Vatican guide says Francis' family document puts doctrine 'at service of pastoral mission'

This story appears in the Amoris Laetitia feature series. View the full series.

by Joshua J. McElwee

News Editor

View Author Profile

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts to Letters to the Editor. Learn more

A Vatican reading guide sent to Catholic bishops globally ahead of the release of Pope Francis' widely anticipated document on family life says the pontiff wants the church to adopt a new stance of inclusion towards society and to ensure its doctrines are "at the service of the pastoral mission."

The guide -- sent by the Vatican's office for the Synod of Bishops in preparation for Friday’s release of "Amoris Laetitia; On Love in the Family" -- explains that Francis "encourages not just a 'renewal' but even more, a real 'conversion' of language."

"The Gospel must not be merely theoretical, not detached from people's real lives," states the guide. "To talk about the family and to families, the challenge is not to change doctrine but to inculturate the general principles in ways that they can be understood and practiced."

"Our language should encourage and reassure every positive step taken by every real family," it continues.

Amoris Laetitia, which in Latin means "The Joy of Love," is a document written by the pope following two back-to-back meetings of Catholic bishops at the Vatican in 2014 and 2015 on issues of family life.

The meetings, known as Synods, are known to have focused on sometimes controversial issues like divorce and remarriage and same-sex marriage. The new document, known formally as an apostolic exhortation, is being hotly anticipated for what Francis may say about the meetings and what decisions he might make on tough issues.

The Vatican reading guide came to bishops alongside a letter signed by Cardinal Lorenzo Baldiserri, the head of the Vatican Synod office. The cardinal’s letter tells bishops that the exhortation is "first and foremost a pastoral teaching."

The letter is also accompanied by a summary of a number of Francis’s general audiences in the past three years, many of which have focused on family life issues. It also includes a brief summary of Pope John Paul II’s lectures on the "Theology of the Body," which it says are an "important source" for the new document.

NCR obtained copies of the materials that were sent to bishops, which have previously been reported on by Italian media outlets.

The reading guide says Francis "wants to express himself in language that truly reaches the audience -- and this implies discernment and dialogue."

Discernment, it says, "avoids taking truths and choices for granted; it has us examine and consciously adopt our formulations of truths and the choices we make."

"Like his predecessors, Pope Francis asks that as pastors we discern amongst the various situations experienced by our faithful and by all people, the families, the individuals," states the document.

"Discernment … encourages us to grow from good to better," it states. "One of the characteristics of discernment, according to St Ignatius of Loyola, is the insistence not only on taking the objective truth into account, but also on expressing this truth with a good, a constructive spirit."

"Discernment is the dialogue of the shepherds with the Good Shepherd in order to always seek the salvation of the sheep," it continues.

The reading guide states that dialogue "means that we must not ... take what we ourselves think for granted, nor what the other thinks."

The document also hints that the exhortation may find Francis invoking two ancient heresies to criticize those afraid of dialogue.

"Francis shows us two types of persons for whom dialogue is not possible because both 'boil down' or reduce to themselves,” it states. "Some reduce their own being to what they know or feel (he calls this 'gnosticism'); the others reduce their own being to their strengths (he calls this 'neopelagianism')."

"For the culture of dialogue, the inclusion of everyone is essential," the document continues.

"The Pope suggests that we explicitly dwell on this way of understanding the Church, as the faithful people of God," it states. "The Pope’s vision of society is inclusive. Such inclusion involves the effort to accept diversity, to dialogue with those who think differently, to encourage the participation of those with different abilities."

Later, the document states: "Pastoral concern should not be interpreted as opposed to law."

"On the contrary: love for the truth is the basic point of encounter between the law and pastoral care," it continues. "Truth is not abstract; it integrates itself into the human and Christian journey of each believer."

"Pastoral care is also not a merely contingent practical application of theology," states the document. "We are not meant to fit pastoral care to doctrine, but to preserve the original, constitutive pastoral seal of doctrine."

Concluding, the reading guide says: "The language of mercy embodies the truth in life."

"The Pope's concern is therefore to re-contextualize doctrine at the service of the pastoral mission of the Church," it states.

Using a Greek word for the proclamation of salvation through Jesus, it states: "Doctrine should be interpreted in relation to the heart of the Christian kerygma and in the light of the pastoral context in which it will be applied."

The reading guide ends with a quotation from the church’s Code of Canon Law: "The salvation of souls, which must always be the supreme law in the Church, is to be kept before one’s eyes."

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

In This Series


1x per dayDaily Newsletters
1x per weekWeekly Newsletters
2x WeeklyBiweekly Newsletters