Pope Francis preaches mercy and flexibility in ‘Amoris Laetitia’

What does this massive new message from the Vatican mean?

It will take a while to answer that question, say Catholic leaders, writers and religious observers around the world. The New York Times put it this way:

Wedding invitations. Empty nesters. In vitro fertilization. Children of divorce. Pope Francis’ new 265-page manifesto “Amoris Laetitia” covers so much territory that it is going to take some time for Catholics to read and reflect on it.

This week, ReadTheSpirit.com offers the following starting points to learn more about what the pontiff is saying—and people around the world are saying in response.


Here is a direct link to download the “apostolic exhortation” from the Vatican website (1.3 MB in PDF format). The opening pages include these often-quoted lines:

The Joy of Love experienced by families is also the joy of the Church. … Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it. This will always be the case as the Spirit guides us toward the entire truth … until he leads us fully into the mystery of Christ and enables us to see all things as he does. Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs.

The Holy See staff also published its own summary of the document.


Before and after publication, The New York Times has published many stories about the pope’s newest message to the world. Staff writers in the U.S. and Rome collaborated on Rather Than Rules, Pope’s Document Gives License to Adapt. The report says in part:

The exhortation … is not a book of new rules — if anything, it is the opposite. Rather than dictating policy like a chief executive, Francis effectively devolved power and suggested that in a global church, answers sometimes are best found locally. In this way, the document created something more significant: a broader space, or room to operate, in the relationship between the clergy and the faithful—a space that some liberal Catholics think may provide a path for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments, including communion. Rules matter, Francis wrote, but so does individual conscience.

Newsweek‘s Theo Hobson praises the pope’s new message as striking a “Deft Balance.” He writes in part:

The document is mostly a hymn to married love (including sex) and family stability. In line with Catholic tradition, it is all rather rose-tinted: It overstates the centrality of the family to Christianity, ignoring those bits of the New Testament that are less enthusiastic about marriage and procreation. (But, Hobson writes …) The document confirms his image as a reformer who uses tone, nuance, implication, the vague suggestion of reform-round-the-corner. His method of reform is to signal that he wants local churches to push the boundaries, to apply the rules more flexibly than hitherto.

The New Yorker invited author and Catholic reformer James Carroll to write about the new document. Carroll’s analysis provides a unique point of view, since Carroll once served as a priest struggling to counsel men and women who were questioning what the Vatican was preaching about relatoinships. For The New Yorker, Carroll writes in part:

The Pope—to the disappointment of many liberals, no doubt—is not replacing an old set of harsh and restrictive rules with a new set of flexible and merciful rules. Rules, actually, are not the point. It is true that this document does little explicitly to uproot the structures of misogyny and homophobia that have long corrupted the Catholic tradition, but it does give a fresh impetus to change on these issues. Francis’s watchword is mercy, but mercy adheres, first, not in alterations of doctrine but in the new way that Catholics are invited to think of doctrine. When human experience, with all of what the Pope calls its “immense variety of concrete situations,” is elevated over “general principles,” a revolution is implicit. Francis explains: “It is true that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations.”

Many Catholics were not so pleased with the pope’s publication. Gay commentators point out that that pope seems to have backed away from his now-famous off-hand comment to the press: “Who am I to judge?” And, of course, Catholics hoping for tangible changes in church rules didn’t find any substantial revisions in these pages. Another voice of disappointment came from David Clohessy, who has worked tirelessly on behalf of victims of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy. The International Business Times (IBT) talked with Clohessy. The IBT reported in part:

In keeping with his modern image, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church issued a 264-page document called “Amoris Laetitia,” or in English “The Joy of Love,” urging church leaders to be more welcoming toward followers who may be gay, lesbian, divorced or remarried. But there’s one group of people still waiting for that kind of recognition: clergy abuse survivors. They said Francis, who’s been hailed for tackling everything from climate change to Cuban diplomacy, again skipped over the international scandal that’s implicated thousands of suspects in sex crimes and cover-ups. Before writing policy documents, they argued, he needs to solve the ongoing crisis in the church.


The International Association of Religion Journalists just posted a new global analysis of Francis’s impact, reported by Barney Zwartz—a senior fellow with the Centre for Public Christianity in Sydney and former religion editor for The Age newspaper in Melbourne. Zwartz writes in part:

In becoming the first pope in 1000 years to take an unused papal name – itself implying new directions – the choice of Francis was significant: The message was humility, sympathy with creation, and a concern for rebuilding the church. He conveyed a sense of generosity and inclusiveness. The effect on the church, and the watching world, was instant and dramatic. And he has not faltered since, with an almost unerring ability to strike the right note and deliver powerful, genuine symbols. It is an appeal that extends beyond Catholics.


Have you found other important viewpoints on the pope’s new exhortation? If so, consider emailing us at [email protected] and tell us about what you’ve found. We may update this summary column in coming weeks.

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