The Church has a marriage problem.
The number of couples marrying sacramentally in the United States is down more than 60 percent from 1970. Cohabitation is becoming the norm. Secularization is growing rapidly. The U.S. divorce rate, even among Catholics, hovers around 30 percent. Children are seen as rights and commodities rather than as gifts from God. Fewer babies are being baptized. In short, the Church is losing its people.
In his newest papal document, Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”), Pope Francis tries to stop the bleeding. He tackles head-on the fact that the Church is generally viewed as out of step with the modern reality of 21st-century family living. And, in classic Francis style, he urges the Church to descend to the level of a “field hospital” — to meet couples and families, who perhaps fall short of the Church’s ideal, where they are.
“The Church,” he said, quoting the final report from the 2014-15 family synods, “must accompany with attention and care the weakest of her children, who show signs of a wounded and troubled love, by restoring in them hope and confidence ... .” While not changing doctrine, Pope Francis conveys how necessary it is for the Church to witness to the beauty and joy that abounds when marriage and family life are centered on Christ — even within all the messiness and realities of 21st-century humanity. This, he admits, is a challenge for the Church. “We find it difficult to present marriage more as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfilment than as a lifelong burden,” he writes.
Yet this is what we are called to do. Unlike Laudato Si, Francis’ encyclical on ecology that was addressed to “every person living on this planet,” Amoris Laetitia is addressed directly to Catholics. It is first and foremost a document written for the New Evangelization. “We need to find the right language, arguments and forms of witness that can help us reach the hearts of young people, appealing to their capacity for generosity, commitment, love and even heroism, and in this way inviting them to take up the challenge of marriage with enthusiasm and courage,” he writes (No. 40).
In its practicality and accessibility, Amoris Laetitia is a highly effective document for encouraging and inspiring couples and families in the trenches of everyday life. The pope’s goal is the mission of the Church: to bring Christ to people and the people to Christ. It is rich in practical advice and conveys a real understanding of humanity in all its successes and failings. It will be effective in offering support to couples and families and in renewing and sustaining their efforts to live as Christ intends.
Of course, Amoris Laetitia isn’t without its challenges. The eighth chapter alone, on “Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness,” has been the cause of much immediate consternation within the Catholic community. Some are concerned that the pope was too pastoral and still others that he wasn’t accommodating enough. Here, we echo the words of the pope himself, as well as many Church leaders: that it is critical to read the document carefully, slowly and in its entirety. It is helpful, too, to remember that Amoris Laetitia is written fully within the context of Catholic teaching. Kurt Martens, a professor of canon law at The Catholic University of America, spells this out explicitly (see Page 4).
Perhaps the biggest loss, however, would be for Catholics to focus only on the controversy rather than on the majority of the content that is both rich and inspiring. Amoris Laetitia is an opportunity for evangelization. Let us embrace it.
Editorial Board members: Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor-in-chief