Last week Pope Francis released his eagerly-awaited synthesis of the work that took place during the 2014 and 2015 synods on marriage and the family. The conclusions reached by Francis and the synod fathers in the lengthy document entitled, Amoris Laetitia, (Latin for “The Joy of Love”), have caused much discussion and debate among Catholics and non-Catholics around the world. I am a developmental psychologist who writes and speaks on marriage-related issues. Below is a repost of my recent interview with Kathryn Lopez of National Review Online.
This final work of the Synod is important because it calls to the attention of the entire world the importance of lifelong, faithful marriage. “Family” is, of course, a magnificent, God-given reality but in recent times the term has been divorced (pardon the pun) from its rightful origin: the permanent, faithful bond of a husband and wife. In the Pope’s words: “Children not only want their parents to love one another, but also to be faithful and remain together…The child who is born ‘does not come from outside as something added on to the mutual love of the spouses, but springs from the very heart of that mutual giving, as its fruit and fulfilment’.” Francis and the Synod fathers show us in The Joy of Love that they understand marriage has suffered deep wounds, and that its revitalization is a high priority for the Church and the world.
We expect strong theology from a Pope, and of course all the theological underpinnings of marriage are laid out clearly and convincingly in The Joy of Love. What we don’t necessarily expect is the keen psychological insight Francis shows in the earlier portions of this document – particularly in chapters four and six. Here he delves deep into the nitty gritty of what it takes to hold a marriage together in a culture where is it “more common to think that, when one or both partners no longer feel fulfilled, or things have not turned out the way they wanted, sufficient reason exists to end the marriage. “Were this the case,” Francis correctly observes, “no marriage would last.”
Throughout portions of the document the Holy Father employs the metaphor of marriage as a “lifelong project” – for those who remain committed through crises and hardship, there is the promise of a mature love, ever-new: “In the life of married couples, even at difficult moments, one person can always surprise the other, and new doors can open for their relationship, as if they were meeting for the first time. At every new stage, they can keep “forming” one another. Love makes each wait for the other with the patience of a craftsman, a patience which comes from God.” What a beautiful framework for preparing the engaged for the reality of married life (a need Francis emphasizes repeatedly, and winningly, in The Joy of Love). Indeed, the section of the document entitled, “The Challenge of Crises” in chapter 6 (#232-238) should be required reading for every engaged couple.
Of course, the challenge we face as a Church is the question which brought so much attention and debate during the 2014 and 2015 synods: what is the most effective way, in a pastoral sense, to reverse the tide of the multiple threats to marriage that exist today – most of which Francis addresses with force and clarity (one significant omission in the list is the scourge of “no fault” divorce for untold numbers of Catholic men and women upon whom divorce is literally forced).
Beginning in Chapter 8 (“Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness”) there seems to me to be a significant break in the strong psychological insight that characterized earlier chapters. Central to the problem is a lack of specificity concerning various groups who find themselves in “irregular situations:” “Single-parent families often result from the unwillingness of biological mothers or fathers to be part of a family; situations of violence, where one parent is forced to flee with the children; the death of one of the parents; the abandonment of the family by one parent, and other situations. Whatever the cause, single parents must receive encouragement and support from other families in the Christian community, and from the parish’s pastoral outreach.” (emphasis mine).
The Holy Father – quite appropriately – presents us with the question of mercy in these last chapters. How do we convey mercy and charity to those “on the fringes?” But the causes of these irregular situations vary widely, and they matter. They matter not just to the individual families involved (now and in future generations), but to entire communities who are watching to see whether the Church really cares about fidelity and permanence as we say we do. Where one mother has an affair and forces a divorce upon the family she created, another mother does everything she can to save her marriage to an unfaithful husband. Can it be merciful to the spouses, the children, and the communities involved to treat the women in these two situations the same?
The Exhortation seems to suggest such distinctions don’t matter: “It is important that the divorced who have entered a new union should be made to feel part of the Church. ‘They are not excommunicated’ and they should not be treated as such, since they remain part of the ecclesial community….Language or conduct that might lead them to feel discriminated against should be avoided, and they should be encouraged to participate in the life of the community.’”
Human beings are indeed frail. We are weak and we falter. It is for this reason that we require a form of mercy and charity our culture no longer recognizes as such by those who love us most. We are highly motivated by the influence of family members, friends, and yes, even clergy. Divorce, and spousal abandonment, are often long processes, with many opportunities for intervention that might bring about reconciliation. This can mean discomfort for those involved because it involves fraternal correction. But if the Church believes that marriage is permanent and true, shouldn’t reconciliation be our goal? “New unions” – most often with adultery partners – are not inevitable. Those Americans (or inhabitants of Western nations) who comprise these new unions need not fear “discriminatory language.” On the contrary, the widespread and growing existence of such unions is in large part a tragic consequence of silence on the part of those who owe them more.