‘Amoris Laetitia’ I: The Human Person
This is the first in a series of six articles by Archbishop Cordileone on Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” (the Joy of Love).
“The Christian proclamation on the family is good news indeed.” These words are among the opening statements of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia (the Joy of Love). An Apostolic Exhortation is the document issued by the Pope following on a Synod of Bishops which recapitulates and gives direction to the deliberations of the participating bishops, a sort of universal pastoral plan for the specific topic treated at the Synod affecting the life and ministry of the Church. Amoris Laeititia, the longest such document yet, follows up on the Synods on the Family of 2014 and 2015.
The Christian understanding of the family, marriage, and the human person are indeed good news. It stands in stark contrast to the view held by many today, according to which we are fundamentally alone in life (Mother Theresa has said that, particularly in the West, “loneliness… is the greatest poverty”), and that society is held together largely by a collection of individual rights. As Christians, however, we believe that every human person is, in the words of Saint John Paul II, “unique and unrepeatable,” and that each of us is created “in the image and likeness of God” (Gen 1:27).
What does it mean to be in the image and likeness of God? We know from Scripture that God is Love (1 John 4:8), and love always means making a gift of oneself for the good of the other. We also know from Revelation that God is not alone – God is a Trinity of Persons. On reflection, this makes sense, because to have love, to “be love,” requires more than one person. The Father loves the Son, everything He is and has He gives to the Son; the Son in turn loves the Father and returns this to the Father; and, because love is always other-centered and life-giving, the love between them generates the Holy Spirit, the “Lord and giver of life,” who “proceeds from the Father and the Son,” as we profess every Sunday at Mass.
Thus, the most fundamental and true statement to be made about any person is that we are made for love (with others on earth, and with God – Love Himself – in heaven). The Second Vatican Council teaches us that the human person “cannot fully find himself, except through a sincere gift of himself” (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, n. 24), that is, except through loving others.
Further, to love and to be loved is not only essential to our human nature, but it is the very end for which we are designed, that is, to live in union with others. In contrast to Enlightenment philosophers such as Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, who claim that human nature is essentially solitary, the Christian understanding – and one of the basic principles of Catholic Social Teaching – is that we are social beings. (We can recognize, for example, that the most severe punishment in prison is solitary confinement, as this is the denial of our basic human need for others – thus the movement to mollify this extreme penalty.) We are made in the image of God, who Himself is a “communion of persons,” according to Pope Francis.
All of Catholic teaching on marriage and family, all of Catholic Social Teaching, is based on this understanding of the human person. We can only truly flourish as a person in relation to others. Even our salvation depends on this – we are saved not so much as individuals, but in being joined to the Body of Christ (cf 1 Cor 12:27).
The Holy Father urges a “patient and careful reading” of the text by families and those in ministry to families. I hope in this upcoming series of brief articles to offer some useful reflections on Amoris Laetitia, and apply it to current issues around marriage, family life and sexuality. In the end, however, I must echo the words of Pope Francis, by strongly encouraging couples to read the document themselves slowly and prayerfully. At the very least, I ask all couples to please read excerpts from Chapter 4 (“Love in Marriage”), already published in the April 14, 2016, issue of Catholic San Francisco.
This column was originally published in the September 15, 2016 issue of Catholic San Francisco.