Last Friday Pope Francis released his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia on the joy of love in the family. Many of the headlines about it are nonsense, simply because they miss the Pope’s key point, which is this: what Jesus suggests for Christian marriage and family is profoundly deeper, more realistic, and more intensely beautiful than anything else. Why? Because God is a family: Our God in his deepest mystery is not a solitude, but a family, for he has within himself fatherhood, sonship and the essence of the family, which is love. That love, in the divine family, is the Holy Spirit (11).
The family is the image of God, who is a communion of persons (71). Marriage is thus the noble vocation (72) where a man and woman receive the gift of each to the other in a communion defined by total self-giving, faithfulness and openness to new life (73). The sacrament is not a “thing” or power”, for in it Christ himself “now encounters Christian spouses…He dwells with them, gives them the strength to take up their crosses… to forgive one another, to bear one another’s burdens (73). The physical communion of the spouses is a nuptial mystery (74) which makes present the love of Christ for his Church on the cross (73). Their marriage vows are critical as they give meaning to the sexual relationship and free it from ambiguity (74). It is this unity of the spouses, says Pope Francis, which is the first good of marriage (80). The very nature of this conjugal union is ordered to procreation, as a child springs from the very heart of that mutual giving, as its fruit and fulfilment (80). The beauty of this mutual, gratuitous gift, the joy which comes from a life that is born and the loving care of all family members – from toddlers to seniors – are just a few of the fruits which make the response to the vocation of the family unique and irreplaceable”, both for the Church and society as a whole.
The Pope spends two chapters examining the broad spectrum of difficulties that families face. That families face difficulties does not mean that the Gospel is too hard to realistically live – the Word of God itself is chock-full of difficult marriages and troubled families. But our families and society are not being helped, and are being threatened by what he calls an ideology of gender that “denies the difference and reciprocity in nature of man and woman”: de facto or same sex unions, he says, may not simply be equated with marriage…only the exclusive and indissoluble union between a man and a woman has a plenary role to play in society as a stable commitment that bears fruit in new life (52).
This doesn’t mean that the Church abandons those in difficult situations – because we each have greater or lesser difficulties. Pope Francis spends three whole chapters exploring how we better accompany families of divorced and remarried, single parents and people who are same sex-attracted, all of whom are loved by God (250), remain part of our community (243), and must receive encouragement and support from other families in the Christian community, and from the parish’s pastoral outreach (252). A lot has been said in the media about the Pope changing the rules about communion and putting conscience above law, but this is not true – because no one is capable of changing the Gospel, and because every conscience desires and is bound to learn and do the good – which is all the law expresses. What the Pope has done is remind us (297), whatever the situation, for that person there can be some way of taking part in the life of the community, whether in social service, prayer meetings, or another way together with the discernment of the parish priest, may suggest.
Conclusion? God is good and generous. One of his gifts on earth is family life: each spouse is a gift to each other, each child an unmerited gift to the parents, and every family, troubled or really troubled – because they are the only two kinds – is a model for the Church and a gift to the world. Thank God for the joys and crosses and beauty of Christian family.