Pope Francis’ recent exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), comes on the heels of two synods in the Roman Catholic Church devoted to matters of marriage and family life. It was released last Friday and provoked a wide variety of reactions, with some seeing the document as going too far, particularly on issues of divorce and remarriage, and others seeing it as not going far enough.
Many commentators responded initially by jumping right to the hot-button issues: what does this document say regarding same-sex relationships, divorce and remarriage, contraception, cohabitation, etc.? One thing that struck me as I read responses from major news outlets was just how incomprehensible the Christian sexual ethic is. In a post-Christian society, understanding that ethic is an intercultural exercise for which many journalists appear ill-equipped. For example, Francis gets labeled by the New York Times as “inclusive,” a ubiquitous but near-meaningless term, because he calls on priests to “welcome” single parents, gay people and unmarried straight couples who are living together. Other outlets have used headlines that are blatantly misleading insofar as they grasp neither the subtlety of Catholic teaching nor Francis’ arguments. What degree of culpability should we assign to journalists who are engaged in some mixture of active deception, passive ignorance or willful subservience to a news cycle that demands instantaneous response to a 256-page document? And what degree of blame should we, the insatiable public, bear for this?
After reading the entire document and sitting with it over the weekend, I found Amoris Laetitia to be a refreshing and challenging reminder about the concrete and practical concerns of what it means to be a member of a family. Even — perhaps especially — in this modern age, it is difficult to love well the people closest to you (as it was in the book of Genesis). I was reminded of Dostoyevsky’s observations that it’s quite easy to love humanity in general, but nearly impossible to sustain love in close quarters. This is why I found the fourth chapter of Amoris Laetitia so helpful. An extended exposition of Paul’s language of 1 Corinthians 13, the chapter is a wealth of practical, pastoral advice framed by a rich view of the virtues that enables us to grow in Christ, as well as an awareness of the many small but besetting vices that threaten love. Any Christian couple, married or engaged, would benefit greatly from reading through it together.
Understanding a Christian sexual ethic is an intercultural exercise for which many journalists appear ill-equipped.
This chapter also brought out a point of connection between how we respond to Amoris Laetitia and our day-to-day family life. As Francis puts it, “Unless we cultivate patience, we will always find excuses for responding angrily. We will end up incapable of living together, antisocial, unable to control our impulses, and our families will become battlegrounds.” The virtue of patience is clearly not limited to our family life. The culture wars and our struggling families are often both symptoms of this deeper root, this failure to embody patient love. Perhaps even in our quickness to invoke the Pope as being on our side, as being properly “progressive” or “conservative,” we’re showing our impatience, which is really a failure to love.
Francis underscores a love that is not linked to others conforming to my wishes. “Patience takes root when I recognize that other people also have a right to live in this world, just as they are,” he writes. “It does not matter if they hold me back, if they unsettle my plans, or annoy me by the way they act or think, or if they are not everything I want them to be. Love always has an aspect of deep compassion that leads to accepting the other person as part of this world, even when he or she acts differently than I would like.” Perhaps this is why interpreters find it so hard to slot the Pope into our categories of thinking. We’re used to assuming that disagreement entails deep division and derision, whereas Francis is often both firm in his doctrinal stance and kind in his pastoral approach. In this, he may be a model for all Christians of how to follow our Savior down a path that both confounds and attracts.