No change in doctrine but call for inclusivity in pope’s ‘Joy of Love’

‘Amoris Laetitia’ steers a middle of the road course on family and sexuality

As many had expected, Pope Francis steered a middle-of-the-road course between "progressives" and "traditionalists" with his post-synodal exhortation Amoris Laetitia, the Joy of Love, released in the Vatican yesterday in the wake of a two-part synod on the family in the autumn of 2014 and 2015.

Anyone who expected this pope, so innovative on the great socio-economic questions of the day, to show the same level of radical thinking in relation to the sexual mores of family life, will perhaps be disappointed.

Right from the first page, Pope Francis spells out the “politics” of this exhortation, when he writes: “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 . . .”

In layman’s language, this “Vaticanspeak” means one thing. This papal exhortation will not run the risk of re-instigating the bitter controversies which marked the two synods on the family. Rather, the document faithfully reflects the cautious conclusions of last autumn’s second synod.



If the wide-ranging exhortation might disappoint some, it nonetheless touches a typically Francis chord of inclusivity, welcome and mercy. Written in his clear, homespun, parish-priest style, it contains gems such as: “In the family, three words need to be used. I want to repeat this. Three words: ‘Please’, ‘Thankyou’, ‘Sorry’. Three essential words.”

When writing of married life, thePope offers a surprising interpretation of the role of eroticism in a couple’s life, saying: “In no way can we consider the erotic dimension of love simply as a permissible evil or a burden to be tolerated for the good of the family.  Rather it must be seen as a gift from God that enriches the relationship of the spouses.”

Inevitably, however, two issues dominate analysis of this document. If the 2014 synod had briefly kindled expectations of a radical change in church teaching in relation to homosexuality, perhaps even in relation to same-sex marriage, the exhortation reiterates the Church’s firm rejection of any equation between homosexual unions and “God’s plan”.

‘Homosexual unions’

While paragraph 250 speaks of the need for respect of “every person . . . regardless of sexual orientation”, the Pope writes: “As for proposals to place unions between homosexual persons on the same level as marriage, there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family . . .”

On the other major issue which had consumed much time and energy at the two synods, namely the admission of divorced and/or remarried Catholics to the sacrament of Holy Communion, Pope Francis argues against doctrinal rigidity. He appears to call for a case-by-case examination of people’s needs, writing: “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.”

Even as he writes that “priests have the duty to accompany the divorced and remarried in helping them to understand their situation according to the teaching of the Church”, it is not clear just how this internal forum or pastoral path for divorcees will work.

Presenting the exhortation in a packed Vatican press room yesterday, Austrian cardinal Christopher Schönborn emphasised the Pope’s words: “the way of the church is not to condemn anyone forever . . .”


Conceding that the Pope’s inclusivity might seem to some to favour “a certain laxity”, Cardinal Schönborn rejected the allegation that such an attitude becomes a form of relativism, quoting the Pope: “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 respond to the grace that God offers them.”