Building up the ‘Domestic Church’

Pope Francis unleashed his reflection on family life on April 8 amidst frenzied media attention. The Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), was written by Pope Francis in response to the two synods on the family that he convened beginning in 2014. The three hot items that grab the attention of the secular press got mixed reviews. Some read into the document that Pope Francis is calling for a more merciful and non-judgmental Church, while others were disappointed that he did not overturn Church teaching on same-sex unions and birth control. Neither those who want a change in doctrine nor those who wished for stronger emphasis on existing doctrine can claim victory. Amoris Laetitia is a triumph for the human conscience. 

The two synods on the family were each proceeded by an extraordinary request for input from the faithful in the pews, in addition to clergy and Church insiders. Amoris Laetitia makes it clear that the people’s concern was heard, but that the response will not require an overhaul of Church doctrine. Pope Francis built this document around the reality of the family in today’s society. “No family drops down from Heaven perfectly formed; families need constantly to grow and mature in the ability to love.” The Church must be a nurturer of that growth, not an impediment. Pope Francis warns pastors against using doctrine “as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives. We need to be humble and realistic, acknowledging that at times the way we present our Christian beliefs and treat other people has helped contribute to today’s problematic situation.” Stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues did not open a path for the faithful to be open to grace. “Marriage is a dynamic path that must make room for the consciences of the faithful.”

The word “conscience” comes up several times throughout the document. “We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.” This is vindication for the faithful women and men who responded to the pre-synod questions and asked, “What happened to our conscience?” These people had been advised in the post Humanae Vitae era that they should use their conscience when deciding when to have children. Over time, it seemed to some Catholics that the Church’s teaching about conscience had morphed into an “obey or else” doctrine. Pope Francis urges greater respect for individual conscience: “The upright consciences of spouses who have been generous in transmitting life may lead them, for sufficient reasons, to limit the number of their children.” This is not a reversal of Church teaching but an emphasis that had been made by Pope Francis’ predecessor. He quotes from St. John Paul II in stressing that he is not changing one iota of Church teaching: “Large families are a joy for the Church. They are an expression of the fruitfulness of love. At the same time, St. John Paul II rightly explained that responsible parenthood does not mean ‘unlimited procreation or lack of awareness of what is involved in rearing children, but rather the empowerment of couples to use their inviolable liberty wisely and responsibly, taking into account social and demographic realities, as well as their own situation and legitimate desires.’”

Pope Francis was very direct in his admonishment of pastors who are too reliant on rules. “Thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth, and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God.” He devotes an entire chapter to rectifying the exclusion of couples that have remarried after their divorces. While he did not change the Church’s rule on Marriage, he implored pastors to help each person find a way of participating in the ecclesial community. “No one can be condemned forever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel!” He urges pastors to use discernment in approaching the various situations in which couples find themselves. Neither the synod nor this exhortation could rewrite the rules, but Pope Francis asks that there be a “renewed encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases.” There will be some who believe that the demands of Gospel values will be compromised if people who are not in Church-sanctioned Marriages are welcomed back to the Eucharistic table. Pope Francis makes it very clear that “it can no longer simply be said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in the state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace.” 

Amoris Laetitia is a beautiful reflection on Marriage, family life and love. Pope Francis makes a strong case for the building up of the “domestic Church” that faces so many difficult challenges. He wants the Church to partner with families and help them to overcome the issues that tear them apart. Families face economic injustice, the insecurity of migration, drug abuse, children with disabilities, caring for elderly parents and many other difficulties. “All family life is a ‘shepherding’ in mercy.” The family that overcomes the challenges of life, cares for one another with tenderness, and grows in love is a vital cell for transforming the world.

(Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia [The Joy of Love]can be downloaded in its entirety from the Diocese of Fall River website at fallriverdiocese.org.)

Anchor columnist Claire McManus is the director of the Diocesan Office of Faith Formation. 


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