The longest apostolic exhortation of the Catholic Church has tragically been reduced to a footnote. It seems nothing can be written about Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia without addressing his footnote on the reception of communion by Catholics who are divorced and remarried.
For Julie Rubio, this is most unfortunate.
Rubio, professor at St. Louis University and author of Reading, Praying, Living Pope Francis’s The Joy of Love: A Faith Formation Guide, understands why some Catholics may be worried by Pope Francis’s words, which often point towards the grayness of the moral life. But she believes that there is still much in Amoris Laetitia that affirms and deepens traditional teaching, and takes us beyond simplistic “black and white” approaches to ethics.
For Rubio, what Pope Francis offers is a more inspiring vision of why a couple would want to get married in the first place and more compelling reasons why they should stay married, even through tough times. Amoris Laetitia does not merely address technicalities of canon law, but reveals the vital role of marriage in Pope Francis’ vision for the wider Church.
Helping Marriage Today
In Amoris Laetitia (#52) Pope Francis asks: “But nowadays who is making an effort to strengthen marriages, to help married couples overcome their problems, to assist them in the work of raising children and, in general, to encourage the stability of the marriage bond?”
Rubio believes that with so many struggling married couples, Catholics ought to look more closely at the research of social scientists. While the U.S. bishops have made important efforts with websites such as foryourmarriage.org, more needs to be done to support couples. Many issues remain unaddressed in Pre-Cana programs, which vary greatly from place to place. In these programs engaged couples are understandably focused on their upcoming wedding, rather than how to actually navigate married life after the ceremony itself.
Rubio noted that Amoris Laetitia has already inspired more parishes to strengthen their efforts to support young couples. For example, more are providing “mentor couples” to walk newlyweds through the early years of their marriage. Programs offering Marriage and Relationship Education are crucial, too.
A concern for marriage could also guide public policy. Rubio notes the importance, for instance, of efforts to secure paid family leave, health care, and just wages, because there are strong correlations between financial security and strong marriages.
With so much research suggesting that a successful marriage is less about “finding the right one” than developing the skills and practices conducive to a common life, Rubio is hopeful that the vision provided in Amoris Laetitia might be achieved. “The implementation of the document in parishes is crucial,” she said. “We need to figure how how to help more couples sustain thriving, lifelong marriages.”
The Condemning of Sexual Violence
In what Rubio believes is the strongest language used in Catholic teaching against sexual violence, Pope Francis goes beyond merely a critique of sexism and addresses the violence and domination that can exist within a marriage. Pope Francis writes that sexual violence “contradicts the very nature of marriage” (#54).
To be a Family is to be Imperfect
Pope Francis’s desire for a Church that is unafraid to operate at the margins of society is central to Amoris Laetitia. Those who feel lonely or judged, the widowed or divorced, or those otherwise on the edges of Church life are of special concern. Rubio hopes that people will find comfort in the pope’s emphasis on the idea that all families are imperfect families. The Church is not a club of families who set themselves apart as “holier than thou” but is a community of imperfect people committed to “accompaniment” or walking with those who are broken.
A key focus of the document is Pope Francis’s insistence that married life is always imperfect. More in social ethics than in other realms, Catholics have been comfortable balancing the ideal with the reality, understanding that more work can always be done and that there will always be diversity. Now this realism is working its way into family ethics. While calling people to the ideal, the pope never loses sight of compassion for those who fall short.
The Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak”
In Reading, Praying, Living Pope Francis’s The Joy of Love, Rubio addresses the controversial footnote of Amoris Laetitia, #351. The footnote uses Pope Francis’s words from Evangelii Gaudium. In response to those who believe the reception of Holy Communion could ever desecrate the Body of Christ, she notes that it is amazing to ponder that we are able to receive Christ in our flawed, finite human bodies at all. Since we are all ultimately unworthy, the idea that people could achieve “worthiness” to receive communion without sin may point to an older notion of sin.
Since Vatican II, very few Catholics decide not to receive Communion. Our theology of sin has evolved from violating rules and to turning away from God, though we acknowledge that sometimes breaking rules can still be very serious. Catholic social justice teaching on complicity with social sins such as sexism and racism has helped broaden our notion of sin, too. For Rubio, “as our understanding of sin grows, it’s harder to affirm worthiness or purity. Unworthiness seems to be the default.” This may be why so many Catholics were happy to learn about the potential for the divorced and remarried to return to the Eucharist under certain conditions.
The Call to Love
Rubio believes that, at its core, Amoris Laetitia is about “upholding the idea of lifelong marriage and calling people to cultivate love while also walking with those who experience brokenness or failure.”