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Pope Francis called the Church “to love and cherish family life” through pastoral “closeness” in the much-anticipated post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia.

The exhortation, as the synods that preceded it, recognizes the urgent need to address the critical issues facing families across the world. The pope reflects on the Bible, pregnancy, motherhood and authentic masculinity and femininity, while noting the material, spiritual and cultural challenges of marriage.

The pope draws on Church teaching, particularly St. John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio, as well as statements from the two synods on the family. The Holy Father also cites bishops’ conferences from different parts of the world, including Kenya, Australia and Argentina. He also cites other figures, from Martin Luther King to Erich Fromm, and quotes the film “Babette’s Feast” to illustrate gratuity.

Media speculation suspected the pope would address many different issues, ideas he addresses early on in the exhortation.

“The debates carried on in the media, in certain publications and even among the Church’s ministers, range from an immoderate desire for total change without sufficient reflection or grounding, to an attitude that would solve everything by applying general rules or deriving undue conclusions from particular theological considerations,” the pope writes.

In the end, the exhortation does neither.

“Pope Francis writes beautifully, as a wise pastor, about the meaning of married love, the joys of motherhood and fatherhood, and the gift of children,” said Archbishop José H. Gomez, who participated in the October Synod on the Family at the Vatican. 

“He is realistic in considering the challenges we face in our society but he is confident in God’s grace and guidance,” the archbishop added. “He reminds us again and again that strong marriages and loving families are at the heart of God’s plan for our lives and the health of our society.”

Pope Francis asked readers of the exhortation to take their time with the document. Amoris Laetitia does not change any Church doctrine, but calls the faithful to accompany, integrate and remain close to those who have suffered through difficult relationships.

The exhortation, which the pope says requires a thoughtful read, is a continuation of Francis’ call for a “culture of encounter.”

“A married couple who experience the power of love know that this love is called to bind the wounds of the outcast, to foster a culture of encounter and to fight for justice,” he writes. “God has given the family the job of ‘domesticating’ the world and helping each person to see fellow human beings as brothers and sisters.”

‘A communion of love’

The pope reflects on Psalm 128, a reading common in wedding celebrations. The mother and father are at the center and embody “the primordial divine plan.” The fruitfulness of the couple reflects the mystery of God himself, the pope writes.

“The triune God is a communion of love, and the family is its living reflection,” Pope Francis writes. “The Word of God tells us that the family is entrusted to a man, a woman and their children, so that they may become a communion of persons in the image of the union of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

Raising children is part of God’s plan and families are called to pray, read the Bible and attend Mass together, he writes. Finding their center in God helps families “grow in love and become ever more fully a temple in which the Spirit dwells.”

But the pope is not unrealistic about the challenges facing the family. Among those challenges is the cultural change that is not as supportive of family life. Likewise, “extreme individualism,” obsession with work and growing “self-centeredness” weakens the family.

“The ideal of marriage, marked by a commitment to exclusivity and stability, is swept aside whenever it proves inconvenient or tiresome,” the pope writes. “The fear of loneliness and the desire for stability and fidelity exist side by side with a growing fear of entrapment in a relationship that could hamper the achievement of one’s personal goals.”

The pope called the Church to move beyond simply “stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues” and instead to encourage “openness to grace.”

“We have been called to form consciences, not replace them,” he writes. “Yet we have often been on the defensive, wasting pastoral energy on denouncing a decadent world without being proactive in proposing ways of finding true happiness.”

The pope notes how often individuals move from one relationship to the next, measuring each person by their utility. Some fear permanent commitment and will not surrender “free time” at any cost.

“We treat affective relationships the way we treat material objects and the environment: everything is disposable; everyone uses and throws away, takes and breaks, exploits and squeezes to the last drop,” he writes.

“Yet sooner or later, those who use others end up being used themselves, manipulated and discarded by that same mindset,” he adds. “It is also worth noting that breakups often occur among older adults who seek a kind of ‘independence’ and reject the ideal of growing old together, looking after and supporting one another.”

The Holy Father also notes the ongoing challenge of migration and its impact on the family. Poverty and the breakdown of the family “sometimes even leads families to sell their children for prostitution or for organ trafficking.”

“The persecution of Christians and ethnic and religious minorities in many parts of the world, especially in the Middle East, are a great trial not only for the Church but also the entire international community,” he writes. “Every effort should be encouraged, even in a practical way, to assist families and Christian communities to remain in their native lands.”

The Church is also called to care for those who are living together outside of marriage and those who are divorced and remarried. Pope Francis, quoting Familiaris Consortio, calls pastors to exercise discernment of situations when dealing with wounded families. The Church is called to accompany abandoned, separated and divorced individuals.

The pope also underscores the beauty of conception, explaining that the child “does not appear at the end of a process, but is present from the beginning of love as an essential feature, one that cannot be denied without disfiguring that love itself.”

“A child deserves to be born of that love, and not by any other means,” the pope writes, in reference to artificial means of conception. “The family is the sanctuary of life, the place where life is conceived and cared for, it is a horrendous contradiction when it becomes a place where life is rejected.”    

                 

A mature love

The sacrament of marriage, the pope writes, is best defended by helping couples grow stronger through grace, rather than by recalling its indissolubility.

“A celestial notion of earthly love forgets that the best is yet to come, that fine wine matures with age,” Pope Francis writes. “It is much healthier to be realistic about our limits, defects and imperfections, and to respond to the call to grow together, to bring love to maturity and to strengthen the union, come what may.”

Married couples can be sources of love for others. But learning how to love, the pope writes, cannot “be taught in a workshop just prior to the celebration of marriage. For every couple, marriage preparation begins at birth.”

Yet he warns parents that they cannot control every situation.

“If parents are obsessed with always knowing where their children are and controlling all their movements, they will seek only to dominate space,” he writes. “But this is no way to educate, strengthen and prepare their children to face challenges. What is most important is the ability lovingly to help them grow in freedom, maturity, overall discipline and real autonomy.”

In terms of sex education, the pope warns that “safe sex” “conveys a negative attitude toward the natural procreative finality of sexuality, as if an eventual child were an enemy to be protected against. This way of thinking promotes narcissism and aggressivity in place of acceptance.”

The loving family recognizes that every person, regardless of sexual orientation, is to be respected. Love does not tolerate unjust discrimination or “any form of aggression and violence,” the pope writes, reaffirming the Church’s teaching found in the Catechism and elsewhere.

The pope alludes to the Year of Mercy at the beginning of the exhortation and touches on it throughout the document.

“The way of the Church is not to condemn anyone forever,” the pope writes. “It is to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart.”

The pope encourages pastoral discernment of particular cases, always stressing the need for accompaniment.

“It is true that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations,” he writes. “At the same time, it must be said that, precisely for this reason, what is part of a practical discernment in particular circumstances cannot be elevated to the level of a rule.”

The pope called putting conditions on mercy “the worst way of watering down the Gospel.”

“Each of us, by our love and care, leaves a mark on the life of others,” he writes, calling us “to contemplate our loved ones with the eyes of God and to see Christ in them.”

“No family drops from heaven perfectly formed; families need constantly to grow and mature in the ability to love,” the Holy Father writes. “All of us are called to keep striving toward something greater than ourselves and our families, and every family must feel this constant impulse. … May we never lose heart because of our limitations, or ever stop seeking the fullness of love and communion which God holds out before us.”