Pope Francis has released his much anticipated apostolic exhortation on the family and it’s 263 pages!! Before you give up and just turn to Chapter 8 for the “juicy stuff,” like divorced and remarried Catholics or treatment of LGBT persons, let me offer 5 points to note and urge you to stick with the 269 pages.
1. Biblical Reflection on Marriage, Family, and Humanity
“The Bible is full of families, births, love stories and family crises. This is true from its very first page, with the appearance of Adam and Eve’s family with all its burden of violence but also its enduring strength (cf. Gen 4) to its very last page, where we behold the wedding feast of the Bride and the Lamb (Rev 21:2, 9)” (8).
It is no surprise that Francis begins with the Bible and weaves biblical reflection throughout the 263 pages. He literally begins with Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel. And it is significant that he includes Cain and Abel, because the Bible is not a fairy tale or romantic comedy. Pain, suffering, even violence are woven into the biblical narrative and human life. Highlighting biblical truth and the revealed word of God, highlighting the Good News requires two things: facing the reality of the text in all its complexity and facing human existence in all its messiness. Francis does this artfully when parsing out the influence of patriarchal cultures in St. Paul while lifting out the revealed truths contained within the text. A full evaluation of the biblical exegesis requires a biblical scholar, and I am a mere moral theologian…but his pastoral use of the bible is something to pay attention to.
2. 1 Corinthians 13: Rethinking the worlds most popular wedding reading
OK, so we all know the text: Love is Patient, Love is Kind….we’ve all heard it read at almost every Catholic wedding we’ve attended. 1 Corinthians is a beautiful text. Yet, it often feels played out or trendy – everyone uses it and so we stop really listening to it. Refocusing our attention, Francis chooses this passage as a major section of Amoris Laetitia. Weaving Greek and biblical exegesis, Francis lays out a vision of love beginning with marriage but expanding to love within the human community.
Love is not jealous includes “Love inspires a sincere esteem for every human being and the recognition of his or her own right to happiness. I love this person, and I see him or her with the eyes of God, who gives us everything “for our enjoyment” (1 Tim 6:17). As a result, I feel a deep sense of happiness and peace. This same deeply rooted love also leads me to reject the injustice whereby some possess too much and others too little. It moves me to find ways of helping society’s outcasts to find a modicum of joy. That is not envy, but the desire for equality” (96).
3. Who is my family? Towards the One Human Family
Catholic “family” conversations often drive me crazy. Too often our discussions of family are driven by contemporary American society and its obsession with the nuclear family (marriage and parent/child). My friend and fellow theologian Kathryn Getek has highlighted this as a cause for the seeming disconnect internalized by many between teachings on the family and Catholic social teaching, which begins with the image of the one human family as equal brothers and sisters in Christ. Looking at Life within the Wider Family, Francis examines the importance not only of parents and children but also siblings and grandparents.
I was blessed to know my grandparents and they were a profound influence on the person I became. I appreciate Francis’ call to care for the elderly but also to recognize the importance of grandparents within the family. He cautions, “A family that fails to respect and cherish its grandparents, who are its living memory, is already in decline, whereas a family that remembers has a future” (193).
Similarly, he attends to the importance of siblings and the role of siblings in teaching us how to live in a community. Finally, we are all part of a wider family – the one human family which includes our neighbors and in-laws and is an ever-expanding community.
4. Discernment and Conscience: A Reminder Our Pope Is a Jesuit
This document is an important reminder for the Church and moral theology to realign its priorities. Early on he states, “We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life . . . We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.” (37). The call not only to form consciences but to respect and trust the consciences of married couples is an important aspect of this document. This does not change Church teaching, but Francis clearly asserts it is not enough to just state that those not conforming or living up to the rules are just in a state of mortal sin. (check out 42, 222, 298-301…to name a few).
Discernment is the crucial tool when discussing conscience and it may be where Francis is at his most Ignatian. Throughout the long section dealing with pastoral concerns and “irregular situations,” Francis spends the most time on discernment—recognizing the individual persons and complexities of each context—and turns to Thomas Aquinas. He writes, “It is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being” (304). He does not change specific doctrinal rules, but failure to live up to that rule in itself does not signify moral culpability, does not negate the persons conscience, discernment process, or that one is a member of the Body of Christ. For this same reason, he clarifies, “At the same time, it must be said that, precisely for that reason, what is part of a practical discernment in particular circumstances cannot be elevated to the level of a rule.” (304). The entire Chapter 8 (which is most of the “hot button questions”) is treated through this attention to the call of discernment.
5. Don’t Put the Mercy of God in a Box
Finally—in what is clearly the overarching message of the Jubilee of Mercy—we don’t get to put God’s Mercy in a box. He explains:
“At times we find it hard to make room for God’s unconditional love in our pastoral activity. We put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance. That is the worst way of watering down the Gospel. It is true, for example, that mercy does not exclude justice and truth, but first and foremost we have to say that mercy is the fullness of justice and the most radiant manifestation of God’s truth. For this reason, we should always consider “inadequate any theological conception which in the end puts in doubt the omnipotence of God and, especially, his mercy”(311).
This is the logic of pastoral mercy as the section is titled. If you’ve been watching and listening to Pope Francis on mercy for the last year…a very clear, integrated vision has emerged. When reading the final section of the exhortation, I could not help but envision the culminating scene to Dirty Dancing. If there is one overarching message Pope Francis is hammering home, it is that no one puts God’s mercy in a corner.