Last fall, four Cardinals submitted to Pope Francis their dubia on the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia. This past month, six lay scholars from five continents joined the debate one year after the publication of the controversial document on marriage and family, making presentations on April 22 in a crowded hall of the ancient and majestic Palazzo della Rovere (now the Hotel Columbus) in Via della Conciliazione, just few steps away from the Vatican.
“Indeed, it is the first time for an international conference on the most debated and controversial points of Amoris Laetitia to be organized by lay people and with the participation of lay people from different parts of the world”, Cascioli pointed out in his introductory remarks. And, in fact, only a few member of the clergy were present, in their personal capacity, with no high-ranking prelates in attendance.
The title of the conference was “Seeking Clarity”, echoed that of the four Cardinals’ dubia. Because “only a blind man,” said Cardinal Caffarra, one of the four, in a recent interview, “may not see the confusion in the Church, especially after Amoris Laetitia, a confusion that continues to grow…” As many have noted, different interpretations and directives based on Amoris Laetia can be, and are being, produced and promoted. It is, said Cascioli, “absurd that, just to give an example, the indications to the faithful about access to the sacraments change not only from country to country, but also from dioceses to dioceses and from parish to parish”. Should this trend continue, Cascioli added, we’ll soon have “to start talking about the phenomenon of ‘sacramental tourism’, the search of the best conditions to get absolved from sins…”
But clarification has yet to come and in the confusion continues. That is why the conference, Cascioli claimed, intends to be a respectful reminder on the urgency of this clarifying intervention by the Pope, and the guest speakers were precisely trying to better explain why this is so by highlighting different aspects of what is at stake. He made it clear that “what motivates us is our love for the Church” and that “this symposium is not an act of revolt against the Pope”, and “neither does it have any schismatic intentions”. Our loyalty to the Pope is out of question, he concluded, since what is at stake here is the adhesion to the teaching of the Lord, the apostles and the Church as it has been handed down for two thousand years.
Of the six speakers, five men and one woman, three are well known for their previous standpoints and interventions: Claudio Pierantoni, an Italian professor of Medieval Philosophy at the university of Chile; Romanian-English Australian Anna Silvas of the University of New England (Australia) who specialises in late antiquity, with studies focused on the birth of monasticism in the East of Asia Minor and in Syria; and Douglas Farrow, professor of Christian philosophy at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.
Pierantoni’s speech was based on a comparison with two historical precedents of two popes, Liberius and Honorius, who, for different reasons, were both accused of favoring heresies from the fourth to the seventh century; his conclusion was that there are similarities, but also differences.
The similarity boils down to a compromise formula, a political solution to win the widest possible consensus, but “history shows that these attempts are doomed to failure, because the subsequent development of reflection inevitably makes the contradictions come to the surface which were tried to be concealed”. But a fundamental difference with today’s situation is the two past popes’ “doctrinal deviations appear limited to particular points, albeit very important ones, and were derived in large part, much less from the heretical minds of the Pontiffs, than from the political pressures and from a theological terminology still on the path of formulation”.
In the current situation, Pierantoni argued, we have “the underlying doctrinal deformation that, as skillful as it may be in evading directly heterodox formulations, still maneuvers in a coherent way to carry forward an attack not only against particular dogmas like the indissolubility of marriage and the objectivity of the moral law, but even against the very concept of right doctrine, and with it, of the very person of Christ as Logos”.
This doctrinal deformation, in Pierantoni’s opinion, is taking place amid “a generalized epochal alienation from Tradition”, whose first victim is precisely the Pope followed by other innumerable victims who fall into confusion after him.
Against this background, “a fraternal correction frankly addressed to Peter is necessary, for his good and that of the whole Church”. After all, he concludes, a fraternal correction “is neither an act of hostility, nor a lack of respect, nor an act of disobedience. It is nothing other than a declaration of truth: caritas in veritate. The pope, even before being pope, is our brother, and this is therefore a primordial duty of charity towards him.”
In the opinion of Romanian-English Australian scholar Anna Silva, the Pope won’t respond to the “doubts” of the four cardinals and there will be no formal correction. In the Church, she said, “Francis and his collaborators deal with the matter of doctrine, not by confronting theory head on, because if they did so they would be defeated, but by an incremental change of praxis, played to the siren song of plausible persuasions, until the praxis is sufficiently built up over time to a point of no return…” In her opinion, “the end game is a more or less indifferent permission for any who present for Holy Communion. And so we attain the longed-for haven of all-inclusiveness and ‘mercy’.”
The Church is upset by a storm in the form of an unprecedented crisis, what she described as an alien spirit. “This alien spirit appears to have finally swallowed up the See of Peter, dragging ever widening cohorts of compliant higher church leadership into its net, is its most dismaying, and indeed shocking aspect to many of us, the Catholic lay faithful.”
At the end of her speech, an optimistic tone replaced her pervading pessimism, when she hinted at a possible way out of this crisis: the rediscovery of the exemplary and perennial value of monasticism, emphasizing the importance of spiritual remedies to cope with the current difficulties, first and foremost prayer, in much the same way as “monastic communities quietly established advance outposts of a new liturgical universe in the rubble of the western Roman empire.”
Douglas Farrow also resorted to a historical precedent, albeit from a different period, to explain the present crisis. His speech, a sort of follow-up to his March 2017 First Things article, “Discernment of Situation”, began with a description of “several dimenions” of this crisis: moral, doctrinal, authoritative, unity. This is the result of the fact that the “dominant culture is changing the Church”, he points out, warning that “today the sacrament of marriage is under strong pressure”, in exactly the same way as at the time of the Reformation, when the Council of Trent “had to defend the sacraments governing confession, communion, and conjugality from coordinated, if somewhat chaotic, attacks”. It is no surprise, then, that “the same three sacraments are threatened again today”.
Farrow described the present crisis as one that has been much exacerbated (though not caused) by Amoris Laetitia, because that “well-grounded system” has begun to come apart, as it did in the 16th century. Where the Protestant reformers tried and failed to put it back together, the Council of Trent succeeded; but it can no longer be said, even in the Catholic Church, that “the preaching of the Church is everywhere consistent, and continues in a stable course” (St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.24). On the contrary, bishop vies with bishop, and it must in all honesty be said of Amoris Laetitia that it appears to “think differently in regard to the same things at different times” (ibid.). It is a situation described by Cardinal Sarah recently, for whom our present crisis is made more acute by the fact that high-ranking prelates “refuse to face up to the Church’s work of self-destruction through the deliberate demolition of her doctrinal, liturgical, moral and pastoral foundations”.
In Farrow’s opinion what was said at Trent is true again today: there is an urgent need for “the rooting out of heresy and the reform of conduct”. But he blames the crisis also on a distorted notion of conscience. “Does conscience determine what is right, or does it merely discern what is established by God as right? … Does conscience, in other words, command on its own authority or on the authority of another?” If the former, then the first step in moral analysis is eliminated. One no longer has to consider whether a particular act, such as adultery, is intrinsically right or wrong, to be recognized as such by way of natural or divine law. One can bypass that and move straight on to questions about intention, circumstance, and consequences. Therefore, “the maxim that it is never licit to do evil that good may come – a maxim that distinguishes Catholic ethics from competing ethical systems, as St John Paul II emphasized – is set aside”. But then, he concluded, the very notion of conscience disappears into a black hole of subjectivity.
“Perhaps the greatest challenge facing the Church today”, he contended, “is to lift its eyes from earth to heaven; from ‘discernment of situations’ to discernment of God; to recover its sense of the unity of God, the God who is all holy mercy and all merciful holiness, the God who does not need to attenuate justice for the sake of mercy or mercy for the sake of justice”.
Farrow concluded by stating it all amounts to a “moral problem” that is “finally a question of allegiance to our Lord, a question of the fear of the Lord. Without a renewal of the fear of the Lord, it will not be resolved”. After all, doesn’t the old dictum proclaim “Timor Dei, initium sapientiae”?
In his speech French philosopher Thibaud Collin, a professor of moral and political philosophy at Collège Stanislas in Paris, decried how today, as a result of Amoris laetitia, the very same pastoral approach that impeded the full implementation of the encyclical of Paul VI Humanae Vitae, because of the opposition of bishops and theologians, is prevailing also in the case of the indissoluble marriage.
For his part German journalist and intellectual, Jűrgen Liminski, director of the German Institute for Demography, Welfare and Family, spoke of the “paganization of marriage”. In his opinion, a “badly interpreted mercy favors the paganization of marriage”, while “the indissolubility of marriage is good for society” and “no solidarity-based state can be established without the family”. Hence the appeal that “the reasons of those who in the Church are perplexed and led astray due to certain ways in which Amoris laetitia has been presented and applied, be taken seriously into consideration first of all by the Vatican top echelons”. This implies for “the Pope to responds to the dubia officialised by some cardinals, the four signatories of the letter as well as several others”.
Jean-Paul Messina (Cameroon), professor of the History of Christianity and Religious Studies at the Theological Faculty of the Catholic University of Central Africa, Yaoundé (Cameroon), brought to the attention of the audience the case of the African Church with regard to the marriage and family. As in the rest of the world, the family is also in crisis in Africa and endures threats that sometimes prevent couples from having access to sacramental marriage. Whereas the problem of divorced persons, however, is a predominantly European problem, he is of the opinion that the biggest problem in Africa is polygamy, which mainly affects women, and the risk is there for the tendency even in the church in favour of cohabitation and gay marriage to be extended also to polygamy.