While the 256-page apostolic exhortation called “Amoris Laetitia,” Latin for “The Joy of Love,” makes no change to church doctrine it establishes that the pope sees individual conscience as the most important principle for Catholics trying to navigate difficult issues surrounding sex, marriage and family life.
“I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion,” the pope said. “But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness.”
“We have been called to form consciences, not replace to them,” he said.
The document is the product of a wide-ranging two-year process that included two high-level church councils called synods, and discussions at tens of thousands of local churches where detailed questionnaires for Catholics were used to gauge their views on family issues.
The process is unusual for the pope, who has until now mostly relied on his own views before ushering in change.
“There are no big changes in doctrine here, but the document says change should not come from doctrine, that there is a need for decisions to be based on what the document calls ‘concrete situations,’ or 'real-life situations',” said Gian Guido Vecchi, a veteran Vatican expert with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.
The document could offer some hope for divorced Catholics, prohibited by the church from remarrying or taking communion unless their failed marriage receives an annulment.
The apostolic exhortation says that a “breach of the marriage bond” is “against the will of God.” But it also said that while the church “constantly holds up the call to perfection” it must also “care for the weakest of her children, who show signs of wounded and troubled love, restoring them hope and confidence, like the beacon of a lighthouse in a port.”
There had been hope among some Catholics that the pontiff might overhaul its position on gay marriage, but the large document that ends with the hand-written signature of “Franciscus” — the pope’s Latin name — made it clear that would not happen. It said there are “absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar … to God’s plan for marriage and family.”
The document also made repeated references to Christian marriage as a “union between a man and a woman.”
The document said the Vatican “strongly rejects” state intervention for contraception, sterilization and abortion — meaning governments should give moral issues a wide berth. The document called on governments to “help facilitate the adoption process, above all in the case of unwanted children, in order to prevent their abortion or abandonment.”
Catholics in Rome welcomed the warmer tone from the church.
“I think it’s important for the church to keep up with the times,” said Giancarlo Marchetti, a 47-year-old coffee bar worker. “I think Pope Francis sees the church as a living thing that should evolve.”
Nieves Lara, a 75-year-old school administrator visiting Rome from Winter Park, Florida, agreed.
“I think God wants us to love each other,” Lara said. “It makes sense for the church to say we shouldn’t push people away, or label them. The church should embrace them. We are all brothers and sisters.”