Pope Francis released his long-awaited letter on marriage and families Friday, and despite predictions of radical changes in Church teaching, Francis hewed to the line of his predecessors regarding traditional Catholic doctrine on marriage and family life.
In March, progressive German Cardinal Walter Kasper confidently stated in an interview that the Pope’s letter “will be the first step in a reform that will turn the page back for the Church after a period of 1700 years,” especially regarding questions of divorce and remarriage. None of this materialized in the Pope’s 261-page text.
In fact, although the Pope’s tone is gentle and eminently “pastoral,” the substance of his message is essentially the traditional Christian teaching regarding the nature of marriage and family life.
The new letter—called an “apostolic exhortation” in Vatican-speak—will no doubt stir up the ire of the LGBT lobby, as Francis has once again issued a forceful reaffirmation of the essential nature of marriage as between one man and one woman.
In the text of Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), Francis said that “only the exclusive and indissoluble union between a man and a woman has a plenary role to play in society” and that de facto or same-sex unions may not “be equated with marriage.”
“No union that is temporary or closed to the transmission of life can ensure the future of society,” he said.
In his letter, the Pope offers an extended reflection on the unique value of motherhood and fatherhood, neither of which is dispensable or replaceable with a unisex version of “parent.” And although many countries “are witnessing a legal deconstruction of the family,” he said, this cannot bode well for the future of society. It is unacceptable that “international bodies should make financial aid to poor countries dependent on the introduction of laws to establish ‘marriage’ between persons of the same sex,” he said.
As he has done in the past, Francis also decries an ideology of gender that “denies the difference and reciprocity in nature of a man and a woman and envisages a society without sexual differences, thereby eliminating the anthropological basis of the family.”
Refusal to kowtow to contemporary, politically correct redefinitions of family, Francis said that the Christian vision of marriage is essential for the future of the world. “As Christians, we can hardly stop advocating marriage simply to avoid countering contemporary sensibilities, or out of a desire to be fashionable or a sense of helplessness in the face of human and moral failings,” he said.
“The Church has always held it part of her mission to promote marriage and the family and to defend them against those who attack them,” he added.
Francis also takes on the abortion industry head-on, calling it a “horrendous contradiction” when the family itself becomes a place where life is rejected and destroyed.
“So great is the value of a 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 said.
“How can we issue solemn declarations on human rights and the rights of children, if we then punish children for the errors of adults?” he said.
Throughout the text, Francis alludes to the teaching of his predecessors, especially Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. He even refers three times to Paul VI’s 1968 letter Humanae Vitae, which reaffirmed the Church’s ban on contraception.
Those who push for voucher programs to allow parents greater choice in the education of their children will find ample material in the papal text to support their contentions.
Francis unapologetically declares that the education of children is a “primary right” of parents.
Therefore, education of children is “an essential and inalienable right that parents are called to defend and of which no one may claim to deprive them,” Francis writes. Whereas the State offers educational programs in a “subsidiary way,” supporting the parents in their fundamental role, it is parents themselves who “enjoy the right to choose freely the kind of education” they wish to give their children in accordance with their convictions, he states.
“Schools do not replace parents, but complement them,” Francis said. Because of this, “all other participants in the process of education are only able to carry out their responsibilities in the name of the parents, with their consent and, to a certain degree, with their authorization.”
Those who think that the Pope’s letter is just a restatement of traditional Christian teaching would also be mistaken, however.
Though it alters no doctrine, the letter provides a wealth of deep and valuable reflections that will be helpful for married couples and those thinking of getting married.
The Pope plays to his strengths, focusing more on practical suggestions on how couples can rediscover the beauty of marriage and live it more fully, rather than getting lost in theological discourse.
He also insists on a greater pastoral sensitivity toward those living in “irregular” situations, and greater initiative in helping them feel welcome in the life of the Church.
While Francis confesses that divorce “is an evil and the increasing number of divorces is very troubling,” he also encourages pastors to reach out to those in difficult situations and to help each one discern God’s will for his life and the ways that he or she can fruitfully participate in the Christian community.
All in all, Christians will find the Pope’s letter encouraging as well as challenging. While willing to call the modern crisis of the family by its name, he doesn’t wallow in the problems but points to creative solutions and above all makes the beauty of marriage and family something palpable and worth fighting for.
Hear the interview:
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