Pope Francis leads a Mass in front of a picture of St. John Paul II at Amman International Stadium in Amman, Jordan, in this May 24, 2014 file photo. (CNS photo/Amel Pain, EPA)
I think that Chapter 8, "Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness", is the most problematic section of Amoris Laetitia (AL) for three reasons:
1) Pope Francis seems almost (not quite, but almost) incapable of acknowledging that an individual is sinfully responsible for consciously and willfully rejecting the truth of marriage and family as false. Yes, he upholds the objectivity of God’s “primordial loving plan” (9), of the deepest reality of marriage (AL 10), grounded in the order of creation. Indeed, Pope Francis’s reflections on marriage and family life in AL 8-30 are beautiful, insightful, and, yes, deeply biblical. Furthermore, his reflections on the tradition of magisterial teaching regarding marriage and family life in light of creation, fall into sin, and redemption in AL 61-88, provide a catechesis that is foundational to our thinking as Christians. Of course he does acknowledge, in AL 297, that there are some people who “flaunt an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal, or want to impose something other than what the Church teaches.” He adds, they “can in no way presume to teach or preach to others.” And yet Francis’s emphasis in this chapter is such that he almost never holds a person totally accountable for resisting the evidence of creation about marriage (see Rom 1:18ff.). It’s almost as if everyone is invincibly ignorant, that is, doing the wrong thing through no fault of their own.
2) In light of 1), furthermore, he puts a heavy emphasis on the distinction between subjective and objective morality, that is, questions regarding moral culpability, on the one hand, and the objective standards of right and wrong on the other, and hence he seeks to find mitigating circumstances that absolve a person of full responsibility for his actions (AL 302).
3) He distinguishes (following John Paul II's Familiaris Consortio) between the different concepts of the “law of gradualness” (which he affirms, AL 295), which is a step-by-step moral advance, and the “gradualness of the law,” meaning thereby that there are “different degrees or forms of precept in God's law for different individuals and situations” (FC 34), which he says that he rejects. With respect to the law of gradualness, Francis urges us, in view of the undeniable challenges of our time, “to present marriage more as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfilment than as a lifelong burden” (AL 37). He adds, “This is not a ‘gradualness of law’ but rather a gradualness in the prudential exercise of free acts on the part of subjects who are not in a position to understand, appreciate, or fully carry out the objective demands of the law” (AL 295).
And yet in AL 303 and 305, he suggests that a person not only may be doing the best that he can, but also that such acts therefore are not sinful and hence are right for that person, because the person, in his mitigating circumstances, fulfills the ideal as applied by that individual in those limiting circumstances. This way of thinking was unavoidable because throughout AL Francis apparently emphasizes the “ideal” nature of the normative order of marriage and family life.
But how can God be asking one to do X when X is contrary to his will? The pope must think that X is not contrary to the will of God in that specific circumstance, but only contrary to God's ideal will which the person is inculpable for not attaining.
So, with all due respect to Francis, I think that he does imply support for the “gradualness of the law” and hence by implication opens the door to a “situation ethics.” He says, “Yet conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal” (AL 303). Now, is the pope actually saying that such acts are right for such an individual? Indeed, that is precisely what he says, namely, that the person in those mitigating circumstances may be doing the will of God. That's not an inference on my part; that's what the pope actually says above. If you missed it, here it is again: a person can "come to see with a certain moral security that it [his choice] is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal.” It is hard to see why a person needs the grace of the sacrament of confession, and hence the Lord’s mercy, if, as Francis suggests here, that person is doing the will of God.
Let me suggest that this confusion might have been avoided if Pope Francis had rejected the language of moral ideals and located his thought with respect to the following two points of reflections in John Paul II’s 1993 Encyclical Veritatis Splendor:
Only in the mystery of Christ's Redemption do we discover the “concrete” possibilities of man. “It would be a very serious error to conclude... that the Church's teaching is essentially only an ‘ideal’ which must then be adapted, proportioned, graduated to the so-called concrete possibilities of man, according to a “balancing of the goods in question.” But what are the “concrete possibilities of man”? And of which man are we speaking? Of man dominated by lust or of man redeemed by Christ? This is what is at stake: the reality of Christ's redemption. Christ has redeemed us! This means that he has given us the possibility of realizing the entire truth of our being; he has set our freedom free from the domination of concupiscence. And if redeemed man still sins, this is not due to an imperfection of Christ’s redemptive act, but to man's will not to avail himself of the grace which flows from that act. God’s command is of course proportioned to man’s capabilities; but to the capabilities of the man to whom the Holy Spirit has been given; of the man who, though he has fallen into sin, can always obtain pardon and enjoy the presence of the Holy Spirit.”
In this context, appropriate allowance is made both for God's mercy towards the sinner who converts and for the understanding of human weakness. Such understanding never means compromising and falsifying the standard of good and evil in order to adapt it to particular circumstances. It is quite human for the sinner to acknowledge his weakness and to ask mercy for his failings; what is unacceptable is the attitude of one who makes his own weakness the criterion of the truth about the good, so that he can feel self-justified, without even the need to have recourse to God and his mercy. An attitude of this sort corrupts the morality of society as a whole, since it encourages doubt about the objectivity of the moral law in general and a rejection of the absoluteness of moral prohibitions regarding specific human acts, and it ends up by confusing all judgments about values. (VS, 103-104)
Yes, of course Pope Francis won't let go of the ideal of marriage and hence he insists on presenting this ideal to the individual (yet this language of "ideal" is inconsistent with the ontological weight of his reference to marriage as being grounded in the normative order of creation). The pope rejects “A lukewarm attitude, any kind of relativism, or an undue reticence in proposing that ideal, [because it] would be a lack of fidelity to the Gospel and also of love on the part of the Church for young people themselves. To show understanding in the face of exceptional situations never implies dimming the light of the fuller ideal, or proposing less than what Jesus offers to the human being” (AL 307).
Nevertheless, he does encourage the “dimming of the light” because he downgrades the moral force of this normative order when he speaks of “rules” here. He wants to create a moral space to regard a person as inculpable, resorting even to calling those who want to apply these norms unconditionally (in his mind, at this point “mere rules”) as sporting a “cold bureaucratic morality." (AL 312). We've moved from earlier portions of AL where Francis speaks of the meaning and truth of marriage as a gift (AL 61), as life-enhancing, as fulfilling of the life of marriage, under which marriages flourish, to “rules” and a “cold bureaucratic morality.”
This conclusion appears to be a far cry from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “There is an organic connection between our spiritual life and the dogmas. Dogmas are lights along the path of faith; they illuminate it and make it secure. Conversely, if our life is upright, our intellect and heart will be open to welcome the light shed by the dogmas of faith” (CCC, 89). In AL, Pope Francis undoubtedly shares this conviction, but, in Chapter 8, he has got himself caught in a labyrinth that would have been avoided had he followed the trail already blazed by his illustrious predecessor in Veritatis Splendor.
[Editor's note: This essay was slightly revised and expanded on April 11, 2016.]
Further reading - Amoris Laetitia: A CWR Symposium