Pope Francis has published a post-Synodic apostolic exhortation that concludes (but in a certain sense, also reopens) the debate that consumed the Catholic Church between 2014 and 2015 on the themes of marriage and the family. Extending over nine chapters, 325 paragraphs and with 391 footnotes, the text, published under the title Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), is much longer than John Paul II's Familiaris Consortio (1981), due in large part to the catechetical language the publication employs.
From a formal point of view, the texts published by John Paul II and Francis are the same kind of post-Synodic apostolic exhortation, though of a different nature: Pope Francis's Synod was split into two sections -- October 2014 and October 2015 -- and was a true Synodic debate: open, and at times sharp, in which the Pope's opposition didn't hesitate to criticize him as they had been reluctant to criticize his predecessors. Despite all this, in Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis doesn't hesitate to paint a picture of the Church of Mercy he has in mind, and does so by repeatedly citing the final reports of the 2014 and 2015 Synods, and the texts approved by the majority in particular, though these same texts were rejected by a consistent minority (numbers 84, 85 and 86 of the final report of 2015 in particular).
Amoris Laetitia is not only Pope Francis's document, but that of Francis's church as well (with citations from the episcopal conference, as in other documents produced under this Pope). There are several clear steps forward, several hesitations and compromises, and several areas on which he was silent, waiting for the concept of "discernment" (a key term for the Jesuit Bergoglio) to mature within the church.
The areas of silence and those where the texts are not yet fully mature deal with the issues that are most divisive on the global level: The church and gays and lesbians, and women within the church. On gays and lesbians, Amoris Laetitia repeats the need to avoid excluding anyone from the church (paragraphs 250-251), but goes no further than the line imposed by the minority in the 2015 Synod, and basically cites the Catechism. On women, the maternal and paternal figures and the issue of gender, the text proves weakest, due to the fact that the Synod essentially avoids addressing these themes, showing the theological weakness of most bishops.
Amoris Laetitia responds to the expectations of those who have hoped that Pope Francis would adopt a new approach to new issues around matrimony and the family, and disappoints those who hoped to find radical change in its texts.
The section that shows the most compromise is the section surrounding the legacy of Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II, especially on contraception, which Pope Francis leaves rather undefined, accentuating the discourse of individual conscience and a responsible paternal and maternal role (paragraphs 68 and 82). This is a significant compromise, but with a clear opening concerning the issue of remarried divorcees. The document does not cite "spiritual communion" (up to this point proposed by the church pre-Francis to divorcees who remarry as an alternative to the Eucharist). It also rejects the exclusivism that makes those Catholics who find themselves in difficult situations feel like they've been excommunicated (paragraph 243), and addresses non-matrimonial forms of union as "occasions to accompany people toward marriage" (paragraph 293). The document also speaks of "gradual progress in the prudent application of free acts in subjects who are not in a condition to comprehend, appreciate or fully practice the objective needs of the law" (paragraph 295). Further, it makes clear that "there do not exist any simple solutions" for difficult cases (paragraph 298). And in an important footnote on page 329, the document recognizes the risks inherent to asking remarried divorcees to "live like brothers and sisters."
The most genuinely Bergoglian section of the text is the discussion of the issue of a pastoral approach to doctrine and the law. It includes several paragraphs that express Pope Francis's theology and set the tone for the entire document. At the beginning of the text, Pope Francis emphasizes that "not all doctrinal, moral or pastoral discussions have to be resolved with an intervention by the educator" (paragraph 3). He invites the faithful to consider "the current situation experienced by families, in order to keep both feet on the ground" (paragraph 6). He asks that "everyone see themselves as being markedly challenged by chapter eight" on the pastoral challenges the faithful face in real life (paragraph 6).
There is an extremely powerful section, in which Pope Francis admits that within the language of the Catholic church, the procreative goals have sometimes overshadowed those of union, making the institution of matrimony less appealing (paragraph 36). He recognizes that the Catholic church has placed excessive emphasis on doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues (paragraph 36), and makes note of the excessive reactions the Catholic church has had to "the decadent world" (paragraph 38), indicating instead the behavioral model set by Jesus when addressing the issue of adultery. The meaning of the pastoral shift in mindset by Pope Francis is laid out clearly in paragraph 304:
"It would be petty and small-minded to consider nothing more than whether or not a person's acts respond to a law or general rule, because this is not enough to discern and insure full fidelity to God in the concrete existence of a human being."
Amoris Laetitia responds to the expectations of those who have hoped that Pope Francis would adopt a new approach to new issues around matrimony and the family, and disappoints those who hoped to find radical change in its texts. Changes for remarried divorcees will exist -- depending on the reception that individual bishops and priests give the document. But the direction Pope Francis intends to take a Catholic church grappling with enormous socio-cultural changes in is entirely clear. It is a long, complex document that reflects a global Catholicism in which matrimony and the family have now both become much more diversified realities than they were when the Council of Trent was held 450 years ago, during which matrimony was codified for the Western Catholic world. It is a document that prohibits any of the various different theological parties and positions to declare total victory or total defeat, and is the result of a long Synodic process that has seen bishops visibly split over several of the key issues.
Pope Francis's church continues its march toward a "de-ideologization" of its role as educator, toward an increased level of inclusiveness, and toward an expression of mercy based on the example set by Jesus with the Samaritan Woman. It remains to be seen what kind of reception the world will give Amoris Laetitia. We've never seen a post-Synodic exhortation like this one, and we've never had a true Synod like the one set forth from 2014 to 2015.
This post first appeared on HuffPost Italy. It has been translated into English and edited for clarity.