A Different Kind of Papal Press Conference

What if the Holy Father applied chapter 8 of "Amoris Laetitia" to situations involving exploitative employers?

Pope Francis: Good morning, everyone.  Thank you for coming.

I have invited you today because I have had a change of heart that I must make public. In a homily recently, I spoke rather forcefully about employers who refuse to pay their workers a just wage.

I have had a chance to reflect on that homily in the light of the principles I set forth in my Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia.  I brought a copy so I can refer to it as I take your questions.  Please be patient with me as I find the appropriate passages, eh?

I believe I was too harsh in describing exploitative employers as “slave drivers” and “true bloodsuckers.”  I too must remember that the name of God is Mercy!  Amoris Laetitia rightly criticizes those who “hid[e] behind the Church’s teachings, sitting on the chair of Moses and judging at times with superiority and superficiality.”  For “it is not enough simply to apply moral laws . . . as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives” (AL 305).  As paragraph 308 of AL reminds us, “the Gospel itself tells us not to judge or condemn” (AL 308).

I also regret another remark I made in that homily.  The pope must be humble, he must be honest, no?  Somewhat precipitously, I said that cheating workers is “a mortal sin! This is a mortal sin!”  I must now express that in a more nuanced way.

In Amoris Laetitia I made it clear that I was “speaking not only of the divorced and remarried, but of everyone, in whatever situation they find themselves” (AL 297).  That of course includes employers who find themselves in the situation of slave-driving their workers.

For them too, we must keep in mind the distinction between objective sin and subjective guilt.  Since there can be in employers’ lives many “mitigating factors . . . it can no longer simply be said that all those in any ‘irregularsituation – such as exploiting their employees – “are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace” (AL 301).

Now for your questions.

A reporter: Your Holiness, I’m a bit puzzled about who has been saying the things that you say should no longer be said.  But leaving that aside, are you not concerned that making the well-known distinction about sin and guilt here might have the effect of watering down the Church’s teaching on the rights of workers?

Pope Francis: No, no, no.  The Church’s teaching about fair wages remains.  The Catechism is still the Catechism! However, while it is certainly true that exploiting workers does not “correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel” (AL 303), “it is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule” (AL 304).  We must always look at the person rather than the rule.

Indeed, we may even say that sometimes it is impossible for an unjust employer to avoid doing wrong.

A reporter: I beg your pardon?

Pope Francis: Yes, it’s true.  There may be no way for an unjust employer to avoid what is objectively sinful.  What Amoris Laetitia says about the divorced and remarried could be true of the employer.  He or she “may know full well the rule, yet . . . be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin (AL 301).”

I will go even further, and say that it is possible for an employer to find, with the secure peace of a good conscience, the will of God in his current failure to stop cheating his workers.

A reporter: Holy Father, how can that possibly be?

Pope Francis: Let me explain, with the help of Amoris Laetitia.

The conscience of an employer who pays his workers unfairly and yet struggles sincerely but unsuccessfully to overcome his injustice can certainly “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” (AL 303).

A reporter: But would that not be a mistaken conscience?

Pope Francis: Ah, but who are we to judge consciences?  As I lamented in Amoris Laetita, we so often “find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful” (AL 37)!

Let us make room for consciences, even for the consciences of employers who unfortunately may be causing their workers misery.  Just as couples sometimes make marriage choices that do not attain the ideal, these employers “very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them” (AL 37).

A reporter: But, Your Holiness, what then would be the point of the Church’s teaching on social justice?

Pope Francis: Let me not be misunderstood.  What I stated in Amoris Laetitia about marriage and family morality applies equally to the workplace: “In no way must the Church desist from proposing the full ideal” (AL 307) of paying employees a just wage.  

Nevertheless, pastors must understand that helping an employer discern the full ideal of ceasing to cheat his workers can be a very slow process.  So, “there is a need to accompany with mercy and patience the eventual stages of personal growth as these progressively appear” (AL 308) in the faith journey of the employer.

The Church needs to be “conscious of the frailty of many of her children” (AL 291).  Many employers are spiritually weak, and “the Church’s pastors . . . must treat the weak with compassion, avoiding aggravation or unduly harsh or hasty judgments” (AL 308).

A reporter: So rather than explaining clearly from the beginning what social justice demands, a good pastor should “accompany” the unjust employer on a journey of “discernment”?

Pope Francis: Just so, and he should recognize that even while the employer is on that journey there can be “constructive elements” in an exploitative relationship with his employees that does not live up to the ideal but can nonetheless “realize it in at least a partial and analogous way” (AL 292).

Furthermore, the pastor should keep in mind that the employer “can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity” (AL 306).  He should encourage the employer to make up for his injustice with works of philanthropy, since in “the reassuring words of Scripture . . . love covers a multitude of sins” (AL 306).

Now a question from the reporter from Poland, in the back.  She is very intelligent.  She will ask a good question, I am sure.  I am looking forward very much to visiting your country soon for World Youth Day!

Polish reporter: Thank you, Holy Father.  We are looking forward to having you!

In 1993 – such a short time ago, really, when we consider the long history of the Church –  Pope Saint John Paul wrote an important encyclical letter, Veritatis Splendor, on the foundations of moral theology.  Seeing widespread dissent in the Church, he spoke of his duty as pope to clarify and reaffirm Catholic moral teaching on a number of disputed points.

In Veritatis Splendor he treats several of the same issues you deal with in Amoris Laetitia.  Now, your Holiness, there are many who believe – even cardinals and bishops, although most of those have been reluctant thus far to express themselves publicly – that there are undeniable contradictions in these two papal documents.  Please allow me to mention a couple.

First: Whereas Amoris Laetitia refers to the Church’s teaching as an “ideal” twenty times, and clearly conveys that this ideal may be impossible for some people to live up to, Veritatis Splendor states that “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” (VS 103).

Second: Whereas Amoris Laetitia states that “rules . . . cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations” (AL 304), Veritatis Splendor condemns as “false” those theories which “maintain that it is never possible to formulate an absolute prohibition of particular kinds of behavior . . . in every circumstance” (VS 75).

Holy Father, my question is a simple one:  Since both papal documents treat these same crucial moral principles, why, in Amoris Laetitia, which contains 391 footnotes referring to so many other church documents, is there not a single reference to Veritatis Splendor?

Pope Francis: [pauses] Ah, yes, yes.  Well, I . . . yes.

Yes, well, I don’t remember all the footnotes.  But I refer you to my statement in Amoris Laetitia 3: “Since ‘time is greater than space,’ I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium.”

Yes, “time is greater than space,” as I explained in my first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium.  “Giving priority to space means . . . trying to possess all the spaces of power and of self-assertion . . . Giving priority to time means being concerned about initiating processes rather than possessing spaces” (EG 223).

I do believe this holds true for the magisterium, which should not always insist on possessing spaces.  In Amoris Laetitia I reaffirmed that point: “It is more important to start processes than to dominate spaces” (AL 261).

Polish reporter: So, may we conclude from what you have just said, Your Holiness, that unlike Saint John Paul who surely did intend to “settle” some moral issues in Veritatis Splendor, you did not intend to “settle” anything in Amoris Laetitia, but meant simply “to start a process” of discussion in the Church, regarding – to take just one example – Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried?

And if so, should people continue to make their voices heard in that discussion who firmly believe all the principles of Catholic moral teaching contained in Veritatis Splendor, who oppose the position of Cardinal Kasper, and who are convinced that the Church’s centuries-old position in the particular matter of Communion for the divorced and remarried has not changed because it cannot change, and thus remains and will always remain the only true position for all Catholics not only in Poland, but also in Germany and everywhere else?

Pope Francis: [long pause] I don’t know that one should describe things in . . . exactly that way.  Certainly, a kind of discussion must go forward . . . However, . . .

But let us turn to one final questioner.  The reporter from Africa has been waiting patiently with his hand up.

African reporter: Holy Father, with respect, how would you respond to those who might suggest that what really needed to be clarified, modified or even retracted was not so much your powerful homily on the exploitation of workers, but instead certain passages in Amoris Laetitia itself, a document which – despite some valuable and eloquent points they acknowledge it makes about marriage and the family in its early chapters – contains, they believe, dangerous ambiguities, obfuscations or even worse in the eighth chapter on morality and pastoral care?

Pope Francis: [very long pause in the suddenly silent hall]  Well . . . as I said in Amoris Laetitia, “I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion” (AL 308).  Yes, I do understand them.  Sometimes, if I may say so, I even feel sorry for them, when I think of what they are missing out on . . .

African reporter: Missing out on, your Holiness?

Pope Francis: Yes, because . . . as I stated in that same paragraph, when we decide to “enter into the reality of other people’s lives and to know the power of tenderness . . . our lives become wonderfully complicated.

So let us not fear confusion.  Let us not fear it at all, if it should arise from a tender pastoral care that complicates our lives in such a wonderful way.

Thank you, thank you everyone.

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About Nick Bottom 8 Articles
Nick Bottom is a weaver of clothing and words, a lovable fool, and a young thespian who is best-known for his performance in "Pyramus and Thisbe". His guiding motto is, "I will roar, that I will do any man's heart good to hear me'." He blogs to roar, to delight, and to instruct, as is his wont. He reports on behalf of his news and views agency, Audacious Scoffing Services (ASS). You can follow him on Twitter.