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9 things to know from Pope Francis’s big statement on the Catholic Church and marriage

Pope Francis raising hand
Pope Francis on Palm Sunday at the Vatican.
Franco Origlia/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Pope Francis has released a broad statement on marriage and family life that calls for priests to be more compassionate, rejects dramatic changes or new reforms, and praises love, marriage, and family life in terms that seem destined to be quoted at weddings all over the world.

The document — called "Amoris Laetitia," or "The Joy of Love" — is the result of two gatherings of Catholic bishops. And its content is typical of this pope: The change is more in the tone he uses than in the Catholic Church's policy on the issues themselves.

The pope urges priests above all to be understanding and empathetic, and to meet people where they are on issues of sex, sexual orientation, divorce, and remarriage. But he doesn't propose serious changes to church teachings on birth control, or lay out how divorced Catholics who remarried outside the church might receive Communion. He reaffirms that same-sex marriage should not be considered a real marriage.

The statement, in other words, indicates that the pope envisions a more open and compassionate church. But it stops short of calling for specific policy changes that might accomplish that goal.

1) Francis wants a more empathetic tone

If there's a central theme to the statement, it's that modern life and love are complicated and stressful. The church, the Pope argued, needs to do more to acknowledge this, rather than "simply to apply moral laws to those living in 'irregular' situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives":

While clearly stating the Church’s teaching, pastors are to avoid judgments that do not take into account the complexity of various situations, and they are to be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience and endure distress.

In the case of single mothers who must work to support the family, for example:

The Church must be particularly concerned to offer understanding, comfort and acceptance, rather than imposing straightaway a set of rules that only lead people to feel judged and abandoned by the very Mother called to show them God’s mercy.

2) The Catholic Church might be more flexible with divorced and remarried Catholics

The pope argued that a new set of strict rules on when divorced and remarried Catholics can receive Communion would be counterproductive. But he said they should be included in the church, and that priests can use their discretion on how to do that.

It is important that the divorced who have entered a new union should be made to feel part of the Church. "They are not excommunicated" and they should not be treated as such, since they remain part of the ecclesial community.

3) Francis has a fairly liberal take on feminism and gender roles

While Pope Francis argued that men and women are biologically different, he also nodded to the idea that gender is (partly, he said) a social construct and that gender roles can be flexible — for example, a husband can take on chores traditionally done by the wife:

A rigid approach turns into an overaccentuation of the masculine or feminine, and does not help children and young people to appreciate the genuine reciprocity incarnate in the real conditions of matrimony.

Such rigidity, in turn, can hinder the development of an individual’s abilities, to the point of leading him or her to think, for example, that it is not really masculine to cultivate art or dance, or not very feminine to exercise leadership. This, thank God, has changed, but in some places deficient notions still condition the legitimate freedom and hamper the authentic development of children’s specific identity and potential.

And Pope Francis — who has described himself as "a bit feminist" — argued that denying women "lack of equal access to dignified work and roles of decision-making" undermines the sacred nature of marriage:

There are those who believe that many of today’s problems have arisen because of feminine emancipation. This argument, however, is not valid, "it is false, untrue, a form of male chauvinism.

The equal dignity of men and women makes us rejoice to see old forms of discrimination disappear, and within families there is a growing reciprocity. If certain forms of feminism have arisen which we must consider inadequate, we must nonetheless see in the women’s movement the working of the Spirit for a clearer recognition of the dignity and rights of women.

This doesn't encompass the lack of decision-making women have within the church itself. The pope doesn't address that matter.

4) Francis acknowledged the Catholic Church has made mistakes

The pope's statement contained some pointed remarks about how Christians are sometimes perceived – and argues that the church itself is partly to blame. "At times the way we present our Christian beliefs and treat other people has helped contribute to today’s problematic situation," he wrote. "We need a healthy dose of self-criticism":

We often present marriage in such a way that its unitive meaning, its call to grow in love and its ideal of mutual assistance are overshadowed by an almost exclusive insistence on the duty of procreation.

Seriously, he urged people, be nicer, including to your relatives who might be doubting whether religion is the right path for them:

Still, some Christian families, whether because of the language they use, the way they act or treat others, or their constant harping on the same two or three issues, end up being seen as remote and not really a part of the community. Even their relatives feel looked down upon or judged by them.

On the other hand, when it comes to the church's worst sin — the massive sexual abuse scandal involving priests — the statement almost seemed like it was going to address it:

The sexual abuse of children is all the more scandalous when it occurs in places where they ought to be most safe, particularly in families, schools, communities and Christian institutions.

But then it doesn't. That's all it said.

5) Francis hinted that there might be something to learn from married clergy in the Eastern Orthodox Church

At the very least, he wrote, priests need to be better trained to deal with the complexities of marriage and family life:

Ordained ministers often lack the training needed to deal with the complex problems currently facing families. The experience of the broad oriental tradition of a married clergy could also be drawn upon.

6) Francis has a lot of marriage advice for newlyweds

A middle section of the statement is a meditation on perhaps the most famous biblical verse on love — you know the one: "Love is patient, love is kind…"

And the pope's thoughts seem destined to be quoted at weddings all over the world. For example:

The other person is much more than the sum of the little things that annoy me. Love does not have to be perfect for us to value it. The other person loves me as best they can, with all their limits, but the fact that love is imperfect does not mean that it is untrue or unreal. It is real.

Pope Francis made clear that while he rejects some modern thinking around marriage — that it can hold you back or prevent you from being fulfilled — he embraces the modern idea of marriage as a form of friendship and companionship:

Surely it is legitimate and right to reject older forms of the traditional family marked by authoritarianism and even violence, yet this should not lead to a disparagement of marriage itself, but rather to the rediscovery of its authentic meaning and its renewal.

He gave some very specific advice to couples. Listen to each other. ("Often the other spouse does not need a solution to his or her problems, but simply to be heard.") Make sure you're reading, reflecting, and praying so that you stay interesting to each other. ("Otherwise, conversations become boring and trivial. When neither of the spouses works at this, and has little real contact with other people, family life becomes stifling.")

7) Francis's acceptance of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people still has limits

The pope argued again that gay and lesbian people should be accepted and treated with respect:

We would like before all else to reaffirm that every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration, while "every sign of unjust discrimination" is to be carefully avoided, particularly any form of aggression and violence.

But that respect comes with serious limitations. In the statement, the pope rejects same-sex marriage:

We need to acknowledge the great variety of family situations that can offer a certain stability, but de facto or same-sex unions for example, may not simply be equated with marriage. No union that is temporary or closed to the transmission of life can ensure the future of society.

He argues that children need a mother and a father:

There can be a certain flexibility of roles and responsibilities, depending on the concrete circumstances of each particular family. But the clear and well-defined presence of both figures, female and male, creates the environment best suited to the growth of the child.

8) He denies that people can identify with a gender they were not assigned at birth

The pope rejected the total rigidity of gender roles and argued that gender is in part a social construct.

But in a paragraph that hardly seems friendly to transgender identity or gender affirmation surgery, the pope argued against a world where "human identity becomes the choice of the individual, one which can also change over time":

It needs to be emphasized that "biological sex and the socio-cultural role of sex (gender) can be distinguished but not separated"… It is one thing to be understanding of human weakness and the complexities of life, and another to accept ideologies that attempt to sunder what are inseparable aspects of reality. Let us not fall into the sin of trying to replace the Creator.

9) The statement didn't say much about birth control

The pope's statement argued that sex within marriage is a gift from God — "the rejection of distortions of sexuality and eroticism should never lead us to a disparagement or neglect of sexuality and eros in themselves."

And despite recent statements on birth control, including suggesting it might be permissible to avoid transmitting the Zika virus, the statement doesn't address contraception, except to criticize the rhetoric surrounding it in sex education:

Frequently, sex education deals primarily with "protection" through the practice of "safe sex". Such expressions convey a negative attitude towards the natural procreative finality of sexuality, as if an eventual child were an enemy to be protected against. This way of thinking promotes narcissism and aggressivity in place of acceptance.

Finally, surprising no one, the pope is still pro-life:

So great is the value of a human life, and so inalienable the right to life of an innocent child growing in the mother’s womb, that no alleged right to one’s own body can justify a decision to terminate that life, which is an end in itself and which can never be considered the "property" of another human being.

The family protects human life in all its stages, including its last. Consequently, "those who work in healthcare facilities are reminded of the moral duty of conscientious objection. Similarly, the Church not only feels the urgency to assert the right to a natural death, without aggressive treatment and euthanasia", but likewise "firmly rejects the death penalty."

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