This new document, an apostolic exhortation called Amoris Laetitia, which translates to “The Joy of Love,” is the culmination of those efforts. (An apostolic exhortation is an official document of the church, which isn't designed to set new Catholic doctrine and doesn't quite carry the weight of an encyclical, such as the one the pope released about the environment last summer. Rather, it's a set of teachings or guidance on how to approach Catholic ministry.) The document contains no changes to the Church’s definition of marriage or the rules about who can take communion. Francis reaffirmed that “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.” Last year, the Church released changes to its annulment law, making the process easier; this was a tangible change, and it hinted that a different posture toward the divorced and remarried might be on the way. In some sense, it was: Francis emphasized that those Catholics “need to feel not as excommunicated members of the Church,” and urged individual priests to work with people to find how they fit within the faith. But this document, ultimately, does not suggest concrete changes to canon law.
The significance, as is so often the case with Francis, is in tone: The pope urged priests and Catholics around the world to recognize the importance of traditional marriage and openness to having kids, but also to recognize that there are many barriers to achieving what the Church has promoted as familial perfection. The way he writes is arguably a departure from some past popes, including John Paul II, who wrote in 1991 that divorced and remarried people absolutely could not take communion, because if they did “the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church's teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.”
As always, Francis is writing for a global audience, and in that context, the most interesting obstacle to family life he discusses is poverty. Long workdays, lack of stable housing and jobs, and inadequate health care put a strain on parents and children alike, he argued. The commitment of marriage is all the more difficult for those whose lives are fundamentally unstable, particularly in the context of forced migration and war. The Church has an obligation, he said, to recognize the strain on these families, and welcome them. Moreover, “the State has the responsibility to pass laws and create work to ensure the future of young people and help them realize their plan of forming a family,” he argued. In his view, the family is the central unit of healthy political and social communities, and governments have a responsibility to promote them.
The importance of this is not that the pope has suddenly taken up an interest in state-provided social services or the plight of those who live in poverty; he and his predecessors have a long history of teaching about the state and the poor. But the pope is recognizing—and instructing priests to recognize—that getting married, staying married, and supporting a family is not so simple as following the teachings of the Church. “A pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in ‘irregular’ situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives,” Francis wrote. The job of the Church is not to exclude but to welcome, he argued; the job of priests is not to render judgment, but to listen and understand the context of people’s lives and decisions.