Amoris Laetitia: How the Pope's exhortation could shake up the Church

Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn shows the document Amoris Laetitia by Pope Francis during a news conference at the Vatican, April 8, 2016.Reuters

The Pope's long-anticipated exhortation following the two Synods on the family, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) has been published and comes with a health warning: "I do not recommend a rushed reading of the text," says Francis.

This, he says, is because of the number and variety of questions he addresses, but it should be added that it's also because of the quality of his thinking. This is serious pastoral theology, often challenging and inspirational. It matches what we've come to expect of this man who is such a gift to the Christian Church.

It's also long, at 264 pages, though there is an official summary as well. But forecasts about Francis rewriting Church doctrine on divorce and homosexuality, never very convincing, were wide of the mark.

To get the latter out of the way: he quotes the Synod Fathers' view that "as for proposals to place unions between homosexual persons on the same level as marriage, 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". Furthermore, it is unacceptable "that local Churches should be subjected to pressure in this matter and 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".

However, he also says of families with members who "experience same-sex attraction" that "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".

On divorce, he stresses its serious consequences for children and society. Its indissolubility is not a yoke but a gift. On the other hand, he is clear that within that general statement there is a wide and generous field of pastoral discretion toward divorced people who have remarried. "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" – but they shouldn't partake of the Eucharist.

Amoris Laetitia has eight chapters. The first reflects on Scripture and the second is entitled 'The experience and challenges of families', looking at issues such as freedom of choice, the desire for personal fulfilment and the increase in cohabitation. Francis says: "We also need to be humble and realistic, acknowledging that at times the way we pres­ent our Christian beliefs and treat other people has helped contribute to today's problematic situation. We need a healthy dose of self-crit­icism." He says the Church has been too theoretical and not grounded enough, promoting a "far too abstract" idea of marriage.

The third chapter is 'Looking to Jesus: The vocation of the family'. In part a restatement of traditional teaching, it's also clear that the Church has to be much more responsive to a changing situation. Faced with "difficult situations and wounded families", Francis says: "The degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases and factors may exist which limit the ability to make a decision. Therefore, while clearly stating the Church's teaching, pastors are to avoid judgements that do not take into account the complexity of various situations, and they are to be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience and endure distress because of their condition."

Francis suggests that married couples will be most interested in chapters four and five, 'Love in Marriage' and 'Love Made Fruitful'. There are profound meditations on human love and family life – and anyone who imagines that a 79-year-old celibate can't know anything about that should consider the length of time he has spent hearing confessions. Chapter five extols the value of large families, expands on the responsibilities of parenthood and stresses the need for fathers to be fathers. It encourages adoption and speaks of care for the elderly and the wider family.

Chapter six offers perspectives on pastoral challenges. It says that "or­dained ministers often lack the training needed to deal with the complex problems currently facing families", adding – and perhaps providing a hostage to fortune that "The experience of the broad oriental tradition of a married clergy [who aren't called to celibacy as they are in the Western Catholic tradition] could also be drawn upon." There's much about marriage preparation and the need to support couples.

Chapter seven is headed 'Towards a Better Education of Children' and argues for a firm but balanced and tolerant upbringing. "Obsession, however, is not education," he says. "We cannot control every situation that a child may experience. Here it remains true that 'time is greater than space'. In other words, it is more important to start processes than to dominate spaces."

In his introduction Francis expresses the hope that "everyone should feel challenged by Chapter Eight". This is headed 'Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness'. It's in this chapter that he addresses issues around divorce and remarriage, a serious and painful issue for many Catholics. Its overall theme is that the Church has to be much more flexible and responsive in its approach to people in difficult situations. They are still baptised and they are still Catholics; so, "individual conscience needs to be better incorporated into the Church's praxis in certain situations which do not objectively embody our understanding of marriage".

While this is a significant chapter that may help to challenge legalism and over-rigorousness in Catholic pastoral practice, there are no bombshells in Amoris Laetitia. Its signficance will emerge over time.

Part of it, as with much of the ministry of Pope Francis, is not about substance – though it's substantial in every way – but about tone. It is warm, perceptive, loving and down-to-earth. Without changing the Church's fundamental teaching, Francis has gone as far as he can in urging a different attitude towards Catholic faithful in hard situations, and he has shared a lifetime's wisdom for the benefit of families everywhere.

And this is not just a document for Catholics. One of Francis' strengths is his ability to speak across boundaries. It is hard to think that there is a Christian family – or any family – that wouldn't be enriched by engaging with this exhortation.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods