The Mystery of Matrimony and Amoris Laetitia

An overview of the sources and contents of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on the family.

The Mystery of Matrimony and

The good news about the post-synodal exhortation Amoris Laetitia, “On Love in the Family,” is that none of the outrageous statements and proposals that marred the prefabricated 2014 “Synod Report” made it into the final cut. The document offers keen insights into the family in the modern world, valuable spiritual advice for spouses and parents, and a flurry of recommendations for more effective pastoral ministry to families.

Repetitiousness is inevitable when summarizing the deliberations of a Synod of Bishops—in this case an Extraordinary General Assembly (October 2014) followed by an Ordinary General Assembly (October 2015). The 254-page text is well organized, though, and the muddle is kept to a minimum.

This article describes the sources and contents of the document’s nine chapters, noting highlights and flagging one passage that could easily be misinterpreted.

The first sentence, “The joy of love experienced by families is also the joy of the Church,” announces in simple, direct language that the Christian family is the domestic church. Although “the two-year Synod process” bore “rich fruits” (paragraph 7), “the complexity of the issues that arose revealed the need for continued open discussion of a number of doctrinal, moral, spiritual, and pastoral questions” (par. 2).

Chapter 1 recalls, “The Bible is full of families, births, love stories and family crises.” Marriage is inscribed in creation (Genesis 1-2); the family becomes the vehicle for salvation history (covenant with Abraham) and figures prominently in the Wisdom literature. Pope Francis cites Jesus’ teachings about the family but also his encounters with them and parables about them. He relates Scripture passages to current concerns (unemployment, desertification) and thus casts his nets widely.

Chapter 2, “The Experiences and Challenges of Families,” catalogues the difficult situations of many families today and diagnoses fears and attitudes that cause or compound many of them. It quotes extensively from the 2014 Synod Report, the 2015 Final Report, and recent statements by bishops’ conferences on three continents. African Bishop Barthélemy Adoukonou incisively critiqued the working document for the 2015 synod[1] for its reliance on sociology almost to the exclusion of faith and its tendency to lump morally different situations together, thus hampering discernment instead of assisting it. Happily, these flaws have been corrected in the exhortation. Some surprising juxtapositions remain—out-of-wedlock and sexually exploited children in the same paragraph (45)—but the common element is always clear, in this case violation of the child’s dignity and rights. The comparison between caring for the disabled in a family and welcoming migrants may seem puzzling; the point is that only the latter is politically correct nowadays. “The synod’s reflections show us that there is no stereotype of the ideal family, but rather a challenging mosaic…” (57).

Chapter 3, “The Vocation of the Family,” reaffirms that Christian marriage is a blessing and indissolubility is a gift, not a burden. It rapidly lists the documents of Vatican II and recent popes that teach about the family. Matrimony is then examined as a sacrament, in which “married couples may be led patiently further on in order to achieve a deeper grasp and a fuller integration of this mystery in their lives” (citing Familiaris Consortio, 9). Elements of good in imperfect families are acknowledged. The chapter restates in pastoral language the Church’s perennial teaching that contraceptive acts and abortion are intrinsic evils (80, 83).

Chapter 4, “Love in Marriage,” starts with a meditation on each phrase of the Pauline hymn to love (1 Corinthians 13). The passage is a gem and should be required reading for all pre-Cana courses. It shows an unfamiliar side of Jorge Bergoglio as a retreat master and author of books on popular spirituality. In the following section, “Growing in Conjugal Love,” he presents the “indissoluble exclusivity” and “mutual subjection” of marriage in a positive, practical light. He cites extensively the catecheses by St. John Paul II known as “The Theology of the Body.”

Chapter 5, “Love made fruitful,” offers encouragement to welcome new life: “With great affection I urge all future mothers: keep happy and let nothing rob you of the interior joy of motherhood.” The Holy Father teaches firmly and gently about parental love, siblings, and the elderly in an extended family, quoting his own catecheses on the family, given in early 2015, which combine homespun wisdom with theological depth.

Chapter 6 focuses on strategic moments at which the Gospel of the Family can be instilled and ways to reinforce it: marriage preparation, the early years of marriage, regular reception of the sacrament of reconciliation, mentoring by older couples. In the English edition of the exhortation, crucial references to magisterial teaching about family planning are obscured by missing hyphens; they should read “Humanae Vitae (10-14)” and “Familiaris Consortio (14; 28-35).” The Pope recalls the changes he made to canon law to facilitate the procedures of marriage tribunals (244) but immediately adds that the ones most affected by divorce are the children (245). “I make this appeal to parents who are separated: ‘Never, ever, take your child hostage!’” Grieving a death in the family can be eased by prayer and reliance on the communion of saints (254).

Chapter 7, “Towards a Better Education of Children,” recommends training in ethics and the formation of conscience and responsibility rather than mere control. It counsels “patient realism,” since growth in understanding and virtue is gradual. Catholic schools are helpful, but family life is the primary setting for both sex education and handing on the faith. “It is always irresponsible to invite adolescents to toy with their bodies and their desires, as if they possessed the maturity, values, mutual commitment and goals proper to marriage” (283).

Chapter 8, “Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness,” addresses “irregular” situations (so called because nowadays culpability for an objectively disordered living arrangement cannot be assumed). Here again the Church is a “field hospital,” and ways of reintegrating persons who live in such situations are suggested. Discernment of individual cases is always required, and all appearances of double standards must be avoided (300). Citing John Paul II, the exhortation recommends “gradualness in pastoral care” of persons in de facto unions and civil marriages, while clearly rejecting an erroneous “gradualness of the law.” Unlike the Synod Reports, it actually quotes the words from Familiaris Consortio about “the possibility of living ‘as brothers and sisters’ which the Church offers” to those who have divorced and remarried (footnote 329).          

The discussion of factors that may mitigate the guilt of those in “irregular” situations (301-303) jumbles the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas and the Catechism on different subjects (virtues and responsibility, respectively). Under the heading “Rules and Discernment” Pope Francis quotes Summa Theologiae I-II, question 94, article 4 to suggest that in pastoral discernment a distinction should be made between “general principles” and “matters of detail” where there may be “defects.” The passage in question from the Summa analyzes the natural law, a universal order of reason setting general rules that guide ethical action. It is difficult to see how this applies to questions about Christian marriage, which is a sacramental mystery (as the exhortation repeatedly insists, par. 31, etc.) governed by divine positive law (Christ’s teachings in the Gospels) and the Church’s laws concerning matrimony (codified in canon law). If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that this mention of the natural law could help sort out the pastoral needs in a situation in which only one spouse is baptized (a “natural,” non-sacramental marriage).[2] Watch for a debate about the meaning and applicability of Amoris Laetitia 304 ff. Chapter 8 concludes with a section on “The Logic of Pastoral Mercy.”

The last chapter, Chapter 9, “The Spirituality of Marriage and the Family,” puts all the reflections and recommendations back into the context of charity and “supernatural communion.” “If the family is centered on Christ, he will unify and illume its entire life. Moments of pain and difficulty will be experienced in union with the Lord’s cross, and his closeness will make it possible to surmount them” (317). Family prayer expresses and strengthens this paschal faith; the marital covenant is strengthened by the Eucharist. “All family life is a ‘shepherding’ in mercy” (322).

Finally, the exhortation calls us to rediscover the richness of “the teaching of the Master (cf. Mt 22:30) and Saint Paul (cf. 1 Cor 7:29-31) on marriage. It ends with a prayer to the Holy Family.


·         Further reading – Amoris Laetitia: A CWR Symposium 

[1] Bishop Barthélemy Adoukonou, “Start from Living Faith: An African Take on the Instrumentum laboris”, in: Christ’s New Homeland—Africa: Contribution to the Synod on the Family by African Pastors (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2015), 34-53.

[2] See Théodore Adrien Cardinal Sarr, “The Challenge of Mixed and Interfaith Marriages”, in: Christ’s New Homeland—Africa, 127-142. “The encounter between Catholics and Muslims is inevitable in some countries like Senegal, and these may lead individuals to consider interfaith marriage…. While the Christian is formed to contract and live a monogamous, indissoluble marriage, the Muslim grows up thinking that a marriage can involve polygamy and end in divorce” (134-135). 

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About Michael J. Miller 127 Articles
Michael J. Miller Michael J. Miller translated Priesthood and Diaconate by Gerhard Ludwig Müller for Ignatius Press and Eucharist and Divorce: A Change in Doctrine? for the Pontifical John Paul II Institute.