On April 8, the Vatican released Pope Francis’ 264-page post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation entitled Amoris Laetitia, or “The Joy of Love.” This exhortation is the culmination of two synods, including the one last fall, and is addressed to “bishops, priests and deacons, consecrated persons, Christian married couples, and all the lay faithful.”

The exhortation opens with a reflection on Scripture. Timothy O’Malley, Director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy and Concurrent Professor of Theology, explained to the Rover, “We are invited to imagine entering the house of the couple talked about in Psalm 128. We see the origins of marriage in Genesis. We see the way that the fall has introduced violence. And most importantly, there is a sense that Christ has really restored us to our original vocation in marriage as creatures made to love. Through the enrichment of the Scriptural imagination, the reader sees what God’s plan for nuptial love is.”

Many have been waiting anxiously to see how the Holy Father will respond to the more controversial issues of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics’ reception of the Eucharist and about the acceptance of so-called gay marriages, especially after the recent Supreme Court decision over the summer. He addressed these issues by focusing on the rights that children have and by making clear that bishops and priests have a great responsibility to meet personally with people in difficult situations.

The key, to me, is mercy,” O’Malley said the Rover. “Mercy not understood as avoiding the difficult questions. Mercy not understood as changing the Church’s teaching. But mercy as the willingness to descend in love into all sorts of situations. For there, too, Christ went.”

On the subject of mercy, the pope writes, “This Exhortation is especially timely in this Jubilee Year of Mercy. First, because it represents an invitation to Christian families to value the gifts of marriage and the family, and to persevere in a love strengthened by the virtues of generosity, commitment, fidelity and patience. Second, because it seeks to encourage everyone to be a sign of mercy and closeness wherever family life remains imperfect or lacks peace and joy” (5).

Late in the document, Pope Francis turns to address divorced and civilly remarried Catholics. He writes, “It is important that the divorced who have entered a new union should be made to feel part of the Church. ‘They are not excommunicated’ and they should not be treated as such, since they remain part of the ecclesial community” (243).

There is a difference between being excommunicated and not being able to receive the Eucharist, O’Malley explains: “[Divorced and remarried Catholics] may be unable to receive the Eucharist. But, they still have a vocation to play within the Church.”

“As far as being able to receive the Eucharist,” he continues, “[the pope] is very clear that the answer is not simply to pass out the Eucharist to any divorced and remarried Catholic. But, he does leave the possibility of a divorced and remarried Catholic coming back to communion, if bishop conferences allow it, if they go through an elaborate process of discernment. The ‘ifs’ here are plenty.”

Rather than simply focusing his attention on divorced adults, Pope Francis also considers the larger context that includes children of new or broken unions.

“The Synod Fathers also pointed to ‘the consequences of separation or divorce on children, in every case the innocent victims of the situation,’” the pope writes. “Apart from every other consideration, the good of children should be the primary concern, and not overshadowed by any ulterior interest or objective” (245).

He continues, “Such harmful experiences do not help children to grow in the maturity needed to make definitive commitments. For this reason, Christian communities must not abandon divorced parents who have entered a new union, but should include and support them in their efforts to bring up their children” (246).

In what might have been the most disliked passage in the secular media, Pope Francis denies the validity of so-called gay marriage. “In discussing the dignity and mission of the family, the Synod Fathers observed 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’” (251).

Pope Francis also made sure, however, to uplift the dignity of every person who struggles with same-sex attraction. He writes, “During the Synod, we discussed the situation of families whose members include persons who experience same-sex attraction, a situation not easy either for parents or for children. We would like before all else to reaffirm 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” (250).

“[T]he take away,” O’Malley concludes, “is that no matter the state of the life, the Catholic has a responsibility to engage pastorally with married Catholics, gay Catholics, divorced and remarried Catholics.”

While the passages on divorced and remarried Catholics may receive the most attention, the majority of the text was focused on reflecting on married life and the joy of children. There are many pages filled with meditations and points of reflection for soon-to-be-married couples and couples at any point in their marriages.

In the pope’s own words, “I do not recommend a rushed reading of the text. The greatest benefit, for families themselves and for those engaged in the family apostolate, will come if each part is read patiently and carefully, or if attention is paid to the parts dealing with their specific needs” (7).

John VanBerkum is a senior studying philosophy and theology. This is his very last Rover article. He can be reached for a few more weeks at jvanberk@nd.edu.