Amoris Laetitia: Pope Francis and the 'erotic dimension of love'

Pope Francis hugs a young boy at the end of his weekly general audience in St Peter's Square on Wednesday. Photo: Andrew Medichini/AP
Pope Francis hugs a young boy at the end of his weekly general audience in St Peter's Square on Wednesday. Photo: Andrew Medichini/AP

London: A tiny footnote near the end of the Pope's 264-page 'Joy of Love' treatise is the 'money quote' that demonstrates a breakthrough in compassion for the Catholic Church, a leading Vatican expert says.

Pope Francis on Friday published his long awaited Amoris Laetitia, quoting Martin Luther King, Jorge Luis Borges and even the 1987 Danish cult film Babette's Feast to make his case for a more merciful and loving Church.

John L Allen Jr, one of the most-respected Vatican observers and editor of the Crux website, wrote that the text treats a "staggering variety of topics".

"Public interest initially will focus on what Francis says in chapter eight about Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried," Allen Jr said – a "lightning rod issue" debated by bishops over the last two years.

Francis argues that pastors must use a process of "discernment" when applying church law.

Mr Allen Jr says the "money quote on this score" is the 336th footnote, found at the bottom of the 230th page.

"The consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same," Francis wrote, and the footnote adds "This is also the case with regard to sacramental discipline."

Explains Mr Allen Jr: "In effect, what he's saying is that there may be cases in which a given divorced and remarried Catholic, after talking things out with a priest, could be justified in reaching the decision that they don't carry the guilt that should exclude them from the sacraments, including Holy Communion."

Mr Allen Jr says divorced and remarried Catholics have been "quietly encouraged" to come forward for communion for some time, but this text from the Pope sets it in "full public view".

"Amoris Laetitia represents a breakthrough of no small consequence, because for once in a Vatican text, what got enunciated wasn't simply the law but also the space for pastoral practice – which is where the Church's long-underappreciated capacity for subtlety and compassion usually enters the picture.

"In other words, what Pope Francis has done is let the rest of the world in on one of the best-kept secrets about the Catholic Church: Yes, the Church has laws, and it takes them very seriously. But even more than law it has flesh-and-blood people, and it takes their circumstances and struggles seriously too."

Author Austen Ivereigh, also writing for Crux, described the text as "an epic bid to convert the Church worldwide to a mission to rescue the family, not by finger-wagging or table-thumping nor even by persuasion, but by a concrete strategy of rebuilding from the ground up.

"It will shape the Church's actions and attitudes for generations to come," said the author of the book The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope.

The document was a "roadmap to the reinvigoration of marriage and family", he said, but also a "long polemic against rigorism", clearing the way for "maximum pastoral flexibility" .

La Stampa's Vatican Insider reporter Andrea Tornielli said the key phrase in the text was on page 27: "We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them."

Ms Tornielli noted an apologetic tone in the text, such as: "there is no sense in simply decrying present-day evils… at times the way we present our Christian beliefs and treat other people has helped contribute to today's problematic situation. We need a healthy dose of self-criticism".

In the text, the Pope quotes:

  • Martin Luther King: "The person who hates you most has some good in him… The strong person is the person who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil Somebody must have religion enough and morality enough to cut it off and inject within the very structure of the universe that strong and powerful element of love".
  • Jorge Luis Borges (Francis' favourite author, from Francis' former home Argentina): "every home is a lampstand".
  • The 1987 Danish drama film Babette's Feast: "when the generous cook receives a grateful hug and praise: 'Ah, how you will delight the angels!'"

Francis – who has taken a vow of chastity – also set out tips for a successful marriage, including:

  • "Three words need to be used: 'Please', 'Thank you', 'Sorry'. Three essential words!"
  • "Take time, quality time. This means being ready to listen patiently and attentively to everything the other person wants to say. It requires the self-discipline of not speaking until the time is right."
  • "Keep an open mind… A patronising tone only serves to hurt, ridicule, accuse and offend others. Many disagreements between couples are not about important things. Mostly they are about trivial matters."
  • "Fathers are often so caught up in themselves and their work, and at times in their own self-fulfilment, that they neglect their families."
  • "Desires, feelings, emotions, what the ancients called 'the passions', all have an important place in married life… the stirring of desire or repugnance is neither sinful nor blameworthy… (however) excess, lack of control or obsession with a single form of pleasure can end up weakening and tainting that very pleasure."

The Pope also addressed "the erotic dimension of love".

Sexuality was a "marvellous gift" from God, he said, and not something to be looked down upon. However it "is not a means of gratification or entertainment; it is an interpersonal language wherein the other is taken seriously, in his or her sacred and inviolable dignity".

A healthy sexual desire should always involve a "sense of wonder", Francis wrote. "Even momentarily, we can feel that life has turned out good and happy."

Amoris Laetitia is the result of a process that began with an extraordinary Synod of Bishops assembly in Rome in October 2014, where 250 bishops were joined by a dozen married couples and a handful of nuns. The meeting discussed a global questionnaire sent around the Catholic world.

With Reuters

This story Amoris Laetitia: Pope Francis and the 'erotic dimension of love' first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.