image«The Joy of Love»
The Structure and Meaning of Pope Francis’ Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation

Antonio Spadaro S.J.

(This is a first draft translation of my article published in Italian on


(translation by Reyanna Rice)

The family is a challenging journey, as it is throughout life, for that matter.  The strength, the burden of humanity contained therein are incalculable: the mutual help, the relationships that grow with the growth of the person, the generativity, the educational accompaniment, the sharing of joys and difficulties.  The family is the place in which one lives «the joy of love».  There are so many signs that speak of the crisis of marriage, but despite everything «the desire to marry and form a family remains vibrant, especially among young people, and this is an inspiration to the Church » (AL 1; RS 2)[1]

The first task of pastors must be that of taking care of this joy and to value what is attractive in family life.  It is a fragile and complex experience –and for this reason, rich–, that brings into play not ideas, but people.  Moreover, «no family drops down from heaven perfectly formed; families need constantly to grow and mature in the ability to love » (AL 325).

The meaning of the title  

Amoris laetitia (The Joy of Love) is the title of Pope Francis’ post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation, signed March 19, 2016 and published the following April 8th.  The title, in its reference to joy, is assonant in inspiration to Evangelii gaudium (EG), the previous Apostolic Exhortation.  What are for Pope Francis gaudium, laetitia?  That term «joy» in its various declination is one of the more recurrent words of the Bergolian vocabulary.  He declines it often with additives such as «new», «creative», «spiritual», «profound», «intimate», «immense»,«irrepressible», «internal», «full», «escatological»[2].  In the Joy of the Gospel he had also dedicated in a specific manner some meditations in his Spiritual Exercise courses.[3]  This is Pope Francis’ fundamental certainty: «The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and the lives of all who encounter Jesus» (EG 1).

Of what joy is Pope Francis speaking here?  It is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, that flows from the heart of the risen Christ (cfr EG 2)[4].  Only the encounter with the Lord can give this joy, not an ethical decision or an adherence to an idea.  The Pontiff is in full tune with what his predecessor said in the Encyclical Deus Caritas est: «I never tire of repeating those words of Benedict XVI which take us to the very heart of the Gospel: “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty the idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction”» (EG 7)

In particular, the expression «amoris laetitia» was used by Benedict XVI in his Apostolic letter in the form of the motu proprio Porta Fidei, with which he had called the Year of Faith: «The joy of love (amoris laetitia), the answer to the drama of suffering and pain, the power of forgiveness in the face of an offence received and the victory of life over the emptiness of death: all this finds fulfilment in the mystery of his [of Jesus Christ] Incarnation, in his becoming man, in his sharing our human weakness so as to transform it by the power of his resurrection» (n.  13). This implicit citation helps us understand how our humanity, of which family life is an integral part, is transformed by the power of the resurrection of the Lord.  The «joy of love» finds in the Risen One its fulfilment.

This Exhortation is, first of all, a message of faith in a time in which «to get involved» in family life has become something complex.  Man and woman are interpreting themselves in a manner different from the past, with different categories.  The anthropology with which the Church has traditionally referenced marriage and the language with which she has expressed it remain a solid reference, the fruit of wisdom and secular experience.  However, it seems that the man and woman to which the Church addresses herself today are no longer able to understand it as it one time, or they do not consider it sufficient in any case, or are not apprised of the power of laetitia.  How are we to position ourselves in a correct manner, that is evangelical, before these challenges?

A fruit of the synodal journey

This is why Pope Francis opened a «synodal process», that was composed of two Synods: one extraordinary and one ordinary.  The first one was dedicated to the theme The pastoral challenges on the family in the context of Evangelization (October 5 – 19, 2014)[5].  In reality it was a milestone within a broader process in the month of November 2013, when a «preparatory document» was issued that included a broad questionnaire for the faithful and the local Churches.  The document, very nimble, replaced the Lineamenta and had the objective of involving the people of God in the synodal process from start.[6]  From the Extraordinary Assembly an Ordinary followed (October 4 – 25, 2015) on the theme Jesus Christ reveals the mystery and the vocation of the family[7]

The Holy Father asked the Synodal Fathers to be frank in speaking and humble in listening, knowing that to guide the discussions of all is the good of the Church, the family and, definitely, the suprema lex, that is the salus animarum (cfr CIC 1752).  And this always therefore without ever putting into discussion the fundamental truth of the Sacrament of Matrimony: indissolubility, unity, faithfulness, and procreativity, that is openness to life.  In effect, the two Synods have looked into the face of reality, naming it, even in the more problematic aspects.  In the discussions the concrete existence of people was welcomed, more than talking of family such as it should be, that is in the abstract.

The two Synods have produced two conclusive reports, called respectively Relatio SynodiI and Relatio Finalis.  This last one was approved in full with the qualifying majority of  2/3 of the Synodal Fathers.  In his Apostolic Exhortation, Pope Francis has broadly enhanced valorized the Relatio Finalis in his text by substantially welcoming not only some citations, but the general setting and approach to problems.  To these citations are added references to documents from the Episcopal Conferences of Latin America and the Caribbean, Mexico, Kenya, Australia, Columbia, Italy, Korea, and Chile.  Therefore, Amoris Laetitia finds its roots in a broad reflection of the episcopate, and in this sense is to be considered the fruit of a wide synodal and ecclesial process of reflection on the family.  It expresses an ecclesiology of communion and it represents an effective witnessing.

But obviously the Exhortation, and its breadth, also echoes the previous pontifical Magisterium.  Certainly, Francis often makes reference to the message that he himself has wanted to give with his catechesis on the family, begun in December 2014 and developed in the entire time between the two Synods and to the vigil of the Jubilee of Mercy.  But, broad space is also given to catechesis of St john Paul II, in particular to that on the «theology of the body» (1980) and on the «language of the body» (1984), that was evoked at different times in the course of the Synods.  Naturally, and on the basis of how much was expressed by the participant Bishops at the Synods, it is not lacking in substantial references to Gaudium et spes of the Vatican Council II (nn.  47- 52), to Humanae vitae of Paul VI, to Familaris consortio of St john Paul II, and to Deus Caritas est of Benedict XVI.

These references are accompanied by citations of significant personalities like Martin Luther King, Erich Fromm, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Of note is a citation from the film Babette’s Feast, that the pope loves very much and recalls here to explain the concept of gratuity and of celebration.  Significant is the citation from Te uiero by the  Uruguayan poet of Italian origins Mario Benedetti.  An Exhortation on love, not on the doctrine of marriage.

Before continuing in the reflection, we need to specify well the topic of the Exhortation.  It is, as the subtitle clearly certifies, «on love in the family».  Therefore, it is not only on the doctrine of marriage and the family.  This is an important key to read the document.  You will understand it in the analysis that we do, but already here we can, from the outset, warn the reader.  For this reason, even before those  «who have difficulties in living God’s law to the full, the invitation to pursue the via caritatis  must be clearly heard »  (AL 306).  It might appear singular how at this point the Pontiff cites various Biblical passages that have a theme of the works of mercy that cover sins (cfr AL 306): «love covers a multitude of sins» ( 1 Pt 4:8); «redeem your sin with alms giving and your iniquity with acts of mercy towards the afflicted» (Dn 4: 24);«water puts out the raging fire, almsgiving atones for sins» (Sir 3:30).  In reality here comes into focus what really counts: love.  Therefore, the Exhortation is an invitation to whoever lives in irregular situations to journey a path of merciful love towards others.  If it is not possible to change an irregular situation, it is always possible to journey on this way of salvation.

But the entire document insists on pastoral work to share the growth of love: «All this occurs through a process of constant growth. The very special form of love that is marriage is called to embody what Saint Thomas Aquinas said about charity in general.

“Charity”, he says, “by its very nature, has no limit to its increase, for it is a participation in that infinite charity which is the Holy Spirit…Nor on the part of the subject can its limit be fixed, because as charity grows, so too does its capacity for an even greater increase”» (AL 134, emphasis ours).  This, on the other hand, also means that we need «to stop demanding of our interpersonal relationships a perfection, a purity of intentions and a consistency which we will only encounter in the Kingdom to come» (AL 325)

Then «we cannot encourage a path of fidelity and mutual self-giving without encouraging the growth, strengthening and deepening of conjugal and family love. » (AL 89).  It is precisely growth in the capacity to love that must guide «the pastoral effort to strengthen marriages and thus to prevent their breakdown» (AL 307)

A multifaceted architectural structure

The Apostolic Exhortation is subdivided into nine chapters and beyond 300 paragraphs.  It is striking for its breadth, due to the wealth of two years of reflection that has made up the synodal journey.  The Pontiff himself does not advise a «rushed reading»: if anything it will be patiently deepened by reading it one part after the other, or it even may be used looking for what serves «their specific needs» (AL 7).

The encyclical opens with six introductory paragraphs, that make clear the full awareness of the complexity of the theme that requires deepening.  It affirms that the interventions of the Fathers of the Synod have composed a «multifaceted gem» (AL 4), that is preserved.  In this sense, the pope writes that «not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium » (AL 3).  Then, for some questions «each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs For “cultures are in fact quite diverse and every general principle… needs to be inculturated, if it is to be respected and applied”» (ibid).  This principle of inculturation proves truly important even in the way of setting out and understanding the problems, that, beyond dogmatic questions well defined by the teaching of the Church, cannot be «globalized»[8]

But, above all, the Pope immediately affirmed and with clarity that we need to get out of the muddy quagmire of the contraposition between anxiety about change and pure and simple application of abstract norms.  He writes: «The debates carried on in the media, in certain publications and even among the Church’s ministers, range from an immoderate desire for total change without sufficient reflection or grounding, to an attitude that would solve everything by applying general rules or deriving undue conclusions from particular theological considerations » (AL 2).

On this basis, the pope articulates his reflection beginning from Sacred Scripture with the first chapter.  The Bible «is full of families, births, love stories and family crises. » (AL 8)[9], and beginning from this information you can meditate how the family is not an abstract ideal, but a «”craftsmanship” task» (AL 16, in Italian), that one expresses with tenderness (cfr AL 28), but it’s also confronted with sin since from the beginning, when the relationship of love is transformed into domination (cfr AL 19).  Then the Word of God «is not a series of abstract ideas but rather a source of comfort and companionship for every family that experiences difficulties or suffering. » (AL 22).

Beginning from the biblical terrain, in the second chapter the Pope considers the actual situation of the family, keeping «firmly grounded» (AL 6) and confronting some challenges: from the migratory phenomenon to the ideological negation of sexual difference; from the attention for persons with disabilities to respect of  elders; from the juridical deconstruction of the family to the violence against women.  The Pontiff insists on concreteness, that is a fundamental cipher of the Exhortation.  And, concreteness and realism are what places a substantial difference between «theories» and «ideological» interpretation of reality.

Citing Familiaris consortio, Francis affirms that «we do well to focus on concrete realities, since “the call and the demands of the Spirit resound in the events of history”, and through these “the Church can also be guided to a more profound understanding of the inexhaustible mystery of marriage and the family”» (AL 31).  Without listening to reality therefore, it is not possible to understand either the needs of the present or the appeal of the Spirit.  The Pope notes that exaggerated individualism makes it difficult today to give oneself to another person in a generous way (cfr AL 33).  Here is an interesting snapshot of the situation: «The fear of loneliness and the desire for stability and fidelity exist side by side with a growing fear of entrapment in a relationship that could hamper the achievement of one’s personal goals» (AL 34).  The humility of realism helps to not present «a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families » (AL 36).  Idealism alienates from consideration what marriage is, that is a «dynamic path to personal development and fulfilment » (AL 37).  For this reason you do not even have to believe that families being supported «simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues»  (ibid), with the risk of  losing «compassion and closeness to the frailty of individuals like the Samaritan woman or the woman caught in adultery. » (AL 38).

The third chapter is dedicated to some essential elements of the Church’s teaching about marriage and family.  The presence of this chapter is important, because it illustrates in a synthetic manner, in 30 paragraphs, the vocation of the family according to the Gospel as it was received by the Church in time, above all regarding the theme of indissolubility.  But,the Pontiff clearly asks something immediately: that you place  all the doctrine on marriage and the family under the light of kerygma. «In and among families, the Gospel message should always resound; the core of that message ,the kerygma, is what is “most beautiful, most excellent, most appealing and at the same time most necessary”» (AL 58).  And, this because «all Christian formation consists of entering more deeply into the kerygma » (ibid).  Therefore «our teaching on marriage and the family cannot fail to be inspired and transformed by this message of love and tenderness; otherwise, it becomes nothing more than the defense of a dry and lifeless doctrine.  The mystery of the Christian family can be fully understood only in the light of the Father’s infinite love revealed in Christ, who gave himself up for our sake and who continues to dwell in our midst» (A.L 59).  Therefore—the Pope-continues-«I now wish to turn my gaze to the living Christ, who is at the heart of so many love stories, and to invoke the fire of the Spirit upon all the world’s families» (ibid).  Here there is truly the pulsing heart of the entire Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Francis.

In his wide look, it includes reflection on «imperfect situations».  In fact we read: «Discernment of the presence of ‘seeds of the Word’ in other cultures (cfr Ad gentes, 11) can also apply to the reality of marriage and family» (AL 77).  The reflection also includes «family wounds», in the face of which the Pope affirms, broadly citing the Relato Finalis of the Synod: «it is always necessary to recall this general principle: ‘Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations (Familaris consorti, 84)» (AL 79).  Therefore, while the doctrine expresses with clarity, they are to avoid judgments that do not take into account the complexity of the diverse situations, and it is necessary to be attentive to the way in which the people live and suffer because of their condition.

The fourth chapter is about love in marriage, and it illustrates it beginning from the hymn of 1 Cor 13:4 – 7.  The chapter is a true and proper, detailed, inspired and poetic exegesis of the Pauline text.  We could say that is a collection of fragments of a loving discourse that is attentive to describing human love in concrete absolute terms.  You remain struck by the capacity for psychological introspection that marks this exegesis.  The psychological deepening enters into the world of the emotions of the spouses—positive and negative—and in the erotic dimension of love.

In its way, this chapter constitutes a treatise within the broader discussion, fully aware of the everyday life of love and enemy of any idealism: «there is no need to lay upon two limited persons—writes the Pope–the tremendous burden of having to reproduce perfectly the union existing between Christ and his Church, for marriage as a sign entails “a dynamic process…, one which advances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God”» (AL 122).  On the other hand, the Pope insists in a strong and decisive manner on the fact that «it is in the very nature of conjugal love to be definitive» (AL 123), precisely within that «mixture of enjoyment and struggles, tensions and repose, pain and relief, satisfactions and longings, annoyances and pleasures » (AL 126) that is exactly marriage.  The chapter concludes with a reflection on the «transformation of love», so that «longer life spans now mean that close and exclusive relationships must last for four, five or even six decades; consequently, the initial decision has to be frequently renewed» (AL 163).  The physical aspect changes and the loving attraction is not less but changes; sexual desire with time can transform into the desire for intimacy and complicity. «There is no guarantee that we will feel the same way all through life. Yet if a couple can come up with a shared and lasting life project, they can love one another and live as one until death do them part, enjoying an enriching intimacy» (AL 163).

The fifth chapter is entirely concentrated on the fertility and the generativity of love.  It speaks in a profound psychological and spiritual manner of the welcoming of new life, of precisely the expectation of pregnancy, of the love of the mother and father.  But also, of an enlarged fruitfulness and life in the family in a broad sense, with the presence of aunts and uncles, cousins and even neighbors.  Amoris laetitia does not take into consideration the «mononuclear» family, but he is well aware of family as networks of broad relationships.  The mysticism itself of the Sacrament of Matrimony has a profound social character (cfr AL 186).  And within this social dimension the Pope underlines in a particular way both the specific role of the relationship between young people and the elderly, and the relationship between brothers and sisters as an apprenticeship of growth in relationship with others.

In the sixth chapter the Pontiff addresses some pastoral ways that orient and build solid and fertile families according to God’s plan. But, it has to be clear that the Pope prefers to allow family pastoral practice to local creativity: «Different communities will have to devise more practical and effective initiatives that respect both the Church’s teaching and local problems and needs» (AL 199). This is why he does not claim to present a pastoral of the family, but he limits himself to collect «some more significant pastoral challenges» (ibid). He a reaffirms that the family is a subject, and not only an object, of evangelization. He notes «that ordained ministers often lack the training needed to deal with the complex problems currently facing families» (AL 202). If on the one hand we need to improve the psycho-affective formation of seminarians and involving the family more in the formation of the ministry (cfr AL 203), on the other hand «the experience of the broad oriental tradition of a married clergy could also be drawn upon» (AL 202).

Then the Pope addresses the theme of guiding engaged couples in a journey of preparation for marriage, of accompanying of spouses in the first years of married life, but also in some complex situations and in crises, knowing that «Each crisis has a lesson to teach us; we need to learn how to listen for it with the ear of the heart» (AL 232).  He is analyzing some causes of crisis.  Among these, a delayed affect if maturation, in which «yet the fact is that only in their forties do some people achieve a maturity that should have come at the end of adolescence» (AL 239).  Finally, he speaks also of the accompaniment of abandoned, separated, or divorced people, and also of situations in which death plants its sting.

The seventh chapter is dedicated entirely to the education of children: their ethical formation, the value of penalty as a stimulus, patient realism, sexual education, the transmission of the faith and, more in general, family life as an educative context.  The practical wisdom that shines through from every paragraph and above all the attention to graduality and too little steps «that can be understood, accepted and appreciated» (AL 271) are interesting.  There is a particularly meaningful and pedagogically fundamental paragraph in which Francis clearly affirms that «obsession, however, is not education. We cannot control every situation that a child may experience» (AL 261).  Therefore «here it remains true that “time is greater than space”».  That is to say, it is about generating processes more than dominating spaces.  If the parent is obsessed about knowing where to find his or her son or daughter and in controlling all their movements, he or she will seek only to dominate their space.  And, in this way the parent will not educate, will not strengthen nor will they prepare their son or daughter to face challenges.  That which principally concerns is generating in the child, with much love, processes of maturation of his or her freedom, of preparation, of integral growth, of the cultivation of an authentic autonomy» (ibid, emphasis ours).  You could apply this principle analogically to the preoccupation that mother Church has for all her children, that she educates them in the faith and to the faith.

The eighth chapter constitutes an invitation to mercy and to pastoral discernment in the face of situations that do not respond fully to what the Lord proposes.  The Pope here uses three very important verbs—to accompany, to discern and to integrate–,that are fundamental in addressing situations of complex or irregular fragility.  Then he takes into consideration the need for graduality in pastoral practice, the importance of discernment, the extenuating norms and circumstances in pastoral discernment; and finally that which he defines as the «logic of pastoral mercy».  On it the Pontiff writes: «At times we find it hard to make room for God’s unconditional love in our pastoral activity.  We put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance. That is the worst way of watering down the Gospel» (AL 311, emphasis ours).

Chapter eight is a delicate chapter, for reading what is required, remembering that «the Church’s task is often like that of a field hospital» (AL 291).  Here the pope takes up that which was the fruit of the reflection of the Synod on themes widely discussed.  He reiterates what Christian marriage is, and he adds that «some forms of union radically contradict this ideal, while others realize it in at least a partial and analogous way» (AL 292).  The Church, therefore,  «does not disregard the constructive elements in those situations which do not yet or no longer correspond to her teaching on marriage» (ibid).  We will deepen the content of this chapter in the pages following.

The ninth chapter is dedicated to conjugal and family spirituality, «made up of thousands of small but real gestures» (AL 315).  He says with clarity that «those who have deep spiritual aspirations should not feel that the family detracts from their growth in the life of the Spirit, but rather see it as a path which the Lord is using to lead them to the heights of mystical union» (AL 316).  «moments of joy, relaxation, celebration, and even sexuality can be experienced as a sharing in the full life of the resurrection» (AL 317).  He speaks than of prayer in the light of Easter, of the spirituality of exclusive and free love in the challenge and in the longing of aging and wearing themselves out together, reflecting God’s faithfulness (cfr AL 318).  And finally, he speaks of «a spirituality of care, consolation and incentive».  «All family life is a “shepherding” in mercy» (AL 322), says the Pope.  It is a profound «spiritual experience to contemplate our loved ones with the eyes of God and  to see Christ in them» (AL 323).

The Apostolic Exhortation concludes with a Prayer to the Holy Family, preceded by an appeal «Let us make this journey as families, let us keep walking together!» (AL 325).

As it is possible to already understand by a rapid examination of its contents, the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia intends to reiterate with strength not the «ideal» of the family, but its rich and complex reality.  There is, in its pages, an open, profound and positive gaze, that does not feed on abstractions or ideal projections, but on a pastoral attention to reality.  The document is a dense letter of spiritual ideas and practical wisdom, fruit of a concrete experience with people who really know what the family is and who have lived together for many years.  The Exhortation indeed speaks the language of experience and of lived daily life

Discernment, depth, compassionate closeness

Thus, it is possible to recognize some background attitudes of the Exhortation that, placed in continuity with the living Tradition of the Church, represents an evolution above all in those passages regarding the accompaniment of people in situations of fragility or irregularity.  The Pope has substantially welcomed what the synodal Fathers, at a qualifying majority of 2/3, have affirmed in the Relatio Finalis.  In this sense, the Exhortation is truly the fruits of an extensive and broadly shared synodal reflection.

A key word of the Exhortation is «discernment».  And, discernment makes direct reference to conscience and to historicity.  Pope Francis repeats many times that a danger to avoid, and in which reality is frequently lost, is that of being abstract, theoretical, idealistic.  At times, he writes «we have also proposed a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families. This excessive idealization, especially when we have failed to inspire trust in God’s grace, has not helped to make marriage more desirable and attractive, but quite the opposite» (AL 36).

Not only, but «We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life» (AL 37).  It would be to believe an illusion that people are reassured and consolidated in values solely because we insist on preaching doctrine without giving adequate «room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them» (AL 37, emphasis ours).

The Pope insists on a «a positive and welcoming pastoral approach capable of helping couples to grow in appreciation of the demands of the Gospel» (AL 38, emphasis ours. And instead «we have often been on the defensive, wasting pastoral energy on denouncing a decadent world without being proactive in proposing ways of finding true happiness. Many people feel that the Church’s message on marriage and the family does not clearly reflect the preaching and attitudes of Jesus, who set forth a demanding ideal yet never failed to show compassion and closeness to the frailty of individuals like the Samaritan woman or the woman caught in adultery» (ibid, emphasis ours).  Then, discernment, conscience, deepening, compassionate closeness, are key-words of the Apostolic Exhortation.

Wounds and these «irregular» situations live: they need «careful discerning»

Regarding wounded situations and those called «irregular», the Exhortation reflects the the Final Report of Synod overall criterion expressed by Saint John Paul II in Familiaris consorti with a good formula: «careful discernment of situations» (FC 84).  In fact, there is a difference «between those who have sincerely tried to save their first marriage and have been unjustly abandoned, and those who through their own grave fault have destroyed a canonically valid marriage» (FC 85). Francis fully assumes this perspective, that was reiterated and confirmed in the Realatio Synodi: «the discernment of pastors must always take place “by adequately distinguishing” with an approach which “carefully discerns situations”. We know that no “easy recipes” exist» (AL 298).

But there are also «“those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children’s upbringing, and are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably broken marriage had never been valid”» (FC 84;AL 298).  The Synod affirmed that it is the task of priests to «accompany [the divorced and remarried] in helping them on the path of discernment according to the teaching of the Church and the guidelines of the bishop» (AL 300, more literal translation from the Italian version). This itinerary imposes a pastoral discernment that makes reference to the authority of the Pastor, judge and doctor, who is first of all the «minister of divine mercy», as is written in the Apostolic Letter in the form of the motu proprio of Pope Francis Mitis et misericors Iesus.

The Exhortation recovers from the synodal document the path of discernment for individual cases without placing limits on integration, as it appeared in the past.  He declares further that you cannot negate that in some circumstances «imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified» (AL 302; cfr CCC 1735) due to diverse constraints. «For this reason—Pope Francis writes—, a negative judgment about an objective situation does not imply a judgment about the imputability or culpability of the person involved.  On the basis of these convictions, I consider very fitting what many Synod Fathers wanted to affirm: “Under certain circumstances people find it very difficult to act differently. […]  discernment, while taking into account a person’s properly formed conscience, must take responsibility for these situations. Even the consequences of actions taken are not necessarily the same in all cases”» (AL 302).[10] The conclusion is that the Pontiff, listening to the synodal Fathers, takes awareness that you can no longer talk of an abstract category of persons and confine the practices of integration within a rule completely general and valid in every case.[11]

Then, concludes the Pontiff, when you take into account the innumerable varieties of concrete situations, «it is understandable that neither the Synod nor this Exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases. What is possible is simply a renewed encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases, one which would recognize that, since “the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases”, the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same» (AL 300, emphasis ours)

This has nothing to do with a certain «situation ethics» or with an ethical individualism that leaves every ethical criteria to the individual conscience, jealously closed in on itself and made absolute arbiter of its determinations.  The reference to «the Gospel demands of truth and charity, as proposed by the Church» (AL 300) is for the Pontiff essential: these demands can never be substituted by the real and concrete conditions or circumstances in which you must act.  If anything, Francis affirms that it is necessary to remember that «The Church possesses a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations. Hence it can no longer simply be said that all those in any “irregular” situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace. More is involved here than mere ignorance of the rule. A subject may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding “its inherent values”, or be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin. As the Synod Fathers put it, “factors may exist which limit the ability to make a decision”» (AL 301, emphasis ours).

Therefore, the consequences or the facts of the norm must not necessarily be always the same, «this is also the case with regard to sacramental discipline, since discernment can recognize that in a particular situation no grave fault exists» (AL 300, n. 336).  «Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin –which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end» (AL 305).  And—it is stated—this help «In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, “I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy” (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. I would also point out that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak”» (AL 305, n. 351)[12]

From «Familiaris consortio» to «Amoris laetitia»

If we go back to Familiaris consortio, we can verify that the conditions placed 35 years ago by it were already a concretization more open and more attentive to the experience of the people, with respect to the preceding time.  On the divorced and civilly remarried the Apostolic Exhortation of St John Paul II (1981) affirmed: «I earnestly call upon pastors and the whole community of the faithful to help the divorced, and with solicitous care to make sure that they do not consider themselves as separated from the Church, for as baptized persons they can, and indeed must, share in her life» (FC 84).  On access to the sacraments, John Paul II reiterated the preceding norm, and always affirms that the divorced and civilly remarried and who live their conjugal life together, raising together children and sharing daily life, can take communion.  But it places a «condition» (that is at another level with respect to the norm): that of assuming «on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples» (ibid).

Therefore in Familiaris consortio the defacto norm does not apply always and in all cases.  In the situations described, it is already of an epiekeia about the application of the law to a concrete case, because, as the continence eliminates the sin of adultery, it does not always suppress  the contradiction between the marital breakup with the formation of a new couple—who live even so bonds of an affective character and of coexistence—and the Eucharist.

Regarding the sexual relationships, the formulation of St John Paul II required «taking on themselves the duty to live in complete continence»[13].  In Sacramentum caritatis Benedict XVI had renewed this concept, but with a different formulization: «the Church encourages these members of the faithful to commit themselves to living their relationship in fidelity to the demands of God’s law, as friends, as brother and sister» (SC 29, emphasis ours).  The «encouragement to the commitment» implies a journey and focuses more and in a more adequate manner the accent placed on the personal dimension of conscience.  Pope Francis moves forward on this line when he speaks of a «dynamic discernment», that «must remain ever open to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can enable the ideal to be more fully realized» (AL 303).  You cannot transform an irregular situation into a regular one, but paths of healing, of deepening, paths in which the law is lived step after step exist.  After all «the Church’s way, from the time of the Council of Jerusalem, has always been the way of Jesus, the way of mercy and reinstatement…The way of the Church is not to condemn anyone forever» (AL 296).

Negative precepts, general principles and practical reasons

Clearly, the preoccupation of St John Paul II in front of the growth of individualism and subjectivism in moral matters was clear.  We read in Veritatis splendor (VS): «The negative precepts of the natural law are universally valid. They oblige each and every individual, always and in every circumstance. It is a matter of prohibitions which forbid a given action semper et pro semper, without exception» (VS 52).

Nevertheless, with St Thomas it is necessary to distinguish «certitudes and methods, from methods and certitudes in the moral domain. In speculative matters, truth admits no exceptions, either in individual cases or in general principles. But, practical reason, that is to say, morality, deals with contingent realities. The general principles are always universal, but the closer one gets to individual, concrete realities, the more one is bound to encounter exceptions. In the same passage of the Summa Theologiae, Thomas goes on to affirm that in such and such a particular case, there can be, exceptionally, modifications of the natural law, due to special causes»[14].

When St Thomas, in the tract on justice of the Summa Teologica, speaks of fairness that, in the wake of Aristotle, he calls epiekeia, he presents it as «the most prominent part of legal justice».  And he explains: «Because the object for which laws are made concerns human acts involving singular, contingent, and infinitely variable cases, it has always been impossible to establish a legal rule that would never be in default. Thus lawmakers, considering what happens in the majority of cases, have passed laws using this as their point of reference. However, in some cases, the observance of such laws can go against the equality of justice and the common good, which is the object of the law»[15].

It is up to the Pontiff to say up to what point that the Church may be pushed into a line in which equity becomes more clearly epiekeia in its neotestamentary meaning for indulgence and clemency.

To be clearer, we give the example of the condom: it is considered as intrinsically bad, independently of any consideration on the circumstances of its use.  Furthermore, Benedict XVI in his book The light of the world (2010) said: «in certain cases, when the intention is that of reducing the risk of infection, the use of the condom can be a first step to open the way to a more humane sexuality, lived differently.  There can be individual cases, as when a man who is a prostitute uses a condom, in which this can be a first step towards a moralization, a beginning of accountability that allows taking renewed consciousness that not everything is permitted and that you cannot do everything»[16]

Graduality in pastoral practice and the centrality of the conscience

«Recognizing the influence of such concrete factors, we can add that the individual conscience needs to be better incorporated into the Church’s praxis in certain situations which do not objectively embody our understanding of marriage» (AL 303, emphasis ours).  This is an apical point in the Apostolic Exhortation, in as much as it attributes to conscience—«‘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’» (GS 16; AL 222)—a fundamental and irreplaceable place in the evaluation of moral action.

That discernment to which the Pontiff refers is molded by the «demands of truth and charity, as proposed by the Church» (AL 300).  He affirms that «every effort should be made to encourage the development of an enlightened conscience, formed and guided by the responsible and serious discernment of one’s pastor, and to encourage an ever greater trust in God’s grace» (AL 303).  For this reason, he does not fall into the «graduality of the law» (AL 295; cfr AL 300).

But, this conscience «can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal» (AL 303, emphasis ours)

This passage of the Exhortation opens the door to a positive pastoral practice, welcoming, and fully «catholic», that makes possible a gradual deepening of the demands of the gospel (cfr AL 38).  In other words, here it is not said at all to assume one’s own weakness as a criteria to establish what is good and what is bad (this would be considered «graduality of the law»).  However, it affirms a «law of graduality», that is a progression in knowing, in desiring and in doing a good: «tending towards the fullness of the Christian life does not mean to do what  abstractly  is more perfect, but that which is concretely possible»[17].  This graduality cannot at all be confused with relativism.  It is necessary to leave open the «prudential» exercise of the free act of a sinful man or woman who, unless by an exceptional grace, does not moralize in a single blow.  So the Pontiff expresses, referring to n.  44 of Evangelii gaudium: «without detracting from the evangelical ideal, they need to accompany with mercy and patience the eventual stages of personal growth as these progressively occur», allowing space to the «the Lord’s mercy, which spurs us on to do our best» (AL 308, emphasis ours).

With the humility of its realism the Exhortation Amoris Laetitia places itself within the great tradition of the Church, referring back to an old Roman tradition of ecclesial mercy towards sinners.  The Church of Rome, that from the time of the second century, inaugurated a practice of penitence for sins committed after baptism.  In the third century that’s what was to provoke a schism on part of the Church of North Africa, guided by St Cyprian, because this reconciliation was not accepted with the lapsi, that is the apostates during the persecution, who were in fact more numerous than the martyrs.[18]

At this point, Francis affirms understanding that there are believers, and also pastors, who «prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion» (AL 308).  Moreover he affirms with clarity sincerely believing—and here, obviously, he is not only expressing a simple personal opinion—«Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, a Mother who, while clearly expressing her objective teaching» (ibid).  Here is therefore that clear pastoral direction: «pastors, in proposing to the faithful the full ideal of the Gospel and the Church’s teaching, must also help them to treat the weak with compassion, avoiding aggravation or unduly harsh or hasty judgements. The Gospel itself tells us not to judge or condemn (cf. Mt 7:1; Lk 6:37)» (ibid).

A radical pastoral Exhortation

In Evangelli gaudium Pope Francis wrote that in a world in which after 2000 years, Jesus is back to being a stranger in many countries even in the West, «we need to be realistic and not assume that our audience understands the full background to what we’re saying or is capable of relating what we say to the very heart of the Gospel which gives its meaning, beauty and attractiveness» (EG 34).

This is why this style itself of Amoris laetitia  is tied to the need for a «renewal» and, more still, for a true «conversion» of language.  The objective is clear: to make sure that the proclamation of the Gospel is not theoretical or decoupled from the real life of people.  The Gospel must be meaningful and must reach everyone.  To speak of families and to families, the problem is not that of changing the doctrine, but of enculturating the general principles so that they may be understood and practiced.  Our language must encourage and support every step of every real family. Consequently, Pope Francis has expressed laying pastoral discernment at the foundation of his discourse.

Often Pope Francis—following his predecessors—ask that the pastors make a discernment between the different lived situations of our faithful people and of all people, families, and persons.  This discernment is not only useful when an exceptional or «irregular» case presents.  The Pope reminds us, precisely at the end of the Exhortation, of not «judging harshly those who live in situations of frailty» and that «all of us are called to keep striving towards something greater than ourselves and our families» (AL 325).  Discernment is a constant process of opening ourselves to the Word of God to illuminate the concrete reality of every life: a process that leads us to be docile to the Spirit, that encourages each one of us to act with love, in concrete situations and as far as possible, and it pushes us to grow better and better.  One characteristic of Ignatian discernment is the insistence to hold in consideration not only the true objective, but to also evaluate if it expresses with good, pro positive spirit.  Discernment is the dialogue of pastors with the Good Shepherd in order to always seek the salvation of the sheep.  This translates into the obligation for the pastors to discern situations carefully (cfr FC 84 and SC 29).

The pastoral concern must not therefore be interpreted as a contraposition with respect to the law.  To the contrary: love for the truth is the point of the fundamental encounter between law and pastoral practice; truth is not abstract and it integrates into the human and Christian itinerary of each faithful.  Pastoral practice is not even a mere practical application contingent on theology.  Nor is it adapting a pastoral practice to doctrine, but it is not stripping off the original and constitutive pastoral stamp from the doctrine.

Already emerged in synodal context of marriage is the desire to not be limited to normative language or condemnation, to use the positive and open language precisely of the Council, assessing a precise pastoral approach in the light of the style of Pope Francis.  In the Ordinary Synod the German Circolo minore (small group) also had clearly affirmed in the Aula: «Our way of thinking is too static and too little biographical and historic»[19].  The language is not simply exterior, but communicates the beating heart of an evangelizing and pastoral Church and not only able to speak to herself and of herself.  The Pontiff, in his discourse at the end of the Synod, therefore spoke of «transmitting the beauty of the Christian News, sometimes covered by the rust of an archaic or simply incomprehensible language»[20]

The language of mercy embodies truth in life.  The Pontiff’s concern in this Exhortation on family love is that of recontextualizing doctrine at the service of the pastoral mission of the Church.  Doctrine is interpreted in relation to the heart of the Christian kerygma and in the light of the pastoral context in which it is applied for the salus animarum
[1] .  From now on, we will quote the Apostolic Exhortatio Amoris laetitia with the abbreviation AL.  With the abbreviation RS we will quote the Relatio Synodi of the EXTRAORDINARY GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF THE SYNOD BISHOPS.  With the abbreviation RF the Relatio Finalis of the XIV ORDINARY GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF THE SYNOD OF BISHOPS.
[2] . Cfr.  J.  M.  BERGOGLIO, Hope in Him only.  Spiritual exercises to the Spanish Bishops of (January 15-22, 2006), Milan – Vatican City, Jaca Book—Libr. Ed. Vatican, 2014, 74 s, n. 2.
[3] . ID., Open your mind to your heartI, Milan, Rizzoli, 2015, 21 – 29.
[4] .  It echoes here the demand that St Ignatius of Loyola expresses in his Spiritual Exercises (EE. SS.), when, meditating on the resurrection, he asks for gracia para me alegrar y gozar intensamente de tanta gloria y gozo de Cristo nuestro Señor (the grace for me to plead and to intensely enjoy so much the glory and joy of Christ our Lord (EE. SS. 221).
[5] Cfr.  A.SPADARO, The family is the future.  All the documents of the Extraordinary Synod 2014, Milan, Ancora, 2014.  Cfr. also ID, «A Church on a synodal journey.  The pastoral challenges on the family», in Civ. Catt.  2014 IV 213 – 227.
[6] . That contribution of our journal to this involvement was collected in a volume: ID. (ed.), The family, a field hospital.  A biblical, theological and pastoral discussion in contributions from the writers of La Civiltà Cattolica, Brescia, Queriniana, 2015.
[7] . Cfr.  The family beyond the mirage.  All the documents of the Ordinary Synod 2015, Milan, Ancora, 2015.  Cfr.  also ID., «Vocation and mission of the family.  The XIV Ordinary Synod of bishops», in Civ. Catt.  2015 IV 372 – 391.
[8] .  The pope had said very clearly in his discourse at the end of the XIV Ordinary Synod: «What seems normal for a bishop on one continent, is considered strange and almost scandalous – almost! – for a bishop from another; what is considered a violation of a right in one society is an evident and inviolable rule in another; what for some is freedom of conscience is for others simply confusion»
[9] . Cfr M. RASTOIN, «The family and its contradictions.  A biblical approach», in Civ. Catt.  2015 I 527 – 538.
[10] . Cfr CCC 2352; cfr also CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH, Declaration Iura et bona on euthanasia (May 5, 1980).  St John Paul II, criticizing the category of the «fundamental option», recognized that

«Clearly there can occur situations which are very complex and obscure from a psychological viewpoint and which have an influence on the sinner’s subjective culpability» (Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et paenitentia).  Cfr PONTIFICAL COUNCIL FOR LEGISLATIVE TEXTS, Dichiarazione sull’ ammissibilità alla Communione dei divorziati risposati (June 24, 2000), n. 2.
[11] . In this regard, we note that, if misunderstood, the intrinsece malum (intrinsic evil) suppresses discussion of the circumstances and on complex situations, by definition, of life. A human act is never easy, and the risk is to “paste” in a false manner the true articulation between object, circumstances and objectives, which should instead be read in the light of freedom and of the attraction to the good as the Apostolic Exhortation rightly does. One cannot reduce, in fact, the free act to the physical act in such a way that the clarity of the logic suppresses any moral discussion and all circumstances. Thus the whole, rich , moral articulation would inevitably be annihilated. In this regard.
[12] .  The Pope had previously  established EG 47 about participation in ecclesial life and the «doors of the

Sacraments».  Cfr. C. GIRAUDO, «The Eucharist: prize for the holy or medicine for the sick?  New horizons of theology beginning from the anaphora of the East and the West», in Civ. Catt.  2015 III 480 – 493.
[13] .  Emphasis ours.
[14] .A. SPADARO, «A “Church of the Pure” or a “Mixed Fish Net”?  Interview with Jean-Miguel Garrigues o.p.» in Civ. Catt.  2015 II 498. Cfr G. COTTIER—CH. SCHöBORN—J.M. GARRIGUES, Truth and mercy.  Conversations with Fr.  Antonio Spadaro, Milan, Ancora, 2015.
[15] . Cfr ibid, 507.
[16] .  BENEDICT XVI, The light of the world.  The Pope, the Church and the signs of the time.  A conversation with Peter Sewald, Milan, Mondadori, 2010, 170 s.  Cfr A. SPADARO, «A “Church of the Pure” or a “Mixed Fish Net”….»,cit., 505 s.
[17] .  ITALIAN EPISCOPAL CONFERENCE, Catechism for adults, 919.
[18] .  Faced with the rigidity of the Donatists in the fourth and fifth century, as later faced with that of that Jansenists, the Church of Rome always refused a «Church of the pure» to the advantage of the reticulum mixtum, that is of the «mixed net» of the just and of sinners, of which St Augustine speaks in Psalmus contra partem Donati.  The pastoral practice of «all or nothing» seems more secular to tutiorism theologians, that leads inevitably to a «Church of the pure».  Valorizing before everything formal perfection as an end in itself, you unfortunately risk covering up in fact many hypocritical and pharisaical behaviors.
[19] . A. SPADARO (ed.), The family beyond the mirge…, cit.  242.
[20] .  POPE FRANCIS, Discourse at the conclusion of the works of the XIV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, October 24 2015.


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