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Pope promotes radical tenderness



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.

Francis greets familyIt 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 focus on faces when thinking of family and responding to people, and not to hammer them with abstract ideals or rules."


Unlike most Vatican documents, which reward reflection but demand that readers wrestle with them, Amoris Laetitia could spark good conversation over a beer at the beach. Realistic sketches of the challenges facing married couples, accompanied by pithy and homely advice, such as commending Please, Thank you and Sorry as the three keys to good relationships, abound.

Pope Francis sketches an attractive view of marriage as a gift that Christian faith has to offer. The document's title, The Joy of Love, is embodied in its tone.

As a commentator, the Pope returns again and again to the need to focus on faces when thinking of family and responding to people, and not to hammer them with abstract ideals or rules.

His most succinct and focused argument comes when he recognises the importance of doctrine and law in Catholic conversations about marriage, and simultaneously insists on respecting the priority of people's conscience in deciding how they should act. And they should always be met with compassion.

Catholics need 'to avoid judgements which do not take into account the complexity of various situations' and 'to be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience distress because of their condition'.

I was struck by Francis' frequent evocation of tenderness as a central quality of marriage and family life. It underlined the centrality of love in his description of marriage and his insistence on the beauty and attractiveness of the Christian ideal of marriage. He gives this priority over the laws and expectations with which it is often identified.

The appeal to tenderness also illuminates the pastoral approach he expects Catholics to take to people in difficult situations. It points to the threads that join personal relationships in families with relationships within churches and relationships to the environment.

Tenderness is opposed to judging, talking down to one another, using rules or principles as a bludgeon with which to beat people, and neglecting the pain of people who are marginal or excluded.

Many people in the developed world hoped that the document would break new ground in allowing communion to the divorced and adopting new attitudes to gay marriage and to gender issues. They will be disappointed that it works within traditional definitions of marriage, gender and discipline.

But Pope Francis' insistence on going out to people where they are with full respect for who they are demands an even more radical change of heart.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia



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Existing comments

The very title of the exhortation signifies how ambitious it is. Not Caritas, the usual word for love as based on reverence -- but Amoris as in love based on desire. Hence its potential for being discussable on the beach etc. Hence, also, its recurring Bible-based theme of tenderness: “Israel is my first-born son…” However, contrasting tenderness against judgment is a bit of a worry. Classic examples of Jesus’ tenderness include tender but unequivocal judgment. The adulterous woman was spared stoning but heard the judgment that her sin must not be repeated. The Samaritan woman was reminded that her marital state was judged unequivocally irregular in God’s eyes. The Church -- including you and I -- have a duty to judge both decisively and tenderly. Otherwise our efforts will be counter-productive.

Arnold Jago | 11 April 2016  

Arnold Jago, could you please show where "The Samaritan woman was reminded that her marital state was judged unequivocally irregular in God's eyes." ? Could the Samaritan woman have been widowed numerous times? How would that Samaritan woman then have found food and shelter? Would it have been preferable for that woman to lie down and die?

Jennifer | 12 April 2016  

"Please, Thank you and Sorry are the three keys to good relationships". They are also the signatures of mutual respect and the willingness to accept and forgive. They often demand some personal humility even though that may rankle on occasions. I see them as more important than "homely advice", Fr Andrew. It is also time that the flawed gender equalitists in our midst came to realise that male and female hormones have very different physical and psychological effects on their respective possessors and when administered outside the natural creation to persons who do not possess them inherently (ie, persons of the opposite sex) have the potency to physically and psychologically alter that person. It is time many women realised that they are unique amongst humankind and the essential machinery of creation of new life. It is time for many men to also realise that and afford all women the respect that that fact alone demands. Women are surely the chosen ones of the Creator. For mine, I'm very relieved that I cannot become pregnant and that my wife never aspired to become a professional boxer !

john frawley | 12 April 2016  

I would love Eureka Street to now commission a series of responses to the 'Exhortation' from married, partnered, divorced, LGBTIQ members of the community and their families, and single people searching for long term relationship. I would also like to read a feminist response to the male/female questions that are taken as a given, rather than related to current knowledge. Until it is engaged with by directly affected groups such as these, then it will just be a dead document.

Pauline Small | 12 April 2016  

I agree Jennifer. It is also possible that under the divorce laws of the time (which still exist in many parts of the world) she could have been cast aside each time and left to fend for herself. The Gospel teaching against divorce has to be seen within that historical cultural context. The Gospels were written for a purpose, and show Jesus engaging with his tradition and responding to his experience of the world. This is what we are called to do if we are to take seriously following his example.

Pauline Small | 12 April 2016  

Thank you Fr Hamilton for an excellent reflection on a fantastic exhortation from Francis. Mainly because it is NOT about doctrine, and we have had enough of that and the wagging finger, but about much deeper and more important things; about transformation of the way the Church treats and respects us, the messy mystical humans that make up the body of Christ. So Mr Jago, you need to have a new think about what our Lord was on about in those stories; not condemnation for human weakness but a call to resurrection in Jesus himself.

Eugene | 12 April 2016  

Thanks Jennifer and Eugene. Filipino boxer and MP, Manny Pacquiao, got in trouble with the media recently for mentioning that homosexuals, in view of the acts they typically perform, could be described as “worse than animals”. He later apologised for upsetting people. But he didn’t exactly apologise for the content of what he had said: “The problem is they cut my interview . . . the interview is about 5-10 minutes, but they cut it short. “I explained it properly, that who am I to condemn or discriminate against other people? I’m also human, I’m also a sinner, so who am I to condemn other people? “But what I’m telling is the truth, and what I am condemning is the act, that’s what I am explaining, the act.” If the Pope is to lead the Church aright, he must judge people’s wrong lifestyles. He must tell them that God hates what they do. He must also find ways to reassure them that God loves them more than they can imagine, and that their sins are forgivable.

Arnold Jago | 12 April 2016  

Surely the story about the woman dragged in front of Jesus was mostly about the iniquities of the scribes and Pharisees? They treated the woman as an object - with no compassion - as they used her to try and trick Jesus. Jesus was telling them they were better than this. He did indeed hate what they what they were doing - and hate what they were arrogant enough to do... Kill someone in this bullying fashion just because it was within the law. Jesus compassionately gave these arrogant men, both young and old, a face saving way to escape this act of murder which was so heinous in his eyes... So very hateful in his Father's eyes.

Michele Purcell | 13 April 2016  

Dear Mr Jago and Ms Puurcell, I am not at all sure that the words "god" and "hate" go together; it is certainly presumptious to think so. I suspect that God sees every a lot worse than "that act"! what about exploitation, starvation, marital violence and war? Now they are serious evils.

Eugene | 13 April 2016  

Great to see the Pope writing about tenderness. It is radically connected with vulnerability. However for a celibate from a long tradition of celibates to be writing 200 pages on marriage in 2016, might invite from an Australian, "Tell him he's dreaming".

Michael D. Breen | 14 April 2016  

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