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

Vatican Insider - published on 06/30/16

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“Reality must be accepted as it comes,” Pope Francis always says. This criterion is also applied in the Apostolic Exhortation “Amoris Laetitia”, in which the Bishop of Rome gives a magisterial direction to the path of synodal reflection, which the Church embarked on in 2013, in its discussions regarding the delicate and crucial question of marriage and the family. The papal document does not present a theory, mush less a “theology” of the family. It is motivated by a pastoral need to nurture the lives of real families, just as they are, with the light of the Gospel, showing the world that “the Christian proclamation on the family is good news indeed” (§1). 

The sense of urgency in the text does not stem from an intention to repeat the metaphysical “truth” on the family, to mark out doctrinal boundaries, simply because the marriage doctrine the text follows is the same the Church has always followed and outlined in previous papal documents, including Paul VI’s “Humanae Vitae” and John Paul II’s “Familiaris Consortio” (amply cited in “Amoris Laetitia”). For those who are fans of the liberal agenda/conservative agenda genre, the Apostolic Exhortation has no qualms about reiterating the Church’s belief that the same-sex couples do not constitute a family and does not call into question previous papal pronouncements on contraception. Instead, it recognises that “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” (§37). Rather, what Pope Francis’ text aims to do is this: to offer a glimpse of the desirable treasure of beauty, human loftiness and gratuity that exists, potentially at least, in all family relationships. And to suggest the source that feeds it and what can protect it. 

A vertiginous adventure

In the new papal document, the importance of family life is not presented as a priori theological but emerges “from the inside” almost. Pope Francis describes it through the lens of his own family experience. In the love of a husband and wife, parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren, we see a reflection of the good plan of the Creator for the lives of his creations. It is the little things in the daily dynamics of family life that give rise to the mysterious plan that fatally intertwines this family with the desire for happiness and loftiness which fills the heart of every human being at least at the start of their journey. Bergoglio performs a small miracle: precisely because he is not concerned about defending or reaffirming the “principle” of the family, his Exhortation puts family life across as a “great adventure”, that can fulfil the expectations of true joy that potentially marks the journey of every human being. Everyone perceives this link, even if it is just for a second, at least as a sense of regret or nostalgia for something that is absent or lost. A journey that can be experienced and advocated, not in order to defend declining social codes or to affirm a specific anthropological theory but simply because there is no other human experience that is more yearned for and precious than this gratuitous asset that gladdens and consoles us, makes us grow and accompanies us on our journey through life. 

A pastor who heals souls. Without idealising

In the passages where the Pope’s touch is more recognisable – starting with chapter four – the Successor of Peter delves into the most intimate questions regarding family life, with the familiarity of a pastor who heals souls and is accustomed to listening to people’s consciences, particularly in the confessional. The prevailing – and unprecedented in a papal pronouncement – approach is that of the spiritual father who is close to faithful with subtle suggestions because he hold the happiness of the people he meets close to his heart. It is this intimate understanding of the real dynamics of family experiences that prevents the Exhortation from veering off down the idealist track. As the cipher and kaleidoscope of the human condition, the family meets the “roads of happiness” (§38). But it is also a place of expectations, betrayals, traumas and failures. The story of salvation recounted by the Bible is full of “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” (§8). The “great adventure” of the family, whose potential allure is described in the pages of the Exhortation, is also presented as a gamble, a bet, characterised by a sense of risk. The adventure of the family is presented as the act of going out on a limb, venturing out into the unknown freely and with hope, without the rigid need to be in control of one’s life, applying commercial guarantees to one’s destiny (like a money-back guarantee) in order to protect it from suffering and possible failure. 

The “Amoris Laetitia”, far from any supposed “yielding” to the vogues and manipulations of today’s dominant culture, presents a raw and frank diagnosis of the fragmentation of family dynamics, fomented by the neo-bourgeois individualism and new models of narcissistic selfishness which dominate western societies in particular. Avoiding anthropological philippics and moralisms, it meticulously documents the weakening of human beings accentuated by “cultural, social, political and economic” conditioning that prevents “authentic family life”, first and foremost through “the excessive importance given to market logic” (§201). The text captures the devastating effects of the now widespread idea “that one’s personality is shaped by his or her desires, which are considered absolute” (§33). The family comes 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” (§34). However, there is also an acknowledgment – and this is a decisive factor that is taken into account throughout the Exhortation text – of the fact that before being amplified by relativist cultures, this fragility is linked to man’s very condition on this earth, marked by original sin: “The word of God constantly testifies to that sombre dimension already present at the beginning, when, through sin, the relationship of love and purity between man and woman turns into domination” (§19). The Christian perception of the family’s vocation and the mission – which is expressed in new words and presented in a fresh way the Exhortation – does not split the world into the healthy and the sick and draws on the day-to-day experiences of so many “successful” and happily enduring marriages, which show that eternal faithfulness is impossible without the help of God’s grace. 

The “necessary” Grace

Pope Francis reminds the Church of the task it was assigned by the Lord. In the face of human fragility, which is enhanced as a result of the dehumanisation processes underway in western and globalised societies, the Church is not called upon to respond to this with cultural battles and injections of marriage theology or by building false certainties based on neo-rigorist stances. Instead, it is called upon to help everyone concretely and existentially, in every possible way, helping them to reach happiness under the light of the Gospel, walking alongside them. Starting with those who are in the greatest state of difficulty and suffering. The path of closeness and mercy is not a three-line whip imposed by Bergoglio but the way of a Church that follows Christ. Along this way, the Church’s words on marriage and the family prove to be efficient only when they are a clear reflection “of the preaching and attitudes of Jesus, who set forth a demanding ideal yet never failed to show compassion and closeness to the frailty of individuals like the Samaritan woman or the woman caught in adultery” (§38).  

The help the Church offers to those living “in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace” (§303) and which “in certain cases, can include the help of the sacraments” (footnote 351), fits into this framework. The fact that the Exhortation leaves the door to the Eucharist and confession open for remarried divorcees – each case is to be assessed individually without the introduction of any “new” canonical regulations – is a prime illustration of the fact that grace is necessary. In the Church, a life of grace is ordinarily expressed through the sacraments. In a number of places throughout the “Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis insinuates that certain ecclesial preachings on the family seem to lack any impulse whatsoever to inspire “trust in God’s grace” (§36). The sacraments ended up being “taken hostage” in ethical and doctrinal disputes, to be used as blackmail. The Apostolic Exhortation repeats on a number of occasions that every real change in the lives of believers stems from grace. Faith in the sacraments as real seeds of change and salvation in people’s bruised lives prevails over stern rules. In entrusting pastors with the pastoral discernment of the sacramental life of divorced individuals who have entered a new conjugal union, Pope Francis approves the pastoral practice already adopted by many priests around the world. Hence, he does not “innovate” but follows “the great prudential pastoral tradition of the Church,” as Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, O.P. stated during the press conference for the presentation of the Apostolic Exhortation.

Doctrinal tribunals and the field hospital

The end point represented by the “Amoris Laetitia”, which is the result of an ecclesial journey marked by two Synods, is in fact a departure point. Having entrusted bishops and priests with the discernment of concrete situations, without resorting to canonical rules imposed from the top, Pope Francis also places the future “pastoral conversion” – which he invited the whole Church, a.k.a. “field hospital” to take part in – in their hands. This is a call to help and to foster the journey of mothers, fathers and their children, just as they are and wherever they are. In the very places where one is able to witness first-hand that the family, for better or for worse, in times of joy and in times of failure, is something that is too real and too serious to be reduced to an appearance, a fetish or an ideological ensign. 

Read also:

“Amoris Laetitia”, a new “constitution” for the family by Andrea Tornielli

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

Read the full text of the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia

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