The Magisterial Continuity of Amoris Laetitia
In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis does more than just present the teaching of the Church on marriage, which he does so beautifully. He also calls for pastoral reflection and action. His starting point, and one we need to appreciate as we receive this Magisterial document in the Year of Mercy, is the fact that this post-synodal apostolic exhortation reflects the consensus of the 2014-15 Synods of Bishops, as I discussed previously. It also shows the continuity of the teaching that we find in the conciliar era beginning with Saint John XXIII following through with Blessed Paul VI, Saint John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and now Pope Francis. If Amoris Laetitia is properly placed in the context of the constant teaching of the Church, we will see an affirmation of both the teaching on the indissolubility of marriage and also the Church’s universal practice of applying that unchanging teaching to individual lived experience and concrete situations.
Pope Francis invites us in this exhortation to recognize and value marriage and family as visible signs of God’s love and his plan for humanity, and he also encourages us to be “a sign of mercy and closeness wherever family life remains imperfect or lacks peace and joy” (Amoris Laetitia, 5). These challenges to marriage and family, and the pain that come with them, are well known, including divorce and other forms of family estrangement, single-parent households, economic struggle, death in the family, violence, same-sex or extra-marital sexual relations, and more. All of this highlights the increasing distance between our Gospel vision of marriage and family life as it is seen in Catholic teaching and the experience of people in the human condition.
In urging concrete steps to support married couples and families, and bring hope and healing to those in difficult situations, Pope Francis follows in the longstanding tradition of the Church Magisterium. The continuity is made clear by the astounding amount of citations from previous pontificates and the tradition of the Church in general. For example, there are 56 citations from the teachings of Saint John Paul II, 22 citations to the Second Vatican Council, 22 citations to Saint Thomas Aquinas, 19 citations to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 11 citations to the magisterium of Benedict XVI, 10 citations to Blessed Paul VI, and more. While we can refer to Amoris Laetitia as a consensus document, we might also name it the continuity exhortation.
From the days of the Council until today, the Church has been greatly blessed by a series of pontiffs, successors to Saint Peter, who have so well served the Church with their teachings. However, we have at times seen people being confused and misled about those teachings, beginning with the Council itself, due to an erroneous hermeneutic, that is, interpretation and application, of the teaching.
It was Pope Benedict XVI who began explicitly to point out the failings and unacceptability of what has been called “a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture,” which he contrasted with the true hermeneutic of reform and renewal in the continuity of the Church. Precisely in order to understand what it is that Jesus is revealing to us, we turn to his Church and the continuous apostolic tradition in the Body of Christ to clarify, reaffirm and assure us.
In opening the Council, Saint John XXIII said he wanted the ancient faith to be exactly preserved in its entirety and yet proclaimed in a way in which it could be heard and embraced in our age and circumstances. Blessed Paul VI also had the goal to maintain the unity of the Church, particularly in the face of the tensions and challenges of the post-conciliar times and opposition to some Magisterial teaching.
In the nearly 27 year pontificate of Saint John Paul II, the third longest pontificate in the history of the papacy, we see a refocusing of the energy and vision of the Church, an explanation and application of the conciliar teaching. Pope Benedict XVI, a gifted theologian who was at the side of Pope John Paul II for most of his pontificate, and was an advisor at the Council, reminded all of us that there is an extraordinary theological richness to what we proclaim in the Creed.
Now Pope Francis picks up the threads of the energizing focus of the Council while standing on the foundational work of his predecessors.