Pope Francis shows us his more humane nature
His view of married life may be a bit Mills & Boon, but the pontiff's 60,000-word treatise on family love, Amoris Laetitia, contains Rome's most compassionate description of sexuality yet, writes Malachi O'Doherty
Pope Francis is a giddy romantic. He esteems married life almost stratospherically. Reading his treatise on family love Amoris Laetitia (The Joy Of Love) one is left wondering who these married people are who measure up to the standard he describes.
"Those who marry do not expect their excitement to fade. Those who witness the celebration of a loving union, however fragile, trust that it will pass the test of time." I wonder how many people, if you stopped them on a wet lunch hour in Royal Avenue, would accept that as a description of their own marriage.
There are times when Francis shows that he comprehends that relating may be difficult. He's not completely cut off from the real world. Then he goes off into describing the loving gaze with which married people contemplate each other: "Loving another person involves the joy of contemplating and appreciating their innate beauty and sacredness, which is greater than my needs."
If I told my wife that I was "contemplating and appreciating" her "innate beauty and sacredness", when she thought I was cleaning the bathroom, she'd call for help. And it wouldn't be the help of a theologian.
This is what makes this treatise from Francis so difficult to read. His reflections on that loving gaze are as drippy and cloying as any Mills & Boon novel: "The aesthetic experience of love is expressed in that 'gaze', which contemplates other persons as ends in themselves, even if they are infirm, elderly or physically unattractive."
But then he goes on to show that he knows something of what he's talking about; the partner who feels under-appreciated, who says: "He never looks at me anymore."
But, surely, it is a mistake to think that the partner who is being shunned and ignored actually wants to be "gazed at" to have their "innate beauty and sacredness" appreciated. More likely they'd just like the other to stay in at night so that they could watch telly together.
And some will say that this is not surprising; that a celibate priesthood produces trite nonsense when it contemplates sex and intimacy, something it usually knows nothing about, at least in a healthy and contented relationship.
But, then, if you are a theologian and your perspective on life is honed by reading and discussing the recondite texts of your predecessors rather than by meeting someone with whom you wish to be intimate, then you will come to think that the "most intense joys in life arise when we are able to elicit joy in others, as a foretaste of heaven".
Francis has a lighter touch than previous Popes. There had been some speculation that he would move away from the stern philosophy of Pope Paul VI, who banned artificial contraception in his encyclical Humanae Vitae.
And it is, indeed, impossible to imagine Paul quoting a popular film in the way Francis quotes from Babette's Feast, or recommending that churches put a bit more into St Valentine's Day.
Yet he stays with Humanae Vitae's basic vision that sexual relating is about having children.
He is not as stern as Paul VI was. His logic that sex was only for procreation was the basis of his ban on the Pill.
Francis is a bit more indulgent of married people who would continue to have a sexual relationship primarily as an expression of love for each other. Paul VI wanted married couples to aspire to chastity.
There is only one reference to contraception in the whole 60,000-word document. Francis writes: "The upright consciences of spouses who have been generous in transmitting life may lead them, for sufficiently serious reasons, to limit the number of their children, yet precisely for the sake of this dignity of conscience, the Church strongly rejects the forced state intervention in favour of contraception, sterilisation and even abortion."
What he appears to be saying is that married couples who have already had children may, for good reason, decide not to have more. They are exercising the "dignity of conscience". He then attacks "forced state intervention".
So, his problem is with governments which insist on contraception and he has no apparent difficulty with married couples using it of their own free will. This is a radical departure, surely?
After this, the ban on contraception is like an old law that sits on the statute books but has effectively expired - like the one that says you can't drive a car unless someone walks in front of you waving a red flag.
While Francis draws on Humanae Vitae, its blessed author has been usurped. This is a concession to the reality that the ban on contraception simply didn't work.
Catholics, instead of following their Church's teaching on it, simply stopped going to confession. And the priest in the pulpit twigged quickly that he was best saying nothing about it.
One of Pope Paul's advisers on Humanae Vitae, the Irish philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, argued that if the Church conceded sex was for anything other than procreation, that would open the door to legitimising homosexuality.
Here again Francis' concern is more for the behaviour of governments than people.
He quotes the synod on the family saying that homosexual union can not be analogous to God's plan for the family, but he is not even saying that he agrees with that.
The only statement in his own words is a criticism of international bodies and aid agencies, which would make recognition of same-sex marriage a condition of funding.
Francis had an opportunity in this document to repeat the old line about the homosexual being "disordered", but he left that out.
Other traditional values get a mention that is equally slight.
It used to be that sex before marriage was regarded as an horrific sin.
Now Francis seeks to remind us that chastity "proves invaluable for the genuine growth of love between persons". One might ask for the evidence behind that assertion and not find it here.
And that is the only reference to chastity in the whole document.
Critics of Francis say that he has not gone far enough, but he was hardly going to change the fundamental rules of his Church.
He has, however, shifted the emphasis away from berating the faithful about their sexual morality to arguing for a Church that helps them towards that "foretaste of heaven", which he believes is to be found in a joyful family life.
The early responses to this document conclude that it is not radical at all. But, set against the writings of previous Popes on sexuality and the family, this is - if occasionally trite - far more humane.