Why every Catholic should read ‘The Joy of Love’: Q&A with Jean Stolpestad

| April 14, 2016 | 4 Comments

The Catholic Spirit asked Jean Stolpestad, director of the office of Marriage, Family and Life of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, to break down “Amoris Laetitia,” or “The Joy of Love,” Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on the family, released April 8.

Q. Why does this document matter?

A. Since the family is the most basic unit of society, this document is richly relevant to all persons regardless of their state in life or vocation. Each of us comes from a family, and our culture is generated through families. The various states or vocations in life are intimately tied to the state of the family and the Holy Father unites us and challenges us to live these connections in a very intentional way.

St John Paul II helped us to take a deep and intimate look at marriage and family to see “what it is” and “its function, what it does.” Pope Francis affirms this teaching categorically, and then takes into account all of the different cultures and situations families find themselves in, which he calls us to understand. “All family life is a ‘shepherding’ in mercy,” he wrote. “Each of us, by our love and care, leaves a mark on the life of others” (AL 322). He added: It is a profound “spiritual experience to contemplate our loved ones with the eyes of God and to see Christ in them” (AL 323).

Q. What should every Catholic know about it? Why would you recommend a Catholic read it?

Jean Stolpestad

Jean Stolpestad

A. First, I strongly recommend that each family reads this document. It ranges from biblical and spiritual reflections on the family, through very practical discussions on love, sexuality and the education of children, to the many contemporary challenges of unemployment, inadequate housing, migration and violence that have an especially damaging effect on families. It has strong beautiful insights as if the Holy Father is seeing into our living rooms as well as our hearts.

Pope Francis has a very different style of writing than his predecessors. It is at once practical, poetic and directive. The Holy Father himself asks us to read it carefully, slowly and — I might — add prayerfully. He calls us to live with and for others. I would recommend that we would get more out of this document if we begin fulfilling the call to openness of others by reading or praying the text with friends as a book study. I found Chapter 4 to be a beautiful reflection on St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, a tremendously moving chapter filled with profoundly tender pastoral guidance that can help us truly know, recognize and live the gaze of Christ.

Q. What’s the main takeaway?

A. This text that cannot be read in a hurry or summarized in a few sentences. If I absolutely had to distill this very rich document to one theme of the many presented in the nine chapters, I think one that struck me is how deeply the Holy Father wants us to realize that none of us came into this world as perfect people and yet we are all loved by God, and he is our eternal goal. In other words, knowing every person has limitations and that, at times, may even face deep brokenness and extremely difficult situations; yet in the midst of all of this God accompanies us, loves us and asks us to turn to him to find strength, consolation, peace and identity.

But it cannot end there: We are then called to share that experience of love with others. The Holy Father sees the primacy of marriage and the family for developing the necessary environment in which an active and authentic experience of the love of God builds our true identity, and through the family, individuals see the dignity of those who are different from themselves, suffering or marginalized. Pope Francis strongly challenges us to live the true presence of Christ.

Q. Is it just about gay marriage and divorced Catholics receiving Communion?

A. Not at all. The Holy Father offers no change in doctrine. But he does invite us, particularly in Chapter 8, to realize it is not enough to catechize an individual in crisis and then just walk away to let them try to deal with their complicated reality on their own. The Holy Father commits us to walk the path with them.  And this does not always provide a clear-cut means that will work across the board. The way must be figured out, each time, through building relationships with these individual families.

Q. How might it affect the work of the Office of Marriage, Family and Life?

A. I think many people were looking for a completely new approach to marriage and family life. That just did not happen. Pope Francis affirms all of the doctrinal understanding of marriage and family. But he does call us to live a greater degree of mercy. That is, taking the time to see and understand another, and to really stand in solidarity with a families circumstance, and while doing so, bring into that moment the goodness, beauty and truth of Christ. He is asking the Church to be ever mindful and live that maternal aspect which has a concern for individuals and their happiness so that doctrine can bring about a human flourishing.

Q. Why is it being issued now?

A. There is a crisis of family life and we all have witnessed the effects globally. The Church has dedicated many resources and the past two synods to this fact. The family requires vigorous active support of not only the Church but other families. The Holy Father is calling each of us to realize that “something has changed” and the answer lies in a personal, intentional and active response to invest in others. While the doctrinal message has not changed, the messengers in all of us are being “called out.”

The rampant autonomy of persons that says “My life doesn’t affect yours” is wholly misguided. Breaking through that type of entrenched thinking will take a new energy, a new way of thinking and being. I believe this document was issued now to help not only the Church as an institution, but also to help individuals and families to accept and take up that challenge to live and be Christ, actively involved with their neighbor.

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  • Charles C.

    The Pope’s exhortation is very good at what most Catholics neither wanted nor expected. True, there is much goodness found within it, but also much disappointment.

    First, unless an individual layman has a particular interest in some question, I would wager a fair amount of money that fewer than 5% of the Catholics will read more than two or three pages. If the laity gets any message at all from the document, it will be the message which reporters and some priests and theologians believe (or wish) is in it.

    Frankly, I can’t blame the people who start the document and put it down, I’m in that crowd. Much of the wording is susceptible of multiple interpretations, and it doesn’t take long before a serious reader is weighing which of several possible interpretations the Holy Father had in mind when he wrote it. It might be easier to guess his intentions if one reads the entire work, but leaving out the clergy, the reporters, and the SJWs, I’m fairly sure that it will be read in it’s entirety by fewer than 1% of the laity.

    Thus we have the first big disappointment. People were hoping for a document they could read and understand.

    The second disappointment (for me, and probably very few others) occurred when I discovered that in more than one place, His Holiness quoted the first half of a sentence, but dropped the second half which disagreed with the Pope’s point. Maybe he was just saving time, I would hate to think he was being less than honest.

    The third disappointment was prepared during the two family synods. Significant questions concerning marriage, the family, sexuality, and the Church were being debated freely. Many people, myself included, were expecting that from that activity, questioning, and discussion, answers would emerge. They haven’t.

    In the most anticipated section, that on the status of remarried Catholics, the Pope’s position seems to be, “Those people are having a really difficult time. They’re basically good people who want to be full Catholics, but there’s this strict rule which has been in the way in the past. Now, Rome and the Bishops will eliminate that fixed rule and pass the question down to the priests who can look at the facts of each situation and decide what is the merciful thing to do. It will all be subjective, but the priests are expected to be merciful and reduce the spouse’s suffering, and speed their acceptance by the Church, as their primary goals.”

    If that is the case, the Pope has made a major change in Church teaching. He offers a choice of which teaching he has changed.

    1.) Priests can now declare previous marriages to not really be marriages, or
    2.) Sex with someone other than your spouse is no longer necessarily adultery, or
    3.) You can obtain absolution with no intent to reform your life, or
    4.) Priests can forgive sins which have not yet been committed.

    My money is on number 2. But any of those represents a major change to doctrine and involves serious logical problems.

    I like the concept of mercy, without it I shall be damned. But, do we agree on what mercy is? This exhortation indicates we do not.

  • Charles C.

    Ms. Stolepstad says:

    “The Holy Father offers no change in doctrine, ” “Pope Francis affirms all of the doctrinal understanding of marriage and family,” and, “While the doctrinal message has not changed, . . .”

    She seems to have some disagreement with the Pope on that question, however. A reporter asked the Pope (exact translation):

    “Some maintain that nothing has changed with respect to the discipline
    that governs the access to the Sacraments for the divorced and
    remarried, and that the law and the pastoral practice and obviously the
    doctrine remains the same.” (This seems to be Ms. Stolepstad’s belief.)

    “Others maintain instead that much has changed
    and that there are many new openings and possibilities. The question
    is, for one person, a Catholic, that wants to know: Are there new
    concrete possibilities that did not exist before the publication of the
    Exhortation, or not?”

    The Pope’s answer, according to the video recording of it:

    “I can say yes, period.”

    As you may recall:

    In Familiaris Consortio,
    Pope St. John Paul wrote: “the Church reaffirms her practice, which is
    based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion
    divorced persons who have remarried.” He explained, “They are unable to
    be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life
    objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church
    which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there
    is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the
    Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding
    the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.”

    Well, Ms. Stolepstad, it certainly seems we have the change which you are sure didn’t happen. But if I misunderstood you, I’d certainly appreciate a clarification. And clarification is important as currently “the faithful [is being] led into error and confusion regarding
    the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.”

  • Leslie Johnson

    I recommend reading the following article.
    Amoris Laetitia: Anatomy of a Pontifical Debacle, by Christopher A. Ferrara, remnantnewspaper.com.
    The following paragraph is from the aforementioned article.
    Every Catholic worthy of the name has a duty to resist this attempted overthrow of the perennial Magisterium by a wayward Pope who clearly has no respect for the teaching of his own predecessors—having misrepresented the crucial contrary teaching of one of them, along with other sources—and who descends to demagoguery by appealing to a “mercy” that would be the worst kind of spiritual cruelty. It is unthinkable that the leadership of the Church, as a pastoral program no less, could leave souls at risk of damnation in the very condition that places them at risk, even encouraging them to compound their guilt by sacrilegiously partaking of Holy Communion while they consider whether they will cease their continuing adultery or fornication.

  • Charles C.

    Allow me to observe that while Ms. Stolpestad repeatedly claims that there is no doctrinal change involved. There is one way, and one way only, in which that claim can be true.

    The document is an Apostolic Exhortation, those do not legislate or impose doctrinal changes. If we were to stop there, then perhaps Ms. Stolpestad might have a case. But she, and everyone else, knows that isn’t what will happen in the parishes.

    “On the flight returning from Greece, Pope Francis was asked if the Apostolic Exhortation contained a “change in discipline that governs access to the sacraments” for Catholics who are divorced and remarried. The Pope replied, “I can say yes, period.”

    Change in doctrine, no. Change in discipline, yes. The result is that priests and laity will behave as though the doctrine has changed. Saying it hasn’t changed is technically true, but it is an evasion and misleading.