Sexuality, marriage, and family face a mounting crisis in the world and in the Catholic Church. A higher percentage of couples are in their second, third, or fourth relationship, while hoping that the current one will finally work.
But more people getting married multiple times doesn’t mean that marriage has become more popular. In many regions, statistics show people getting married later and later. There are fewer weddings and many of those end in divorce. More and more same sex couples receive marriage licenses even though these couples will never be able to engender their own biological children. More people live together in committed relationships without marrying. Consequently, more children are born from single mothers and more and more live in homes without the presence of a father married to their mother.
What’s more, complementary sexual difference, which had always been seen as constitutive of the marital bond, is now rejected, as a quaint, superseded and once falsely fixed component of one’s identity. Human subjectivity is more dynamic and increasingly in flux. Polish-British sociologist Zygmunt Bauman expressed this increasing fluidity of human identity with his proposal that we are now passing through a new époque called “liquid modernity”. Personal identity has become more and more fluid, without fixed reference points.
Now, sexuality, with its biological rootedness is seen as a stifling enslavement and gender identity is proposed as a preferred alternative because of its inherent fluidity. Way beyond the relative stability of “sexual orientation”, gender identity, whether individual or social, is constantly open to innovative transition. With new forms of gender and its reconfiguration of the family, humanity is freed from the constraints of sexuality. Quite suddenly, young celebrities like Ruby Rose, Jaden Smith, and Miley Cyrus have contributed to the trend among teenagers to identify themselves as “gender lazy”. There now seem to be fewer limits on what one can become, and fewer guideposts.
While the institution of marriage is rapidly transitioning in civil society, there is also a marriage crisis within the Catholic Church. Catholics divorce at rates similar to their fellow citizens. Catholics marry later, increasingly after periods of extended or even indefinite cohabitation. At least in advanced Western countries, most Catholics disagree with papal teaching on sexual morality, for instance regarding the requirement that sexual activity be limited to husband and wife and always be open to children.
Pope Francis has focused much of his papacy on facing this crisis within the Church and has attempted to apply his energetic commitment to reform to find solutions with his new strategy of synodality. Soon after his election, he convoked an extraordinary synod on the family in 2014 and then a follow-up ordinary synod in 2015.
Those gatherings of Church leaders, cardinals, bishops, priests, and some lay people, engaged in heated discussions regarding the nature of marriage, the continuity of Jesus’s teaching on marriage, sexual morality, and how to offer solutions for the entire world. Francis facilitated the free discussion of innovative pastoral approaches while safeguarding the continuity with the faith received from Jesus and handed down through the apostles.
Now, Francis has spoken. The Pope has published his final conclusions from the lengthy, convoluted synod process. Nonetheless, the debate and disagreement continue. Inside and outside the Church, efforts to spin the Pope’s conclusions began before they were announced in the new Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), subtitled On Love in the Family, formally approved on March 19 and published on April 8.
As the world anxiously waited for the publication of The Joy of Love, the greatest expectation regarded whether Francis would have changed Church teaching on the hot button issues of homosexuality and divorce. Indeed, some of the cardinals who participated in the two Synods that the Pope consulted in preparing the document had recommended changes, for instance, recognizing something inherently good and comparable to marriage in stable same sex partnerships and in offering innovative solutions to the quandary of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics who are prohibited from receiving Communion so long as they continue to engage in sexual intercourse with partners to whom they have not been married in the Church.
The suspense leading up to the publication was heightened by the fact that Francis seemed to signal his personal sympathy for some of the changes and encouraged free-wheeling debate about new pastoral proposals.
Moments after publication of The Joy of Love, in the first lines of their news article from Vatican City, the Associated Press declared “that church doctrine cannot be the final word in answering tricky moral questions,” “that Catholics must be guided by their own informed consciences,” and that local pastors could admit the divorced and remarried to Communion “on a case-by-case basis in what could become a significant development in church practice”.
CNN and The New York Times also rushed to publish pieces implying that Francis had effected great changes to the Church’s doctrine and practice.
Perhaps those newsy responses to the Pope’s letter of love failed to take into account what the Pope himself advised in the first paragraphs of the document: “I do not recommend a rushed reading of the text” (n. 7). “The greatest benefit” will come, he wrote, “if each part is read patiently and carefully.” In fact, Francis comments on the debates in the Synod Hall and in the media by warning against two extremes: on the one hand “immoderate desire for total change without sufficient reflection or grounding,” and on the other, “an attitude that would solve everything by applying general rules or deriving undue conclusions from particular theological considerations” (n. 2).
As the head of the Catholic Church, the Pope is committed to conserving the faith in its integrity, which includes offering the mercy of Jesus who came to save the world. Since mercy and justice are both found perfectly in Jesus, who is Truth itself, there can be no opposition between universal, objective, teaching and local application of that teaching. Just as Jesus personally encountered the Samaritan woman at the well of Sychar and Peter after his three-fold denial, all Christians are called today to offer personally tailored compassion and care in our apostolic and pastoral invitation to conversion from sin to grace.
While there are no changes to Church teaching in The Joy of Love, there are many developments and numerous nuggets of wisdom hidden throughout its 250+ pages. I’d like to highlight seven important themes.
1. Marriage as a divine image
In these times of crisis, Francis reaffirms the Gospel vision of marriage as a commitment for life between a man and a woman to found a family. Francis expands upon Jesus’ condemnation of divorce by placing renewed focus on the children while drawing from the painful pastoral experience of broken families.
Given that marital love and family life are meant to image God’s love, a breakdown in the love between parents makes it harder for children to grow up confident in God’s unconditional and all-encompassing love for them. Our appreciation for our divine sonship and daughterhood relies upon our experience of the faithful love of our parents. The sanctity of marriage as a reflection of God’s creative plan for our participation in his life also serves as the basis for the Pope’s appreciation for sexual difference and his rejection of attempts to recognize same sex unions as somehow equivalent to marriage.
In The Joy of Love, Francis condemns the abusive political intervention in affairs of states or in educational programs to impose false models of sexuality and gender that erase the intrinsic and natural beauty of sexual difference.
2. Theology of the body
The Pope draws deeply from John Paul II’s theology of the body to re-propose the beauty of sexual attraction and erotic love when experienced within the context of mutual and definitive self-gift with transcendent openness to God’s creative power for new life. In Chapter 4, “Love in Marriage”, he realistically analyzes the love between man and woman while describing the passionate pleasure, joyful rewards, and the daily challenges to self-sacrifice. The marital vocation is an elevated call to holiness which inevitably involves suffering while promising an infinitely rich reward.
Francis’ challenge to overcome the throwaway culture requires fidelity to those near us, especially in the face of a consumer culture’s tendency to treat persons as objects of consumption and therefore dictates turning away from the weak, the suffering, or the outcast.
3. Mercy and tenderness
Francis’ signature theme of divine mercy and tenderness offers the lens for understanding how to begin to solve the crisis of marriage and family. Before we can love God, he loves us first. Jesus demonstrates in his conversations with the woman caught in adultery and with the Samaritan woman at the well of Sychar that He comes not to condemn through harsh judgment but to save through mercy. He lifts up the sinner by offering the grace of conversion and the opportunity to love.
Likewise, in the Church today, all of us must seek out those who have suffered some form of failure in marriage to invite them to experience the grace of conversion and, to pursue the gifts of the sacramental life: Confession for forgiveness of sins, Communion for divine nourishment, and marriage, if possible, to sustain spousal love and faithful family life.
4. Feminism and gender
Francis evaluates the positive features and the shortcomings of feminism. While rejecting some forms of feminism, he asserts that the Holy Spirit may be seen in the working of the efforts to promote the full dignity and rights of women. Focusing on the feminine, Francis writes:
“I certainly value feminism, but one that does not demand uniformity or negate motherhood. For the grandeur of women includes all the rights derived from their inalienable human dignity but also from their feminine genius, which is essential to society. Their specifically feminine abilities – motherhood in particular – also grant duties, because womanhood also entails a specific mission in this world, a mission that society needs to protect and preserve for the good of all” (n. 173).
The Pope rejects gender theory in its effort to eliminate sexual difference as constitutive of human identity and emphasizes that “biological sex and the socio-cultural role of sex (gender) can be distinguished but not separated” (n. 56).
5. Innovative models of manliness
To complement the positive achievements of feminism, Francis notes the importance of promoting a healthy manliness:
“In our day, the problem no longer seems to be the overbearing presence of the father so much as his absence, his not being there. Fathers are often so caught up in themselves and their work, and at times in their own self-fulfillment, that they neglect their families. They leave the little ones and the young to themselves” (n. 176). …
“God sets the father in the family so that by the gifts of his masculinity he can be “close to his wife and share everything, joy and sorrow, hope and hardship. And to be close to his children as they grow…To be a father who is always present. When I say ‘present’, I do not mean ‘controlling’. Fathers who are too controlling overshadow their children, they don’t let them develop” (n. 177).
The Pope draws from the Synod’s recommendation to promote authentic virility and to see St. Joseph as a model of gentle and fatherly manliness.
6. New pastoral approaches
In Chapter 8, the penultimate chapter of The Joy of Love, “Accompanying, Discerning, and Integrating Weakness”, proposes new pastoral approaches to offer mercy and tenderness to irregular situations and other anomalous family situations. Much earlier in the document, Francis quotes at length from a sermon by Martin Luther King, Jr. to offer a deeply Christian mindset for finding solutions to situations that seem to be destined to become “a chain of evil”.
“If I hit you and you hit me and I hit you back and you hit me back and so on, you see, that goes on ad infinitum. It just never ends. Somewhere somebody must have a little sense, and that’s the strong person. The strong person is the person who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil… Somebody must have religion enough and morality enough to cut it off and inject within the very structure of the universe that strong and powerful element of love” (n. 118, quotation from Sermon Delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr. at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery Alabama, Nov. 17, 1957).
These words of Martin Luther King help explain the Pope’s approach to irregular marital situations. With his tender and fatherly heart, Francis wants pastors to approach these imperfect situations with an eye to what is good in them and with a loving proposal for conversion. Francis repeats John Paul II’s doctrine regarding the law of gradualness (and not the gradualness of the law) by suggesting that pastors help individuals and couples by encountering them in their present situation, with compassion trying to understand and to help them to understand and to discern, to accompany them on their path of conversion by helping them to strive for the highest ideal while encouraging them every step of the way.
The Pope distinguishes such an approach from the method of simply pronouncing the objective standard and throwing it at the wounded as a kind of stone of condemnation. Instead, the good shepherd helps the individual achieve an understanding of the truth of his situation in accord with his well-formed conscience.
This chapter’s treatment of subjectivity, conscience, and the internal forum will surely cause controversy within the Church, because, even though the Pope asserts that his pastoral approach of mercy is meant to implement traditional teaching, some will continue to try to use it, as they did during the Synod, to create false claims of exceptions to the indissolubility of marriage and the universal condemnation of adultery. Nothing here justifies the pretense to, for instance, authorizing the reception of the sacraments without any purpose of amendment or to dissolve the marital bond in the internal forum.
7. The Holy Family as a model
While closely following Pope Paul VI, Vatican Council II, and John Paul II, Francis explains how the mystery of the Incarnation made manifest in the Holy Family serves as a model and illumination for all families. God himself grew up in a family. In the person of Jesus Christ, God made man, he was raised by human parents. “In the Incarnation, he assumes human love, purifies it and brings it to fulfillment. By his Spirit, he gives spouses the capacity to live that love, permeating every part of their lives of faith, hope and charity” (n. 67).
A quotation that Francis draws from Benedict XVI encapsulates the core of the challenge for families offered by The Joy of Love: “marriage based on an exclusive and definitive love becomes an icon of the relationship between God and his people, and vice versa. God’s way of loving becomes the measure of human love” (n. 70, from Deus Caritas Est, n. 11).
Rev. Robert A. Gahl, Jr., Associate Professor of Ethics, Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome.