Amoris Laetitia: What Does Pope Francis Want Us to Do?

by Deacon Jim Russell       April 13, 2016

Friday, April 8, was either the day that Pope Francis: a) gave us all a “new morality” to replace the outdated Church teaching we’ve suffered under for too long, or b) formally taught heresy that spells doom and damnation for our time. It all depends on which reactionaries you want to believe.

Then again, maybe we just need to stop using the Holy Father’s new post-synodal apostolic exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia, as a fun-house mirror that twists reality and instead reflects our own distorted presuppositions. Why not start asking the simple question that is at the heart of every such papal document ever produced:

What is the Holy Father asking us all to DO?

See, this is really simple: if Pope Francis was all about telling us what doctrine we had to believe in this document, it wouldn’t be an “apostolic exhortation.” Yep—ask the simple question “what does ‘exhort’ mean?” It means encouraging someone else to do something. This is not an encyclical, folks—it’s an apostolic exhortation.

When someone of the caliber of Cardinal Raymond Burke makes it clear that this text is not teaching any new doctrine or imposing any new discipline, it’s time to set aside our wild hope in its “new morality” or our wild panic in its supposed heresy. Rather, we need to start looking at what’s really in front of us.

First, let’s get really clear about whether this text is “magisterial” or not. As Cardinal Burke has framed it, it’s not, but it’s not in a specific way—namely, it’s not an authoritative teaching or doctrinal document. And yet, it will get catalogued in the “Acts of the Apostolic See” (AAS) just like other apostolic exhortations. It will rightly be listed among the other works attributed to our Popes on the Vatican website. Thus, its publication is an official act of the Holy Father’s ordinary papal magisterium.

So, as I’d frame it, “Amoris Laetitia” is “magisterial” in that it is part of Pope Francis’ papal magisterium (an official text of his pontificate), but it’s by no means a document promulgated to express either some new doctrine or discipline (in that sense not magisterial).

By comparison, think of how the Catechism was promulgated under Pope St. John Paul II’s authority (and via his ordinary papal magisterium) while obviously not containing exclusive content that in itself originated from existing magisterial sources (e.g., the writings of the Church Fathers and Saints that are present in the text of the Catechism). This content doesn’t get “magisterialized” by merely being included in a text published as an act of the ordinary papal magisterium.

Similarly, Pope Francis is presenting us with a deeply pastoral exhortation, given in virtue of the apostolic authority of his papal office. He’s asking us not to believe new doctrine or discipline, but instead he is encouraging us to take seriously the fullness of existing teaching so as to apply it more fully to every facet of family life that was considered in the course of the two recent bishops’ synods on the family. With the synod data as background, Pope Francis wants us to find new and more effective ways to act with mercy and compassion towards spouses and families—including our own—while always maintaining everything the Church does and will continue to teach about marriage and family life.

The way we the faithful can accompany—or be—spouses and families in our lived experience in the Church may change, hopefully for the better, because of his encouragement. But it won’t be because he is encouraging abandonment of truths taught to us by the living magisterium of the Church founded by Jesus Christ.

In order to answer properly the question posed in the post title (what does he want us to do?), we have to take seriously Pope Francis’ admonition that we not do one thing: “I do not recommend a rushed reading of the text.” No kidding. More than 250 pages, 325 paragraphs, 391 footnotes later, you can’t rush this and do it any real justice.

We need to be receptive to his paternal affection, even if we don’t readily grasp or agree with his reasoning or prudential judgments in certain instances. There are some really, really important things he wants everyone in the Church to do. But there is only one genuine way to find out what he wants for YOU to do: Read. The. Whole. Thing.

All of it. Don’t accept shortcuts or substitutes for the actual words he himself uses. No need to rush or form reckless opinions from shoddy media coverage, etc. Take your time.

Your Papa just wrote you an incredibly heart-felt, rich, encouraging exhortation about how you can live your life.

What are you waiting for? Start reading.


Deacon Jim Russell

ABOUT THE AUTHOR, Deacon Jim Russell

Deacon Jim Russell is a husband and father of eleven, and grandfather of two. Ordained to the Diaconate in 2002, Deacon Russell is Family Life Coordinator for the Office of Laity and Family Life in the Archdiocese of Saint Louis, Missouri. Follow Deacon Russell on Twitter at @MarriageSTL.

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