Needless to say, the 263 pages of “The Joy of Love” (“Amoris Laetitia”) treat a great deal more than these two topics. Here in the United States, we should pay particular attention to those sections that intersect with several of the deepest cracks in the foundations of our marriage and family lives, even a few topics that cause many to squirm.
First, it will come as a great relief to everyone who worries especially about the future of children that the pope is exhorting the Catholic Church to “go big” toward building stronger marriages. Many people are looking to the churches for help at a time when U.S. federal and state governments not only do little to assist children to know and be known by their stably married parents but rather powerfully lend their authority otherwise. Whether by refusing even to slow down nonconflictual divorces involving children, or by promoting nonmarital sex as pro-woman, or by prohibiting linking children with marriage recognition, the state proclaims loud and clear that it has not the slightest interest in the unique way marriage protects children. Children need a mammoth advocate. Pope Francis suggests that it’s us.
Second, while Pope Francis is clearly no Pollyanna respecting the state of marriage, still he appears confident that Catholics can help. This should encourage the discouraged. He acknowledges that some people call marriage “evil” or judge children less valuable than consumer products. He knows the church’s reputation for “blow[ing] the whistle” on great sex. Yet he reminds us repeatedly that younger people still glimpse the promise of marriage, and he illustrates throughout “The Joy of Love” the beauty of a long-lived marriage.
Third, Pope Francis captures the size of the problem of individualism. His fierce denunciations of individualism respecting marriage, in fact, easily rival those he has launched at the wealthy who are blind to the needs of the poor or at church bureaucrats concerned more about rank than about suffering human beings.
He does this especially well while “unpacking” each line of St. Paul’s famous verses, “Love is patient,” etc. He reminds readers that marriage is nothing less than an icon of God’s sacrificial love for us, a reminder that the Christian life is radical service to the other, like Jesus’; but he then chastises spouses’ uncharitable treatment of one another, which he characterizes with words like arrogance, consumer thinking, narcissism, market logic, fatal self-absorption and impulses to condemn. He feels it necessary to advise spouses to extend the most basic courtesies to the other and admonishes: “Accept...the other person as part of this world, even when he or she acts differently than I would like,” and “ leave adolescent individualism” behind. In No. 113 the pope advises each spouse that the other “can neither play God nor serve all my needs. Love coexists with imperfection. It ‘bears all things’ and can hold its peace before the limitations of the loved one.”
Fourth, while “The Joy of Love” acknowledges external threats to getting and staying married—especially unemployment and economic factors—it does not specifically decry the marriage gap between the privileged and the poorer. This is among the most important facts about marriage and child welfare in the United States. It is increasingly well accepted across partisan lines and is linked closely to the growing and solidifying gap between children from well-off families and those from poor families. The U.S. church will have to exercise “The Joy of Love” with an option for the poor.
Finally, “The Joy of Love” touches upon a number of hot-button issues overlooked at first blush but important nonetheless. It strongly defends parents’ rights to educate their children as prior to any state’s rights. It denounces gender ideologists’ unlinking of biological sex from sexual identity. And it strongly affirms (twice) rights of conscientious objection to unjust laws. This, when coupled with its robust dismissal of gender ideology and defense of children’s rights to the love and care of their mother and father, has obvious links to the current struggles over religious freedom on behalf of the family here in the United States.