Two years in the making, Pope Francis’s second apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, is a landmark statement on the family which was eagerly anticipated by liberals and feared by conservatives for the stance it might take on some of the most contentious issues facing the Catholic church.

Amoris Laetitia, which translates into English as “The Joy of Love” is Francis’ second apostolic exhortation. His first, Evangelii Gaudium, published in November 2013, set the tone for his papacy. This document reflects the ideals of joy, mercy, and evangelism which have characterised his vision for the church since his election in March of that year.

We are all used to seeing heartwarming pictures of the pope embracing the disabled or washing the feet of refugees – but behind such photo calls lies a radical vision for the church. Francis seeks to place the gospel message of love back at its very heart.

Francis’s use of the medium of the apostolic exhortation is telling. An apostolic exhortation is the means through which the pope communicates the conclusions that he has reached after considering the recommendations of a synod of Bishops – in this case the extraordinary synod of bishops on the theme of: “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelisation”.

Matters under discussion included cohabitation, same-sex relationships, birth control and communion for the divorced and remarried – which has become the defining issue of the entire process. This synod ended with Pope Francis urging the church to avoid both “hostile rigidity” and “false mercy”. The 2015 synod went over similar ground – and the final report which argued that pastors should meet and minister to people where they are, signalled to some that the church was about to change its stance on communion for the divorced and remarried.

This left many conservatives concerned that Francis would undermine church doctrine on marriage (a point he refuted at the 2015 synod). It later emerged that 13 conservative cardinals had written to the pope arguing that the “new process [at the synod] seems designed to facilitate predetermined (liberal) results on important disputed questions”.

Meanwhile, liberals hoped that Francis would address issues such as birth control and same-sex marriage in a manner that would make the church more responsive to the modern world.

Apostolic exhortations do not carry the weight of a papal encyclical – and they do not usually change doctrine. But doctrine needs to be applied and interpreted and this document could influence how priests and bishops apply the teachings of the church in their parishes and dioceses.

Divided on divorce

The most anticipated (and dreaded) sections of this apostolic exhortation relate to communion for the divorced and remarried and are to be found in chapter eight, which relies heavily on the deliberations of the two synods. These were the subject of the most speculation before the document was released and sit on one of the main fault lines between liberals and conservatives in the church.

The church teaches that marriage is indissoluble (a fact which Francis reiterates in the letter) and that those who are divorced and remarried – or, in the parlance of Catholicism, in “irregular situations” – are not allowed to fully enter into the life of the church. In practice, this means that such people are unable to receive communion, the sacrament that is the very heart of Catholic life.

Amoris Laetitia contains no real surprises on this topic – those in irregular situations are to be welcomed, integrated into the life of the church and accompanied on a process of discernment which will help them to find possible ways of responding to God and growing in faith.

This was not the full acceptance of the divorced and remarried into the communion of the church that liberals hoped for and conservatives fought against, but it does leave a door open for the “internal forum” which means that Catholics who find themselves unable to go through the annulment process and who, after a period of reflection and counselling with a priest or canon lawyer, come to the conclusion that their first marriage was invalid, may receive communion as long as they are discreet about it. This was suggested by liberal cardinal, Walter Kasper – and shows that the church now understands that its “task is often like that of a field hospital” working with people who may be wounded or damaged; and that all people need to be helped on the journey of faith so strongly emphasised by Francis’s pontificate and in this document.

It is a matter of reaching out to everyone, of needing to help each person find his or her proper way of participating in the ecclesiastical community and thus to experience being touched by an “unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous” mercy. No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel!

Compassion tinged with realism

In this apostolic exhortation we are seeing much more than teachings on divorce and remarriage – a continuation of Francis’s vision for the church in the modern world. The document teaches us that compassion is everything and that each person must be met with compassion if Catholics are truly living up to the teachings of Christ.

It is, however, firmly rooted in reality. Francis knows that life is messy and painful – and acknowledges that. He wants to create a church which accompanies people on a journey of faith, rather than setting impossible ideals which amplifies its difficulties rather than its joys and rewards.

Ultimately, though, this is a document that has something in it to disappoint everyone. Little attention has been given to same-sex relationships, or birth control, for example, which will upset the liberal members of the church. The door on divorce and remarriage has been left a little too open for the comfort of conservatives. However, Amoris Laetitia provides an excellent basis upon which to continue the conversation and reminds Catholics that everything they do must be done with mercy and love.

Maria Power, Lecturer in Religion and Peacebuilding, University of Liverpool

This article first appeared on The Conversation.