This past Wednesday, January 31, at Fordham University, Ross Douthat, a New York Times op-ed columnist, and Massimo Faggioli, a theology professor at Villanova University, had a public exchange of their views on the issues at stake five years into Pope Francis’ pontificate. This event was sponsored by the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and Religion News Service. I was at the exchange, and so I would like to reflect on what was said about the issues at stake five years into the Francis papacy. I will consider two major issues that dominated their exchange: interpretations of Vatican II and the doctrinal implications of the moral logic of pastoral reasoning in Amoris Laetitia.
The single most important disagreement between Douthat and Faggioli is over the meaning and significance of the Second Vatican Council documents with respect to the post-Vatican II disputes over religious liberty, ecumenism, inter-religious dialogue, and church/state relations, among other issues. As I understand Douthat, he seems to be suggesting that in the minds of neo-traditionalists—he wasn’t clear about what makes one a neo-traditionalist or whether he regarded himself as one—the John Paul II “synthesis” regarding Vatican II (as Douthat calls it) has led to Pope Francis’ call for the Church’s ongoing reformation, and hence the post-Vatican II disputes over these issues may be attributed to the documents of Vatican II because they legitimize conflicting interpretations.
What is meant by the John Paul II synthesis? Is it a version of neo-traditionalism? Furthermore, where does Faggioli fit into this two-some? He is neither, because he rejects their assumption that “Christianity at some point . . . was complete.” Indeed, Faggioli claims that tradition is the problem for contemporary theology, and since Vatican II’s theology, he said, was a traditional theology, it is also part of the problem. “I am not a Vatican II fundamentalist,” added Faggioli.
John Paul II’s creative synthesis
Douthat doesn’t say what the John Paul II synthesis is, but neither does he distinguish it from neo-traditionalism. I think this is a mistake because John Paul was able to show both doctrinal continuity and reform, inclusive of organic development, in the Church’s teachings on these matters. On John Paul II’s view, there is a legitimate place for doctrinal development within continuity, development that expands our understanding of doctrinal truths. There is also a place for legitimate diversity/discontinuity at the level of theological expression or articulation within a fundamental unity of meaning and truth, a diversity that addresses the novelty of new questions that arise in specific situations.
John Paul II synthesizes historical and theological interpretations of the documents of Vatican II in accordance with the Lérinian legacy of Vatican II. The latter draws on Vatican Council I, which had in turn drawn on the monk and theologian St. Vincent of Lérins (died c. 445). I have written extensively about this legacy, most recently in my book, Revelation, History, and Truth: A Hermeneutics of Dogma (Peter Lang Publishing, 2018).
The Lérinian hermeneutics is, arguably, based on the distinction between truth and its historically conditioned formulations, between form and content, truth-content and context; in sum, propositions and sentences, which was implied by John XXIII in his opening address at Vatican II, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia. “For the deposit of faith [2 Tim 1:14], the truths contained in our sacred teaching, are one thing; the mode in which they are expressed, but with the same meaning and the same judgment [eodem sensu eademque sententia], is another thing.” The subordinate clause in this passage is part of a larger passage from Vatican I (Dei Filius 4.13-14), and this passage is itself from the Commonitórium primum 23.3 of Vincent of Lérins:
Therefore, let there be growth and abundant progress in understanding, knowledge, and wisdom, in each and all, in individuals and in the whole Church, at all times and in the progress of ages, but only with the proper limits, i.e., within the same dogma, the same meaning, the same judgment [eodem sensu eademque sententia].
Yves Congar, for one, has argued that this distinction between truth and its formulation summarizes the meaning of the entire council. One may add here that there is a crucial difference for Lérinians between change and development (progress). For the latter must occur within the “proper limits, i.e., within the same dogma, the same meaning, the same judgment [eodem sensu eademque sententia].” Although the truths of the faith may be expressed differently, we must always determine whether those new re-formulations are preserving the same meaning and judgment (eodem sensu eademque sententia), and hence the material continuity, identity, and universality of those truths.
John Paul II engages in what may be called a hermeneutics of creative retrieval, in short, of ressourcement, which is at the heart of the Second Vatican Council’s Lérinian hermeneutics. The Second Vatican Council focused not only on the dynamics of the hermeneutics of reform and renewal in the life of the Church but also on the development in her understanding of the truth. In the dogmatic constitution on divine revelation, Dei verbum §§ 8-9 we read: “For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words [of divine revelation] which have been handed down.… For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her.”
Pope Benedict XVI, in his now famous 2005 Christmas address to the Roman Curia, called this hermeneutics of Vatican II “the ‘hermeneutic of reform’, of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.” Vatican II’s Lérinian hermeneutics is, arguably, a form of retrieval theology, or ressourcement, meaning thereby, as leading Evangelical theologian Kevin Vanhoozer correctly states, a style of theological discernment that looks back “to authoritative sources [of faith] for the sake of revitalizing the present.” He adds, “To retrieve is to look back creatively in order to move forward faithfully.”
One may argue that John Paul II was engaged in a form of creative retrieval, or ressourcement, both theologically and philosophically, in his works on Christian anthropology, sexual ethics, and, more particularly, conjugal morality (Love and Responsibility, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, The Acting Person, and many essays in the collection titled Person and Community). This, too, was part of the John Paul II’s creative synthesis of Vatican II. In his great encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, he proceeds to summarize in a Lérinian mode precisely the nature of that creative retrieval. He states:
Certainly there is a need to seek out and to discover the most adequate formulation for universal and permanent moral norms in the light of different cultural contexts, a formulation most capable of ceaselessly expressing their historical relevance, of making them understood and of authentically interpreting their truth. This truth of the moral law — like that of the “deposit of faith” — unfolds down the centuries: the norms expressing that truth remain valid in their substance, but must be specified and determined “eodem sensu eademque sententia” [St Vincent of Lerins, Commonitorium Primum, 23.3] in the light of historical circumstances by the Church’s Magisterium, whose decision is preceded and accompanied by the work of interpretation and formulation characteristic of the reason of individual believers and of theological reflection. (§53)
Where does Pope Francis stand with respect to Vatican II? At the exchange with Douthat, Faggioli claimed that Francis, unlike his predecessors, doesn’t take an explicit stance on that question. In my judgment, Faggioli couldn’t be more mistaken. I have argued at length in my book, Pope Francis: The Legacy of Vatican II (Lectio Publishing, 2015), that Pope Francis explicitly draws throughout his writings, both pre-papal and papal, on the thought of Vincent of Lérins, and hence that on the question of legitimate pluralism and authentic diversity within a fundamental unity of truth, he is a Lérinian. For his Lérinian legacy, see my 2015 First Things article and my more recent Catholic World Report essay.
Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that Pope Francis has a fully developed systematic theology that is informed at its foundation by a Lérinian hermeneutics of dogma. Of course not, as Francis would view this as a “desk-bound theology,” “remaining in the realm of pure ideas,” an “ahistorical fundamentalism,” and “intellectual discourse bereft of wisdom” (Evangelii Gaudium §§133, 231). Rather, I am suggesting that his thought shows Lérinian impulses, but these impulses at times clash with other impulses, such as the impulse of a praxis-oriented theology, a theologico-pastoral epistemology, as Gustavo Gutierrez called it, that starts its reflections with the historical and cultural realities, and the corresponding questions derived from the world and history—of course, this is critical reflection on praxis in light of the Word (Evangelii Gaudium §§231-233).
In Only Love Can Save Us, which is a collection of Francis’ Letters, Homilies, and Talks, Francis aligns himself with Pope Benedict XVI over the conflict of the hermeneutics of Vatican II. In his 2005 Christmas address before the Roman Curia, Benedict distinguishes between “a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” versus a “‘hermeneutic of reform and renewal’.” Francis refers to these competing hermeneutical approaches and continues by explaining the latter hermeneutic with the words of Benedict. A hermeneutic of reform means “of renewal in the continuity of the one-subject-Church which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject that increases in time and develops, yet always remains the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.” This hermeneutic is the one I have referred to as Lérinian in inspiration. Reiterating his commitment to a hermeneutic of reform, of continuity and renewal, of novelty and continuity, in the sense developed by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and indeed, John XXIII, and Vatican I, with their indebtedness to Vincent of Lérins, Francis writes the following in his Letter to the Special Envoy, Walter Cardinal Brandmüller, on the 450th anniversary of the close of the Council of Trent.
Graciously hearing the very same Holy Ghost, the Holy Church of our age, even now, continues to restore and meditate upon the most abundant doctrine of Trent. As a matter of fact, the “hermeneutic of renewal” (interpretation renovationis) which Our Predecessor Benedict XVI explained in 2005 before the Roman Curia, refers not only to the Tridentine Council but also to the Vatican Council. The mode of interpretation, certainly, places one honorable characteristic of the Church in a brighter light that is given by the Same Lord (Benedict XVI): “She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.”
In 2013, Pope Francis wrote a letter to Archbishop Agostino Marchetto, who wrote the famous work The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council: A Counterpoint for the History of the Council. Marchetto argues against the “Bologna School,” which considers Vatican II to represent a “hermeneutic of rupture or discontinuity” between the pre- and post-conciliar periods, and in line with Benedict XVI, that Vatican II represents a “hermeneutic of reform, of renewal in continuity” with the tradition of the Church. Pope Francis stated in his letter:
Dear Monsignor Marchetto,
With these lines I wish to make myself close to you and to join the ceremony of the presentation of the book “Papal Primacy and the Episcopate: From the First Millennium to the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council.” I ask you to feel me spiritually present. The theme of the book is a tribute to the love you have for the Church, a loyal and at the same time poetic love. Loyalty and poetry are not objects of commerce: they are not bought or sold, they are simply virtues rooted in the heart of a son who feels the Church as Mother, or to be more precise, and to say it with an Ignatian family “air,” as “the hierarchic Holy Mother Church.” You have manifested this love in many ways, including correcting an error or imprecision on my part, — and for this I thank you from my heart –, but above all it has been manifested in all its purity in the studies made on Vatican Council II. Once I said to you, dear Monsignor Marchetto, and today I wish to repeat it, that I consider you the best interpreter of Vatican Council II. I know that it is a gift of God, but I also know that you have made it fructify.
Although these letters do not tell us everything we need to know about Francis’ stance toward Vatican II, taken at face value they say something important, namely, pace Faggioli, that in Francis’ view he sees himself in continuity with his predecessors.
The neo-traditionalist interpretation
By contrast to the John Paul II’s creative synthesis, the neo-traditionalist emphasizes a theological approach to the Vatican II documents. It comes in two basic shapes: either no new doctrines were taught at Vatican II because the Council was pastoral rather than doctrinal in nature, or there were new doctrines and traditional ones were rejected (e.g., Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre).
As Gavin D’Costa notes, “If one interpreted the Council in the light of unchanging tradition then one would see that the doctrinal changes claimed are purely private theological interpretations.” For example, the neo-traditionalist puts us before a fundamental doctrinal choice, say, between Pius XI’s 1928 encyclical on ecumenism, namely, Mortalium Animos, and Vatican II’s Unitatis Redintegratio and John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical, Ut Unum Sint. By underscoring the singular, perhaps even exclusive, importance of doctrinal continuity, any form of discontinuity, either at the level of theological expression/formulation, or at the level of pastoral application, is unacceptable.
The historicist interpretation
These two types of interpreters of Vatican II must be distinguished from a third interpreter, such as Faggioli, who began his presentation by declining to frame the Francis pontificate in terms of a hermeneutics of continuity or discontinuity. Faggioli rejected this approach because he said that it assumes that Christianity at some point was accomplished—or, one might say, completed. What does he mean? Isn’t Christianity determinately true? Of course, to say that the Christian faith is true doesn’t mean that any statement comprehensively exhausts divine truth. Still, inadequacy of expression means that theological statements are open to further elucidation, open to reconceptualization and reformulation, but such inadequacy does not mean that truth is inexpressible. Since Faggioli doesn’t make this distinction, he leaves us wondering whether he thinks that Christianity is not accomplished because divine truth is inexpressible.
When Faggioli spoke in reference to Vatican II’s teaching on ecumenism, the Jews, and so forth, he did not say that this teaching was true or how it stood in relationship with earlier teaching, but only that this is the only teaching we have now and its reversal seems unimaginable. Later in the exchange he underscores the point that very few things are definitive in the Church because Christianity is not complete. Yet, he adds, if the point of the Francis pontificate is to get closer to Jesus Christ, then there has to be some kind of discontinuity, some kind of change. So, there is a fixed point of reference after all—and presumably some continuity in a proper understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ; otherwise, we couldn’t say that we are getting closer to the latter.
Faggioli thinks that the Francis pontificate is important because it raises the question about what should we make of the Second Vatican Council, particularly in the middle of its reception. Now, elsewhere in his writings (e.g., Pope Francis, Tradition in Transition), Faggioli interprets Benedict XVI’s hermeneutical legacy on Vatican II to be “such that it has allowed…continuity and discontinuity to be mutually exclusive, and the idea that ‘absolute continuity’ is equal to ‘catholicity’ to spread.” In my judgment, Faggioli wrongly collapses here the Lérinians with the neo-traditionalists. Furthermore, this interpretation of Benedict’s hermeneutics is questionable since Benedict acknowledges that Vatican II was, in his own words, a “combination of continuity and discontinuity at different levels.”
Be that as it may, Faggioli has aligned himself with those interpreters of the council who emphasize a historical approach to the documents of Vatican II, see them in light of ongoing tradition, underscoring discontinuity in doctrinal teachings with respect to the matters referred to above in light of pre-Vatican II teaching, historicizing therefore the truth-status of dogmatic formulations, by viewing them in the light of tradition. As Faggioli said in this public exchange, there are very few things that are definitive in the Church because Christianity is not complete, and hence this leaves almost everything in principle open to reversal. Faggioli’s remark, which reflects this third type of historicist interpretation of Vatican II, cannot account for different levels of authoritative Church teachings in Catholicism, with some being foundational, irreformable, and definitive, and others being non-definitive and hence subject to reform. Hence, Vatican II is, he said, part of the problem of tradition. (I wrote about Faggioli’s theology of tradition last year for CWR.)
The doctrinal implications of the moral logic of pastoral reasoning in AL
Another central issue at stake five years into the Francis’ papacy, has to do with the relationship of dogma and pastoral practice. At the center of this issue is Pope Francis’ much-discussed 2016 post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (hereafter AL). Faggioli insists that not only has AL been misinterpreted, but also the extraordinary and ordinary synods of 2014-2015 on family and marriage. In particular, he insists that AL never calls into question the Church’s teaching regarding the indissolubility of marriage. Douthat doesn’t disagree with this point about Al, but he insisted several times throughout the exchange with Faggioli (indeed he pressed him on this point, but Faggioli was unresponsive) that the moral logic of pastoral reasoning—it was never actually made clear by either men that it isn’t just about footnote 351—in chapter 8 of Al is the problem.
Douthat argued clearly that its moral logic has the doctrinal implication that it brings into question that teaching, and the concomitant teaching that adultery is always wrong, an intrinsic evil, by allowing circumstances where the divorced and civilly remarried may be morally justified in remaining in that legal union, engaging in sexual intimacy, and hence making a subjectively good choice for the sake of maintaining a faithful “invalid marriage” so that the children do not suffer. In sum, Douthat repeatedly said, the pastoral flexibility of this moral logic is such that it may effectively evacuate the Church’s teaching on marriage and conjugal morality. One might add here that the implications of this moral logic of pastoral reasoning regarding the divorce and civilly remarried may expand to the larger issue of sexual morality (see AL §297), and pastoral care, meaning thereby merciful accompaniment and careful discernment, for cohabiting couples, same-sex unions, contraception, and, as Douthat suggested, even polygamy.
Now, we must make clear what neither Douthat nor Faggioli made clear, namely, that AL’s conception of pastoral care builds upon John Paul II’s 1981 post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio: “Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations. . . . I earnestly call upon [them] and the whole community of the faithful to help the divorced, and with solicitous care to make sure that they do not consider themselves as separated from the Church, for as baptized persons they can, and indeed must, share in her life” (§84). See Al §§79, 242, 293, 297, 298, 300, 307 for evidence of this continuity with John Paul’s exhortation.
Still, there are presuppositions at the root of Al’s moral logic of pastoral reasoning that are inconsistent with the teaching of John Paul II and his affirmation of the Church’s constant and universal practice of not admitting the divorced and civilly remarried to communion (see Familiaris Consortio §84). In particular, one of those presuppositions affirms that mitigating factors and complex situations make it impossible for us to say that the divorced and civilly remarried, or, for that matter, a cohabiting couple, “are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace” (§301). The reason given for this presupposition is threefold: one, a person may lack culpability in failing to act in accordance with a moral rule by virtue of “mere ignorance of the rule”; two, he “may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding ‘its inherent value’’; and three, he may be “in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin” (§301; see also §298). Are these reasons sufficient in specific cases to claim that individuals are not living in a state of mortal sin or deprived of sanctifying grace, as Francis claims?
There was no discussion of this question by Douthat and Faggioli. Here I can only briefly make some comments about my skepticism that a positive answer may be given to this question. First, then, does ignorance excuse from sin altogether? “Every act directly willed, says the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “is imputable to its author” (§1736). Only voluntary acts are sinful, and hence when ignorance is the cause of the act, it excuses an individual from the moral culpability of committing sin. This is main conclusion of AL’s moral logic. But ignorance may not excuse one altogether from sin. “An action can be indirectly voluntary when it results from negligence regarding something one should have known or done; for example, an accident arising from ignorance of traffic laws” (Ibid). In this case, ignorance is voluntary, as Aquinas explains, “either directly, as when a man wishes of set purpose to be ignorant of certain things that he may sin the more freely; or indirectly, as when a man, through stress of work or other occupations, neglects to acquire the knowledge which would restrain him from sin. For such like negligence renders the ignorance itself voluntary and sinful, provided it be about matters one is bound and able to know. Consequently, this ignorance does not altogether excuse from sin.” In addition, the Catechism adds, “No one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man” (§1860).
Regarding the second point, having great difficulty in understanding the moral precept’s inherent value does not as such diminish culpability in rejecting this precept because such an individual may “‘take little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when [his] conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin’ [Gaudium et Spes §16]. In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits” (Catechism of the Catholic Church §1791). This, too, is Aquinas’s view when he speaks about how understanding a moral precept may be distorted “by passion, or evil habit, or an evil disposition.” None of these factors figures centrally in Al’s account of civil marriage or cohabitation, for example (§294).
Regarding the third point, an element of proportionalist moral reasoning is introduced into the moral logic of pastoral reasoning regarding the divorced and civilly remarried. AL §301 is not talking about a couple who have decided to live “as brother and sister.” As John Paul II explains in Familiaris Consortio §84:
Reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage. This means, in practice, that when, for serious reasons, such as for example the children’s upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they “take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.”
Clearly, Francis is considering those couples who have rejected John Paul II’s teaching. Francis urges us to consider their situation in which the moral rule might not apply by virtue of “mere ignorance of the rule.” We have already considered why neither “mere ignorance” nor “having great difficulty in understanding” the moral rules altogether excuse from sin. This conclusion is relevant to the third point regarding a couple having knowledge of the rule, yet are unable to act on it without further sin, who also sincerely desire to do God’s will by making a more perfect response to it, but who are allowed to be sexually intimate in their legal union for the sake of maintaining a faithful “invalid marriage” so that the children do not suffer.
Since error stemming from willed ignorance or negligence does not excuse, because “an erroneous conscience does not excuse,” as Aquinas says, even though this couple intend to do a good thing, they have to commit adultery to do so, which is of course a mortal sin. Hence, these individuals must not only correct their erroneous consciences. Furthermore, it must also be clear that it can therefore never be right to claim that being subjectively convinced, with sincerity and honesty, that facing great difficulty in making the objectively right moral choice—given that one is giving “the most generous response which can be given to God” (§303)—makes it possible to hold that they are not responsible for doing something not in conformity with the relevant objective moral norm.
Returning now, in conclusion, to the recent Douthat and Faggioli exchange: these two major issues—the meaning and significance of Vatican II and the doctrinal implications of AL’s moral logic of pastoral reasoning—will continue to present the Church with challenges until such time as the Magisterium makes clear where the Church is headed.