In spite of all the negatives, Pope Francis thinks that we have no time for doleful lament. Instead, we need "to revive our hope and to make it the source of prophetic visions, transformative actions and creative forms of charity."16

Pope Francis addressed Catholic teaching on contraception in a nuanced pastoral way when he said, "We need to return to the message of the encyclical Humanae Vitae of Blessed Paul VI which highlights the need to respect the dignity of the person in morally assessing methods of regulating birth."17 In so saying, the pope sidestepped the major controversy surrounding the encyclical. Debate on Humanae Vitae focused on Paul VI's conclusion that God ordained that each and every act of intercourse be open to the transmission of human life; therefore, artificial contraception was opposed to God's design. In referring to respecting the dignity of the person, Pope Francis left open an interpretation of Humanae Vitae wherein the person's dignity can be understood in terms of an intellectual and spiritual competence to reach a decision of conscience in the concrete circumstances of life.  

Speaking about women, Pope Francis acknowledged, "I certainly value feminism,"18 and said that women have roles both within the home and in the workplace. He offered personal advice to mothers suggesting that they make it a priority to be present to their children during the first months of life. 19 He also set out a strong case for fathers to be present in the home and actively involved in raising their children, arguing that children need to grow up with strong parental role models.20

The pope's pastoral concern extended to the elderly and he urged that the elderly be valued and included in the family and that their knowledge and wisdom be appreciated by all generations.21 The death of a spouse is an inevitable and very sad fact of life. Pope Francis knows that it takes time to work through grief and that the proper Christian response that the widowed should try to cultivate is to look to the future. He writes: "This does not mean imagining our loved ones as they were, but being able to accept them changed as they now are. The risen Jesus, when his friend Mary tried to embrace him, told her not to hold on to him (cf. Jn 20:17), in order to lead her to a different kind of encounter."22

Speaking to bishops and priests, the pope urged them to go out to where the people are because pastoral care has a missionary component.23 In expressing his concern for divorced and remarried Catholics, Pope Francis stated emphatically that they are not excommunicated and that they should be encouraged to participate in parish communities.24 He also encouraged pastoral outreach to cohabiting couples aimed at ministering to them and opening the door to communication so that they can consider entering into a sacramental marriage.25 Pope Francis gave evidence of his own pastoral priorities in the list of challenges he enumerated for the clergy: "understand, forgive, accompany, hope, and above all, integrate."26

Pope Francis showed himself to be a psychologically astute counselor as he nimbly moved from topic to topic. He discussed why many young people are reluctant to marry27 and he disclosed the harms narcissism causes to individuals and families.28 The pope alluded to the need for tenderness in relationships, citing as an example the lovely image of a content infant resting against its mother's breast.29 Pope Francis offered homespun advice when he explained how important it is to incorporate practices such as saying please, thank you and I'm sorry into everyday communication.30 He said that domination, arrogance, abuse, sexual perversion and violence are products of a warped understanding of sexuality, 31 and argued that sexuality and passion are gifts of God which should be esteemed.32

Pope Francis showed understanding for couples who are approaching marriage in the Church. His insight into the circumstances of engaged couples prompted him to say: "They do not need to be taught the entire Catechism or overwhelmed with too much information."33 In regard to the stars in their eyes, the pope wrote that marriage needs to be built on more than just desire because "Nothing is more volatile, precarious and unpredictable than desire."34

Aware that wedding preparations can be overwhelming, Pope Francis noted that it often happens that "The spouses come to the wedding ceremony exhausted and harried."35 He opines that it would be far better if weddings were less expensive and elaborate so that the religious and social meanings of marriage could occupy more of the bride and groom's attention. After a marriage, there are bound to be difficulties and maybe even crises and Pope Francis stressed the importance of good communication so that families will be able to work their way through difficult times.36

Pope Francis had a lot to say about the needs of children and how they should be raised. To separated and divorced parents he said, "Never, ever take your child hostage,"37 and always speak well of your former spouse for the benefit of your children.

In regard to child rearing, Pope Francis counseled parents not to try to control children's lives but, instead, to provide guidance to them in their emotional development.38 He spoke of a child's freedom as needing to be understood by parents not as the ability to do whatever one wants but, instead, as the capacity to act rightly. In this regard, the pope encouraged parents to aid their children to acquire a wide range of virtues so that making good choices would come easily to them.39 

Punishment is a controversial topic from which Pope Francis did not shy away. He said that children need to learn that misbehavior has consequences and that they should be encouraged to consider how those they have injured have suffered as a result.40 In regard to discipline, Pope Francis counseled parents:

 A child who does something wrong must be corrected, but never treated as an enemy or an object on which to take out one’s own frustrations. Adults also need to realize that some kinds of misbehavior have to do with the frailty and limitations typical of youth. An attitude constantly prone to punishment would be harmful and not help children to realize that some actions are more serious than others. It would lead to discouragement and resentment: “Parents, do not provoke your children” (Eph 6:4; cf. Col 3:21).41

Pope Francis argued that to indoctrinate young people in "safe sex" is to sell them short;42 what is needed is to respect their ability to reach the appropriate decision to wait for sex until marriage.43

Throughout Amoris Laetitia Pope Francis acts as a teacher. In Chapter One, In the Light of the Word, the bible is the pope's sourcebook and from it he expounded upon the meaning of marriage in God's plan, how a family should be understood, what it means to be a husband, a wife or a child.

The pope explained how the Trinity can be considered a family in that God is Father, Jesus is Son, and from their love the Holy Spirit takes shape. There are threats to families today and there were threats to the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph as well. The threat from Herod was so great that the Holy Family had to flee their home and take refuge in Egypt. Mary, the Mother of God, is also Mother to all who follow her Son and, as she kept in her heart all her joys and sorrows as Jesus' mother, so "the treasury of Mary's heart contains the experiences of every family which she cherishes."44

The pope drove home a significant teaching point when he said to priests and bishops that they need to stress openness to grace, not just doctrine. The Church needs "to make room for the consciences of the faithful" because they "are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations." He went on to make the point that "We have been called to form consciences, not replace them."45

Arguing from the scriptures and from Church tradition, Pope Francis taught that same sex unions should not be equated with marriage. Marriage has been designed by God to be heterosexual in nature; therefore, a relationship between two men or two women cannot be considered a marriage. Likewise, a marriage requires the exchange of vows and a public expression of commitment one to the other. De facto common law unions lack this element.46

Pope Francis said that it is appropriate to reject the idea of family marked by authoritarianism and even violence, but that the existence of these sinful situations should not lead to the disparaging of marriage itself.47 In making this point, Pope Francis, as teacher, pointed out the middle way between two erroneous extremes.  

The pope reiterated the teaching of the Church that women are persons with rights and that domestic violence, forms of enslavement, procedures of genital mutilation, and all sinful vestiges of patriarchy are morally wrong. He also argued against surrogate mothers and the production of pornography. Noteworthy is the fact that Pope Francis acknowledged the contributions made by the women's movement.48

He said that God is the Creator and that humans are creatures who ought to respect God's plan for humanity, emphasizing that married spouses have been entrusted by God with the work of procreation. Pope Francis argued further that humans should accept their gender, male or female, as a gift from God which is not to be questioned or changed.49

Pope Francis, restating that the idea of marriage is found in the Old Testament, went on to express its meaning for the Church: "Through the Church, Christ bestowed on marriage and the family the grace necessary to bear witness to the love of God and to live the life of communion."50 His Jesuit training in spirituality came across when the pope encouraged people to imagine Jesus in his various interactions with families and to seek inspiration from such exercises.51

What does the Church say about natural marriage, that is, secular civil marriages as well as marriages conducted according to cultural and religious traditions other than the Catholic rite? Pope Francis asserts that a complete understanding of sacramental marriage is presented by the Church:

Appealing to the Bible’s teaching that all was created through Christ and for Christ (cf. Col 1:16), the Synod Fathers noted that “the order of redemption illuminates and fulfils that of creation. Natural marriage, therefore, is fully understood in the light of its fulfilment in the sacrament of Matrimony: only in contemplating Christ does a person come to know the deepest truth about human relationships.52

In regard to how the Church responds to people in natural marriages, Pope Francis said that the Church rejoices with all families who raise their children with love and strive to make the world a better place.53

Love is at the heart of sacramental marriage and Pope Francis went through 1Cor. 13:4-7 in order to illustrate how love is lived by married people and by families.54 He returned to the Greek text again and again to tease out the meanings of the familiar words in their original context. For example, we read love is patient but we may not understand the meaning of the Greek word for patience. The pope says that "It refers ... to the quality of one who does not act on impulse and avoids giving offense."55

In explaining the importance of the marriage ceremony as well as the requirement of the vows, Pope Francis wrote, "The lasting union expressed by the marriage vows is more than a formality or a traditional formula; it is rooted in the natural inclinations of the human person."56 Accordingly, getting married is the thing to do; it is part of the way God intends that human society be organized. Besides recognizing that marriage comes from God's hands, the pope also appealed to an innate sense so that people could recognize marriage as a distinctly human imperative. 

In terms of how many children couples ought to have, Pope Francis left this decision up to their discernment, suggesting that no one can make the decision for them and that they know best their circumstances, abilities and limitations.57

With regard to gays, Pope Francis stressed that there should be no disrespect shown to them and no discrimination aimed at them.58 He was also unequivocal in stating that gay unions are not marriages and should not be called marriages.59

Pope Francis empathized with the circumstances of couples who live together and are not married. He wrote that the Church needs to formulate a positive response to de facto unions and notes various reasons for them.60 Sometimes people cannot afford the expenses connected with getting married; not having good jobs is also a reason to put off getting married. The fact that Western society is accepting of cohabitation no doubts contributes to the thinking that the arrangement is acceptable.

Citing the work of Pope John Paul II, Pope Francis explained that the law of gradualness implies that individuals are often limited in their ability to understand, appreciate and carry out the requirements of objective laws; therefore, it makes sense to accompany them patiently in the hope that, in time, they will realize that the celebration of Christian marriage is appropriate for them.61 

Pope Francis is a cautious leader. He said that engaged couples did not need an overload of information or to master the entire Catechism. He referred to Humanae Vitae without a clear restatement of its prohibition of artificial contraception. He counseled people to follow their consciences and did not emphasize obedience to rules promulgated by his predecessors. Amoris Laetitia does contain several nuanced paragraphs in which the pope made subtle distinctions which serve to explain that it is possible to reach responsible moral decisions which appear at first to be at variance with the letter of the law stated in documents issued by the hierarchy.

Consider a quote from Humanae Vitae: "From the outset, love refuses every impulse to close in on itself; it is open to a fruitfulness that draws it beyond itself. Hence no genital act of husband and wife can refuse this meaning"62 of procreation. While acknowledging the meaning of the act, because he does not follow with a condemnation of artificial contraception, the pope may be leaving an opening for married people to choose contracepted sex. His words could be interpreted as allowing that a couple accepts the meaning of the sexual act but does not want their exercise of it to be open to the transmission of life at that time.

The pope counseled pastors to exercise careful discernment when they assisted families in difficult situations.63 As the Church's leader he instructed them to clearly state the Church's teachings but also to be sensitive to the complexity of situations and the stresses which afflict people who are dealing with difficult issues. Factors may exist which limit people's abilities to make decisions.

The Church hierarchy in recent years has been critical of radical feminism and has come under criticism for the absence of women from decision making roles. A cautious leader, Pope Francis came down on the side of feminists64 but cautioned women to value their experience as mothers and to be open to definitions of feminism which are compatible with the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Pope Francis advocated reintegration of divorced and remarried Catholics into the Church. In this regard he asked pastors to "undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases"65 but said that there is no new set of rules. In so stating, the pope left open the possibility that conservatives who want to stress the indissolubility of marriage along with a better explanation of the term will be able to accept the direction he has taken.

Pope Francis said that people can come to a decision of conscience that "This is what God wants of me" even if it does not comply with the ideal and he suggested that such a decision can be morally acceptable.66 In this, he was siding with liberals who are critical of many natural law precepts but he also accepted the thinking of conservatives who hold up the ideal of noncontracepted intercourse as in accordance with the divine plan. He went on to argue that it is not enough to determine if an individual's actions conform to a rule; the complexities of modern life and their own individual situations need to be taken into account as well.67 The Church's emphasis should be on the mercy of God rather than the argumentation of moral theology.68


Pope Francis received a 94-paragraph report from the synod and set about presenting his views in an apostolic exhortation which consists in 325 paragraphs. In paragraph 207 he showed regard for engaged couples who come to the Church seeking marriage by saying that they do not need to be taught the entire Catechism. No one would disagree with this statement but readers may wonder why Amoris Laetitia is such a lengthy document. The reason, of course, is that the subject of love and marriage is a daunting one and that addressing it from the Catholic Christian perspective is especially complicated. Since the 1930s popes have issued encyclicals addressing the issue of artificial contraception and since the 1970s statements have been made about such topics as sexual morality, reproductive technology and homosexuality. In addition, Pope John Paul II devoted significant time and attention to a series of lectures about the theology of the body. This was the ecclesial context for Pope Francis' nuanced apostolic exhortation; the secular context is the entire world in which mores governing engagement, sex and marriage vary greatly. Pope Francis proceeded from a pastoral and spiritual perspective, hoping to engage his readers so that they could see the hand of God in shaping the institution of marriage. Influenced by Christian belief in the mercy of God, Pope Francis attempted to communicate the idea that Jesus is a merciful Savior who reaches out in love and forgiveness to each of us. Francis wants the Church to be like Jesus and extend the mercy of God to every family, every divorced and remarried person, every single mother, every cohabiting couple, every child, every migrant, in short, everyone.  


Eileen P. Flynn is a Professor in the Department of Theology at Saint Peter's University, Jersey City, NJ. The author of sixteen books and numerous articles, Dr. Flynn's latest book, Catholic Teaching on the Family, is currently being reviewed for publication.


1. 62

2. 207

3. 215

4. 223

5. 244

6. 308

7. 3

8. 32

9. 157

10. 291

11. 36

12. 42

13. 45

14. 47

15. 49

16. 57

17. 82

18. 173

19. 171

20. 175, 176

21. 191

22. 255

23. 230

24. 243

25. 293

26. 312

27. 40

28. 41

29. 28

30. 133

31. 153

32. 150

33. 207

34. 209

35. 212

36. 234

37. 245

38. 261

39. 267

40. 268

41. 269

42. 283

43. 284

44. 30

45. 37

46. 52

47. 53

48. 54

49 56

50. 63

51. 64

52. 77

53. 77

54. 89, 90

55. 91

56. 123

57. 162

58. 250

59. 255

60. 294

61. 295


63. 79

64. 173

65. 300

66. 303

67. 304

68. 311

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