Amoris Laetitia: some observations

Some observations on Pope Francis’s second Apostolic Exhortation

Pope Francis’ highly-anticipated post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation, “Amoris Laetitia” (The Joy of Love) on love in the family was presented to journalists in the Aula Giovanni Paolo II of the Holy See’s Press Office at 11:30 CET on 8 April, . Employing a similar format to the Press Conference for the formal release of Laudato si’, presentations were given by both clergy and laity:

Also published was Pope Francis’ Letter to Bishops accompanying “Amoris Laetitia“.


Pope Francis’ first Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (on the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World) was published on 24 November 2013; Amoris Laetitia is his second, which “is the conclusion of a two-year synod process discussing both the beauty and challenges of family life today”. In 2014, the Vatican hosted an Extraordinary Synod which was in preparation for the October 2015 Ordinary Synod: an estimated 190 bishops from around the world participated in each gathering. The 2015 Synod’s theme was “the vocation and mission of the family in the Church and the modern world.”

Apostolic Exhortations are published to encourage the faithful to live in a particular manner or to undertake certain activities whereas Encyclicals are papal letters usually addressed to Catholic clergy and the laity, and contain the pope’s views on church teachings and doctrine in a particular area. Laudato si’ was different in this respect in that it was directed at a broader audience and was considered to be “aimed at influencing the debate ahead of UNFCCC talks in Paris in December and [calling] for changes in lifestyles and energy consumption to avert the destruction of the ecosystem before the end of the century, [for which] failure to act would have grave consequences for humanity”.

Although there were none of the anticipated pre-publication breaches of the embargo on Amoris Laetitia, an article in the Catholic Herald had indicated that “according to a Vatican reading guide’ sent to bishops around the world” “Amoris Laetitia is ‘first and foremost a pastoral document’” that will “focus on dialogue”. Meanwhile, Vatican Radio gave its readers a “pick and mix” selection of “Highlights of Pope Francis’ teaching on the family” from the 30 plus talks at his General Audiences during 2015.

Amoris Laetitia

Amoris Laetitia (“AL”), signed by Pope Francis on 19 March – the Solemnity of Saint Joseph, is 264 pages in length and comprises nine chapters: Introduction (1-7) Chapter One: “In the light of the Word” (8-30); Chapter two: “The experiences and challenges of families” (31-57); Chapter three: “Looking to Jesus: The vocation of the family” (58-88); Chapter four: “Love in marriage” (89-164); Chapter five: “Love made fruitful” (165-198); Chapter six: “Some pastoral perspectives” (199-258); Chapter seven: “Towards a better education of children” (259-290); Chapter eight: “Guiding, discerning and integrating weakness” (291-312); Chapter nine: “The spirituality of marriage and the family” (313-325). A useful summary of each chapter has been published by Vatican Radio.

Since its publication, there has been widespread comment in the Roman Catholic and other media, although surprisingly, some of the former is behind a pay wall. In The Tablet the freely-accessible piece by Sean Smith, Amoris Laetitia opens the way to holy communion for divorced and remarrieds, suggests that the language of AL should allow priests to make judgments on a case-by-case basis; but whilst “Pope Francis has opened the way for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive holy communion”, “there was no wriggle room for same-sex marriage as [AL] was very clear that there was no path to same-sex unions being blessed by the Roman Catholic church”.

However, the Catholic Herald considers that with regard to the former, “Pope Francis has avoided making a direct statement on the question of Communion for remarried couples but in a footnote … left the question open to debate”. Other articles in the CH included Five key passages you need to read which directed readers to:

  1. The footnote on Communion for remarried couples [f351] which makes a general statement about those in “irregular” situations [305];
  2. Diminished responsibility and how external circumstances may reduce culpability for sin [301]; this bears on the question of pastoral discernment in “irregular situations”;
  3. The authority of the document, which does not claim to make authoritative doctrinal statements: “it presents itself as a summing-up of the recent Synods, with some “considerations”, [4]. The article adds “[a]s an apostolic exhortation, it has a lower level of authority than an encyclical”, noting that “the Pope’s encyclical Laudato Si’ claimed that it was ‘now added to the body of the Church’s social teaching’”.
  4. Reaffirmation of teaching on contraception: “As well as condemning abortion, the document contains many references to Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae and John Paul II’s writings on contraception [68, 81 82, 151, 155, 283]. “Perhaps the strongest restatement of Church teaching is [80]”:
  5. 5. On same-sex unions: “The exhortation briefly summarizes the conclusions of the synod, which strongly opposed the redefinition of marriage [250] and repeats the Church’s teaching on showing consideration to gay people [251].


Dr Edward Peters has posted his “First thoughts on the English version”, which include some valuable guidance for anyone undertaking a review of AL; further insights are given on his Facebook page.. His diplomatic assessment notes that although “many good things [are] said about marriage in Amoris …[w]hether those things speak with any special profundity or clarity is better left … for each reader to decide individually”; “Of the various positive things that can be said about Amoris, that ‘it has some positive things to say about marriage’ is the least useful. At 58,000 words, of course there are some positive things about marriage in it.”

Furthermore, “one must recall that Francis is not a systematic thinker. While that fact neither explains nor excuses the various writing flaws in Amoris, it does help to contextualize them. Readers who are put off by more-than-occasional resort to platitudes, caricatures of competing points of view, and self-quotation simply have to accept that this is how Francis communicates”.

Readers of L&RUK should be aware that with regard to canon law, “Francis makes almost no use of canon law in Amoris. What few canonical comments he does make are not controversial”. However, Peters does raise a number of problematic points that are at odds with conciliar teaching in Gaudium et spes, or the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or require a more nuanced explanation. For example, he states on Facebook [original emphasis omitted]: “Holy Communion is withheld from divorced-and-remarried Catholics under Canon 915 (as a function of one’s publicly contrarian status) and not because of Canon 916 (which looks to the personal culpability one might actually incur, or not, for one’s actions). Nothing in canon law and, patently, nothing in Amoris Laetitia allows ministers of Holy Communion to disregard current Church discipline regard to Canon 915.”

In the words of Stephen Bullivant “Amoris Laetitia is ‘kitchen sink theology’ and all the better for it”. It is nevertheless a long document and “[i]f a blog by [Bullivant] is really your first port of call for something like this, then ‘responsible and serious discernment’ [# 303] might not be your forte”. Whilst some commentators have begun to “cherry pick” from the more predictable areas, it is clearly too soon after its publication to make a detailed assessment.


On 10 April, Dr Ed Peters posted The law before ‘Amoris’ is the law after. Referring to his Resources for Understanding and Applying Canon 915, he states “holy Communion is to be withheld from divorced-and-remarried Catholics in virtue of Canon 915 which does not require Catholic ministers to read the souls of would-be communicants, but rather, directs ministers to withhold holy Communion from those who, as an external and observable matter, “obstinately persevere in manifest grave sin”. He concludes: “Bottom line: sacramental rules are made of words, not surmises. Those who think Amoris has cleared a path to the Communion rail for Catholics in irregular marriages are hearing words that the pope (whatever might be his personal inclinations) simply did not say”.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Amoris Laetitia: some observations" in Law & Religion UK, 9 April 2016,

6 thoughts on “Amoris Laetitia: some observations

  1. A very helpful and useful assessment by David. Those divorced and remarried should not hold their breath. As a former Catholic with very great respect for the Roman Church I now find the idea of actually withholding the Body and Blood of our crucified Lord from sinners utterly at odds with the spirit and character of the life of Jesus.

  2. I agree with Peter’s comments. Pope Francis seems to be trying to make the RC approach to it’s teachings more accessible, but doing it in 258 pages isn’t my definition of making it user friendly.

    I was once a Catholic divorcee, a long time ago I have to say, and how I was treated at the time was to me a scandal – the church turned it’s back on me when I needed it – and drove me into the arms of Agnosticism for over 25 years.

    Nowadays a confirmed Anglican – I have still struggled with that divorced status, for various reasons – Canon C4 being one of them. But I’ve never been in any doubt about receiving Holy Communion.

  3. Writing as an Anglican, who thus has only an objective and uninvolved view on this matter, I have some sympathy with the undoubted personal conflict that besets divorced and remarried Catholics who are unable to receive communion and who feel bereft spiritually as a result. I do not underestimate the effect of this on the individuals concerned.

    Having said that, it seems to me however that any committed Catholic well knows the Church’s long held and oft expressed position on divorce and remarriage and its effect on receiving the Sacrament. Thus any Catholic who knowingly embarks on a route that she/he knows is inimical to Church teaching surely cannot then complain when the Church enforces its doctrinal position. The rules are clear: they must either be accepted and obeyed by church members – no matter at what personal cost- or rejected and any individual should not complian if by his/her own actions (s)he puts themselves on a collision course with the institution of the Church and its long held views.One makes a personal choice. Don’t expect the Church to change its belief in eternal truth and so follow the Church of England in tying itself in knots trying to satisfy modern social preferences and “interpret” doctrine.

  4. As a non Catholic and a shaky Anglican I cannot get my head round why a religion based on love and forgiveness should sanction institutional behaviour which condemns and excludes those who have been through the experience of marital breakdown and are trying again and hoping to get it right. I would not want to be part of a congregation which treated one of its number this way. On the contrary, such an experience should surely lead to an extra effort to provide understanding and support. I also cannot see that a faith which commends the behaviour of Jesus Christ in forgiving and accepting Mary Magdalene should be so harsh towards modern day Marys.

    • As a divorced and remarried ex-Anglican Quaker (but one who retains an enormous amount of respect and affection for the C of E) neither can I. I can’t imagine that many people intentionally engineer the breakdown of their marriages on a whim.

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