From Humanae Vitae to Amoris Laetitia

The purpose of this paper is to show that there is an “unbroken thread” connecting Humanae Vitae with Amoris Laetitia, two documents promulgated within cultural and ecclesial contexts very different one from the other.  To do so, I would like to offer my reflections about the passing on of life, and show its central importance, both in the encyclical of Paul VI (which, as it turned out, was adumbrated by the Second Vatican Council in the well-known Note 14 to Section 51 of the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes), as well as in the Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Francis, which is  the crowning achievement of the two recent Synods that dealt with the family in today’s world.  My reflections will cover three points:  1) the “unbreakable bond” between marital sexuality and the responsible passing on of life; 2) the progression from marriage to the family, which is the “engine of history” and; 3) dealing with damaged marriage/family relationships.

The unbreakable bond between marital unity and the passing on of life

Humanae Vitae has given rise to a great number of comments and reactions that many believe to be unprecedented in the Church, at least as regards Encyclical Letters.  Likewise Amoris Laetitia.  Cardinal Walter Kasper was recently reported to have said that never has an Apostolic Exhortation aroused such heated and intense debate in the Church.

In the framework of the many theological, and especially theological-moral, questions that in these past fifty years have been raised about Humanae Vitae, I would first like to consider what I believe to be the most important affirmation in this Encyclical, its wisest and most valuable theological and anthropological legacy, namely, the “unbreakable bond” (HV 12) between marital unity and the passing on of life.  The phrase has its origin in the earlier Section 9 of the document where Paul VI lists the four principal characteristics and requirements of marital love: 1) It is thoroughly human, that is, both sensual and spiritual.  2) It is total; it is a special form of personal friendship where husband and wife share everything generously and love each other for the other’s sake and not for personal gain.  3) It is faithful and exclusive until death. 4)  Lastly, it is fruitful.  With this last characteristic, Paul VI reconciled the age-old question of the relationship between the purposes of marriage.  It is equally ordered to the personal communion between husband and wife and to the bringing forth of new lives.  This seems to me the first, essential, “conquest” of the encyclical of Paul VI—a prophetic lesson in human wisdom, which we can not and must not forget.

We have to remember that in the late 60s the Pope foresaw a difficulty and an objection that at that time was barely perceived, but that today has doubtless become radicalized and even extremely so—namelt, the separation between marital love and the passing on of life.  In today’s culture, both in individual lives and in the media, sex is largely separate from the passing on of life and is used largely for personal pleasure.  In this state of affairs it is no longer evident how a child has any right to be brought into the world within a loving relationship between a man and a woman, or even within a relationship that is stable and socially established and recognized—a family.  Almost fifty years later, Amoris Laetitia explicitly says that, “Every child has a right to receive love from a mother and a father; both are necessary for a child’s integral and harmonious development….each of the spouses “contributes in a distinct way to the upbringing of a child.  Respecting a child’s dignity means affirming his or her need and natural right to have a mother and a father.  We are speaking not simply of the love of father and mother as individuals, but also of their mutual love, perceived as the source of one’s life and the solid foundation of the family.” (AL 172).
The “unbreakable bond” between marital love and the passing on of life means that every child is the “masterpiece” brought forth in that relationship.  As Amoris Laetitia says, in Section 13, a child is the fruit of mutual gift and, as Gaudium et Spes says in Section 48, children are the “ultimate crown” of marriage and marital love.  A child on the way is the fulfillment of a desire that is a necessary part of the marital relationship. When a man and a woman fall in love and decide to marry, in their mutual attraction there is immediately a “third.”  Getting married means recognizing in the future spouse the father or mother of one’s children as well.

.            At the same time, however, the child is more than the expectations of its parents.  The child is always an other, unpredictable and unbound, even by the legitimate and necessary desires of father and the mother.  Each child introduces a surprising novelty into the marriage relationship.  Its presence brings joy to the couple and makes them a family.  About this there are very beautiful passages in Amoris Laetitia, especially in chapter V, where expecting a baby is described (AL 170).

Still, the affirmation of an unbreakable bond between marital love and the passing on of life does not require, for Humanae Vitae, that every marriage must necessarily have children.  The Encyclical adopts the openness of Pius XII, in his well-known Allocution to Midwives of 1951.  In line with that thought, Paul VI, adopted the approach taken by the Second Vatican Council in Sections 50 and 51 of Gaudium et Spes and affirmed that life is to be passed on “responsibly” and that, as is known, natural methods are the way to exercise “responsibleness.”  Later, in the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, St. John Paul II called for further theological study to deepen—beyond mere biology— our anthropological and moral understanding of the “choice of natural rhythms.”  This choice “involves accepting the cycle of the person, that is the woman, and thereby accepting dialogue, reciprocal respect, shared responsibility and self- control.” (HV Section 32).

The idea of responsible passing on of life, in the Council and in Humanae Vitae, seems to include as well the idea of active response by parents to a gift from God.  This is what Amoris Laetitia expressly says in Section 166: “The family is the setting in which a new life is not only born but also welcomed as a gift from God.”  Parents are not the creators of their children, they are custodians of a gift that involves them directly and asks them to witness to their children God’s love, which is both “paternal” and “maternal.” (Hosea 11; Lk 15:11-32).

             From marriage to family: from generation to generation

            Amoris Laetitia appears to adopt the witness of Humanae Vitae when, in its fascinating chapter IV, it offers a scriptural meditation on the “sensual and spiritual” dynamic (HV 9) of the marital relationship, with a commentary on the famous hymn in praise of agape in Chapter 13 of First Corinthians.  Amoris Laetitia also adopts the witness of the Humanae Vitae when, in chapter V, speaking of the “love that becomes fruitful,” it broadens the discourse on family relationships, including in them the several members that make up a human family:  elderly parents and grandparents (AL 191-193), brothers and sisters (AL 194-195), uncles, cousins and even neighbors. (AL 187), even fathers-in-law, mothers-in-law and all relatives of one’s spouse. (AL 198 ).

All these relationships constitute the “extended family.” (AL 178-186) Going “beyond the small circle formed by spouses and their children” (AL 196), the extended family becomes a school of hospitality, which expands household walls and can, “welcome with great love unwed mothers, orphans, single moms who have to rise their children alone, the disabled who need much  affection and attention, young people struggling with addictions, the unmarried, the separated, lonely widows and widowers, the elderly and the sick who are neglected by their children, and even persons who are ruining their lives in one way or another.” (AL 197)

It should be noted that, especially in chapters V and VI, Pope Francis continues the profound meditation on family relationships contained in the catecheses he delivered at his Wednesday audiences between the two Synods.  It is even worth noting that he makes particular mention of adoption and foster care which, while not biological, is real parenthood.  “Adoption is a very generous way to be come parents…. Adopting a child is an act of love, offering the gift of a family to someone who has none.” (AL 179)

Presenting itself as the life-giving paradigm of fundamental anthropological relationships, the family is actually the “engine of history,” a real school of life that is open to society and the world, a “laboratory” of human relationships and responsible citizenship.  Significantly, speaking of fraternity, and citing his February 18, 2015, Audience Catechesis, Pope Francis describes in a very beautiful way the human wealth of the family: “…the bond of fraternity that forms among children in the family, if consolidated by an educational atmosphere of openness to others, is a great school of freedom and peace.  In the family, we learn how to live as one.  Perhaps we do not always think about this, but the family itself introduces fraternity into the world.  From this initial experience of fraternity, nourished by affection and education at home, the pattern of fraternity radiates like a promise upon the whole of society.” (AL 194).

Thus, from generation to generation, the family is open to the world and communicates a way of living in it, one marked not by possession and despotic rule, but by gift and responsibility, according to that integral ecology that Pope Francis described in the Encyclical Laudato Si’.  In this framework, we can understand clearly the profound relationship between the family and the Church.  Pope Francis describes it in the third chapter of Amoris Laetitia, where he says that, “The Church is a family of families,… The Church is good for the family, and the family is good for the Church.” (AL 87)

Dealing with fragile and damaged family relationships

It is only within this ecclesiological, anthropological and pastoral framework, that we can understand chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia, which is dedicated to “accompanying, discerning and integrating fragility.”  The intent of Pope Francis is clearly expressed at the beginning of that chapter, where, referring to fragile or damaged family situations, he reaffirms that, “the Church must accompany with attention and care the weakest of her children, those who show signs of a wounded and troubled love, by restoring in them hope and confidence—like the beacon of a lighthouse in a port, or a torch carried among the people to enlighten those who have lost their way or who are in the midst of a storm.” (AL 291).  In this chapter, Pope Francis calls for a change of pastoral vision that will enable the Church to remain faithful to her mission.  There are two situations on which he focuses particular attention:  the first is increasingly widespread “nonmarital cohabitation” (AL 293), together with marriage that is recognized only civilly.  In these cases, he recommends avoiding a priori condemnation, adopting instead an attitude of pastoral discernment aimed at building on “those signs of love that in some way reflect the love of God.” (AL 294).  In other words, according to the Pope, “these situations must be faced constructively, by trying to transform them into opportunities for reaching the fullness of marriage and the family in the light of the Gospel.” (AL 294).  This approach opens up interesting and valuable possibilities for new pastoral outreach.

The second concern that Chapter VIII deals with extensively is what the Holy Father calls “irregular situations” (AL 296-300) or better “situations of weakness or imperfection.” (AL 296). He is referring to divorce and remarriage.  Here, we have to point out first of all the clear continuity from St. John Paul II to Francis, given that Francis has followed decisively the path mapped out in1981 by Familiaris Consortio.  In Section 84 of that document, St. John Paul II moved away from the idea of excommunication, as did the later 1983 Code of Canon Law, and he encouraged pastors and he whole Church community not to consider the divorced and remarried as “separated from the life of the Church.’ (FC 84 b).  On the contrary, he exhorted them “as baptized” to “participate in her life.” (FC 84 b)

In this same way, in a different time and in the face of a considerable increase in these situations, Pope Francis has again pointed the Church toward the path of accompaniment and integration.  St. John Paul II had moved away from excommunication but had prohibited the cohabiting divorced and remarried from receiving Holy Communion unless they undertook to “live in continence,” that is, to abstain from sexual activities. (AL 84 c)

Following this same approach, but without wanting to promulgate a new general norm, Pope Francis invited the whole Church to undertake a further personal and pastoral discernment about the possibility of a couple in an irregular situation receiving the Sacraments, as part of a path of pastoral accompaniment, and in specific cases, even while continuing to engage in sexual activities proper to a husband and wife.  Here too the Pope is being moved by pastoral solicitude . Certainly, he knows that the a divorced and remarried Catholic who engages in marital sex is living in “an objectively sinful situation.” (AL 305) and he therefore does not diminish at all, let alone deny, the commandment of marital faithfulness, the commandment to not commit adultery.  But he also states that in certain concrete situations, “because of conditioning or mitigating factors,’ (AL 305) personal and pastoral discernment may come to recognize that a certain irregular situation “is not subjectively sinful or not fully so.” (AL 305)

In this way the pope calls the whole Church to that courage engendered by passionate faith— not reticent and not lazy, truly missionary and not disaffected—to support the ransom and redemption of the human creature who is wounded by sin.  This faith asks God without ceasing for the gift of wisdom and the evangelical intelligence of the Spirit of the Lord to recognize what is necessary to ransom concrete personal events, avoiding, out of obedience to the faith, the transformation of an intimate Gospel discernment of a particular life history into the general legitimization of conduct that is wrong.  Thus, referring to a famous passage from the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas, on the one hand the Pope states clearly that, “it is true that general norms present a good that must never be ignored or neglected.” (AL 304), but on the other hand,, recalling that norms, “cannot be formulated to cover absolutely all specific cases.” (AL 304), the Holy Father states that, “for this reason, what is part of a practical discernment with respect to a particular situation cannot be elevated to the status of a general norm.” (AL 304)  Pope Francis thus invites us to overcome facile solutions, noting that when we insist too easily on saying that, “everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth, and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God.” (AL 305).  It is always necessary to look for the “possible good” (AL 308), which is an enemy of both the best—conceived of idealistically— and the bad—as if man in certain situations of life were condemned to do evil.


To conclude my brief considerations, I would like to recall what Pope Francis wrote at the beginning of Amoris Laetitia, in Section 2, where, recalling the centrality of marriage and the family, as the place where human relations began, he invited pastors and theologians to a further theological and pastoral reflection, which would be at the same time “faithful to the Church, honest, realistic and creative,” and could resist two extremes—wanting either to “change everything” or to “settle everything,” relying on the mechanistic “application” of general norms, with everything reduced to  a “cold bureaucratic morality.” ( AL 312)

Pope Francis writes: “The Synod process allowed for an examination of the situation of  families in today’s world, and thus for a broader vision and a renewed awareness of the importance of marriage and the family.  The complexity of the issues that arose revealed the need for continued open discussion of a number of doctrinal, moral, spiritual, and pastoral questions.  The thinking of pastors and theologians, if faithful to the Church, honest, realistic and creative, will help us to achieve greater clarity.  The debates carried on in the media, in certain publications and even among the Church’s ministers, range from an immoderate desire for total change without sufficient reflection or grounding, to an attitude that would solve everything by applying general rules or deriving undue conclusions from particular theological considerations.” (AL 2)

We can recognize, calmly but also responsibly, that we are indebted to Humanae Vitae, as regards the basic elements of its anthropology and of its ecclesiology of marital and familial love,  whose fruitfulness the Magisterium has over time revealed even more fully.  Re-reading it in the context of today’s pastoral dynamic, confirms a truth that must not be minimized in any way: our living the tradition of the Magisterium, following the path that is concrete ecclesial life, is the necessary condition for the Encyclical to remain a living spirit and not a dead letter.  In other words, as has been mentioned, authentic fidelity to the Church requires well-grounded intellectual honesty, full assimilation of the unity of pastorality and doctrine, realistic acceptance of complex life situations and finally the evangelical creativity of a “disciple of the Kingdom,” which lets itself be guided by the Spirit of the Lord in the discernment of situations old and new that form the lasting wealth that as been received as a gift, and that we must use for the benefit of all.  These are four indispensable criteria for the joyful knowledge of the faith, the only kind of faith capable of witnessing, in the Church, God’s care for our fragile humanity, often deeply wounded, but always deeply desirous of an authentic revelation of the good revealed by God’s love.