Portraits of Love: A deeper look at ‘Amoris Laetitia’

“The Joy of Love experienced by families is also the joy of the Church.” So begins Pope Francis’ long-awaited apostolic exhortation “The Joy of Love” (“Amoris Laetitia”). The statement draws on the conclusions of the Synod of Bishops, which gathered over the course of two years to discuss challenges to the family. America asked several experts to respond to this historic document, which was published on April 8. The full texts of their responses, along with additional commentary, can be found at americamagazine.org/joy-love.

The Mysticism of Pope Francis

By Rev. Robert P. Imbeli

In the now famous interview with Antonio Spadaro, S.J., (America, 9/30/13), Pope Francis was asked which of the figures among the early Jesuits he found most appealing. He replied, “Ignatius Loyola” (no surprise there!). But then he mentioned another, less known personage: Peter Faber, one of the first companions of Ignatius.

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He said in the interview, “Faber was a mystic.” As such Francis puts Faber in the company of Ignatius himself, who, the pope insists, is “a mystic, not an ascetic.” And then Francis confessed: “I am rather close to the mystical movement” in the history of the Society of Jesus. Reading “The Joy of Love” in this light offers a somewhat different perspective upon the pope’s intent and hope. Francis seeks to probe deeper into the mystery of Christian marriage: beyond mere moralism to its mystical heart. He is more the mystagogue than the moralist.

Much of the commentary—both by those who see the document as an “opening” to further modifications not only of pastoral practice, but of church teaching itself, and by those who fear precisely this outcome—may have overlooked what is, in fact, Francis’ consuming evangelical commitment. Egregiously absent from so much of the commentary to date has been any sustained attention to the compelling Christocentrism of the exhortation—a neglect that sadly mirrors our contemporary catechetical and pastoral plight. In this respect it is crucial to read this document in tandem with Francis’ earlier exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel (“Evangelii Gaudium”).

Both exhortations urgently stress the need to return to the church’s foundational kerygma as the wellspring of all teaching and pastoral discernment. Only by fixing one’s contemplative gaze upon the living Christ, only by “looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (Heb 12:2), does the Christian life finds its sure foundation. Only centered in the paschal mystery of Christ does Christian marriage take on its distinctive meaning, purpose and fulfillment.

An approach to marriage and family life that underscores the mystical more than the moral is not less challenging, but more. Authentic loving relations are infinitely more demanding than rules. The latter can be adhered to lifelessly; the former require ongoing interior transformation. To this transformation husband and wife solemnly and sacramentally pledge themselves in Christian marriage.

Living out “the fraternal and communal demands of family life” entails, of course, a joyful adherence to the Ten Words that God gave to Moses to seal the covenant with his people. Torah is not superseded in Christ, but brought to incarnational fulfillment.

With such a Christ-centered vision, at once contemplative and concrete, constant and ever new, it is little wonder that Pope Francis’ first and last word to the people of God, the members of the body of Christ, is joy—laetitia, gaudium, the joy of love, the joy of the Gospel. In truth, these two joys are but one.

The Progress of Souls

By Drew Christiansen, S.J.

In his attention to the desire for moral and spiritual growth, Francis follows the Jesuit founder, St. Ignatius, who urged the early Jesuits to seek always “the progress of souls,” frequently defined as love of God, charity to the neighbor and the growth in other virtues. Pope Francis’ special turn on this approach to pastoral care is to insist, with strong support from Thomas Aquinas, on the blend of failure and aspiration in most human lives.

In traditional moral and spiritual theology, there was a conviction that one had to turn one’s back on a life of sin and only then to make progress in the Christian life. Even St. Ignatius made this assumption, presenting in the Spiritual Exercises two sets of rules, one for those “going from mortal sin to mortal sin” and another for those advancing in the Christian life.

Francis believes, however, that realism in pastoral care and the pastoral example Jesus has given suggest that spiritual aspiration is at work in those who might be regarded as sinners: “Following this divine pedagogy, the Church turns with love to those who participate in her life in an imperfect manner: she seeks the grace of conversion for them; she encourages them to do good, to take loving care of each other and to serve the community in which they live and work” (No. 78).

Appealing to Aquinas, the Second Vatican Council, the assemblies of the Synod of Bishops in 2014 and 2015 and standard moral theology to substantiate his arguments, Pope Francis believes men and women can fall short of the moral “ideals” (that is what he seems to prefer to call them), and still bear within them seeds of a Gospel life. These seeds may be found in natural marriage, in the marital practices of other religious traditions and cultures and in imperfect marital situations.

Pastors, the pope teaches, “are not only responsible for promoting Christian marriage, but also the ‘pastoral discernment of the situations of a great many who no longer live this reality’” (No. 293). In dialogue with parishioners they must discern in marriages and family life “elements that can foster evangelization and human and spiritual growth.”

Francis, Family and Feminism

By Megan K. McCabe

In “Amoris Laetitia” Pope Francis clearly states the important contribution of feminism to the world and church. He sharply condemns any view that would blame “women’s emancipation” for the many ways in which women’s bodies are reduced to objects, including surrogacy, commercialization and sexualization in the media. The pope maintains these attitudes are the result of male chauvinism. The commodification of the female body, then, is the result of sexism. In his reaffirmation of the church’s stance against all forms of abuse against women, the pope writes, “we must…see in the women’s movement the working of the Spirit for a clearer recognition of the dignity and rights of women” (No. 54).

Further, he seems to take the teeth out of the idea of complementarity. Some forms of secular feminism see gender roles as socially constructed and distinct from biological sex. Francis rejects this view, maintaining the perspective that biological sex and gender are not the same but are deeply related. Still, when he discusses masculinity and femininity, he is critical of gender stereotypes that would limit a person’s way of being in the world. He explains that “masculinity and femininity are not rigid categories” (No. 286). Women have the capacity for leadership, and men have to take on tasks in the family in order to “accommodate the wife’s work schedule.” Here he seems to be breaking down gender roles that place women in the home and men in the world that gender complementarity would seem to support.

These small tonal shifts offer a subtle development in the way the church relates to feminism. In “The Joy of Love,” the pope offers hope and belonging to many women who feel pain about belonging in the church, or who may have one foot out the door.

The Listening Pope

By Kevin Ahern

‘Amoris Laetitia” reflects Pope Francis’ Jesuit spirituality in its call for a more listening and discerning church. While he only references the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola three times, Ignatian spirituality is deeply present as he proposes a pastoral response to challenges facing the family. Chapter 8, for example, invites the church to adopt a “process of accompaniment and discernment,” which would include assisting families in “an examination of conscience” (No. 300).

Francis also includes dozens of references to documents produced by Vatican offices, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine. For me, however, the most surprising references in the text are to non-Catholic sources. In No. 129 he references a scene from the “film Babette’s Feast, when the generous cook receives a grateful hug” as an example of the need to cultivate and share love. In No. 149, Francis refers to the “teachings of some Eastern masters who urge us to expand our consciousness.” Several times, he draws from the work of poets and writers from the last century, including Jorge Luis Borges, Octavio Paz, Antonin-Gilbert Sertillanges, O.P., Gabriel Marcel and Mario Benedetti.

But it is perhaps his inclusion of two Protestant figures that will surprise and inspire many. In his reflection on the meaning of love, Francis offers an extensive and powerful quote from Martin Luther King Jr., whom the pope describes as meeting “every kind of trial and tribulation with fraternal love” (No. 188). Later, in Chapter 9, Francis quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer in laying out a deeper spirituality of “exclusive and free love.”

By engaging the experiences and wisdom of sources beyond the traditional reference points of Scripture, popes and saints, Francis models in “The Joy of Love” the type of listening and discerning church that he believes can address many of the problems facing the family today.

Look to the Margins

By Meghan J. Clark

In “The Joy of Love” Pope Francis is attentive to the pressures and struggles of families living in poverty, but he also highlights another group on the margins: victims of domestic violence. According to the World Health Organization, “One in three (35 percent) of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.”

Christianity, according to Francis, has no place for views of marriage in which women are subjugated. In a particularly honest and critical treatment of St. Paul, he rejects any interpretation of Ephesians that subjugates women or legitimizes sexual submission (No. 156). Subjugation and manipulation lead to violence, which frequently escalates; according to the World Health Organization, “Globally, as many as 38 percent of murders of women are committed by an intimate partner.”

Questions of domestic violence also affect the larger society. Pope Francis’ condemnation of the logic of the market (No. 201) is reminiscent of “The Joy of the Gospel,” in which he argued that inequality spawns violence. This violence infects society, but often begins at home (No. 59-60, 51). As brothers and sisters, we must accompany and stand with survivors of domestic violence and child abuse. We need greater support and pastoral training for priests, lay ministers and community members to recognize and respond to these situations of violence.

Pope Francis also upholds the dignity of survivors, recognizing that “in some cases, respect for one’s own dignity and the good of the children requires not giving in to excessive demands or preventing a grave injustice, violence, or chronic ill-treatment” (No. 241). This separation may not just be “inevitable,” but “morally necessary.” Pope Francis is clear that it is not acceptable to sacrifice women subjected to violence in the name of “traditional” and “indissoluble” marriage. The substance on this subject is not new, but the prominence and strength of the pope’s statements are important. Embracing the full dignity of women and girls begins in the home. In “The Joy of Love” Pope Francis reminds us that violence against women is a family issue.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Lisa Weber
1 year 7 months ago
Thank you for an informative set of articles.

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