Greg Strand is EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, and he serves on the Board of Ministerial Standing as well as the Spiritual Heritage Committee. He and his family are members of Northfield (Minnesota) EFC.
Pope Francis released Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), his statement on marriage and the family, this past April.
This document, consisting of 256 pages, is not only important for those in the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) to read and know, it is also important for Protestants to read and know, including Evangelicals, though for different reasons.
For this post, I have asked Ernest Manges, RG missionary and Professor of Theology and Church History, Cebu Graduate School of Theology, Philippines, who has studied the RCC in detail, to write a “summary and comment” on Amoris Laetitia. I am grateful to Manges for his helpful and insightful comments.
I include Manges’ concluding comment, and then encourage you to read his complete response: “In this document Francis is upholding the traditional teachings of the Church, while calling for a change in tone and for more freedom to make judgment calls at the local church and individual level. But he is also calling for some significant change, especially in allowing access to communion for some previously excluded.”
Francis, addressing couples, families, and priests, declares the family vital to church and society (31, 52, 131)* but also in crisis. Marriage is not just a social convention but “a real representation” of Christ and the Church (72, also 11, 29) and thus is permanent (62, 77, 214, 243). He speaks often of love, offering an extended exposition of 1 Corinthians 13 (90-119). In marriage sex is a divine gift (61, 80, 150, 152). The size of this document, 256 pages, indicates how important this topic is for Francis.
He clearly reaffirms standard Catholic teaching on birth control, stating each marriage must remain open to the transmission of life (52, 56, 77, 80, 165, 292) and he cites Pope Paul 6’s encyclical forbidding artificial methods of family planning several times (68, 82, 222). No child is a mistake (166, 283), but marriage is more than mere procreation (36, 125). Couples should exercise their individual consciences in planning their families (37, 167, 222). He condemns “forced State intervention in favour of contraception, sterilization, and even abortion” (42). He says “no alleged right to one’s own body can justify a decision to terminate” an innocent child’s life (83). He also reiterates the Church’s view that homosexual unions are not a real marriage (251), though those with same-sex attraction deserve respect and love (250).
All this is expected from an institution that takes tradition and precedent seriously. But there’s a lot in this document that doesn’t sound so traditional, especially when the Pope speaks of “irregular unions” (divorced and remarried, married to a non-Catholic, or cohabiting couples). Acknowledging that “no easy recipes exist” (298) he repeatedly asks that care be shown to those whose family lives are not in full accordance with Church law. He scolds those (priests and others) who cast “dead stones” of moral teaching without regard to mitigating circumstances (49, 304, 305, 308, also 134, 201, 312). He asks that a “law of gradualness” be applied which accepts some need to grow into being able to obey Church laws (295). More than thirty times he asks that pastors and others use “discernment” as they interact with less than perfect families, indicating a degree of freedom of judgment for local church leaders (3, 300, 302) and also for the “consciences of the faithful” (37, 303). The Church should not be “casting off” but rather “reinstating” people (296).
Even more surprising are his statements that marriages of other faiths contain “positive elements” (77, 292) and that Catholic priests could learn how to minister to families from the married clergy of the Eastern Church (202, see also 247). Some who are divorced and remarried demonstrate “Christian commitment” in their marriage (298) even though divorce itself is “an evil” (246). They may not be living in mortal sin, are not excommunicated, and should be cared for and integrated into the life of the Church (78, 243, 299, 301). Annulment should be made easier “and if possible, free of charge” (244).
Probably his most controversial statements address whether those in irregular unions can partake of the sacrament of the Eucharist, something heretofore considered impossible. Those who show signs of positive growth may be allowed to participate “in different ecclesial services, which necessarily requires discerning which of the various forms of exclusion currently practised in the liturgical, pastoral, educational and institutional framework, can be surmounted.” (299). In the next paragraph he teaches that “the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same” (300), and here a footnote states that this refers to “sacramental discipline.” Those “in an objective situation of sin . . . can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.” (305), with this footnote comment, “In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments.” Is the Pope opening the door for some in these irregular unions to be allowed the Eucharist? It seems that he is, though it is revealing that he twice acknowledges that only “many” of the Synod Fathers agree with him here (299, 302).
Francis deplores the casual “use and discard” approach that many bring to relationships (153, 28, 39) and he warns that “extreme individualism” and freedom of choice can degenerate “into an inability to give oneself generously to others” (33). He also is critical of a gender ideology that wishes to diminish the differences between men and women, instead of accepting how we are made as a gift from God (56). Children should be taught to accept their bodies as male and female (285). He briefly and somewhat indirectly acknowledges the sexual abuse scandal in the Church (45) and takes a couple of swipes at those who abuse the environment (26, 39) and at rampant consumerism (41, 127, 201).
He ventures close to stating that Paul’s command for wives to submit to their husbands is culture bound (156) and that his comments on virginity in 1 Corinthians 7 are “his personal opinion” rather than a command of the Lord (159). Along with the usual Catholic sources he also cites Martin Luther King Jr. at length (118) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (320).
In this document Francis is upholding the traditional teachings of the Church, while calling for a change in tone and for more freedom to make judgment calls at the local church and individual level. But he is also calling for some significant change, especially in allowing access to communion for some previously excluded. Finally, there is apparently a papal exemption from use of the Oxford comma.
*Numbers in brackets ( ) refer to paragraphs.