In a Web Exclusive article today, I elaborate problems that I see in Amoris Laetitia. Here on First Thoughts, I want to discuss the parts of Amoris Laetitia that are especially helpful for an engaged couple. The document offers an excellent diagnosis of why marriage can be difficult in our time: “Ultimately, it is easy nowadays to confuse genuine freedom with the idea that each individual can act arbitrarily, as if there were no truths, values and principles to provide guidance, and everything were possible and permissible. The ideal of marriage, marked by a commitment to exclusivity and stability, is swept aside whenever it proves inconvenient or tiresome. The fear of loneliness and the desire for stability and fidelity exist side by side with a growing fear of entrapment in a relationship that could hamper the achievement of one’s personal goals” (33).

If you can identify with this, Amoris Laetitia has many comfortable words. As others have commented, its exegesis of I Corinthians 13 merits slow, prayerful meditation. The document shows how the family’s love is an icon of the inner life of God, quoting John Paul II: “Seen this way, the couple’s fruitful relationship becomes an image for understanding and describing the mystery of God himself, for in the Christian vision of the Trinity, God is contemplated as Father, Son and Spirit of love. The triune God is a communion of love, and the family is its living reflection.” Pope Francis then summarizes: “The family is thus not unrelated to God’s very being” (11).

Marriage is not a social convention, “an empty ritual or merely the outward sign of a commitment,” Francis continues. Rather the sacrament is given for the mutual sanctification of the spouses and as a sign of Christ’s love for the Church. As such, “the married couple are therefore a permanent reminder for the Church of what took place on the cross; they are for one another and for their children witnesses of the salvation in which they share through the sacrament” (72). While consecrated virginity is an eschatological sign of the risen Christ, “marriage is a ‘historical’ sign for us living in this world, a sign of the earthly Christ who chose to become one with us and gave himself up for us even to shedding his blood” (161). Marriage shows us what the love of Christ looks in ordinary life. Therefore, those who have deep spiritual aspirations “should not feel that the family detracts from their growth in the life of the Spirit, but rather see it as a path which the Lord is using to lead them to the heights of mystical union” (316). All of this is rich and profound, a bracing antidote to the idea that marriage lasts only as long as the mutual emotional gratification.

A friend of mine once told me that the permanence of marriage helped him and his wife through a difficult period of their life together. The indissolubility of their marriage helped them realize what Francis describes in their own lives, however imperfectly. Pope Francis likewise speaks of the permanence of marriage in words of great hope: “When love is expressed before others in the marriage contract, with all its public commitments, it clearly indicates and protects the ‘yes’ which those persons speak freely and unreservedly to each other. This ‘yes’ tells them that they can always trust one another, and that they will never be abandoned when difficulties arise or new attractions or selfish interests present themselves” (132).

But what if those new attractions, difficulties, and interests do arise? Is marriage indissoluble as long as indissolubility strengthens it, but only that long? Is indissolubility good and worth affirming, until it is not and becomes only a stone to throw? And is that the kind of marriage Christ preached, the kind of marriage that can be a sign of Christ’s love for the world and related to the being of God? These are the questions I have coming away from Amoris Laetitia, for it is not clear that the way Francis treats important aspects of marriage fully coheres with the high call to which he challenges me.

Nathaniel Peters is a doctoral candidate in historical theology at Boston College.

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