Amoris Laetitia: Pope Francis’ “1968 Moment”

Heroic Reiteration and Development of Catholic Moral Tradition 

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Pope Francis, 27 April 2014, on the day of the canonization of Pope St. John XXIII and Pope St. John Paul II. Photograph by Jeffrey Bruno [Wikimedia Commons /  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license]

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Blessed Pope Paul VI heroically resisted overwhelming pressure to change constant, traditional Church teaching regarding the ban on contraception, in his landmark 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae. Tragically, many bishops and theologians then simply ignored it and engaged in a disgraceful open dissent. I have compared (in my title) Pope Francis’ latest magisterial proclamation to that great event in Church history. He, too, has resisted the tides of a fashionable secularism: precisely the opposite of what was expected from his legion of detractors.

Pope Francis beatified Paul VI during the closing Mass of the Extraordinary Synod on the family on 19 October 2014, stating that “before the advent of a secularized and hostile society, he could hold fast, with farsightedness and wisdom.” Now Pope Francis has done the same, in his post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love).

I’m not surprised in the slightest. I have said for as long as this document started being discussed, that it would be the Holy Father’s “Humanae Vitae moment.” And so it has come to pass. Looks like I’m far more of a “prophet” than the reactionary naysayers (though I never claimed the power). Rather, I’ll simply say that I looked forward to the document with “hopeful and faithful expectation.” This is how Catholics ought to approach such things. But it is becoming more and more “old-fashioned” and supposedly outmoded, in our cynical and sophisticated age.

Radical Catholic reactionary Chris Ferrara (of “Remnant” infamy) stated for all what the future would hold, in the prognostications of his article from 4 April 2016, four days before the release of Amoris Laetitia. Not given to subtlety, nuance, or qualification in such matters (see my critique of his bashing of the pope’s previous “environmental” encyclical, Laudato si), Ferrara’s ultra-confident jeremiad included the following “infallible” pontifications (my bolding and italics):

The “Joy of Love” is about to explode upon the Catholic world, no doubt overthrowing the teaching of both John Paul II and Benedict XVI, in line with all of Tradition, on the impossibility of  Holy Communion for those living in a state of continual adultery. The overthrow will be veiled in ambiguous references to the “internal forum,” “integration,” and a “path or journey” culminating in admission to Holy Communion according to the “competence” of the local ordinary or the “episcopal conferences” Paul VI invented to begin the process of fragmenting the universal discipline of the Church Universal in the context of the “liturgical reform.”

In short, if what seems likely comes to pass, practice will hollow out the dogma on the indissolubility of marriage, . . .

Well, reactionaries (very much like Democrats) never seem to be held accountable for their words. They constantly say stupid stuff, including virtual pseudo-prophecies or quasi-infallible utterances, such as the above, without being called on it. After they blow it again, they simply move on, assuming that everyone will 1) forget, and 2) not believe that they have seriously undermined their intellectual and theological credibility. This is one time that they are being held accountable.

The reactionaries have been engaged in open warfare against Pope Francis, almost from the beginning. For my part, I have consistently defended the Holy Father against falsehoods, calumnies, and twisting of his teaching and even his very words, with a book on the topic and an ongoing extensive collection of articles in his defense. Thus, my primary purpose at present is to show that the reactionary resistance (as exemplified by Ferrara) was dead-wrong for the umpteenth time, in its cynical denigrations of the pope. Indeed, I’m doing a huge “I told you so.” No one ever deserved it more than these guys. Hopefully, some will learn from their mistakes in this instance.

The present confidently proclaimed (and dramatically incorrect) predictions are only the latest in a long list of same. It takes chutzpah to predict (with premature hand-wringing) what a future document will state, but this is par for the course with the reactionaries, and quite in line with their ultra-pessimistic approach to the affairs of Holy Mother Church. Like the ancient Gnostics and the smug (corrupt number of) Pharisees, they “know” more than all of us ignorant peasants: so much so that they even know what the future will bring! It has to always be bad, right?

And so they felt confident in predicting the doom-and-gloom and apocalyptic despair and alleged Episcopalian-like anti-traditionalism yet to come. Nothing good can ever happen in the Catholic Church, so they think (well, except for Pope Benedict, their darling, but an increasing number even attack him now: blaming him for retiring, etc.).

Now, it was feared in endless speculative discussions that Pope Francis would relax the age-old prohibition of the divorced-and-remarried (minus an annulment, which is essentially different from divorce) from receiving Holy Communion in the Catholic Church. Thus, reactionary Patrick Archbold, dusting off his crystal ball and putting on his wizard’s hat, dissented (on 4-5-16):

Crux [see Cdl. Dolan’s remarks below] is already working overtime to spin the document as no biggie. That is likely to be a load of horse hockey. So I thought I would tell you how to read it. First, know this. The document will contain:

2% Actual Catholic teaching on marriage and the rest. This will provide all the cover necessary for the “everything is awesome” toadies to crow about how beautiful and orthodox it is. “I mean, did you read the second paragraph on page 98, that almost sounds like Pope Pius X. All is well.” It will be a load of crap, but there will be those who just eat it up and call it ice cream.

97% Jesuitical blather and pious sounding non-sequiturs. How do I know? 200 pages.

No one could make this up. Catholics, describing a papal document before it is even released as “a load of crap” and “97% Jesuitical blather”?! It’s a strange world, indeed. As a Protestant, I had infinitely more respect for the papal office, than these bloviating bashing boobs do.

The prediction of Cardinal Timothy Dolan (reported on 4-4-16) was much more accurate, and, in fact, “hit the nail on the head”:

The message that I would hope is going to come through in a ringing way in the apostolic exhortation, . . . is that once again the Church under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit is sincerely trying to be faithful to the timeless teaching of Jesus, and yet apply that in a very merciful, understanding, gracious way. . . .

I think what you’re going to find is a classic Catholic approach, of a clear defense of Church teaching and yet a call for creative ways to extend the mercy of God to people.

Moving past all the prognostications, and this preliminary commentary, what did the pope actually state in his exhortation, regarding this issue of reception of Holy Communion in particular, divorce and remarriage, cohabitation, contraception, same-sex unions (falsely described by our secular culture as “marriages”) and related moral aspects (which have been highlighted by reactionaries as areas of likely “change” in Church doctrine)? Let’s examine it (my bolding added; footnotes and footnote numbers in the text in blue):

35. As Christians, we can hardly stop advocating marriage simply to avoid countering contemporary sensibilities, or out of a desire to be fashionable or a sense of helplessness in the face of human and moral failings. We would be depriving the world of values that we can and must offer.

[ . . . ]

42. Furthermore, “the decline in population, due to a mentality against having children and promoted by the world politics of reproductive health, creates not only a situation in which the relationship between generations is no longer ensured but also the danger that, over time, this decline will lead to economic impoverishment and a loss of hope in the future. . . . The upright consciences of spouses who have been generous in transmitting life may lead them, for sufficiently serious reasons, to limit the number of their children, yet precisely “for the sake of this dignity of conscience, the Church strongly rejects the forced State intervention in favour of contraception, sterilization and even abortion”.20 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. . . . 

20 Relatio Finalis 2015, 63.

[ . . . ]

44. . . .  “The Church has always held it part of her mission to promote marriage and the family and to defend them against those who attack them”,25 especially today, when they are given scarce attention in political agendas. . . . 

25 Pontifical Council for the Family, Charter of the Rights of the Family (22 October 1983), Introduction.

[ . . . ]

52. No one can think that the weakening of the family as that natural society founded on marriage will prove beneficial to society as a whole. The contrary is true: it poses a threat to the mature growth of individuals, the cultivation of community values and the moral progress of cities and countries. 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 as a stable commitment that bears fruit in new life. We need to acknowledge the great variety of family situations that can offer a certain stability, but 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. But nowadays who is making an effort to strengthen marriages, to help married couples overcome their problems, to assist them in the work of raising children and, in general, to encourage the stability of the marriage bond?

53. “Some societies still maintain the practice of polygamy; in other places, arranged marriages are an enduring practice… In many places, not only in the West, the practice of living together before marriage is widespread, as well as a type of cohabitation which totally excludes any intention to marry”.40 In various countries, legislation facilitates a growing variety of alternatives to marriage, with the result that marriage, with its characteristics of exclusivity, indissolubility and openness to life, comes to appear as an old-fashioned and outdated option. Many countries are witnessing a legal deconstruction of the family, tending to adopt models based almost exclusively on the autonomy of the individual will. Surely it is legitimate and right to reject older forms of the traditional family marked by authoritarianism and even violence, yet this should not lead to a disparagement of marriage itself, but rather to the rediscovery of its authentic meaning and its renewal. The strength of the family “lies in its capacity to love and to teach how to love. For all a family’s problems, it can always grow, beginning with love”.41

40 Relatio Finalis 2015, 25. 43

41 Ibid., 10

[ . . . ]

55. Men “play an equally decisive role in family life, particularly with regard to the protection and support of their wives and children… Many men are conscious of the importance of their role in the family and live their masculinity accordingly. The absence of a father gravely affects family life and the upbringing of children and their integration into society. This absence, which may be physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual, deprives children of a suitable father figure”.44

44 Relatio Finalis 2015, 28.

56. Yet another challenge is posed by the various forms of an ideology of gender 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. Consequently, human identity becomes the choice of the individual, one which can also change over time”.45 It is a source of concern that some ideologies of this sort, which seek to respond to what are at times understandable aspirations, manage to assert themselves as absolute and unquestionable, even dictating how children should be raised. It needs to be emphasized that “biological sex and the socio-cultural role of sex (gender) can be distinguished but not separated”.46 On the other hand, “the technological revolution in the field of human procreation has introduced 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”.47 It is one thing to be understanding of human weakness and the complexities of life, and another to accept ideologies that attempt to sunder what are inseparable aspects of reality. Let us not fall into the sin of trying to replace the Creator. We are creatures, and not omnipotent. Creation is prior to us and must be received as a gift. At the same time, we are called to protect our humanity, and this means, in the first place, accepting it and respecting it as it was created.

45 Ibid., 8.

46 Ibid., 58.

47 Ibid., 33.

[ . . . ]

68. . . . In a particular way, with the Encyclical Humanae Vitae he brought out the intrinsic bond between conjugal love and the generation of life: . . . 

[ . . . ]

80. Marriage is firstly an “intimate partnership of life and love”80 which is a good for the spouses themselves,81 while sexuality is “ordered to the conjugal love of man and woman”.82 It follows that “spouses to whom God has not granted children can have a conjugal life full of meaning, in both human and Christian terms”.83 Nonetheless, the conjugal union is ordered to procreation “by its very nature”.84 The child who is born “does not come from outside as something added on to the mutual love of the spouses, but springs from the very heart of that mutual giving, as its fruit and fulfilment”.85 He or she does not appear at the end of a process, but is present from the beginning of love as an essential feature, one that cannot be denied without disfiguring that love itself. From the outset, love refuses every impulse to close in on itself; it is open to a fruitfulness that draws it beyond itself. Hence no genital act of husband and wife can refuse this meaning,86 even when for various reasons it may not always in fact beget a new life.

80 Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 48.

81 Cf. Code of Canon Law, c. 1055 § 1: “ad bonum coniugum atque ad prolis generationem et educationem ordinatum”.

82 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2360. 63

83 Ibid., 1654.

84 Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 48.

85 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2366.

86 Cf. Paul VI, Encyclical Letter Humanae Vitae (25 July 1968), 11-12: AAS 60 (1968), 488-489.

[ . . . ]

83. Here I feel it urgent to state that, if the family is the sanctuary of life, the place where life is conceived and cared for, it is a horrendous contradiction when it becomes a place where life is rejected and destroyed. So great is the value of a human life, and so inalienable the right to life of an innocent child growing in the mother’s womb, that no alleged right to one’s own body can justify a decision to terminate that life, which is an end in itself and which can never be considered the “property” of another human being. The family protects human life in all its stages, including its last. Consequently, “those who work in healthcare facilities are reminded of the moral duty of conscientious objection. Similarly, the Church not only feels the urgency to assert the right to a natural death, without aggressive treatment and euthanasia”, but likewise “firmly rejects the death penalty”.93

93 Relatio Finalis 2015, 64.

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166. The family is the setting in which a new life is not only born but also welcomed as a gift of God. Each new life “allows us to appreciate the utterly gratuitous dimension of love, which never ceases to amaze us. It is the beauty of being loved first: children are loved even before they arrive”.177 Here we see a reflection of the primacy of the love of God, who always takes the initiative, for children “are loved before having done anything to deserve it”.178 And yet, “from the first moments of their lives, many children are rejected, abandoned, and robbed of their childhood and future. There are those who dare to say, as if to justify themselves, that it was a mistake to bring these children into the world. This is shameful! … How can we issue solemn declarations on human rights and the rights of children, if we then punish children for the errors of adults?”179 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 and assume the responsibility of accepting him or her with openness and affection.

177 Catechesis (11 February 2015): L’Osservatore Romano, 12 February 2015, p. 8.

178 Ibid.

179 Catechesis (8 April 2015): L’Osservatore Romano, 9 April 2015, p. 8.

167. Large families are a joy for the Church. They are an expression of the fruitfulness of love. At the same time, Saint John Paul II rightly explained that responsible parenthood does not mean “unlimited procreation or lack of awareness of what is involved in rearing children, but rather the empowerment of couples to use their inviolable liberty wisely and responsibly, taking into account social and demographic realities, as well as their own situation and legitimate desires”.182

182 Letter to the Secretary General of the United Nations Organization on Population and Development (18 March 1994): Insegnamenti XVII/1 (1994), 750-751.

[ . . . ]

222. The pastoral care of newly married couples must also involve encouraging them to be generous in bestowing life. “In accord with the personal and fully human character of conjugal love, family planning fittingly takes place as the result a consensual dialogue between the spouses, respect for times and consideration of the dignity of the partner. In this sense, the teaching of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae (cf. 1014) and the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (cf. 14; 2835) ought to be taken up anew, in order to counter a mentality that is often hostile to life . . . Moreover, “the use of methods based on the ‘laws of nature and the incidence of fertility’ (Humanae Vitae, 11) are to be promoted, since ‘these methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them and favour the education of an authentic freedom’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2370). Greater emphasis needs to be placed on the fact that children are a wonderful gift from God and a joy for parents and the Church. Through them, the Lord renews the world”.250 

250 Relatio Finalis 2015, 63.

[ . . . ]

242. The Synod Fathers noted that “special discernment is indispensable for the pastoral care of those who are separated, divorced or abandoned. Respect needs to be shown especially for the sufferings of those who have unjustly endured separation, divorce or abandonment, or those who have been forced by maltreatment from a husband or a wife to interrupt their life together. To forgive such an injustice that has been suffered is not easy, but grace makes this journey possible. Pastoral care must necessarily include efforts at reconciliation and mediation, through the establishment of specialized counselling centres in dioceses”.259 At the same time, “divorced people who have not remarried, and often bear witness to marital fidelity, ought to be encouraged to find in the Eucharist the nourishment they need to sustain them in their present state of life. The local community and pastors should accompany these people with solicitude, particularly when children are involved or when they are in serious financial difficulty”.260 Family breakdown becomes even more traumatic and painful in the case of the poor, since they have far fewer resources at hand for starting a new life. A poor person, once removed from a secure family environment, is doubly vulnerable to abandonment and possible harm.

259 Relatio Synodi 2014, 47.

260 Ibid., 50.

243. It is important that the divorced who have entered a new union should be made to feel part of the Church. “They are not excommunicated” and they should not be treated as such, since they remain part of the ecclesial community.261 These situations “require careful discernment and respectful accompaniment. Language or conduct that might lead them to feel discriminated against should be avoided, and they should be encouraged to participate in the life of the community. The Christian community’s care of such persons is not to be considered a weakening of its faith and testimony to the indissolubility of marriage; rather, such care is a particular expression of its charity”.262

261 Catechesis (5 August 2015): L’Osservatore Romano, 6 August 2015, p. 7.

262 Relatio Synodi 2014, 51; cf. Relatio Finalis 2015, 84.

[ . . . ]

246. The Church, while appreciating the situations of conflict that are part of marriage, cannot fail to speak out on behalf of those who are most vulnerable: the children who often suffer in silence. Today, “despite our seemingly evolved sensibilities and all our refined psychological analyses, I ask myself if we are not becoming numb to the hurt in children’s souls… Do we feel the immense psychological burden borne by children in families where the members mistreat and hurt one another, to the point of breaking the bonds of marital fidelity?”269 Such harmful experiences do not help children to grow in the maturity needed to make definitive commitments. For this reason, Christian communities must not abandon divorced parents who have entered a new union, but should include and support them in their efforts to bring up their children. “How can we encourage those parents to do everything possible to raise their children in the Christian life, to give them an example of committed and practical faith, if we keep them at arm’s length from the life of the community, as if they were somehow excommunicated? We must keep from acting in a way that adds even more to the burdens that children in these situations already have to bear!”270 Helping heal the wounds of parents and supporting them spiritually is also beneficial for children, who need the familiar face of the Church to see them through this traumatic experience. Divorce is an evil and the increasing number of divorces is very troubling. Hence, our most important pastoral task with regard to families is to strengthen their love, helping to heal wounds and working to prevent the spread of this drama of our times.

269 Catechesis (24 June 2015): L’Osservatore Romano, 25 June 2015, p. 8. 187

270 Catechesis (5 August 2015): L’Osservatore Romano, 6 August 2015, p. 7.

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251. In discussing the dignity and mission of the family, the Synod Fathers observed that, “as for proposals to place unions between homosexual persons on the same level as marriage, there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family”. It is unacceptable “that local Churches should be subjected to pressure in this matter and that international bodies should make financial aid to poor countries dependent on the introduction of laws to establish ‘marriage’ between persons of the same sex”.278

278 Relatio Finalis 2015, 76; cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions between Homosexual Persons (3 June 2003), 4.

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283. Frequently, sex education deals primarily with “protection” through the practice of “safe sex”. Such expressions convey a negative attitude towards the natural procreative finality of sexuality, as if an eventual child were an enemy to be protected against. This way of thinking promotes narcissism and aggressivity in place of acceptance. . . . 

[ . . . ]

293. The Fathers also considered the specific situation of a merely civil marriage or, with due distinction, even simple cohabitation, noting that “when such unions attain a particular stability, legally recognized, are characterized by deep affection and responsibility for their offspring, and demonstrate an ability to overcome trials, they can provide occasions for pastoral care with a view to the eventual celebration of the sacrament of marriage”.315 . . . 

315 Relatio Synodi 2014, 27

294. . . . In some countries, de facto unions are very numerous, not only because of a rejection of values concerning the family and matrimony, but primarily because celebrating a marriage is considered too expensive in the social circumstances. As a result, material poverty drives people into de facto unions”.321 Whatever the case, “all these situations require a constructive response seeking to transform them into opportunities that can lead to the full reality of marriage and family in conformity with the Gospel. These couples need to be welcomed and guided patiently and discreetly”.322 That is how Jesus treated the Samaritan woman (cf. Jn 4:1-26): he addressed her desire for true love, in order to free her from the darkness in her life and to bring her to the full joy of the Gospel.

321 Relatio Synodi 2014, 42.

322 Ibid., 43.

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297. . . . Naturally, if someone flaunts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal, or wants to impose something other than what the Church teaches, he or she can in no way presume to teach or preach to others; this is a case of something which separates from the community (cf. Mt 18:17). Such a person needs to listen once more to the Gospel message and its call to conversion. Yet even for that person there can be some way of taking part in the life of community, whether in social service, prayer meetings or another way that his or her own initiative, together with the discernment of the parish priest, may suggest.  . . . 

[ . . . ]

300. . . . Priests have the duty to “accompany [the divorced and remarried] in helping them to understand their situation according to the teaching of the Church and the guidelines of the bishop. . . . 

[ . . . ]

307. In order to avoid all misunderstanding, I would point out that in no way must the Church desist from proposing the full ideal of marriage, God’s plan in all its grandeur: “Young people who are baptized should be encouraged to understand that the sacrament of marriage can enrich their prospects of love and that they can be sustained by the grace of Christ in the sacrament and by the possibility of participating fully in the life of the Church”.354 A lukewarm attitude, any kind of relativism, or an undue reticence in proposing that ideal, would be a lack of fidelity to the Gospel and also of love on the part of the Church for young people themselves. To show understanding in the face of exceptional situations never implies dimming the light of the fuller ideal, or proposing less than what Jesus offers to the human being. Today, more important than the pastoral care of failures is the pastoral effort to strengthen marriages and thus to prevent their breakdown.

354 Relatio Synodi 2014, 26

[ . . . ]

311. . . . it is quite true that concern must be shown for the integrity of the Church’s moral teaching . . . 

Once again, we proclaim in faith with St. Ambrose: 

It is to Peter himself that He says, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church [Mt 16: 18].” Where Peter is, there is the Church. And where the Church, no death is there, but life eternal. (Commentaries on Twelve of David’s Psalms, 40:30)

We need to follow Peter, not Peter Pan or pied pipers; Rome, rather than the radical Catholic reactionary nattering nabobs of negativism, who lead everyone astray. To paraphrase Mark Twain: “reports of the death of the Church are greatly exaggerated.”

This is a beautiful document and another instance of extraordinary teaching from Pope Francis: especially with regard to the pastoral or merciful dimension of the faith. There is a great deal here that all of us can learn from and be edified by. It’s a magnificent, moving, striking, consistent development and exposition of the Catholic faith and the whole of its theological and moral tradition (as, particularly, the bolded portions above, demonstrate).

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Meta Description: Summary of the teaching on “controversial” moral issues, in Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, “Amoris Laetitia.”

Meta Keywords: Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis,apostolic exhortation, synod on the family, Radical Catholic reactionaries, pope-bashing, Catholics & marriage, annulments, divorce, remarried Catholics, Catholics & the family, Holy communion

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