Pope Francis on the modern family: what we learned from Amoris Laetitia

What does the pope’s statement say about divorce, gay marriage, abortion and sex education?

Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) runs to 256 pages, in which Pope Francis attempts to address all aspects of modern family life. The document follows a three-year global consultation, including two lengthy summits in Rome attended by bishops from around the world.

Francis has not made any significant changes to doctrine but the language and tone of the document are notably inclusive and gentle. Critically, the introduction says that priests and bishops must use their judgment in considering individuals’ circumstances, indicating that church teaching should not be applied rigidly.

“Not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium,” Francis writes. “Each country or region … can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs.”

Francis’s papacy has been characterised by his emphasis on mercy, and acknowledgement that the realities of life are complex and individuals sometimes have to make painful choices. He says that the document is not the end of the debate: “The complexity of the issues that arose revealed the need for continued open discussion of a number of doctrinal, moral, spiritual and pastoral questions.”

So what does Amoris Laetitia say on key questions?

Remarried divorcees

The issue: Whether people who have divorced and remarried should be allowed to take holy communion. At the moment, second civil marriages are deemed adulterous unless a formal annulment of the first union has been granted. Liberal Catholics have argued that this shuts the church’s door in the face of millions of people. Conservatives have argued that divorce is wrong.

What Francis says: “It is important that the divorced who have entered a new union should be made to feel part of the church … 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.”

He adds that a conversation between an individual and their priest – known as the “internal forum” – “contributes to the formation of a correct judgment on what hinders the possibility of a fuller participation in the life of the church”. He also writes: “Divorce is an evil and the increasing number of divorces is very troubling.”

What it means: The church should not turn its back on remarried divorcees. Without clearly stating that such individuals can take holy communion, Francis is clearly encouraging priests and bishops to make their own judgments. In practice, this already happens in thousands of local churches, but the new document is likely to lead to further liberalisation on this issue.

Same-sex relationships

The issue: Whether the church should be more inclusive to gay people, renounce its traditional view that homosexuality is an “intrinsic disorder” and even allow same-sex marriages.

What Francis says: “Every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration, while ‘every sign of unjust discrimination’ is to be carefully avoided, particularly any form of aggression and violence.”

He restates that “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”.

What it means: Again, Francis is adopting more tolerant, inclusive language while not making any doctrinal changes. It is significant that the phrase “intrinsic disorder” is absent from the document. And his reference to aggression and violence signals that the church should oppose the criminalisation and persecution of LGBT people, which is a big issue in countries such as Uganda.


The issue: Would the pope soften the church’s uncompromising opposition to abortion?

What Francis says: “So great is the value of human life, and so inalienable the right to life of an innocent child growing in the mother’s womb, that no alleged right to one’s own body can justify a decision to terminate that life.”

He restates: “Those that work in healthcare facilities are reminded of the moral duty of conscientious objection.”

What it means: No change, and no hint of any future change.

Sex education

The issue: Would the church’s position on sex education be clarified?

What Francis says: “It is not easy to approach the issue of sex education in an age when sexuality tends to be trivialised and impoverished. It can only be seen within the broader framework of an education for love, for mutual self giving. In such a way, the language of sexuality would not be sadly impoverished but illuminated and enriched.”

He continues: “Sex education should provide information ... at a proper time and in a way suited to [children’s] age. It is not helpful to overwhelm them with data without also helping them to develop a critical sense in dealing with the onslaught of new ideas and suggestions, the flood of pornography and the overload of stimuli that can deform sexuality. Young people … should be helped to recognise and to seek out positive influences, while shunning the things that cripple their capacity for love.”

What it means: This section of the document is titled “The need for sex education” – an implied endorsement. But, not surprisingly, the pope wants children to be taught about sex in a moral context, rather than in a solely factual way.


Harriet Sherwood Religion correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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