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Reflection on Amoris Laetitia, Chapter 8

08 June, 2022

Chapter eight of Amoris Laetitia, called “Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness,” holds insights about marriage and family life that are very realistic about life today. The starting point of the chapter is one of Pope Francis’ notable messages for our time when he reminds us, “Let us not forget that the Church’s task is often like that of a field hospital,” helping those caught up in the storms of life.[1] One of the concrete expressions of that task, the pope says, is to accompany people who have been through the pain of marital or family breakdown, including those who are divorced.[2] He points out that many individuals, couples, and families live in complex circumstances and therefore they may not be able to bring their lives to be in full conformity with the Gospel or the Church’s teaching, despite their best intentions.

As a parish priest, I find it reassuring that complexity in people’s lives is so well recognised by Pope Francis. As we all know, life is never certain or perfect. Far from it. Complex circumstances can arise from social, religious, and financial pressures; lack of support at crucial times, injustice, misunderstandings, criticisms, conflict, and even violence.[3] The pope urges pastoral care and respect for those who must cope with such complexities.[4] He asks the whole faith community, and especially its ordained ministers, to assist those in complex or painful circumstances and to support them in their efforts to live out their faith in their daily lives.[5] This does not mean that the Church should not hold up the ideals of family life and Christian marriage. In fact, in chapter eight of Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis repeats his ardent desire that we do so.[6] However, the pope outlines the need for discernment and accompaniment for those individuals, couples, or families whose life situation does not match the ideal that the Church proclaims. Discernment and accompaniment with those in complex situations must sit alongside the necessity to proclaim and uphold the ideal and are essential ingredients for good pastoral care. They are part of the response that Pope Francis desires from the Church, so that people in difficult circumstances may be encouraged and welcomed into the life of our faith communities.

I find it helpful that Pope Francis has given us a pastoral guide based on the Church’s continuous teaching about marriage and family life. In chapter four of Amoris Laetitia (notably the longest chapter of the document), Pope Francis draws from I Cor. 13:4-7 to reaffirm the importance of self-giving love in the context of family. He specifically speaks about the sacredness of family life and the gift of children. He asserts that this familial reality finds its source in the church’s understanding of marriage between a man and a woman and the indissolubility of the marriage covenant. In addition, Amoris Laetitia is in continuity with Pope Paul VI’s Humane Vitae, and John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, when it reminds us of the Church’s opposition to abortion, its understanding of the family as the sanctuary of life, and its concern for the dignity of the elderly and other vulnerable people (chapter three). The document also encourages support for engaged and newly married couples, and natural family planning (chapter six). So, having outlined these values, the pope clearly states, in chapter eight, his intention that the Church ought to embrace the practice of pastoral discernment and accompany those who have experience suffering in trying to live according to these values. He sees a need for Amoris Laetitia to be put into practice at the local level, leaving dioceses and parishes to discover the best way to live by the principles of family life that the document bequeaths to the church.[7] He says that “By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and growth, and discourage the paths of sanctification which give glory to God.[8] In summary, chapter eight encourages us to live by the values of marriage and family life, whilst also caring for those who carry burdens and pains because of their personal situations.

In all these circumstances, Pope Francis draws us to the help of the sacraments, especially of Penance and the Eucharist, referring to how God moves in them to bring healing and grace.[9] From the perspective of chapter eight, it is worthwhile to return to the start of the document and recall the pope’s hope for Amoris Laetitia – that it be regarded as an invitation “to value the gifts of marriage and the family, and to persevere in a love strengthened by the virtues of generosity, commitment, fidelity, and patience.”[10] It is the Holy Father’s hope that, “in reading this text, all will feel called to love and cherish family life, for ‘families are not a problem; they are first and foremost an opportunity.’”[11] We must always look to the Church’s wisdom and truth to ultimately guide our actions and decision making. Chapter eight of Amoris Laetitia highlights how we must apply it with the tenderness of the same Jesus that we meet in the Gospels and in the Church’s sacramental life.

Fr Don White

[1] AL 291.

[2] AL 298, 300.

[3] AL 232-253.

[4] AL 296.

[5] AL 300

[6] AL 292, 307.

[7] AL 300, 305.

[8] AL 305.

[9] AL fn 351.

[10] AL 5.

[11] AL 7.