Pope Francis just unveiled a veritable self-help book for Catholics. That's a good thing.

Who says the pope can't offer sound and practical life advice?

A new era for the church.
(Image credit: Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

"How does this apply to political issues and/or sex?"

This is the first, and often only, question journalists ask whenever the pope makes news. And today, with the release of Pope Francis' long-awaited document on the family, Amoris Laetitia ("The Joy of Love"), there is little exception to the rule.

Now, the media's focus on politics and sex and the politics of sex isn't entirely unjustified in this case. After all, "The Joy of Love" is part of an ongoing debate started by Pope Francis on the issue of divorce and remarriage — an issue with potentially far-reaching consequences for the Catholic Church. But the document is about much more than that. In fact, it's full of all sorts of highly practical guidance for the world's 1.2 billion Catholics — and for anyone, really.

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Both of Francis' immediate predecessors, Benedict XVI and John Paul II, were academic theologians. Francis instead prides himself on his "pastoral style." This document on marriage is full of practical tips for couples on how to strengthen their love, and how to educate their kids. For example, Pope Francis brought joy to opponents of helicopter parenting everywhere by urging that parents give their kids enough unsupervised play time. Here's more, from The Washington Post:

He recommends that husbands or wives greet their spouse at the door when returning home from work, and put down the smartphone so they can go to sleep together.He even includes some tips that sound straight out of a wedding magazine.He writes, "Short-term preparations for marriage tend to be concentrated on invitations, clothes, the party and any number of other details that tend to drain not only the budget but energy and joy as well. The spouses come to the wedding ceremony exhausted and harried, rather than focused and ready for the great step that they are about to take." [The Washington Post]

It goes on and on from there. NPR published an article today titled "Some relationship advice from Pope Francis," with cheekily paraphrased guidance like "Sometimes, just listen" and "Never go to bed angry: Hugs can help."

Such practical tips are something that many of my fellow conservative Catholics dislike. After all, the pope — and maybe the faith more generally — is supposed to set out clear rules for life. How to follow them is supposed to be up to us.

Further, Christianity is not about making you feel good. It's about pushing you to confront your sins and thereby repent and receive friendship with God. Pope Francis is not the leader of some "therapeutic" religion along the lines of those practiced by Oprah, self-help writers, and spiritual gurus like Deepak Chopra. These "feel good" or "therapeutic" secular religions declare that "your choices" are all that matters — something which only feeds a solipsistic cult of self.

Still, when it comes to living a Christian life, the "what" doesn't matter much if you don't have the "how." The church's job is not just to tell us what the goal should be, but to help us reach it. The church doesn't just set the rules, but helps us learn how to weave them into our lives.

The Christian church built the world's first systematic welfare organization, and this made a concrete, meaningful difference in people's lives. The sociologist and historian of religion Rodney Stark points out that studies of Roman burial sites show that Christians had a longer average life expectancy than pagans, and the study of their bones showed they were better nourished, and generally healthier, even though they were on average poorer. The welfare of Christianity was part of what drew people to the church and kept them in it. People weren't just attracted by a message. They were also offered a powerful and effective way to make their lives concretely better.

It's all well and good to tell people to pray — and really, you should. It's all well and good to tell parents they should love their children, too. But every parent knows that loving their kids is one thing, and having methods for applying that love in a fruitful way is much more important. The devout Catholic (and, I believe, future Catholic saint) Maria Montessori invented the most effective educational method for enabling children to flourish by applying a mix of scientific method and Christian philosophy to the question of education.

Now, is giving us life tips the pope's job? Not really. But it certainly doesn't hurt for the pope to show us that getting the "how" right is extremely important — almost as important as getting the "what" right.

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Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is a writer and fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His writing has appeared at Forbes, The Atlantic, First Things, Commentary Magazine, The Daily Beast, The Federalist, Quartz, and other places. He lives in Paris with his beloved wife and daughter.