Two short week ago, I wrote an essay titled "The Four Cardinals and the Encyclical in the Room" in which I argued that at the heart of the escalating tension over chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia
are some essential questions about moral theology and the nature of
truth. If anything, I'm even more convinced such is the case, mindful of
several other related controversies and confusions. A fair amount has
happened since November 28th. Here are a few things to note, by way of
providing some context:
On December 1st, Ross Douthat wrote an essay, "The End of Catholic Marriage"
(which likely should have had a question mark at the end of the
headline). I don't think Catholic marriage is dead or gone, but
Douthat's main points should be taken seriously. He points out, for
example, that Cardinal Kasper and others, back in 2013, insisted they
were proposing reform "modest, limited, confined to a small group of
remarried Catholics, and thus in no way a public sign that the church no
longer believes marriages indissoluble in general." And yet, now that
AL has dropped like a ton of bricks and sent up a massive cloud of dust
within the Church, the exceptions are being expressed as a broad and
nearly limitless norm by some bishops, including a certain American
bishop in San Diego:
will notice a few things about [Bishop] McElroy’s teaching, as opposed
to Buttiglione’s analysis. The first is that the language is completely
different: Nothing gets called a “grave sin” or an “evil” or even
“illegitimate” by the bishop; every tension and contradiction is
resolved through gradual but inexorable processes that resemble a
conversation rather than a confession. (Indeed, the word “confession”
appears nowhere in the entire document; the word “sin” appears only in
the quotation from Pope Francis suggesting when the term does not necessarily apply.)
And so forth. I touch on some of this in a post also penned on December 1st, but
written prior to reading Douthat's column, saying, "The approach of
Bishop McElroy, as well as that of Cardinal Cupich and Cardinal Farrell,
seems clearly to be based on the faulty notion of the 'primacy of the
conscience,' which in reality means the teaching of Christ and the
Church about moral truth and moral obligations take a back seat to the
decisions made by this or that person about their unique and complicated
situation. That is simply upside down; it is a classic case of the tail
wagging the dog."
On December 5th, Phil Lawler of Catholic Culture wrote a short but notable post about "Three things the Pope can't say":
the Catholic Church, the authority of the Roman Pontiff is
considerable. But even papal authorityand especially papal
infallibilityhas its limits. The Pope speaks with authority when he
sets forth the deposit of the Faith, explainingin union with the
college of bishopswhat the Church has always and everywhere believed.
Anyone who understands the nature of the Petrine power should recognize
that, even when he speaks on questions of faith and morals, there are
some things the Pope cannot say.
The last of Lawler's three points
is "The Pope cannot teach authoritatively by dropping hints." And yet
there are some (see above and see below) who apparently think it's all very clear. And that is understandable to the degree they want
it to be clear and they are convinced Francis is supportive of
Communion for those in "irregular" situationsa conclusion difficult to
avoid. But, as Lawler concludes: "By now it should be clear that in Amoris Laetitia,
Pope Francis carefully avoided making the sort of authoritative
statement that would command the assent of the faithful. We cannot be
expectedmuch less commandedto accept a new 'teaching' that the Pope
has chosen, for his own reasons, not to make."
On December 4th, Fr. Anonio Spadaro, SJ, "Jesuit papal confidant and director of the journal La Civiltà Cattolica", granted an exclusive interview with
Austen Ivereigh of CRUX. Fr. Spadaro played the victim over some
infantile silliness he had indulged in with his Twitter account,
claiming that it was "deeply offensive" to think he was insulting the
four cardinals when he was simply referring to himself. It is widely
understood that Fr. Spadaro is a theological advisor to Pope Francis, so
this lack of clarity and inability to communicate effectively is not
too surprising. After all, this is the same man who also retweeted and
then tweeted, in succession, these two contradictory sentiments around
the same time:
So, critics of AL cannot handle lack of clarity and are not open to what has been "clarified". Damned if you do, damned if you don't.
Anyhow, Fr. Spadaro explained to CRUX why Francis had not yet responded to the questions put forward by the four cardinals:
pope doesn’t give binary answers to abstract questions. But that does’t
mean he hasn’t responded. His response is to approve and to encourage
positive pastoral practices. A clear and obvious example was his
response to the Buenos Aires area bishops, when he encouraged them and
confirmed that their reading of Amoris Laetitia was correct. In other
words, the pope responds by encouraging, and indeed loves to respond to
the sincere questions put to him by pastors. The ones who really
understand Catholic doctrine are the pastors, because doctrine does not
exist for the purpose of debate but for the salus animarum [‘the health
of souls’] - for salvation rather than intellectual discussion.
worth noting that one of the four cardinals, Cardinal Raymond Burke,
served as a parish priest for several years after his ordination in
1975; it should also be noted that Jorge Bergoglio, as far as I can
tell, was never a parish priest. Regardless, the statement, "The ones
who really understand Catholic doctrine are the pastors" is rather
sweeping, to put it mildly. I've known many wonderful priests, but I've
also known a few who I don't think were capable to catechizing young
children, never mind adults.)
Fr. Spadaro insists, "Amoris Laetitia is very clear." Then, a bit later, this key answer and question:
cardinals want to know whether Amoris Laetitia ever makes possible
absolution and Holy Communion for people who are still validly married
but having sexual relations with another. They claim that hasn’t been
I think that the answer to that has been
given, and clearly. When the concrete circumstances of a divorced and
remarried couple make feasible a pathway of faith, they can be asked to
take on the challenge of living in continence. Amoris Laetitia
does not ignore the difficulty of this option, and leaves open the
possibility of admission to the Sacrament of Reconciliation when this
option is lacking.
In other, more complex circumstances, and when
it has not been possible to obtain a declaration of nullity, this
option may not be practicable. But it still may be possible to undertake
a path of discernment under the guidance of a pastor, which results in a
recognition that, in a particular case, there are limitations which
attenuate responsibility and guilt - particularly where a person
believes they would fall into a worse error, and harm the children of
the new union.
In such cases Amoris Laetitia opens the
possibility of access to Reconciliation and to the Eucharist, which in
turn dispose a person to continuing to mature and grow, fortified by
In other words, yes, there are cases in which those who are
"irregular" situations can received Holy Communion, even if they are in
what is, objectively, a state of adultery"particularly where a person
believes they would fall into a worse error, and harm the children of
the new union." There you go. So, how is this to be reconciled with the CDF's 1994 statement on reception of Holy Communion by those who are divorced and "remarried"?
mistaken conviction of a divorced and remarried person that he may
receive Holy Communion normally presupposes that personal conscience is
considered in the final analysis to be able, on the basis of one's own
convictions, to come to a decision about the existence or absence of a
previous marriage and the value of the new union. However, such a
position is inadmissable(16). Marriage, in fact, because it is both the
image of the spousal relationship between Christ and his Church as well
as the fundamental core and an important factor in the life of civil
society, is essentially a public reality.
It is certainly true
that a judgment about one's own dispositions for the reception of Holy
Communion must be made by a properly formed moral conscience. But it is
equally true that the consent that is the foundation of marriage is not
simply a private decision since it creates a specifically ecclesial and
social situation for the spouses, both individually and as a couple.
Thus the judgment of conscience of one's own marital situation does not
regard only the immediate relationship between man and God, as if one
could prescind from the Church's mediation, that also includes canonical
laws binding in conscience. Not to recognise this essential aspect
would mean in fact to deny that marriage is a reality of the Church,
that is to say, a sacrament. (pars 7-8)
That document, of course,
was issued by then-Cardinal Ratzinger during the papacy of John Paul II.
And it was John Paul II who had stated, in his 1981 Apostolic
Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, that:
the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred
Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons
who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact
that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that
union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and
effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special
pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the
faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church's
teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.
But Fr. Spadaro
flatly states: "St. John Paul II already opened the door to an
understanding of the position of the divorced and remarried through the
discernment of the different situations which are not objectively
identical, thanks to the internal forum."
Such is the new "clarity"...
On December 8th it was reported that "Twenty-three Catholic scholars and pastors, three of them Oxford University academics, have given their names to a statement in support of the “four cardinals”, after the cardinals’ request to Pope Francis to clarify his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia."
And on December 9th, two moral theologians, John Finnis and Germain Grisez, published a lengthy open letter to Pope Francis on the First Things website, along with a note of explanation, stating in part:
letter explains how proponents of the eight positions we identify can
find support in statements by or omissions from the Apostolic
Exhortation, and indicates how these positions are or include errors
against the Catholic faith. In each case we explain briefly how the
position has emerged among Catholic theologians or pastors and show how
certain statements or omissions from Amoris Laetitia are being used, or
likely will be used, to support it.
Finally, on December 8th, Matthew Schmitz, the literary editor of First Things, wrote a piece "How I Changed My Mind About Pope Francis", saying:
Then Amoris Laetitia
came out. In it, Francis sought to muddy the Church’s clear teaching
that the divorced and remarried must live as brother and sister. “I have
felt the Church’s teaching on marriage land like a blow, yet I take no
encouragement from this shift,” I wrote. It was clear by then that my
initial rosy assessments were wrong. Francis meant to lead the Church in
a direction that I could not approve or abide. He believes that “the
great majority of our sacramental marriages are null.” This renders him
unable to resist the lie that says a man may abandon one wife and take
up another. Instead, he reassures us that we can blithely go from one
partner to the other without also abandoning Christ. This is the
throwaway culture baptized and blessed, given a Christian name and a
whiff of incense.
And now, today, Austen Ivereigh of CRUX, has posted a sprawling polemical broadside titled "As anti-Amoris critics cross into dissent, the Church must move on".
To be fair, I'm not anti-polemical; I am, however, opposed to polemics
that resort to name-calling, avoid argumentation like the plague, resort
to straw men, are relentlessly condescending, and make unfair, even
misleading, analogies and comparisons. I say "crude" not because it's poorly
writtenit's not, as Ivereigh is a good writerbut because it is so
sloppy, uncharitable, and ill-reasoned at every turnand seems to glory
in such flaws. Ivereigh "argues" that the four cardinals and others who
who have questions about AL are "dissenters". Why?
is, essentially, to question the legitimacy of a pope’s rule. It is to
cast into doubt that the development of the Church under this Successor
of St. Peter is a fruit of the action of the Holy Spirit. Dissent is
nothing new. At the time of the Second Vatican Council, the dissenting
party set its face against its pastoral direction, as well as key
developments in liturgy, religious freedom and ecumenism. Under John
Paul II, on the other hand, the dissenters were convinced he had
betrayed the Council. They argued for women priests, an end to mandatory
celibacy and an opening in areas such as contraception. Now, under
Francis, the dissenting party opposes the synod and its major fruit, Amoris Laetitia.
Because dissenters almost always end up looking and sounding like each
other, the four cardinals and their supporters look every day more like
those lobbies under the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI
calling for liberal reforms.
This, in short, is a third-rate magic
trick, an attempt to distract by dismissing. But the dissenters from
Vatican II dissented because authoritative teaching was not
changedespecially regarding sexuality and contraceptionwhile those
"dissenting" from AL are expressing their concern that some
interpretations of the text change authoritative teaching. And considering the words of Bishop McElroy and Fr. Spadaro, among others, it's a completely legitimate and well-founded concern.
Ivereigh then posits the following, apparently in completely seriousness:
know that going against the pope is a serious matter, and so when they
dissent they adopt a regretful, pained tone that stresses conscience and
the impossibility of betraying whatever they have absolutized - their
idea of unchanging tradition, say, or their version of the Second
What they have in common is that they are almost
always lay, educated and from the wealthy world or the wealthy parts of
the developing world. They are mostly intellectuals and lawyers and
teachers and writers who put great store in their reason.
As one commenter on Facebook wryly remarked, "Why didn't
Ivereigh simply say they are 'on the wrong side of history'?" But,
really, this is bizarre: are the laity now to be ignored when it comes
to moral matters, especially when they have to do with marriage? And is
being educated and putting "great store" in reason such a black mark?
Never mind that many of the critics involved are moral theologians who
teach moral theology at noted Catholic institutions, or that several are
highly regarded canon lawyers who deal with the complexities of marital
situations on a regular basis.
And then this, which can best be described as empty boilerplate:
Second Vatican Council set the Church on a path of pastoral conversion.
John Paul II united the Church around an understanding of the Council
based on a hermeneutic of continuity. In both cases, there was strong
resistance, but most Catholics recognized the development as legitimate,
as Peter acting for the good of the Church, as a doctrinally faithful
response to the signs of the times. The same is true now. Most Catholics understand the synod, and Amoris Laetitia,
as an inspired response to our times, a means both of rebuilding
marriage and of helping to bandage those wounded by the failure of
And so forth. Apparently "continuity" meaning "continuitybut without clear or necessary continuity". In calling the synods and AL "inspired", Ivereigh apparently takes his cue from Cardinal Farrell, who told the National Catholic Reporter in mid-October that AL is "inspired":
"It is carrying on the doctrine of Familiaris Consortio of John Paul II. I believe that passionately.
"Basically this is the Holy Spirit speaking to us," the cardinal-designate continued.
we believe that the Holy Spirit wasn't there in the first synod?" he
asked. "Do we believe he wasn't in the second synod? Do we believe that
he didn't inspire our Holy Father Pope Francis in writing this
need to be consequential here," said Farrell. "I firmly believe this is
the teaching of the church. This is a pastoral document telling us how
we should proceed. I believe we should take it as it is."
The remark about consequential is a curious one, as "consequentialism" is a "teleological ethical theory" directly critiqued and condemned by John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor:
unacceptability of "teleological", "consequentialist" and
"proportionalist" ethical theories, which deny the existence of negative
moral norms regarding specific kinds of behaviour, norms which are
valid without exception, is confirmed in a particularly eloquent way by
Christian martyrdom, which has always accompanied and continues to
accompany the life of the Church even today. (par. 90; see par. 70)
Perhaps Saint John Paul II was thinking of Saint Thomas More?
Ivereigh writes: "Many are good people, clever people, faithful
Catholics, who want to defend the Church and promote the Good and the
True. Some I consider friends. And as their friend, I have to tell them
that in their anxiety and fear they have been tempted down the road of
dissent, rejecting a Spirit-filled process of ecclesial discernment.
…More importantly, as their friend, I have to warn them: the train has
left the station, the Church is moving on."
What I know is
that the Church never "moves on" from Truth, and cannot formally
teach error about matters of faith and morals. There are many questions
that need to be addressed, no matter what any British journalist tosses
about on the CRUX site.