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“Amoris Laetitia”, a new “constitution” for the family

Vatican Insider - published on 06/30/16

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Nine chapters and 264 pages: The Apostolic Exhortation “Amoris Laetitia”, the “joy of love”, is a long and complex document with which Francis has chosen to conclude the discussions that took place during the two Synods on the family. The first chapter lays the foundations with Biblical citations, the second draws an outline of the situation, while the third discusses the family’s vocation. Two chapters – the fourth and fifth – look specifically at conjugal love. The sixth talks about pastoral perspectives, the seventh about children’s education. Meanwhile, the eighth, which will in all likelihood be the most discussed chapter of all, offers pointers for the integration of remarried divorcees.

The symbolic love of God’s inner life

In the first chapter, the Pope recalls that the Bible is “full of families, births, love stories and family crises”. “The couple that loves and begets life is a true, living icon , capable of revealing God the Creator and Saviour. For this reason, fruitful love becomes a symbol of God’s inner life.” 

Individualism and demographic crisis

The second chapter focuses on the “challenges” families face. There is “the growing danger represented by an extreme individualism” “leading in some cases to the idea that one’s personality is shaped by his or her desires, which are considered absolute”. Francis warns about a declining population “due to a mentality against having children and promoted by the world politics of reproductive health,” stressing that “the Church strongly rejects the forced State intervention in favour of contraception, sterilization and even abortion”. “Such measures are unacceptable even in places with high birth rates, yet also in countries with disturbingly low birth rates we see politicians encouraging them.” 


Francis writes that “the lack of dignified or affordable housing often leads to the postponement of formal relationships”. “Families and homes go together.” “This makes us see how important it is to insist on the rights of the family and not only those of individuals. The family is a good which society cannot do without, and it ought to be protected.” 

The exploitation of children

The sexual exploitation of children “is yet another scandalous and perverse reality in present-day society”. “Societies experiencing violence due to war, terrorism or the presence of organized crime are witnessing” the “so-called phenomenon of ‘street-children’.” “The sexual abuse of children is all the more scandalous,” Francis stresses, “when it occurs in places where they ought to be most safe, particularly in families, schools, communities and Christian institutions.” 

Poverty, euthanasia and other scourges

Euthanasia and assisted suicide are among the “serious threats” to families worldwide, mentioned in the Exhortation. Francis then mentions “the situation of families living in dire poverty and great limitations”. He speaks of the “scourge” of drug addiction which causes “immense suffering and even breakup for many families”. “The same is true of alcoholism, gambling and other addictions.” 

Do not weaken the family

Weakening the family does not “prove beneficial to society,” on the contrary, “it poses a threat to the mature growth of individuals”. “There is a failure to realize that only the exclusive and indissoluble union between a man and a woman has a plenary role to play in society.” “De facto or same-sex unions for example, may not simply be equated with marriage. No union that is temporary or closed to the transmission of life can ensure the future of society.” 

Surrogacy, infibulation, violence

In paragraph 54, the Pope talks about women’s rights, calling “unacceptable” the “shameful ill-treatment to which women are sometimes subjected”. “The verbal, physical, and sexual violence that women endure in some marriages contradicts the very nature of the conjugal union.” Francis then mentions infibulation, “the reprehensible genital mutilation of women practiced in some cultures, but also of their lack of equal access to dignified work and roles of decision-making”. He also writes about “the use of surrogate mothers and ‘the exploitation and commercialization of the female body in the current media culture’.” 

The single-mindedness of gender

The document dedicates a few lines to “gender”, an “ideology” that “denies the difference and reciprocity in nature of a man and a woman and envisages a society without sexual differences, thereby eliminating the anthropological basis of the family”. “This ideology leads to educational programmes and legislative enactments that promote a personal identity and emotional intimacy radically separated from the biological difference between male and female.” Francis says it “is a source of concern that some ideologies of this sort, which seek to respond to what are at times understand¬able aspirations, manage to assert themselves as absolute and unquestionable, even dictating how children should be raised”. 

No to the child “factory”

Concern is expressed regarding “the ability to manipulate the reproductive act,” making it independent of the sexual relationship between a man and a woman. “In this way, human life and parenthood have become modular and separable realities, subject mainly to the wishes of individuals or couples.” “Let us not fall into the sin of trying to replace the Creator,” Francis urges. 

Educating children, a “primary right” of parents

In the third chapter of the Exhortation, Francis runs through the magisteriums of his predecessors and explains that the sacrament of marriage “is not a social convention” but “a gift given for the sanctification and salvation of the spouses, “a vocation”. “Consequently, the decision to marry and to have a family ought to be the fruit of a process of vocational discernment.” Conjugal love is open to new life. The overall education of children is a ‘most serious duty’ and at the same time a ‘primary right’ of parents” which “no one may claim to deprive them”. 

Instructions on love

In the fourth chapter, which is one of the most innovative ones, the Pope quotes St. Paul’s Hymn of Charity, drawing from it some useful advice for married couples. He invites them to have mutual “patience”, without thinking that “relationships or people ought to be perfect” and without putting “ourselves at the centre”. He invites couples to “give themselves to each other in a free, faithful and exclusive love,” “expecting nothing in return”. He urges them not to be envious, boastful or arrogant, because “those who love … refrain from speaking too much about themselves,” they do not become “unbearably arrogant”, they are humble, they have a “kind look”, they do “not immediately react harshly to the weaknesses and faults of others”. He invites them “never to let the day end without making peace in the family,” to forgive without harbouring resentment, to “speak well of each other” trying “to show their spouse’s good side, not their weakness and faults,” trusting one another without being controlling but giving them some space of their own. He reminds spouses to “contemplate” and remember that “the most intense joys in life arise when we are able to elicit joy in others, as a foretaste of heaven”. 

Message to young people

The Pope tells young people that due to the “seriousness” of this “public commitment of love”, marriage “cannot be the fruit of a hasty decision, but neither can it be postponed indefinitely”. “Committing oneself exclusively and definitively to another person always involves a risk and a bold gamble.” Francis encourages them to “take time” and be “ready to listen patiently and attentively to everything the other person wants to say” before “offering an opinion or advice”. “Many disagreements between couples are not about important things. “What alters the mood, however, is the way things are said or the attitude with which they are said.” 

Sexuality, a “marvellous gift”

Desires, feelings, emotions, “all have an important place in married life”. Quoting Benedict XVI, Francis explains that the official teaching of the Church “did not reject “eros as such, but rather declared war on a warped and destructive form of it” which “dehumanises” it. “God himself created sexuality, which is a marvellous gift to his creatures.” “Saint John Paul II rejected the claim that the Church’s teaching is ‘a negation of the value of human sexuality’ or that the Church simply tolerates sexuality ‘because it is necessary for procreation’.” Sexual desire between spouses “is not something to be looked down upon”. “Sex often becomes depersonalised and unhealthy; as a result, ‘it becomes the occasion and instrument for self-assertion and the selfish satisfaction of personal desires and instincts’. Hence, the Pope reiterates that “a conjugal act imposed on one’s spouse without regard to his or her condition, or personal and reasonable wishes in the matter, is no true act of love”. “Every form of sexual submission must be clearly rejected.” 

Openness to life

The fifth chapter recalls that the family is the setting in which a new life is “welcomed as a gift of God”. The Pope writes that “if a child comes into this world in unwanted circumstances, the parents and other members of the family must do everything possible to accept that child as a gift from God”. Large families “are a joy for the Church”. “At the same time, Saint John Paul II rightly explained that responsible parenthood does not mean ‘unlimited procreation’.” Francis recalls that it is important for the child “to feel wanted”. “We love our children because they are children, not because they are beautiful, or look or think as we do, or embody our dreams.” The Pope addresses all women who are currently pregnant: “Your child deserves your happiness. Don’t let fears, worries, other people’s comments or problems lessen your joy at being God’s means of bringing a new life to the world.”  

The maternal presence…

The document says it is “legitimate and indeed desirable” that women “wish to study, work, develop their skills and have personal goals”. “At the same time, we cannot ignore the need that children have for a mother’s presence, especially in the first months of life.” “The weakening of this maternal presence with its feminine qualities poses a grave risk to our world.” “I certainly value feminism, but one that does not demand uniformity or negate motherhood.” 

…and absent fathers

These days the problem seems to be the absence of fathers. “‘Fathers are often so caught up in themselves and their work, and at times in their own self-fulfilment, that they neglect their families. They leave the little ones and the young to themselves’.” “The presence of the father, and hence his authority, is also impacted by the amount of time given over to the communications and entertainment media.” But asking the father to be “present” does not mean being too “controlling. “Fathers who are too controlling overshadow their children”. 

Yes to adoptions

“Adoption is a very generous way to become parents.” The Pope writes: “It is important to insist that legislation help facilitate the adoption process”. “Families should not see themselves as a refuge from society,” nor as “set apart” from everything else. “God has given the family the job of “domesticating” the world and helping each person to see fellow human beings as brothers and sisters.” This implies a commitment towards the poor and the suffering. “The nuclear family needs to interact with the wider family made up of parents, aunts and uncles, cousins and even neighbours.” 

Making the elderly feel at home

“We must reawaken the collective sense of gratitude, of appreciation, of hospitality, which makes the elderly feel like a living part of the community.” Francis observes that “attention to the elderly makes the difference in a society”. The document also contains an invitation not to consider mothers-in-law and fathers-in-law and all of the spouses’ relatives as “competitors” or “intruders”. 

Families as “active agents” of the family apostolate

The sixth chapter of the exhortation is dedicated to pastoral aspects. Francis asks for “an effort at evangelization and catechesis inside the family” and the “missionary conversion” of the whole Church, “one that is not content to proclaim a merely theoretical message without connection to people’s real problems”. “Pastoral care for families “needs to make it clear that the Gospel of the family responds to the deepest expectations of the human person”. The document insists on the need for a more extensive interdisciplinary formation – not just doctrinal – for seminarians, in order to equip them to deal with complex problems facing the family today. 

Preparing for marriage

There is also a focus on the need to better prepare couples for marriage, “with a greater effort on the part of the whole Christian community”. It is up to each individual church to decide how to do this. It is “a kind of ‘initiation’ to the sacrament of matrimony”. We must not “underestimate the pastoral value of traditional religious practices,” such as St. Valentine’s day: “in some countries, commercial interests are quicker to see the potential of this celebration than are we in the Church”. The preparation process must also give couples the chance to “recognize eventual problems and risks” breaking off a relationship if failure is foreseen. 

Too concentrated on preparations

“Short-term preparations for marriage tend to be concentrated on invitations, clothes, the party and any number of other details that tend to drain not only the budget but energy and joy as well. The spouses come to the wedding ceremony exhausted and harried.” “Here let me say a word to fiancés,” the Pope says. “Have the courage to be different. Don’t let yourselves get swallowed up by a society of consumption and empty appearances.” Marriage is “a project to be worked on together”, without having unduly high expectations about conjugal life. 

Yes to the “Humanae Vitae”

Francis calls for Paul VI’s encyclical and John Paul II’s “Familiaris Consortio” to be taken up anew, “in order to counter a mentality that is often hostile to life”.  

Advice for young married couples

The Pope suggests some “daily rituals”. “These could include a morning kiss, an evening blessing, waiting at the door to welcome each other home, taking trips together and sharing household chores.” “Yet it also helps to break the routine with a party, and to enjoy family celebrations.” 

Crises can be overcome

“With proper assistance and acts of reconciliation, through grace, a great percentage of troubled marriages find a solution in a satisfying manner”. “To know how to forgive and to feel forgiven is a basic experience in family life”. This requires “the generous cooperation of relatives and friends, and sometimes even outside help and professional assistance”. 

Never use children as “hostages”

Francis asks separated parents to “never ever take your child hostage!” “Your children should not have to bear the burden of this separation or be used as hostages against the other spouse. They should grow up hearing their mother speak well of their father, even though they are not together, and their father speak well of their mother.” The Pope says divorce is an “evil” and the increasing number of divorces is very “troubling”. 

Homosexual members of the family

Families whose members include persons who experience same-sex attraction, is a situation that is “not easy either for parents or for children”. The Pope stresses that “every person” “ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration” avoiding discrimination. “Such families should be given respectful pastoral guidance, so that those who manifest a homosexual orientation can receive the assistance they need to understand and fully carry out God’s will in their lives.” He stresses that there are absolutely no grounds for placing unions between homosexual persons on the same level as marriage. 

The “sting” of death

The Pope recalls the importance of accompanying families going through loss, affirming that “after the loss of a loved one, we still have a mission to carry out, and that it does us no good to prolong the suffering”. 

Who gives our children guidance?

The seventh chapter looks at children’s education. Francis invites faithful to ask themselves: “who is providing their entertainment”? “who is entering their rooms through television”, “those with whom they are spending their free time”? “Vigilance is always necessary”. Parents must prepare children to confront the risks “of aggression, abuse or drug addiction”. “If parents are obsessed with always knowing where their children are and controlling all their movements,” “this is no way to educate, strengthen and prepare their children to face challenges”. “What is most important is the ability lovingly to help them grow in freedom, maturity, overall discipline and real autonomy.” 

How to educate

Moral formation should “take place inductively, so that children can learn for themselves the importance of certain values, principles and norms, rather than by imposing these as absolute and unquestionable truths”. “In our own day, dominated by stress and rapid technological advances, one of the most important tasks of families is to provide an education in hope. This does not mean preventing children from playing with electronic devices, but rather finding ways to help them develop their critical abilities and not to think that digital speed can apply to everything in life.” 

The risk of “technological disconnect”

Sometimes, electronic devices “can keep people apart rather than together, as when at dinnertime everyone is surfing on a mobile phone or when one spouse falls asleep waiting for the other who spends hours playing with an electronic device”. Children and adolescents “at times can foster apathy and disconnect from the real world”. This “technological disconnect” exposes them more easily to manipulation”. The Exhortation says yes to a “positive and prudent sex education” and an education that gets children used to the idea that men can also get involved in some of the household chores. “It is essential that children actually see that, for their parents, prayer is something truly important.” 

Read also:

Remarried Divorcees: Integration and evaluation on a case by case basis by Andrea Tornielli

Exhortation: “We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them” by Andrea Tornielli

Amoris Laetitia: Families and the “necessary” grace of the sacraments by Gianni Valente

Read the full text of the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia

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