Marriage, Family and the Catholic Church

Marriage, Family and the Catholic Church

Reflections on Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia

By Michael G. Lawler, Ph.D., and Todd A. Salzman, Ph.D.

Pope Francis has provided plenty of evidence of being a loving, merciful and pastoral leader. Consequently, our expectation for the Apostolic Exhortation that is the final document on the two synods on marriage and the family in 2014 and 2015 was that the document would not change Catholic Church doctrine but would offer both pastoral guidelines for living a Christian married life and principles to deal with exceptional marital situations that are labeled “irregular.”

This is, in fact, the kind of document that Francis has offered in Amoris Laetitia. It is a document that will guide the Catholic approach to both marriage and its failures, and the method and teaching of moral theology, for many decades to come.

A Profound Shift in Emphasis

We begin with what we take to be some highlights of the document. First and most basically, Amoris Laetitia represents a profound shift in emphasis for Catholic moral theology in its approach to doing marital and sexual ethics. Historically, the method has been largely law-oriented, legalistic, act-focused, static and deductive.

It began with absolute laws — for example, no use of artificial contraception within a marital relationship — and applied the law in a “one-size-fits-all” approach to all Catholics, everywhere, without regard for historical, cultural, contextual, relational or developmental considerations.

The method in Amoris Laetitia is very different; it is virtue-oriented, relational focused, dynamic, developmental and inductive. A virtue-focused method focuses on the character of the person rather than his or her acts; on being, rather than doing. Acts are important, since they reflect virtuous character and shape that character. The focus in Amoris Laetitia is not on rules and acts but on ways of being in the world, where the person is invited to strive to live out a life like Christ in the service of God, spouse, family, neighbor and society, realizing that God’s mercy is infinite when we fall short of this invitation.

A chapter titled “Love in Marriage” is a beautiful reflection on St. Paul’s poetic passage on the nature of true love (1 Corinthians 13:4-7) and the virtues associated with it. Love is patient, directed toward service, generous, forgiving; love is not jealous, boastful or rude. It is noteworthy that the virtue of chastity, which is central to the historical approach to Catholic moral theology on sexuality and marriage and was often deductively applied as a legalistic virtue to ensure adherence to the Church’s absolute proscriptive laws on human sexuality, is mentioned only once in the entire document. “Chastity proves invaluable for the genuine growth of love between persons.”

Second, Amoris Laetitia presents marital life as “a dynamic path to personal development and fulfillment.” Each married couple is distinct and at unique stages in their relational, emotional and spiritual capacities, and pastoral discernment must take dynamism and particularity into consideration.

The implications for ethical method are profound. It requires what St. Pope John Paul II referred to as “the law of gradualness,” whereby, the document states, the human person “knows, loves and accomplishes the moral good by different stages of growth.”

It also requires an inductive approach, beginning with the particularities of a situation to discern the values at stake and the best path for realizing those values in light of that particularity. Such particularity emphasizes a moral method that exercises prudential discernment in evaluating ethical issues, especially “irregular” relational situations, and finding a response that respects that particularity while striving to live more fully in the light of the Gospel.

Since there are an “immense variety of concrete situations,” pastoral discernment requires looking at particular cases to discern the virtues and values at stake and to determine which teachings of the Church are applicable in light of those virtues and values.

Third, importantly and not to be missed in the media frenzy over irregular situations, traditional Catholic teachings on marriage and family life are reaffirmed and much enhanced by the virtue approach taken by Francis. Marriage is between one man and one woman, the marriage that is sacramental and consummated is indissoluble, and “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions [same-sex marriage] to be in any way similar or remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.”

There is, however, a major change in approach to marriage. Since the Council of Trent in the 16th century, the foundation of Catholic marriage has been canon law, which is to be obeyed by all married Catholic couples. That approach, Pope Francis argues, has laid upon “two limited persons [a] tremendous burden.” He changes the foundational approach from law to virtue and teaches that marriage is a lifelong challenge, “which advances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God.” Among those gifts are the virtues of love, generosity, commitment, fidelity, patience, tenderness and Jesus’ “own gentleness in speaking to one another.”

Rather than reiterating old rules or offering a new set of rules for lasting marriages, Francis seeks to highlight the kind of people married Christians are called to be so that they may do what is necessary for their marriages to be successful and lasting. The Church should be grateful for this transposition from law to virtue in this time of crisis for marriages when many are asking how marriages and families can be saved.

Fourth, though same-sex marriage is not to be regarded as similar or even analogous to Christian marriage, the document states that gays, lesbians and transgender people “ought to be respected in [their] dignity and treated with consideration, while every sign of unjust discrimination is to be carefully avoided.”

Running throughout the document is a refrain that God welcomes all into the Church that is a communion of life, love and mercy. Many who support same-sex marriage as a way for gays and lesbians to live in dignity, and who believe that to deny them the right to marry is unjust discrimination, will no doubt be disappointed by this judgment. We say to them that there is still hope in Amoris Laetitia for the fulfillment of their vision.

That hope lies, we believe, in the theme of gradualness that runs through the document. As more and more Catholics become comfortable with same-sex marriage — and world statistics show that a near-majority of Catholics are already comfortable with it — it will gradually become as accepted as Communion in certain circumstances for the divorced and remarried without annulment. Insomuch as gays and lesbians demonstrate that their marriages are as humanly and Christianly fulfilling as the marriages of heterosexuals, that acceptance takes greater root. Francis’ bringing to the fore again the Catholic doctrine on the authority and inviolability of personal conscience, applies to any decision of Catholic gays and lesbians to marry as much as it applies to any other moral decision.

Fifth, one of the most hotly debated issues at the synods was that of the admission to Communion of the divorced and remarried without annulment. Following his recommended trajectory of love and mercy, Francis decrees that “the logic of pastoral mercy” and “the logic of integration is the key to their pastoral care, a care which would allow them not only to realize that they belong to the Church as the Body of Christ, but also to know that they can have a joyful and fruitful experience in it.” They are not excommunicated and are not to be treated as such.

Their situations can be vastly different and his document, the Pope confesses, cannot “provide a new set of rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases.” The solution to “irregular situations,” he writes, is a path of careful discernment accompanied by a priest and a final judgment of personal conscience that commands us to do this or not to do that. The Church is called, Francis teaches, “to form consciences, not to replace them.”

Sixth, the bringing to the moral forefront again of the ancient Catholic teaching on the authority and inviolability of personal conscience (see Dignitatis humanae, 2) is, in our opinion, one of the most important teachings of Amoris Laetitia. The Second Vatican Council taught that “in the depth of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself … To obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it, he will be judged” (Gaudium et spes, 16; see also Dignitatis humanae, 2).  

Francis judges, correctly we agree, that “individual conscience needs to be better incorporated into the Church’s praxis in certain situations which do not objectively embody our understanding of marriage.” He quotes Thomas Aquinas frequently throughout the document and especially his teaching that the more we descend into the details of irregular situations, the more general principles will be found to fail. As the popular saying goes, the devil is always in the details, and only an informed conscience can make a moral judgment about the details of any situation.

Divorce and Holy Communion: A New Perspective

First, when introducing the document, Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, a major voice at the two synods in 2014 and 2015, insisted and we agree that, though there is no doctrinal change in Amoris Laetitia, there is an “organic development of doctrine.” That development is specifically in regard to the admission to Holy Communion of those who are civilly divorced and remarried without annulment.

In his Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (1981), his response to the 1980 Synod on the Family, St. Pope John Paul II decreed that Catholics who were divorced and remarried without annulment, and who were in an objective but perhaps not subjective situation of sin, could be admitted to these sacraments only on the rigid and tortured condition that they “take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.”

A striking and profound development in Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia is the inclusion of the “internal forum” for the couple, in dialogue with a priest, to “undertake a responsible and pastoral discernment” of their irregular situation which could result in a unique application of the rule depending on their particular circumstances. The internal forum could be used to allow divorced and civilly remarried couples to participate more fully in the community. In terms of canon law, fuller participation in the community includes Communion if a couple is not in the state of grave sin.

Francis’ footnote 351, strangely not placed in the text itself, offers the possibility that couples could be admitted to the sacraments in certain circumstances. In keeping with his general theme of mercy and charity, he points out that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” He stops short of a blanket permission for the admission to Communion of the divorced and remarried without annulment, but it is clear that he leaves admission open in discerned cases. He does not automatically open the door to change, but he certainly lets us know where the key to the door is, under the mat of the internal forum, guided pastoral discernment and the decision of an informed conscience.

Second, though there is no doctrinal change involved, the transposition of the doctrine on marriage from a foundation on law to a foundation on virtue is a major theoretical change. Law is to be obeyed, and it is therefore commonly accompanied in magisterial teaching by the phrase debitum obsequium meaning “due respect” (see, for instance, Code of Canon Law, can. 218, 752, 753). The phrase appears nowhere in Amoris Laetitia, not even where we would expect to find it.

Law, to repeat, demands obedience to the law; virtue demands commitment to the challenge of conscientiously and actively living a life like Christ. That active living is a serious challenge for damaged human beings and, perhaps, that is why Francis makes such an effort to present Christian marriage so positively as a response to the Gospel and judges that “today, more important than the pastoral care of failures is the pastoral effort to strengthen marriages and thus to prevent their breakdown.”

Third, we cannot claim that the focus placed on conscience, it occurs 20 times in the document, is a new perspective, for it is an ancient Catholic doctrine. The reality is, however, that it is a doctrine that has been notable more by its absence than by its presence in modern teachings of the Magisterium on moral issues in general and on the issue of marriage in particular.

Speaking of the encouragement of married couples to procreate, Pope Francis declares that “decisions involving responsible parenthood presuppose the formation of conscience, which is ‘the most secret core and sanctuary of a person. There each one is alone with God, whose voice echoes in the depths of the heart’ (Gaudium et spes, 16).” The only clear condemnation of birth control is a condemnation of a State’s forced intervention, as a violation of the dignity of conscience, “in favour of contraception, sterilization and even abortion.”

“The more the couple tries to listen in conscience to God and His commandments (Romans 2:15), and is accompanied spiritually, the more their decision will be free of subjective caprice and accommodation to prevailing social mores.” That approach is continued, as we have seen, in the section dealing with the admission to Communion of the divorced and remarried without annulment.

Elevating Catholic Teaching on Marriage

We celebrate the fact that in this Apostolic Exhortation, Pope Francis has offered us an irenic response to the often-violent and divisive debates of the two synods. He has presented himself as a wise, loving and merciful pastor; he has elevated and sustained the Catholic teaching on marriage; and he has marked out a traditional and careful path of discernment for the solution of irregular situations.

Not everyone will be happy with the document, but we rejoice with Amoris Laetitia for a document that will place the Catholic approach to marriage once again in the forefront of any discussion about marriage. We believe it signals the start of a more open, understanding and merciful Church, and we hope that, just as it forges an organic development of a pastoral approach to moral issues, it will go further in the long term to forge also a development of Catholic moral theological doctrine related to debated moral sexual issues in general and marital moral sexual issues in particular.

About the Authors

Michael Lawler, Ph.D., is the Amelia and Emil Graff Professor Emeritus of Catholic Theology at Creighton University. Todd Salzman, Ph.D., is the Amelia and Emil Graff Professor of Catholic Theology at Creighton University. Their recent co-authored publications include: Catholic Theological Ethics: Ancient Questions, Contemporary Responses (2016); The Church in the Modern World: Gaudium et spes Then and Now (co-author Eileen Burke-Sullivan, STD) (2014); “Catholic Theological Method for the 21st Century,” Theological Studies (2013); and Sexual Ethics: A Theological Introduction (2012).