In Amoris Laetitia, who is admonishing whom?

In a document with much to recommend it, the final effect nonetheless is to lead us to conclude that no “sin” has ever occurred; everything has an excusing cause.

Pope Francis greets newly married couples during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican in this Sept. 30, 2015, file photo. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)

In anticipating the publication of the Holy Father’s reflections on the synods, I was prepared for the worst, something that might well have touched the infallibility issues. As I finished a first, not overly careful reading, I thought that the papal presentation was in fact generally quite good, even profound in many places. I was, of course, amused by the title—Amoris Laetitia—as it seemed like a title more likely to have come from Ovid or Catullus than even from a Borgia pope. Then there was the same title in the light of C.S. Lewis’ Four Loves and a similar consideration found in Benedict’s Deus Caritas Est on the different meanings of “love”—agape, phila, eros, and storge. But most of these important distinctions found their way into the present document, not just the eros (amor) one, though that was there too in a very careful manner.

The Pope’s reflections take some 262 pages. They obviously cover a lot of matter, but almost everything presented does revolve around the family and its reality—from conception to death and beyond. Some concern was expressed that a document of this length would inevitably lead to myriads of “interpretations” and controversies. How many people will read such a “book”? But John Paul II’s encyclical on the missions was 124 pages long and Deus Caritas Est is 102 pages. Evidently, Pope Francis was determined to present a clear and complete overview of the various two-year discussions in the synod. No one’s contribution was going to be left out.

All aspects of family life, in one way or another, are covered in an orderly, systematic, and scholarly fashion. This presentation is not meant to be a “definitive work,” but it is one that is quite insightful and complete. It obviously contains input from many sources from around the world, particularly conferences of bishops. It is both homey and scholarly. The work of previous popes on the family—Pius XI, Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict, as well as Aquinas—is clearly evident. The refrain recurs: the settled tradition of the Church on marriage cannot and will not be changed.

One can quibble about differing points. In #25, the Pope talks about unemployment and its effect on the family, a theme that comes up later. One always has the impression that the Pope thinks that employment is caused by the government, which is, more often than not, a generator of unemployment. In the next section, the issue of sin comes up. It seems that the main “sin” has to do with environment, as if, say, digging coal, or something like that, were the big moral problem. But this document really does not go into these things. I do not recall the word “periphery” even being mentioned.

The emphasis is on the family—what it is, what makes it work or not work, how it is related to Christ. It has many tender and moving reflections on family and marital life. We might have hoped for a shorter document with more succinct points, but, as I read it, we would, in a shorter document, miss something that obviously came out of the synod about the real issues of family life. The document bears leisurely reading wherein each point can be appreciated and reflected upon.

One thing is quite clear. There is no room for a definition of “marriage” that includes same-sex “couples.” This arrangement is, happily, simply rejected out of hand, as if its disorder is too obvious to need detailed discussion. What will undoubtedly be emphasized in the public media will be the issues of divorce, remarriage, and common-law marriages. I may be wrong, but I do not think this document will need the usual “explanations” of what the Pope “really” meant by this or that comment. These more controversial issues are not broached until late in the letter after all the central issues of good marriages have been treated. The Pope takes care to insist that his concern for the people in what used to be called “bad” marriages does not obviate the importance of the way marriages ought to be. This same concern holds also for discussions about issues contained in Humanae Vitae. The point was not to find a way around them but to teach and know ways to practice them that make sense. John Paul II, more than anyone, had shown how this can be done. 

The burden of the Pope’s final discussion on marital problems—such as divorce, living together, and unfaithfulness—is to picture the Church, not as a judge or bureaucratic organization, but as a compassionate mother willing to listen and to stay with someone through his trials. It would be difficult to know what else to call this section but an exercise in sophisticated casuistry. Every effort is made to excuse or understand how one who is in such a situation is not really responsible for it. There was ignorance, or passion, or confusion. We are admonished not to judge anyone. And we are to welcome anyone and make every effort to make him feel at home in Church and as a neighbor. Attention is paid to victims of divorce who are treated unfairly, and especially children. But the prime interest is in mercy and compassion. God already forgives everything and so should we. The intellectual precision that the Holy Father uses to excuse or lessen guilt is cause for some reflection. The law cannot change but the “gradual” leading up to understanding this failure to observe the law takes time and patience.

But when we add it all up, it often seems that the effect of this approach is to lead us to conclude that no “sin” has ever occurred. Everything has an excusing cause. If this conclusion is correct, we really have no need for mercy, which has no meaning apart from actual sin and its free recognition. One goes away from this approach not being sorry for his sins but relieved in realizing that he has never really sinned at all. Therefore, there is no pressing need to concern oneself too much with these situations.

One wonders sometimes, in reflecting on this innovative approach, whether Christ himself or Paul really meant anything by their often blunt judgments and admonitions on our deeds. If love and mercy are so understood as to make us see that nothing really wrong occurred, how are we to read a passage like the following: “God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him avoids condemnation, but whoever does not believe is already condemned for not believing in the name of God’s only son” (John 3:17-18). We can find many such frank passages in the Scripture.

In 1 Thessalonians, we read: “We beg you, brothers, to respect those whose task it is to exercise authority in the Lord and admonish you…” (5:12). The principal question that one is left with in reading this wide-ranging document is: who is admonishing whom and for what? 


·         Further reading – Amoris Laetitia: A CWR Symposium 

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).