By Father Pat Travers
Vicar General, Archdiocese of Anchorage-Juneau
On the Feast of the Holy Family last December, Pope Francis asked Catholics throughout the world to celebrate a year of reflection on the family inspired by the teachings he offered five years ago in his 2016 Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia. The “Amoris Laetitia Family Year” will last from March 19, 2021, the Solemnity of Saint Joseph and the anniversary of Amoris Laetitia’s issuance, until June 26, 2022, with the closing Mass of the World Meeting of Families in Rome. It will overlap with the Year of Saint Joseph, the patron saint of fathers, that Pope Francis had earlier established to last from December 8, 2020, until December 8, 2021.
Pope Francis wrote Amoris Laetitia following two sessions of the Synod of Bishops that met in 2014 and 2015 to consider the vocation of the family in the Church and the contemporary world. While the Holy Father treated many specific aspects of married life and conjugal love in considerable detail, Amoris Laetitia addresses two general themes of major importance to all Catholics. The first of these is the reaffirmation of the Church’s longstanding teachings concerning marriage and the family that are rooted in natural law and the Gospel. The second is a consideration of the complexities and challenges of applying these teachings in a contemporary world that presents so many obstacles to living them out.
Pope Francis devotes much of Amoris Laetitia to a clear and forthright presentation of the Church’s vision of marriage as a covenant, a lifelong partnership in all aspects of life between one man and one woman, who give themselves to each other in mutual love and support and openness to the procreation and education of their children. This vision of marriage is rooted in the natural law that governs all people, whatever their religious faith might be. Christ has elevated this natural partnership of marriage to be an irrevocable Sacrament of his love for his people between baptized Christians. Pope Francis makes it clear in Amoris Laetitia that these teachings are unchanged and that they continue to be a fundamental element of our Catholic faith.
The Holy Father also recognizes that there are many obstacles and widely accepted flawed attitudes and influences in our contemporary world that make it difficult even for good people to accept and live out the Catholic vision of marriage and family life. In the United States and many other countries, the belief that sexual intercourse must be limited to married couples is rejected and even ridiculed by most people. In our legal systems, it is easier to obtain a divorce from one’s spouse than it is to get out of most commercial sales contracts. The common existence of abusive marriages, and the even more common breakup of others, means that many children enter adulthood without any significant experience of what marriage and family life truly are. Justified concern for the dignity and rights of non-heterosexual persons and those who experience challenges in their gender identity has led to the governmental repudiation of the concept of marriage as a relationship between one man and one woman, and even to the questioning of the validity of a person’s identification as male or female. In many places, economic and social factors play an inappropriate or excessive role in the decisions of couples to marry or not to marry. These and many other circumstances of our contemporary world, when added to the normal sacrifices and challenges involved in any marriage, have led to a situation where millions of couples, including many Catholic couples, find themselves in marital situations inconsistent with the Catholic faith.
In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis considered how the Church might respond more effectively to the spiritual needs of persons in these situations without betraying the Catholic vision of marriage and family life. In his recent book, Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future, the Holy Father contrasts two general approaches to interpreting and applying the Church’s teachings in these complex situations. One approach, which he describes as “casuistic,” views fidelity to the doctrine and Tradition of the Church in a simplistic “all or nothing” manner that demands in all cases a uniform, immediate, complete compliance by the faithful with Church teachings in the absence of which they can only be regarded as moral failures regardless of their circumstances. Unfortunately, this is an approach that has often been adopted by leaders of the Church in the areas of sexuality and marriage to the spiritual detriment of many good people. In rejecting this approach, Pope Francis recalls Saint Thomas Aquinas’s teaching that, because of the great variety of conditions and circumstances in which people find themselves, no general rule can be applied uniformly in every specific case. He prescribes instead a case-by-case discernment of the pastoral approach to be taken in each particular situation of conflict with Church teaching, including the many such conflicts that occur in sexual relationships, marriage, and family life. In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis emphasizes that the approach that is adopted in each case must recognize that not every objectively grave violation of Church teaching constitutes a mortal sin; that it can be morally impossible for a person to conform to that teaching at a particular point in his or her life; and that, through a process of lifelong conversion aided by pastoral accompaniment, that person can be brought to a greater and greater fidelity to Christ’s vision for his people, including his vision of marriage and family life.
The Holy Father specifically states that, in some particular cases, this accompaniment may include admission to the Sacraments even before a person or couple conforms fully with the Church’s teaching on marriage. He has also confirmed that his adoption in Amoris Laetitia of this case-by-case pastoral approach of gradual conversion and accompaniment is itself an authentic teaching of the Church.
Both in the secular media and in the Catholic Church itself, attention to Amoris Laetitia has focused on the effect of its teachings on the possible admission of persons in irregular marital situations to the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Holy Communion. These teachings have been misunderstood in ways that have led to opposition by some and to interpretation by others in ways that go far beyond the Holy Father’s carefully chosen words.
To address these misperceptions and share the much wider scope of Pope Francis’ teachings in Amoris Laetitia on marriage and family life, he has invited us to participate in the upcoming Amoris Laetitia Family Year under the special patronage of Saint Joseph. This year’s celebration will offer opportunities to remind us that marriage, no less than ordained and religious life, is a vocation from God who calls married couples and families to experience sacrifice and suffering, but also the “joy of love” that gives Amoris Laetitia its Latin title.
As pastors and parishioners, we know that life in Alaska can be challenging for married couples and their families. Let us hope and pray that this coming year will help us all in our new Archdiocese of Southern Alaska to accept and appreciate more fully the vision of marriage and family life that is presented in Catholic teaching while recognizing the complexity of living out that vision in the diverse conditions of our individual lives.