The first paragraph of Amoris Laetitia states that “the desire to marry and form a family remains vibrant, especially among young people.” Throughout my engagement, however, my desire to marry has sometimes been less than vibrant. To paraphrase my archbishop Cardinal O’Malley, I long for happiness but would rather settle for fun. I look at the wreckage of divorce around me and wonder how my I can hope to avoid it. Amoris Laetitia is filled with many words of encouragement for people like me, but it left me concerned as well as consoled. Not because it calls for mercy and discernment, for acknowledgment of the messiness and complexity of modern life. These are essential for pastors and indeed for any Christian.
The problem with Amoris Laetitia is that it asks us to imitate the deeds of Christ, while moving his words to the side. Pope Francis frequently cites Christ’s “compassion and closeness to the frailty of individuals like the Samaritan woman or the woman caught in adultery,” in contrast to those who set forth a demanding ideal or hurl doctrines as stones (27, 38, 49, 64, 289, 294, 305). But he never speaks the words that Jesus spoke to them, for Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that the man she is with now is not her husband, a call to repentance and reception of the living water that comes from him (John 4:18). To the woman caught in adultery he is more blunt: “go and sin no more” (John 8:11).
More than that, in a document with extensive and biblical citations, Pope Francis never fully quotes the words of Christ concerning divorce, which appear in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:31–32) and two confrontations with the Pharisees (Matthew 19:4–9 and Luke 16:18). Amoris Laetitia notes that Jesus speaks of God’s original plan for man and woman as including their indissoluble union, and that this union should not be put asunder (62). But it does not continue the quotation of Christ: “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery.”
Perhaps Pope Francis wishes that Christ had not said those words. I certainly do. It would make it easier for me to understand my own parents’ remarriages, for one thing. I wish the gospels were different in other ways, too. I wish the gospel of Luke spoke about the rich and the poor in less absolute terms. I would like to hate the enemies of God “virtuously.”
But I desperately need the words of Christ, as much as I may not always like them, because they are one of the ways by which Christ reveals himself to me. The words of Christ do not show me how to be tactful or comfortable, but something far more terrible. They teach me how I can become perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect, just how far I have to go for that perfection to be real, and how I desperately need the grace of God to make it so. Deus Caritas Est is right: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (1). The goal of the words of Jesus is not an ideal, but a meeting in which we become more like him.
By contrast, Amoris Laetitia seems to treat Christ’s teaching about marriage in three ways: exhorting it as an ideal—noble to be sure but too difficult for many (298, 307); repeating it as a doctrine or a duty (134); and stressing it as a moral issue without regard for the consciences we might be burdening in the process (37). To give but one example, Francis writes that it is reductive “to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being.” He says that our pastoral discernment should include Thomas Aquinas’s idea that general principles are necessary, but they break down the more we descend into particulars (AL 304; ST I-II.94.4).
This passage comes from Thomas’s treatise on the natural law, where Thomas argues that rational principles of the natural law apply universally. For example, the goods entrusted to another should be returned to their owner. While this may be true in the majority of cases, he continues, it is not true in all. What if their owners will use them in harmful ways? Hence the need for discerning where universal principles do not apply to a particular situation.
However, Christ made the indissolubility of marriage not simply a matter of natural law, but of the divine law. Thomas argues that the divine law leads us to eternal happiness with God, clarifies without any doubt what we ought to do and avoid, governs the heart, and forbids all sin (I-II.91.4). The purpose of the divine law is to make us perfect so that we can fulfill the destiny to which God calls us: communion with him forever. The New Law of Christ tells us the things that are necessary for our destiny, or opposed to it. More miraculously, the New Law is the grace of the Holy Spirit dwelling in us. This happens by means of the sacraments, including “indissoluble Matrimony” (I-II.106.1–2).
In other words, Thomas corrects how Amoris Laetitia tends to speak about indissolubility. The New Law Christ teaches is not just a matter of natural law, a duty, a moral issue, or an ideal. It is life-giving, perfect; it revives the soul and giving joy to the heart (cf. Psalm 19:7–8). Christ’s teaching about marriage clarifies the path of perfection God desires for us. But it also turns that path into a sacrament, a vehicle by which the Holy Spirit fills our hearts with love and realizes that perfection in us.
Francis wants the church to be a field hospital for sinners (291). The first function of a good hospital is to identify how the patient is sick, and this is what a good priest does. When he speaks the words of Christ in love, they are not hooks in the hands of a torturer; they are a scalpel in the hands of a surgeon. The words of Christ are hard: He who does not love me more than all else cannot be my disciple. Carry your cross and follow me. Lay down your life so that you may be find it. But it is only by speaking them to me that the Church can begin to tend my wounds.
This is not about whether the Church is afraid to get her shoes dirty (308), but about whether the field hospital is capable of diagnosing real illness according to the standard of health that Christ left us in the gospels. Does sexual sin impede the work of the Spirit in the way that neglect of the poor does? Why not? Pope Francis easily says that “when those who receive it turn a blind eye to the poor and suffering, or consent to various forms of division, contempt and inequality, the Eucharist is received unworthily” (186). There is no call for discernment or casuistry or accompaniment here, only a statement of absolutes. But should not the whole Sermon on the Mount receive the same proclamation—unflinching, but with appropriate nuance and love?
Pope Francis insists that the effort to strengthen marriages and prevent their breakdown is more important that the pastoral care of failed marriages, that the Church should not be lukewarm in her teaching about marriage (307). But in order to have a marriage that functions as an image of Christ, I need solid food, not milk. I need to be made like Christ by having his words proclaimed to me as his words and not the Church’s rules, even when they are uncomfortable, so that they might comfort me—in the original sense of comfort, to strengthen. My plea to Pope Francis, my own archbishop, and the priests they lead, is that of the Greeks to Philip: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” (John 12:21). In order to see him, though, they must tell me what sin is, and that I must “go and sin no more.” The Church should not sheathe the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.
Nathaniel Peters is a doctoral student in historical theology at Boston College.