Francis's exhortation doesn't shy away from the often harsh realities of marriage and family life


Okay, you’ve already seen the headlines, and no doubt skipped to find the juicy bits in the text itself. (At least, I hope you have. If a blog by me is really your first port of call for something like this, then ‘responsible and serious discernment’ [# 303] might not be your forte.)

In any case, you’re hopefully now somewhat the wiser as to what, precisely, Peter has chosen to bind and loose on earth – and which, according to Our Lord himself, is now duly bound or loosed in heaven too (Matthew 16.19)

But that pdf really took some scrolling through to get down to Chapter Eight, didn’t it? As is the nature of these things, Amoris Laetitia is (very) long and (verier) wide-ranging. Indeed, the Holy Father himself notes, ‘I do not recommmend a rushed reading of this text.

The greatest benefit… will come if each part is read patiently and carefully, or if at¬tention is paid to the parts dealing with [your] spe¬cific needs’ (# 7).

That said, aside from the one or two topics that everyone will (understandably enough) be writing about, I thought it might be worthwhile to flag up a handful of the other things in the text.

1. First of all, let’s remember that this is an ‘Apostolic Exhortation’. It accordingly exhorts. That is to say, it is largely an action-oriented document. Thus as Francis quotes from Ignatius of Loyola: ‘Love is shown more by deeds than by words.’

There is, then, an emphasis on what Christians, individually and collectively, should be doing. After all, ‘there is no sense in simply decrying present-day evils, as if this could change things’ (# 35), or indeed on ‘wasting pastoral energy on denounc¬ing a decadent world without being proactive in proposing ways of finding true happiness’ (# 38).

While he doesn’t quite say that ‘moral theologians have only described the world; the point is to change it’, that’s pretty much the gist.

2. Despite the overarching focus on ‘joy’ (laetitia), Francis doesn’t shy away from the often harsh realities of marriage and family life: ‘We do well to focus on concrete realities’ (# 31).

We hear, for example, of the ‘pain, evil, and violence that break up families’ (# 19), and of ‘families torn apart, the young uprooted and the elderly abandoned, children who are orphans of living parents’ (# 51). Even the Holy Family’s ‘daily life had its share of burdens and even nightmares’ (# 30).

Indeed, there’s so much grittiness here – imagine if Shelagh Delaney had read her Thomas Aquinas – one is tempted to dub it Kitchen Sink theology. And, I dare say, it’s all the better for it.

Francis reserves some of his bluntest words for the Church’s own at-times ‘excessive idealisation’: ‘a far too abstract and al¬most artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families’ (# 36).

3. Speaking of harsh and all-too-concrete realities, Francis continues his tradition of speaking very directly indeed in defence of the unborn (more so, I would say, than Benedict XVI tended to… for these intent on a papal ‘hermeneutic of rupture’). Take, for example, the following:

“If the family is… the place where life is conceived and cared for, it is a horrendous contradiction when it becomes a place where life is rejected and destroyed. So great is the value of a human life, and so inalienable the right to life of an innocent child growing in the mother’s womb, that no alleged right to one’s own body can justify a decision to terminate that life, which is an end in itself and which can never be con-sidered the “property” of another human being.” (# 83)

4. Remember when the Synods on the Family were first announced, and everyone immediately hoped/feared (delete as appropriate) Humanae Vitae’s strictures against artificial contraception would be repealed? Well, they certainly haven’t (and couldn’t have) been.

While Francis probably isn’t the kind of man who drops the phrase ‘genital act of husband and wife’ into everyday conversation, he’s quite plain as to the proper purpose and end of each one ‘even when for various reasons it may not always in fact be¬get a new life’ (# 80).

The latter point is important, since – also firmly affirming the message of Humanae Vitae – the phrase ‘responsible parenthood’ appears several times. (No room for Francis’ rather folksier ‘rabbits’ paraphrase though, disappointingly!)

Sadly, there’s no explicit shout-out to Natural Family Planning (or Awareness) here: something which, mystifyingly, the NHS often seems better at promoting than the Catholic Church itself.

5. Finally, lest I’ve given the impression of this being a dry and leadenly-written document, it’s really, really not. The Holy Father is quite clear that Christians must more attractively ‘present the reasons and motivations for choosing marriage and the family, and in this way to help men and women better to respond to the grace that God offers them’ (# 35).

While avoiding over-romanticisation, this is precisely what he himself sets out to do throughout ‘The Joy of Love’. Allow me to sign off now with just one example.

No doubt this will very soon be added into countless Marriage Prep powerpoints (and emblazoned upon wedding invitations, favours, and the rest), but remember where and by whom you saw it quoted first: ‘Young love needs to keep dancing towards the future with immense hope’ (# 219).

Dr Stephen Bullivant directs the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society (@BXVICentre) at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, and is a consulting editor of The Catholic Herald.