From the Family Foundations archives
“‘Marriage was not instituted solely for the procreation of children’ but also that mutual love ‘might be properly expressed, that it should grow and mature.’” – Amoris Laetitia, 125
I talk about love. A lot. God is love, and any who preach Jesus Christ must always preach love. I teach sexual morality, which can only be properly understood in the context of love. In the confessional, I always try to remind the penitent that God loves them and forgives them. With all my talk about love, it is a real danger to lose focus as to what love means and to forget that the love Christ calls us to, to love as he loves (John 13:34), is hard and even unappealing to many today.
Pope Francis is truly a pastor at heart and keenly feels this danger of both losing sight of the positive vision of love and of the real struggles of real people. (This, of course, is not to say that his predecessors were not pastors or concerned with the same things.) Pope Francis took the opportunity to reflect on love and the challenges of love in the context of marriage and family life by calling for a Synod on the Family. Following what has become standard practice, he then prepared his apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, as his response to the work of the synod in light of the struggles we face today.
It is a long document. This makes it intimidating to pick up. One might further be hesitant give the sometimes-critical reactions of those in the Catholic media. Why might this document be important or helpful for you, the NFP user? Is it worth reading?
Amoris Laeticia is worth your time because it is a scriptural, theological and practical look at love in the family and the challenges we face today. It gives insight and pastoral advice on how to live love. It gives correctives on how to teach — or not teach — about that love. And it gives a window into the heart of our chief shepherd who is always challenging us to engage the world as Christ did.
To help you discover these riches, I want to give you a map so you do not get lost in all the words, drama and debate. The key areas to enter into as an NFPer are the purpose of the document and its two fundamental themes: development of language or style, and love in the ideal and real. With this, my hope is that you can fruitfully navigate the document itself and the various responses to it.
Mercy for all
“I thank God that many families, which are far from considering themselves perfect, live in love, fulfil their calling and keep moving forward, even if they fall many times along the way.” – Amoris Laetitia, 57
At the Synod on the Family in the fall of 2015, bishops and various experts discussed the family and the challenges it faces a decade and a half into the new millennium. This was last done in a major way in 1980. That synod led to St. John Paul II writing one of the great documents on the family: the apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio. While the fundamental teachings on the family remain unchanged, the last 35 years have seen homosexuality become an increasingly widespread issue, an increase in divorce and a growing number of young people delaying or even forgoing marriage. Given this, a new response was needed.
The media coverage of the most recent synod portrayed it as a battle between progressives, who wanted a chance in discipline or teaching on things like communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, and conservatives, who rightly insisted on doctrinal continuity and no undermining of the good of the sacrament of marriage. Given these divergent voices, the expectations for this post-synodal exhortation were too high and unrealistic. Some were hoping for a chance in teaching on communion for the divorced and remarried. Others were hoping for a crystal-clear rebuttal.
Pope Francis, the pastor, chose to largely take a different route. As Cardinal Schönborn explained in his intervention at the presentation of Amoris Laeticia, the exhortation is “guided by the phrase ‘It is a matter of reaching out to everyone’ (AL 297), as this is a fundamental understanding of the Gospel: we are all in need of mercy!” The pope wants to speak to the real situation of real people by presenting to them the love and mercy of God. He is not trying to change doctrine. He is a pastor giving pastoral advice in light of the discussion of the synod. Everything in the document should be read and interpreted in light of the teaching of the Church, as Cardinal Burke reminds us in his reaction to the document published in the National Catholic Register.
The document is largely focused on the positive vision of love and family we find in Scripture and Church teaching. It strives to present love, marriage and family in a compelling way while also trying to reach out and offer help to those struggling. As Cardinal Schönborn points out, Pope Francis does not want us to focus on those who are in “regular” and “irregular” situations as if they are two absolutely separate realties; instead, we should strive to reach out in love to all by affirming the good and helping them to want to do better.
The most challenging part of the document for most is chapter eight, addressed largely to pastors, and which deals with how to accompany and help those who are struggling to live the fullness of teaching on marriage and family. Here the pope is at his least clear and concrete. As he himself says, “If we consider the immense variety 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” (AL 300).
Instead he calls for careful discernment in difficult cases. This is troubling to some because it seems to open the door to abuse by some pastors who argue that many are not culpable for the situations that they are in (cf. AL 302). More thought and discussion are needed on chapter eight, but what is clear is that any pastoral solutions that are discerned need to be consistent with Church teaching. Pope Francis has not changed Church teaching. But he is calling us to walk with sinners and help them to want what God wants for their marriage and their family.
A change in style, not substance
Humanae Vitae gives us the key teaching for the Catholic NFPer: the inseparability of the unitive and the procreative meanings of the sexual act. Because of this reality, every sexual act, if it is to reflect the dignity of the person, the nature of the act itself, and the demands of love, must be a real mutual gift of self and open to life. This allows the sexual act to be a real one-flesh union.
My hope is that those of you reading this have experienced the fruits of this teaching and have grown in your love of your spouse through practicing NFP. Sadly, you have likely also experienced that Church leadership has not always done a good job of promoting or explaining this teaching and the importance of NFP. I am grateful for, and surely God is pleased with, those who promote NFP and the Church’s teachings on sexuality and marriage when many who attend Mass reject the message or are ambivalent about it.
The substance of this teaching has not and will not change where the Church is the Church. But Pope Francis wants us to consider more carefully our style in sharing the Church’s teaching on this and all the key moral issues. Rather than focusing on people’s moral failings, we should hold up the truth and help them to see why it is worth trying to live: “What we need is a more responsible and generous effort to present the reasons and motivations for choosing marriage and the family, and in this way to help men and women better to respond to the grace that God offers them” (AL 35).
Then Pope Francis addresses sex and NFP directly: “We often present marriage in such a way that its unitive meaning, its call to love and its ideal of mutual assistance, are overshadowed by an almost exclusive insistence on the duty of procreation. Nor have we always provided solid guidance to young married couples, understanding their timetables, their way of thinking and their concrete concerns. At times we have also proposed a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage…. 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).
While most who promote and teach about sexuality and NFP do so well, Pope Francis offers us a great examination of conscience. If we are to succeed in helping ourselves and others to live the Church’s teaching in a world that questions the value and meaning of sexuality and marriage, we must present why they are fulfilling instead of focusing only on why other ways are sinful. We must work to help young couples live their “timetables” in NFP, as CCL does so well. We must show rather than only tell.
But the part I see most lacking today in the above is recognition that the realities of sexuality and marriage can only be lived in God’s grace. Too often, when people present the Theology of the Body or NFP they are presented as a cure to the ills of marriages today. Sometimes it is implied that if one comes to understand the truth of these, sex and marriage will be great. Do we speak concretely about the challenges and sacrifice needed for love, marriage, and NFP? Do we in the same breath also help them to realize the absolute need for God’s grace, which we can always trust in? While maintaining our substance, can we adapt our style so as to better serve others?
The heart of the matter
“Few human joys are as deep and thrilling as those experienced by two people who love on another and have achieved something as the result of a great, shared effort.” – Amoris Laetitia, 130
The exhortation spends the most time on love, which is fitting since its subtitle is “on love in the family.” Pope Francis is trying to model for us how to positively place the procreative meaning of the sexual act in its proper context by speaking extensively about the unitive meaning. If you only have time to read a portion of the document, focus on chapters one, four and five. The pope gives us the ideal while striving to enter into the real aspects of love and family life.
In chapter one, Pope Francis lays out the scriptural foundations of love, marriage and the family. When the couple lives fruitful love, they are a symbol and living icon of the Trinity (AL 11). When Adam and Eve are joined together as one flesh, this union has both a corporeal dimension and a union of hearts and lives (AL 13). Yet in these blessings, Jesus still speaks to and knows the anxieties and tensions of real families and weaves them into his parables (AL 21).
Chapters four and five should be required reading for every couple preparing for marriage. In chapter four, the pope breaks open 1 Corinthians 13 in a beautiful and profound way. He then reiterates that great need of the gift of grace in marriage (AL 124) while giving a host of practical advice, like a couple needing to work to make time to dialogue and listen (AL 136-7). Chapter five reflects on love made fruitful, touching on the joy of large families but the need for responsible procreation (AL 167).
So much could be said on these sections on love, but you are best served by reading them and praying with them. We must all work to keep trying to get love right. These chapters can serve as a solid base and inspiration, for love always reveals itself and increases (AL 133-4) and “love always gives life” (AL 165). If we are to live and teach NFP well, it can only be in the context of love.
Do not let the media prevent you from reading and praying with Amoris Laeticia. While it is not like the philosophical or theological innovations of St. John Paul II or Pope Benedict, Pope Francis writes as a pastor trying to give fatherly advice and support. Fatherly advice, again, that is rooted in Scripture, Church teaching and an awareness of the real struggles of families. May its call for a change in pastoral style and situating talk of the procreative in the context of the unitive bear fruit in your life and in your sharing of NFP with others.
— Fr. John P. Floeder is the weight-lifting, craft-beer-loving dean of seminarians at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity in St. Paul, Minnesota. He regularly contributes to CCL’s magazine Family Foundations.