The Joy of Love

Marriage seems to be losing popularity. According to the Pew Research Center, only 51% of adults in the United States are married, versus 72% in 1960. Still, a majority of women and men do want to be married (61%). As a couple who’s been married nearly two years, and as people who love telling others how awesome marriage is, my wife and I have wondered why the many in media or comedy are so negative about marriage. Even though the divorce rate has decreased, it seems so engrained in our psyches that marriage is seen as a burden rather than a grace that is freely embraced. Images of good marriages are hard to find on TV, yet each time Sarah and I do find marriage being shown in a positive light we fall in love with the show (Madam Secretary and Parenthood are two examples).

This past week Pope Francis released his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love). Many were expecting much to be said about divorced and remarried Catholics being able to receive communion or about same-sex marriages. Yet the document focused little on those issues. While important issues, the pope chose to focus on the heartbreaking state of broken heterosexual marriages, something we don’t often address in our current marriage debates. Amoris Laetitia is a beautiful and poetic writing on the gift of love and marriage. It’s comprehensive. It addresses families and marriages at practically every stage and situation. It’s a long overdue exhortation on marriage rooted in the real situations families have to deal with and as I read through its 264 pages, I could relate it well to my own marriage. As Thomas D. Williams says in his Crux article, “I suddenly found a letter that was written to me and for me, and I cannot help but think that many others will have a similar experience.”

The Challenges of Marriage
The pope has a clear view of the reality of marriages that are superficial or based on a lack of freedom. Marriage, he says, “can come to be seen as a way station, helpful when convenient, or a setting in which rights can be asserted while relationships are left to the changing winds of personal desire and circumstances.” Yet at the same time he acknowledges the challenges of marriage, especially in their early years. Sarah and I found our first months especially challenging. The fantasy weddings from the movies and even the Church’s “almost artificial theological ideal of marriage”, Pope Francis says, can become an “excessive idealization … [that] has not helped to make marriage more desirable and attractive, but quite the opposite.” So the pope instead founds his discussion in practical realities. He calls marriage a process and a path to personal development, together. The couple journeys with and through their imperfections. “We have to realize that all of us are a complex mixture of light and shadows.” Read More


Amoris Laetitia and Social Justice: Ten Quotes from Pope Francis’ Exhortation

Pope Francis’ much-anticipated apostolic exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia, does not disappoint. It is an incredible work that is full of good advice for both families and church leaders, delivered with theological richness and pastoral sensitivity. Do read the whole thing if you can.

A lot has already been written on many of the key elements of the document, but what struck me while reading it is how clearly Pope Francis connects family concerns with social concerns. He argues that families are only able to flourish if our societies are set up to support them.

This approach called to mind a great quote by St. John Paul II, who said,  “As the family goes, so goes the nation, and so goes the whole world in which we live.” Part of Pope Francis’ emphasis in Amoris Laetitia could be summed up by flipping that idea around: As society goes, so goes the family. They are complementary ideas.

Here are ten quotes from the exhortation that connect particular social issues and our call to work for justice to family life:

1. Dignity of Work

Labour also makes possible the development of society and provides for the sustenance, stability and fruitfulness of one’s family: “May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life! May you see your children’s children!” (Ps 128:5-6)….This having been said, we can appreciate the suffering created by unemployment and the lack of steady work, as reflected in the Book of Ruth, Jesus’ own parable of the labourers forced to stand idly in the town square (Mt 20:1-16), and his personal experience of meeting people suffering from poverty and hunger. Sadly, these realities are present in many countries today, where the lack of employment opportunities takes its toll on the serenity of family life. [24-25]

2. Care for Creation

Nor can we overlook the social degeneration brought about by sin, as, for example, when human beings tyrannize nature, selfishly and even brutally ravaging it. This leads to the desertification of the earth (cf. Gen 3:17-19) and those social and economic imbalances denounced by the prophets, beginning with Elijah (cf. 1 Kg 21) and culminating in Jesus’ own words against injustice (cf. Lk 12:13; 16:1-31). [26] Read More


5 Things to Look for in Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love)

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.

 





Pope Francis: Choose Love and Justice, Not Legalism

One of the great temptations for any organized religion is legalism, in which the particular rules delineated by the religion and their strict enforcement become the focus of the faith, while the animating principles and mission of the faith lose their preeminence. This is particularly true of the Catholic Church, which has central authority, Canon law, a catechism, and other mechanisms that are particularly helpful for those with legalistic ambitions. This temptation is not simply for the hard of heart or those who are absurdly hypocritical, but often one that is faced by those who rightly value virtue and pursue it in many ways in their own personal conduct, those who value the Church and want others to embrace the faith.

Of course, Jesus Christ’s direct and persistent critique of this legalistic mentality, of putting laws before love, inevitably puts such efforts on shaky ground. We should not be surprised then that Pope Francis has frequently echoed the words of Christ in encouraging us to resist this temptation, including his recent reminder that love and justice are more important than attachment to the laws:

“This is the path that Jesus teaches us, totally opposite to that of the doctors of law. And it’s this path from love and justice that leads to God.  Instead, the other path, of being attached only to the laws, to the letter of the laws, leads to closure, leads to egoism.  The path that leads from love to knowledge and discernment, to total fulfillment, leads to holiness, salvation and the encounter with Jesus.   Instead, the other path leads to egoism, the arrogance of considering oneself to be in the right, to that so-called holiness of appearances, right?”