In his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”), Pope Francis praises the beauty of marriage and family life. In an age where marriage is in decline, the document is a reminder of how wonderful marriage can be
“Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near Him to listen to Him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them!’ Then Jesus told them this parable: ‘What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing, and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” —Luke 15:1-7, Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep
“Naturally, if someone flaunts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal, or wants to impose something other than what the Church teaches, he or she can in no way presume to teach or preach to others; this is a case of something which separates from the community (cf. Mt 18:17). Such a person needs to listen once more to the Gospel message and its call to conversion.” —Amoris Laetitia, Par. 297
“Both short-term and long-term marriage preparation should ensure that the couple do not view the wedding ceremony as the end of the road, but instead embark upon marriage as a life-long calling based on a firm and realistic decision to face all trials and difficult moments together.” —Amoris Laetitia, Par. 211, one of the many places in the letter where Pope Francis makes clear that marriage is for life, that is, indissoluble
Francis in The Joy of Love has given us a very long, very beautiful, very poetic, but also quite controversial text. It is impossible to do justice to all of these aspects in the short space of this editorial. So what is most important to say?
At the simplest, Francis is saying that everyone is welcome to come to church, and to get close to the Church and you will learn about true love. This welcome is extended, yes, to sinners — which means, to all of us. And this welcome is extended in the context of a precise requirement: that those who come to the Church be willing to begin a journey that will involve reflecting on the state of their lives and souls, a journey that will lead eventually to repentance for sins committed and, in the end, to an amendment of life. To conversion.
The Pope’s letter is an appeal to people to begin this process. An appeal to priests and bishops and to all of us to assist in this process.
Then, there is the wider context. In our age, in our Western culture, there is a crisis in marriage and the family. Fewer and fewer people are marrying. The numbers of marriages as a percentage of those of an age to marry are, in Italy, down by 50% in the past decade alone.
Moreover, ours is an age when very many marriages end in separation and divorce. An age when the healthy cells of society, the families that make up any human society, are often sickly, broken, impoverished, cancerous. The consequences of this are grave for the spouses, for the children, for the grandparents, for the relations of siblings, for society as a whole. A society of sick and wounded and ruined families cannot be strong and vibrant. Thus the message of this encyclical: a call to return to the joy of the family, to the joy of love in the family, in an age that counsels us to find joy in our own often very selfish pursuits, in our own narcissistic pleasures, in unstable and changing relations which do not endure.
Pope Francis wished to offer help both to individual souls and to society in general by writing this letter in praise of the family.
He intended to stand against the zeitgeist, which is individualistic and narcissistic and eventually leads to a “culture of death” — to contraception, to abortion, to infidelity, to selfish focus on one’s own needs and pleasures, to forgetfulness of others, whether elders or offspring.
The message in The Joy of Love is to voluntarily call souls to the Church, souls who may be troubled or confused or hurtfully damaged, no matter the source (even by the Church itself), in order to help such souls find a deeper sense of meaning, peace and joy in this troubled world.
There are already many who are criticizing this document, saying it “opens a door” for people in “irregular” marriages to return to the sacraments without first ending those irregular (sinful) relationships. But these critics are mistaking the purpose of Pope Francis.
He is trying to apply that “supreme law of the Church,” that is, that the salvation of souls is the most important thing, above everything else. He is trying to save souls even in situations where people have left the Church entirely, having rejected the Church’s understanding of marriage and having wandered away from the practice of the faith. He is trying to bring them back, like the Good Shepherd of the parable.
Here are a few lines which give a sample of what the Pope is teaching. He writes (Paragraph 121 ff.):
“Marriage is a precious sign, for ‘when a man and a woman celebrate the sacrament of marriage, God is, as it were, ‘mirrored’ in them; he impresses in them his own features and the indelible character of his love. After the love that unites us to God, conjugal love is the ‘greatest form of friendship.’ It is a union possessing all the traits of a good friendship: concern for the good of the other, reciprocity, intimacy, warmth, stability and the resemblance born of a shared life. Marriage joins to all this an indissoluble exclusivity expressed in the stable commitment to share and shape together the whole of life. Let us be honest and acknowledge the signs that this is the case. Lovers do not see their relationship as merely temporary. Those who marry do not expect their excitement to fade. Those who witness the celebration of a loving union, however fragile, trust that it will pass the test of time. Children not only want their parents to love one another, but also to be faithful and remain together. These and similar signs show that it is in the very nature of conjugal love to be definitive. 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. For believers, it is also a covenant before God that calls for fidelity: ‘The Lord was witness to the covenant between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant… Let none be faithless to the wife of his youth. For I hate divorce, says the Lord’ (Mal 2:14-16).”
All of us should read this beautiful text in defense of marriage.