A journey is characterised not only by waymarks and decisions at every turning but is also reinforced by lessons we learn from others who travelled the road before us or, indeed, from our own mistakes and metanoia.
Debates in both social and more formal media suggest that the Catholic Church is currently undergoing trials both within its ranks and also externally and on a number and variety of issues. But, when wasn’t it?
One such current topic revolves around the ramifications and interpretation of Amoris Laetitia, impacting both doctrinal and social teaches of the church concerning the family.
Christian churches universally appear to be in agreement on the strict interpretation of the Bible regarding the indissolubility of marriage other than by death. However there are two Biblical texts, namely relating to unfaithfulness (Matthew 19:9) or abandonment (1 Cor 7) which suggest that under certain circumstances divorce may be admissible. The Catholic church has traditionally refuted any circumstances that can lead to the dissolution of the sacrament of marriage.
Amoris Laetitia, while upholding the sanctity of marriage and the importance of lifelong commitment also advocates in Chapter Eight greater empathy where ‘married life remains imperfect or lacks joy and peace’.
How do we ‘marry’ these seemingly diametrically opposed views?
While Amoris Laetitia states unequivocally that the magisterium (official teachings of the church) may not always readily have all the answers to all doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues, unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary.
This may have prompted certain ministers of the church to raise questions (characterised by the dubia penned by a number of cardinals) to the Pope where they felt that Amoris Laetitia was in conflict with earlier teachings of the Catholic Church. Specifically the questions focused on whether divorce in certain cases dissolves a marriage bond, on whether divorced partners can enter into another committed relationship or whether a new committed relationship constitutes a state of adultery depriving partners from grace, or guidance on whether the prevalence of one’s conscience or pastoral experience can outweigh doctrine.
Not only were the questions legitimate but the persons posing them felt that they were under a moral obligation to pose them.
What is not legitimate or correct is the stance of both immoderate or liberal contenders alike pushing extreme agendas of either total change ‘without sufficient reflection or grounding’ or an attitude that would solve everything by applying rules or deriving strict conclusions from the magisterium. If a week is a long time in politics, the church is 2,000 years in the making and we should allow it to continue evolving led by the Spirit and free from short term, undue, social, reformist, traditional or legalistic influence. The church is not Paul’s or Barnabas’ and we would do well to constantly remember this.
Catholicism is not a faith. It is a religion. As a religion it is based on three fundamental pillars, i.e. faith (primarily in Christ as Saviour and Lord), hope (in Salvation) and love. These are the only ‘absolutes’ in our religion. And – of these – in time only love will remain. In times of conflict, we – the living church – should therefore be guided by, or err on the side of, love. Unfortunately in life (or love) answers are seldom black on white. They come in infinite shades of grey. Amoris Laetitia recognises this and advocates a principle (or consience) driven approach within the framework of Christian teachings.
Amoris Laetitia and the Kipling Test
The papal exhortation is a few hundred pages long. As a Catholic, a husband and a father I would urge everyone to dedicate time to reading it. I found it incredibly insightful. Focusing only on one chapter of it would eclipse the beauty and holistic meaningfulness of the whole Amoris Laetitia.
Applying Rudyard Kipling’s ‘6 honest serving men’ I attempt to synthesize the more prevalent
WHO? Amoris Laetitia is:
- An invitation for Christian families to value the gifts of marriage and the family and to persevere in love, generosity, commitment, fidelity and patience. The exhortation does not condone immorality, unfaithfulness or permissiveness. It continues to uphold faithful and exclusive love; and
- An encouragement – where family life remains imperfect or lacks peace and joy – for everyone to show mercy and closeness.
WHY? Amoris Laetitia is in response to, “the desire to marry and form a family remains vibrant and this is an inspiration to the Church”. As stated in the very first sentence of Amoris Laetitia, the joy of love experienced by families is also the joy of the church. This provides greater latitude to the church in ministering to persons in a committed and loving relationship even if not bound by the sacrament of marriage.
This also stems from the maxim that, “Families are not a problem; they are first and foremost an opportunity.”
But it is important to stress that, devoid of one’s desire to persevere in love, commitment and fidelity Amoris Laetitia loses its relevance. The exhortation is very clear on this in chapter Eight.
WHEN? Amoris Laetitia is in response to the current complexity of issues assailing marriage and family values today.
WHAT? The ‘why’ and the ‘when’ direct us to re-evaluate the doctrinal, moral, spiritual and pastoral questions presently surrounding the desire to marry and form a family. It is within this context – and because of the above ‘Why’ that Amoris Laetitia becomes relevant.
WHERE? Amoris Laetitia calls for different countries or communities to seek solutions that are “better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions.” It is not a ‘one size fits all’. This is a clear and unequivocal move away from a prescriptive law approach to a principle-driven approach.
HOW? Amoris Laeitita lays general principles and not written law. By default, then, it is acceptable that different interpretations, even if seemingly opposed, may co-exist under different circumstances. We should embrace this in the spirit of John 16: 12 – 13, i.e. the Spirit will guide us towards the truth.
Although media – and some controversy – may have given the impression that this Exhortation has departed significantly from church teachings, it hasn’t. The prevalent theme of Amoris Laetitia is a celebration of the beauty of marriage, lifelong commitment and of love.
The penultimate chapter builds on earlier chapters to reinforce the need for inclusiveness of unmarried (or civilly married) persons who responsibly commit themselves to a faithful and loving relationship. The last chapter consolidates the whole of the Exhortation through the ‘spirituality’ of unions and ends with a beautiful prayer to the Holy Family.
Amoris Laetitia is a true labour of love. As Christians we should embrace it as such and contribute to the reparative and redemptive legacy it envisages.
 Relatio Synodi: 3rd Extraordinary General Assembly of The Synod of Bishops (18 October 2014).
 Papal address at the Meeting of Families in Santiago de Cuba (22 September 2015)