When writing my first piece on Amoris Laetitia I said it would be the subject of controversy. Since then the controversy has developed with very heavyweight criticisms from theologians and others – people who are expert in these matters. It has therefore seemed somewhat otiose for myself as a layman to add anything to this chorus of criticism when I have no training in theology etc.
However, I still wish to express my views as an ordinary layman with nearly 80 years experience of being a Catholic and actual experience of the matter under discussion. Even if nobody else is interested in my views at least setting them out forces me to consider this very important document carefully. So I carry on!
After the controversial paragraph 3, Pope Francis continues with some introductory remarks saying that the opening chapter would be inspired by the Scriptures, that he would then deal with the actual situation of families – the reality – and then on to recall essential aspects of the Church's teaching on marriage, two chapters on love and then highlighting some pastoral approaches with a chapter on raising children. Finally, he will offer an invitation to mercy and pastoral discernment of irregular situations (which he says will be challenging) and a discussion of family spirituality.
Pope Francis then goes on to what the Bible says about work – he mentions unemployment (para 25) and what he calls social degeneration of which he sees environmental issues as an example – indeed - the sole example he gives (para 26). He finishes the chapter insisting on tenderness in the marriage.
The second chapter is about the experiences and challenges of families. It owes much to the Final Relatio of the Synod. Sometimes it is more than a bit obscure. At the end of paragraph 32, there is a reference to 'social structures' which I think means the wider or extended family but that is merely a guess. Indeed, presumably something has been lost in translation in para 33: more and more people are choosing to live alone or simply to spend time together without cohabiting. I am not at all clear to what he is referring; hermits, monks and nuns would seem to fit this description but perhaps that is not what is meant. One has to guess what is meant by the concluding sentence in para 33: We can also point to a praiseworthy concern for justice; but if misunderstood, this can turn citizens into clients interested solely in the provision of services.
The meaning of 'way station' in para 34 is not obvious. The rest of the chapter sets out the multiple problems that affect marriage in the modern world. Pope Francis describes it as a brief overview but this chapter does have 28 paragraphs over 24 pages and as one difficulty is mentioned after another the effect is somewhat mind-numbing. The biblical account of marriage in chapter one indeed becomes rather remote from the harsh picture of reality presented in this chapter two.
At para 36 Pope Francis writes:
36. We also 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. We need a healthy dose of self-criticism. Then too, we often present marriage in such a way that its unitive meaning, its call to grow in 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, 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.
Where is there an almost exclusive insistence on the duty of procreation? I have never heard that. Often to-day marriage can be romanticised so that it is regarded as just about loving someone and the idea of having children hardly features. It is surely right for the Church to remind couples that in the normal way of things children are born especially in this age when birth control is incessantly promoted. You may fall in love with someone and think that you would like to spend the rest of your life with them but should you not stop to question whether this particular person is the one you want to parent your children? As to this almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families just what is he referring to? As to inspiring trust in God's grace some have said that the document fails to do just that; but we can come back to that later.
In describing the various ills that undermine marriage there is no mention of the facilitating of easy divorce. Indeed, divorce is hardly mentioned; there is no mention of the terrible suffering that results; the innocent party who sees their life's dream in ruins and faces a very uncertain and difficult future.
Above all there is no mention of how children of the first marriage suffer; suffering and instability that can be passed down through generations. Both at the Synod and in this document concern is expressed for the children of a second marriage even to the point of justifying a second adulterous marriage but at the same time ignoring the children of the first marriage. I find this narrative both astounding and worrying. I wonder whether the doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage is not being undermined.
Chapter three is entitled “LOOKING TO JESUS: THE VOCATION OF THE FAMILY” and the first sentence reads:
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”.
The word 'kerygma' is meaningless to the vast majority of the laity and its use is a turn-off and pretentious. Why not say 'preaching'? However, the chapter does set out the teaching of the Church as related by the fathers at the Synod. Indissolubility does gets a mention. However it is described as a gift rather than a yoke. Does not Jesus speak of a yoke elsewhere? And will not some not claim that they do not have the gift?
Para 63 is particularly important quoting from the Synod:
'Jesus, who reconciled all things in himself, restored marriage and the family to their original form (cf. Mt 10:1-12). Marriage and the family have been redeemed by Christ (cf. Eph 5:21-32) and restored in the image of the Holy Trinity, the mystery from which all true love flows. The spousal covenant, originating in creation and revealed in the history of salvation, takes on its full meaning in Christ and his Church. Through his Church, Christ bestows on marriage and the family the grace necessary to bear witness to the love of God and to live the life of communion.'
This chapter is a good exposition of the Church's teaching on marriage. But is this teaching not the almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families which Pope Francis decries above? Does he think it an ideal not possible of attainment? I suspect the answer is that somebody else drafted most of this chapter although one can detect a few wobbles towards the end which bear the imprint of Pope Francis.
Familiaris Consortio does get a mention but not the crucial point about communion for the divorced and remarried. It does repeatedly mention the requirement of openness to life. Did not Pope Francis think this was insistence on the duty of procreation? Evidently not or he did not spot it!
One point that has concerned many people is that the final sentence of para 83 says:
Similarly, the Church not only feels the urgency to assert the right to a natural death, without aggressive treatment and euthanasia”, but likewise “firmly rejects the death penalty”.
This last point about the death penalty is a quote from the Relatio Synodi of 2015 – the concluding document of the Synod on the Family. It is para 64 which refers to para 2258 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC). In fact the CCC does NOT say that but rather:
'God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being.'
Was this misquotation carelessness or deliberate on the part of those writing up the Relatio Synodi? It is plain wrong and cannot be taken as a new teaching that the death penalty is wrong in all circumstances. The Synod fathers were undoubtedly thinking of the wrongness of euthanasia at that point and it seems very odd that they should have introduced such a statement at that point out of context. Indeed, the 40 theologians who have appealed to the Cardinals to ask for clarification of Amoris Laetitia have classified this statement as heretical and pernicious. They point to the correct teaching in CCC 2267. This statement in Amoris Laetitia “ the Church … firmly rejects the death penalty” is certainly not an ambiguous statement.
It has been reported in America the National Catholic Review that Pope Francis has set up a commission on the subject as they say the Pope is for condemning the death penalty in all circumstances. However, there is a great deal of difference between advocating its abolition in developed countries where it is obviously not necessary and saying it is wrong even in the most extreme circumstances. I suspect this is just another muddying of the waters.