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Pope promotes radical tenderness

  • 12 April 2016


By the standards of papal documents Amoris Laetitia, on love in the family, is a baggy elephant. It has confounded reviewers who were expecting a more pointy beast. It is over 200 pages long and touches on almost everything, sometimes returning to qualify positions previously taken.

It also displays a variety of different styles: Vatican self-referential to establish the boundaries of the Catholic tradition on the family; discursive to outline the situations and challenges facing families today; homiletic to commend good ways of living marriage and family; argumentative to prescribe compassion in conversation and pastoral dealings with individuals.

The first question the document poses to the reader is less about what it says than about what is going on within it. Recognising its shape helps to identify the threads running through it.

We can understand its size and expansiveness when we remember that it responds to a synod of bishops drawn from all parts of the world, each with its own cultural and economic challenges for families. This diversity means that the document is not organised around the pressing questions asked in particular cultures.

As a result it may bewilder a reader with preconceived ideas of what it should contain. When it describes the social contexts and challenges facing marriage, the document enumerates what the bishops have seen, with little attempt to weigh the relative importance and depth of their perceptions. It speaks of their fears as well as of the realities they face.

In a document responding to a Catholic synod, too, the Pope writes as a member of the synod, sharing a commitment to the Catholic tradition as established in the history and life of the Catholic Church. He sets his own reflections in a positive restatement of the tradition and does not go beyond it.

In doing this he also reveals the struggle of Catholics to articulate their faith in the face of new challenges from cultural change. The marital relationship between men and women, for example, is described in terms of masculine and feminine characteristics, but later it is acknowledged that these qualities are shared by both men and women. More work clearly is left to do.

The Pope's voice in the document is as commentator and preacher. The document is described as an Apostolic Exhortation, and its most attractive sections have the conversational and encouraging tone of a good homily.


"As a commentator, the Pope returns again and again to the need to