A humanist response to ‘Amoris Laetitia’ (Pope Francis on ‘The Joy of Love’)

This is the text of a talk given on 21st June 2017 at the kind invitation of Westminster Inter Faith Group, which is linked to Westminster Cathedral, the ‘mother church’ of the Catholic Church in England and Wales.

‘Amoris Laetitia, ‘The Joy of Love’, is a document issued by Pope Francis in 2016  bringing together the results of the two Synods on the family in 2014 and 2015. The official Vatican summary is here and the full document here.

It may seem presumptuous for a humanist – and an atheist – to comment on a Vatican document. My excuse is that John kindly invited me to do so! So here goes, with apologies in advance if I say anything that anyone finds offensive. That’s certainly not my intention. And I should add that I’m giving a personal view rather than an official Humanists UK line.

There are two broad considerations here: the broad context in which Amoris Laetitia was created and hence its strategic purpose, and its content.



Let’s start with the context. We have a Pope from Latin America. The country with the largest Catholic population in the world is Brazil, where Catholicism was introduced in the sixteenth century. Although it has no official religion, in 1970 over 90% of Brazilians identified as Catholics[1]. A recent survey[2] indicates it is now down to 50%, with the church losing 9 million (out of around 130 million) adherents between 2014 and 2016. This is a huge change, leading the Brazilian Cardinal, Cláudio Hummes, to say: “We wonder with anxiety: how long will Brazil remain a Catholic country?”. Although there has been an increase in the number of non-religious people – now up to around 14% of the population – the main reason for the decline is the growth of neo-Pentecostalism, a form of Protestantism whose main characteristics have been defined as: “the emphasis on the spiritual battle against the devil” and the profession of the “health and wealth gospel,” explained as “the right of a ‘true’ Christian to live his life here and now in happiness and material affluence.” Pentecostalism has no Canon Law, no “magisterium” or rules about contraception or divorce, and no global hierarchy. In response, a Catholic charismatic movement has grown up and, among Afro-Brazilians, there has been the adoption of an Africanised mass[3].

But essentially, in a competitive religion and belief environment, where people are able to make free choices, the Church is losing out to the competition.

Here in the UK there is a different situation. There has been a growth in non-denominational Protestant churches, notably Pentecostals, but they still account for only about 12% of the population. The main change has been a decline in Anglicanism and a large increase in the non-religious, including humanists like me, who now account for roughly half the population. But the proportion of Catholics has remained roughly static, at around 9%. The reason for that is that departures from the church have been balanced by immigration, especially from Eastern Europe[4]. The key issue in the context of Amoria Laetitia, however, is what those British Catholics think about the issues it covers. Here are some statistics from a survey of over 1000 Catholics conducted for Professor Linda Woodhead’s “Westminster Faith Debates” in 2013[5]:

Asked to choose one item from a list of sources that they “most rely on most for guidance as you live your life and make decisions?”,  not a single person selected “Religious leaders, local or national”, and only 8% selected “The tradition and teachings of my religion”. The top two choices were “Own reason and judgement” and “Own intuition or feelings”, which were together selected by half the respondents.

Asked for their views on abortion, just 19% said it should be banned altogether, 30% favoured “keeping the time limit at 24 weeks”, 5% even favoured increasing the time limit. 30% favoured reducing it. 16% didn’t know.

Asked whether they thought same sex marriage was right or wrong, 38% said it was right, 43% wrong and the rest didn’t know. Of those under 40, over 50% thought it was right.

They were also asked “Do you think British law should be kept as it is, or should it be changed so that people with incurable diseases have the right to ask close friends or relatives to help them commit suicide, without those friends or relatives risking prosecution?” a clear majority, 58%, agreed that “the law should be changed to allow assisted suicide in these circumstances”.

Similarly, a 2013 poll of 12,000 Catholics in 12 countries revealed that 78% back contraception, rising to over 90% in Argentina, Colombia, Brazil, Spain and France. The same poll found that 50% thought priests should be able to marry, 51% favoured female priests and 65% said abortions should be allowed in at least special cases, such as when a mother’s life is at risk. And it only takes a look at the birth rates in Catholic countries such as Italy and Spain to see that the ban on contraceptives is widely ignored. You get the idea.

The Vatican’s own poll, conducted in preparation for the two synods that resulted in Amoria Laetitia – where only a limited selection of results have been released – showed that, in Germany,  there was strong condemnation of the ban on re-married divorcees taking communion; and in Switzerland, 90% of Catholics said the ban should be lifted[6].

Meanwhile in the US, under half of Catholics say homosexual behaviour, remarriage without annulment, cohabitation or contraception are sins[7], and one in four have themselves been divorced, while four in ten have cohabited.

The evidence is pretty strong: there is a gulf between Church teachings and the views of many Catholics.

On the other hand, of course, there are many other Catholics in the West – usually the more devout – who are more traditional in their views.

In Africa, homosexuality is a significant issue. Legislation amplifying traditional cultural discrimination against homosexuals has been supported by Catholic bishops in some countries, notably Nigeria, where a 2014 law imposed 14-year prison terms for anyone entering a same-sex relationship. But it has been condemned in other African countries[8].  Those where the church has apparently taken a homophobic line are often those where it is in competition with Islam and African Pentecostalism, both of which have unequivocally hostile positions on the issue.

It seems from the outside that the Church is therefore in a difficult position. It is haemorrhaging followers in at least one of its major countries, Brazil, to a vigorous religious competitor; its authority on family and sexual matters seems to carry limited weight in its historical heartlands in West Europe and North America, where many people who identify as Catholic have decided for themselves to reject core teachings; in Africa there is a strongly-felt split on homosexuality; while at the same time in all areas there is a significant core who expect the Church to uphold its traditional teachings. Across the world, Catholics take opposing – or at least different – views compared to both the Church and each other on some of the most important ethical issues of our time. What to do?

Of course, the Church has always adapted, as the history of ideas like purgatory and limbo illustrates. And while the ban on communion for divorcees has proved one of the most contentious issue related to Amoris Laetitia, it’s worth remembering that it wasn’t till about half-way through the Church’s history, in the 12th century, that it decided that marriage was a holy sacrament, and it was only at the Council of Trent in 1547, that sacramental marriage became part of Canon Law.

But we live in a world where the speed of development and communications means that it’s not feasible to take several centuries to make changes, or to have different policies in different places. Yet rapid change is constrained  by the fact that teachings which have in the past been deemed to have Divine authority are hard to change.

Of course, as a humanist I see the whole edifice of Catholic teaching and Canon Law as a human creation. From that perspective, Amoris Laetitia seems to be a sophisticated attempt – couched in the Vatican’s arcane language – to deal with the problems arising when that edifice is undermined by both the complexity and speed of change of modern societies and by the fact that adherents in many places are educated to think for themselves, with the result that large numbers no longer respect Church teaching on key family matters, or consider it to be morally superior.

At the end of the day, the strategic purpose of this document is to help the Church assure its future strength by adapting to massive and rapid social change.



In terms of solutions, the Pope seeks to chart a course between “an immoderate desire for total change without sufficient reflection or grounding” and “an attitude that would solve everything by applying general rules or deriving undue conclusions from particular theological considerations”. In other words it would be impossible to reach agreement on any change to improve the acceptability of disputed teachings. But he also knows, but cannot say explicitly, that the authority to impose them no longer exists, even among some of the church’s own employees.

The chosen solution seems to be to emphasise tolerance and flexibility of attitude enabling priests to hang on to traditional teachings while dealing better with modern realities: homosexual acts remain sinful, but people who are homosexual should be treated with compassion; non-traditional unions are not approved of, but the Church “does not disregard the constructive elements in those situations which do not yet or no longer correspond to her teaching on marriage”. Empathy and compassion are allowed to go only so far.

The one area where he tries to go a bit further, effectively by moving beyond tolerance of “error” into  ambiguity of teaching, is on the question of whether remarried divorcees should be ex-communicated – presumably a big issue in terms of loss of adherents and especially their children. He says: “…the baptised who are divorced and civilly remarried need to be more fully integrated into Christian communities in the variety of ways possible, while avoiding any occasion of scandal. Their participation can be expressed in different ecclesial services… Such persons need to feel not as excommunicated members of the Church, but instead as living members, able to live and grow in the Church… This integration is also needed in the care and Christian upbringing of their children”.

This seems to be a far cry from Canon Law, which refers to divorce as “a grave offense against the natural law” while remarriage “adds to the gravity of the rupture: the remarried spouse is then in a situation of public and permanent adultery.”  The Catholic Encyclopaedia[9] considers divorce “a modification of monogamy that seems to be no less opposed to its spirit than polyandry, polygamy, or adultery”.

The way out is to say that “conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God.” In other words, your conscience can trump the rules.

A group of traditionalist American cardinals were having none of that. They sent the Pope a letter[10] stating that “conscience [as opposed to law] does not decide about good and evil” suggesting that, if it did, there could be good adultery or good murder – they could have added good homosexual activity and good unmarried partnerships. In the letter, they sought to pin the Pope down, using a list of detailed challenges – or “Dubia” – to Amoris Laetitia. Wisely, he didn’t reply. To the outsider, it seems pretty obvious that he is quite happy with the ambiguity. Unfortunately, it looks like the tactic has not been wholly successful.

Another of the risks he runs is cultural relativism. The Pope says that “not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium” and for some questions, “each country or region … can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs. For ‘cultures are in fact quite diverse and every general principle … needs to be inculturated [a new word to me], if it is to be respected and applied”.

Ironically, on the area where that could be the most contentious, homosexuality, he actually comes down quite firmly on an approach which is contrary to the views of bishops in Nigeria and other countries where homophobia is official government policy, supported by the local Church. “Regarding families with members with homosexual tendencies, it reaffirms the necessity to respect them and to refrain from any unjust discrimination and every form of aggression or violence”.  Good!



Focussing now on the content and ethics: the overall sense that came over to me – and I should stress I’m speaking personally here – is of a man whose instinct is essentially to be kind rather than harsh. The cynic might say he has to do that to avoid making the situation worse, but I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt. Having said that, while he may be a good man in that sense, some of his ideological beliefs run counter to the values and principles Western societies have evolved – however imperfectly – on the basis of human rights. Essentially, these values reflect the basic ethic of the Golden Rule – treat others as you would like to be treated – without the overlay of scripturally-derived doctrine.

In a telling passage, he takes a very broad brush to tell us what he thinks is wrong with the world of the family: “Families face many challenges, from migration to the ideological denial of differences between the sexes (“ideology of gender”); from the culture of the provisional [sic] to the anti-birth mentality and the impact of biotechnology in the field of procreation; from the lack of housing and work to pornography and abuse of minors; from inattention to persons with disabilities, to lack of respect for the elderly; from the legal dismantling of the family, to violence against women.” I confess I don’t know what “the culture of the provisional” means – perhaps something to do with lifetime commitment – but it’s grouped with the perceived evils of birth control. Gender equality is grouped with problems of migration, pornography with child abuse, divorce law with domestic violence.

The implication that there is a comparison of awfulness between divorce and violence against women, or between adult porn and child abuse is, to say the least, both disturbing and surprising, given the massive issue of child abuse and the impact of forcing women to remain in violent marriages.

Not surprisingly for a document about the family, it comes back to divorce more than once. It is “rampant individualism” which he says, “makes it difficult today for a person to give oneself generously to another…..The fear of loneliness and the desire for stability and fidelity exist side by side with a growing fear of entrapment in a relationship that could hamper the achievement of one’s personal goals”. Of course, many moral questions feature a tension between what we want to do to maximise our individual happiness and what we ought to do to maximise the well-being of others. But to talk about “fear of entrapment” as if it’s always a sign of moral weakness makes little sense. How about entrapment in a relationship where one party is subject to physical or mental abuse? Or is serially unfaithful? On the other hand, he himself argues that marriage should be understood as “a dynamic path to personal development and fulfilment” rather than the imposition of an ideal that is impossible to achieve in real life.

Divorce is stated explicitly to be “evil”. While this is said in the context of the damaging impact on children – a very real issue of course – there is no qualification. It is just as evil apparently when the couple are childless, or have adult children, or when children’s life is being scarred by conflict between parents, as when people divorce for selfish or trivial reasons and there are young children involved. That seems to be contrary to the Pope’s own exhortation about dealing with the world as it is rather than in theological absolutes. From a humanistic viewpoint, this is – to put it politely – ethically problematic. A humanist view would be to consider the likely consequences in each case and try to produce an outcome which yields the least suffering, and the greatest long-term well-being, for all those concerned. I am no specialist in Divorce Law, but from the outside it seems that the legal approach in most Western countries, evolved through the democratic process over the years, is closer to that compassionate ideal than a doctrine that forbids divorce in almost all circumstances, and has had the effect of bringing shame on innocent divorcees.

One area where there is a welcome implicit shift from traditional teaching is that of sex education. “Yes to sex education” is the title of the section. While it complains that the expression ‘safe sex’ conveys “a negative attitude towards the natural procreative finality of sexuality, as if an eventual child were an enemy to be protected against” there is the implicit acceptance that many young people will have sex before marriage and it’s better that they are properly educated about it. OK. Of course, I think the Church’s whole approach to contraception, birth control and population growth is ethically unsound, but there’s no time to go into that now.  I would just say that two underlying issues are, in my view, hugely important here: firstly, women’s rights and education – together with technology that makes contraception safe, cheap and readily available – and secondly, the direct and indirect impact on human suffering of the Earth’s population growing on its current trajectory.

Similarly, in terms of flexibility, I read into the section where the Pope accepts that the Church “does not disregard the constructive elements in those situations which do not yet or no longer correspond to her teaching on marriage” that there is license for priests to have a constructive and supportive relationship with people who are in unmarried partnerships or even same-sex couples.  Of course, as a humanist I would say that applying the Golden Rule to people who are homosexual means not causing them avoidable suffering because of their sexuality, while helping them maximise their well-being, assuming there is no negative effect on the well-being of others. On that basis, it is a no-brainer to me that it is morally good to enable people who love one another, and want to make a lifetime commitment, to get married. And while the Pope’s approach here does encourage greater kindness and compassion, the firm barrier of a teaching that says the natural expression of these people’s sexuality is deviant and sinful means that this kindness and compassion is constrained in a way that I imagine is increasingly uncomfortable for many good Catholics.

It also raises what I assume is a general issue with the document. Presumably it’s a matter of luck whether the particular priest someone is dealing with chooses to exercise the limited tolerance allowed by Amoris Laetitia to the full, or to cling more strongly towards the still-unchanged traditional teaching*.

I guess that is a problem that the CEOs of many other multi-national organisations would understand.

Overall the direction the Pope seems to be taking with Amoris Laetitia seems, from this humanist’s perspective, the right one. But the train will keep running into the buffers of doctrine. If that problem is not addressed, then it’s questionable whether the document will successfully deal with the strategic challenges the Church is facing. Maybe it’s simply not possible to reconcile the conflicting forces here. Only time will tell.


* Two days after the Westminster Cathedral Inter Faith Group meeting at which I presented this paper, this article appeared in the Washington Post: Illinois Catholic bishop decrees no Holy Communion, funerals for same-sex couples. It begins:

“The bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Springfield, Ill., is calling on priests there to deny Holy Communion and even funeral rites to people in same-sex unions unless they show “some signs of repentance” for their relationships before death.

The decree by Bishop Thomas Paprocki also said that people “living publicly” in same-sex marriages may not receive the sacrament of confirmation or be admitted to the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, a process by which many converts become Catholic, preparing them for baptism and confirmation.

At the same time, Paprocki said that children living with a Catholic parent or parents in a same-sex marriage may be baptized. But when it comes to same-sex unions, priests cannot bless couples, church property cannot be used for ceremonies and diocesan employees are forbidden from participating, the decree said.”

[1] http://www.pewforum.org/2013/07/18/brazils-changing-religious-landscape/

[2] https://www.churchmilitant.com/news/article/brazil-loses-9-million-catholics-in-2-years

[3] https://rlp.hds.harvard.edu/faq/catholic-church-brazil

[4] https://www.stmarys.ac.uk/research/centres/benedict-xvi/contemporary-catholicism.aspx?filtered=1

[5] http://faithdebates.org.uk/blog/surveys-reveal-widening-gulf-catholics-church-teaching/

[6] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/vaticancityandholysee/10627312/Catholics-divided-on-issues-such-as-divorce-and-birth-control.html

[7] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/04/08/popes-proclamation-like-views-of-u-s-catholics-indicates-openness-to-nontraditional-families/

[8] https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/religion/in-rare-public-split-catholic-bishops-differ-sharply-on-anti-gay-laws/2014/02/13/ccfcdd84-94e6-11e3-9e13-770265cf4962_story.html?utm_term=.710376b3afad

[9] http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09693a.htm

[10] http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2016/11/14/full-text-cardinals-letter-to-pope-francis-on-amoris-laetitia/