How to make sense of the current situation? There is no single answer, for the ongoing saga—encompassing Synods and stratagems, debates and dubia, Exhortations and excoriations, posturings and pontifications—is about a wide range of questions. Some of them are obvious and capture the headlines, especially: does Pope Francis want to allow those Catholics who have been divorced and civilly remarried access to Holy Communion, even while they continue to live as though married?
But beneath that question are other, very fundamental questions often not voiced or discussed. In the words of one pastor:
What is good and what is sin? What origin and purpose do sufferings have? What is the way to attaining true happiness? What are death, judgment and retribution after death? Lastly, what is that final, unutterable mystery which embraces our lives and from which we take our origin and towards which we tend? … These and other questions, such as: what is freedom and what is its relationship to the truth contained in God’s law? what is the role of conscience in man’s moral development? how do we determine, in accordance with the truth about the good, the specific rights and duties of the human person?
That pastor was St. John Paul II, and he posed those questions in Veritatis Splendor (par 30), his great encyclical on the Church’s moral theology, released in 1993. While mindful, again, of the many issues involved, I am increasingly convinced that Veritatis Splendor, nearly a quarter century old now, is the elepha—er, encyclical in the living room. Of course, it does not stand alone, since John Paul II spoke often and wrote in detail about mercy, marriage, freedom, conscience, and a host of related matters over the course of his lengthy pontificate. In fact, every single issue relating to family, marriage, divorce, Holy Communion, culpability, subjective experience, and objective truth that Pope Francis has sought to address, analyze, explore, and grapple with since he announced the Extraordinary Synod of 2014 had already been addressed, analyzed, explored, and grappled with by John Paul II in the 1980s and 1990s.
Which is not to say that these pressing and often complicated matters should not be raised again or discussed further. Of course not. Rather, it is to wonder at how little attention has been paid in recent years to what John Paul II said and wrote over the course of his long and brilliant pontificate about family, marriage, divorce, Holy Communion, and all the rest.
The 2014 Extraordinary Synod and the 2015 Ordinary Synod were held in order to address, as the USCCB site states, “topics related to the family and evangelization.” This was followed by the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, which is (at nearly 60,000 words) the longest official papal text in history. What has been the result of all of this time, labor, discussion, and ink? Judging by events of recent weeks and months, it has been much discord, confusion, and frustration, quite a bit of it revolving around that one question: “Are divorced and civilly remarried Catholics now able to receive Holy Communion?” Prior to the current pontificate the answer was “No”, as it was understood—if not always accepted or practiced—that those Catholics who had entered into a second “marriage” without addressing the validity or nullity of their first marriage were, in fact, committing adultery.
Now, in short, that clear answer has been called into question, since Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia, entitled “Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness”) allows, as moral theologian Dr. E. Christian Brugger observed on this site earlier this year, “and seems intentionally [to allow]—for interpretations that pose serious problems for Catholic faith and practice.”
Proof of the contention over the now famous chapter is easy to find. Some bishops, such as Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia, who is a member of a committee overseeing the exhortation’s implementation in the U.S., reiterated Church teaching: “With divorced-and-civilly-remarried persons, Church teaching requires them to refrain from sexual intimacy. This applies even if they must (for the care of their children) continue to live under one roof.” Then, in late summer, came news that a group of Argentine bishops had published pastoral guidelines for implementing Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia indicating, as Dr. Brugger summarized it in another CWR article, “under certain circumstances divorced Catholics in sexually active second unions may receive the Holy Eucharist, even without receiving an annulment.” This was soon followed by even more startling news that Pope Francis had, in a private letter, told the Argentinian bishops that their “document is very good and completely explains the meaning of chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia”. Further, he stated, “There are no other interpretations.”
Apparently empowered by this and other events, then-cardinal-designate Kevin Farrell of Dallas, Texas, took the unusual step of directly criticizing Archbishop Chaput in mid-November, as reported by CNS:
“I don’t share the view of what Archbishop Chaput did, no,” the cardinal-designate said. “I think there are all kinds of different circumstances and situations that we have to look at — each case as it is presented to us.”
“I think that is what our Holy Father is speaking about, is when we talk about accompanying, it is not a decision that is made irrespective of the couple,” he said. “Obviously, there is an objective moral law,” he said, but you will never find two couples who have the same reason for being divorced and remarried.
Archbishop Chaput, in a November 17th CNS interview, responded by noting that he “was a delegate to the 2015 synod and then elected and appointed to the synod’s permanent council. So I’m familiar with the material and its context in a way that Cardinal-designate Farrell may not be.” That, in “bishop speak”, constitutes a stern rebuke, followed up as it was by this:
CNS: Cardinal-designate Farrell has told CNS that he believes that under Chapter 8’s guidance, a pastor cannot say to all divorced and civilly remarried: Yes, receive communion. But neither can they say to all: No, it’s not possible unless you live as brother and sister. How would you respond to this observation?
Archbishop Chaput: I wonder if Cardinal-designate Farrell actually read and understood the Philadelphia guidelines he seems to be questioning. The guidelines have a clear emphasis on mercy and compassion. This makes sense because individual circumstances are often complex. Life is messy. But mercy and compassion cannot be separated from truth and remain legitimate virtues. The Church cannot contradict or circumvent Scripture and her own magisterium without invalidating her mission. This should be obvious. The words of Jesus himself are very direct and radical on the matter of divorce.
This point is essential: The Church cannot contradict or circumvent Scripture and her own magisterium without invalidating her mission. Further, what Archbishop Chaput wrote and said is in complete continuity with what John Paul II wrote and said on many different occasions. Farrell, it seems fair to say, was not just directly criticizing Chaput, but implicitly criticizing John Paul II.
Which brings us to the widely reported story that four Cardinals—Raymond Burke, Carlo Caffarra, Walter Brandmüller and Joachim Meisner—had sent a formal request to Pope Francis, in September, with five questions, or “dubia”, about the interpretation of chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia. “We have noted,” they stated matter-of-factly, “that even within the episcopal college there are contrasting interpretations of Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia. … [W]e want to help the Pope to prevent divisions and conflicts in the Church, asking him to dispel all ambiguity.”
The five questions are as follows (further explanatory notes can be found in the full text):
It is asked whether, following the affirmations of Amoris Laetitia (nn. 300-305), it has now become possible to grant absolution in the sacrament of penance and thus to admit to Holy Communion a person who, while bound by a valid marital bond, lives together with a different person more uxorio without fulfilling the conditions provided for by Familiaris Consortio n. 84 and subsequently reaffirmed by Reconciliatio et Paenitentia n. 34 and Sacramentum Caritatis n. 29. Can the expression “in certain cases” found in note 351 (n. 305) of the exhortation Amoris Laetitia be applied to divorced persons who are in a new union and who continue to live more uxorio?
After the publication of the post-synodal exhortation Amoris Laetitia (cf. n. 304), does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor n. 79, based on Sacred Scripture and on the Tradition of the Church, on the existence of absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts and that are binding without exceptions?
After Amoris Laetitia (n. 301) is it still possible to affirm that a person who habitually lives in contradiction to a commandment of God’s law, as for instance the one that prohibits adultery (cf. Mt 19:3-9), finds him or herself in an objective situation of grave habitual sin (cf. Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, Declaration, June 24, 2000)?
After the affirmations of Amoris Laetitia (n. 302) on “circumstances which mitigate moral responsibility,” does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor n. 81, based on Sacred Scripture and on the Tradition of the Church, according to which “circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act ‘subjectively’ good or defensible as a choice”?
After Amoris Laetitia (n. 303) does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St. John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor n. 56, based on Sacred Scripture and on the Tradition of the Church, that excludes a creative interpretation of the role of conscience and that emphasizes that conscience can never be authorized to legitimate exceptions to absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts by virtue of their object?
Note that all five questions mention or reference texts written by John Paul II (the third question references a text citing Familiaris Consortio n. 84 in the key section), and that three of them specifically mention Veritatis Splendor. And then note that Veritatis Splendor is not quoted, mentioned, or cited once by Francis in Amoris Laetitia. It is rather mind-boggling that Amoris Laetitia, which addresses a whole host of moral issues, fundamental principles, and especially the matters of conscience and freedom, completely ignores Veritatis Splendor.
Although John Paul II wrote fourteen encyclicals, Veritatis Splendor is arguably the most important (and the most controversial) of those fourteen texts, described by biographer George Weigel in Witness to Hope as “one of the major intellectual and cultural events of the pontificate.” It was the first papal document to present a comprehensive and cohesive understanding of the foundations of Catholic moral theology, with the purpose, the author stated, of setting forth “with regard to the problems being discussed, the principles of a moral teaching based upon Sacred Scripture and the living Apostolic Tradition, and at the same time to shed light on the presuppositions and consequences of the dissent which that teaching has met” (par 5). John Paul II, in explaining the purpose of the encyclical, wrote:
Today, however, it seems necessary to reflect on the whole of the Church’s moral teaching, with the precise goal of recalling certain fundamental truths of Catholic doctrine which, in the present circumstances, risk being distorted or denied. In fact, a new situation has come about within the Christian community itself, which has experienced the spread of numerous doubts and objections of a human and psychological, social and cultural, religious and even properly theological nature, with regard to the Church’s moral teachings. It is no longer a matter of limited and occasional dissent, but of an overall and systematic calling into question of traditional moral doctrine, on the basis of certain anthropological and ethical presuppositions. At the root of these presuppositions is the more or less obvious influence of currents of thought which end by detaching human freedom from its essential and constitutive relationship to truth. Thus the traditional doctrine regarding the natural law, and the universality and the permanent validity of its precepts, is rejected; certain of the Church’s moral teachings are found simply unacceptable; and the Magisterium itself is considered capable of intervening in matters of morality only in order to “exhort consciences” and to “propose values”, in the light of which each individual will independently make his or her decisions and life choices. (par 4)
Having now re-read the encyclical (which I first studied in 1998, under the guidance of moral theologian Dr. Mark Lowery of the University of Dallas), I am struck by how John Paul II again and again addresses the sort of vague language, ambiguous rhetoric, and dubious argumentation used by those who insist Amoris Laetitia points to “revolutionary” and “radical” ways of thinking about and living the Christian life that “cannot simply be reduced to a question of ‘yes or no’ in a specific pastoral situation.” As mentioned, quite a few Catholic theologians treated the encyclical with complete disdain when it first appeared; it was, in some ways, John Paul II’s Humanae Vitae. But, as Fr. Richard John Neuhaus noted in a January 1994 First Things symposium, “John Paul takes on those moralists, including Catholic theologians, who say that an evil act may be justified by the end to which it is directed (‘consequentialism’) or by weighing the other goods at stake (‘proportionalism’). It is never licit to do evil in order to achieve good.”
In other words, it’s not enough to say, “I love this person” and then commit an act of adultery; it’s not true to assert that one’s subjective state can somehow transform an objective evil into an objective good. Dr. Russell Hittinger, in the same symposium, made this astute observation: “If we take the century of modern encyclicals according to their logical rather than temporal order, Veritatis should be regarded as the first of the encyclicals.” And Hadley Arkes, summed up the document in a way worth quoting at length:
As John Paul II moves on in his commentary, he meditates on the negative injunctions of the second tablet of the Decalogue, and he takes this editing by Christ as the key to a moral distinction: the “positive moral precepts” leave far more room for prudence, in making an allowance for “exceptions.” But the commandments mentioned by Christ from the second tablet were “negative moral precepts,” and John Paul II treats those commandments as far more exacting, far less open to shading or compromise in the name of prudence. These negative precepts, he says, “prohibiting certain concrete actions or kinds of behavior as intrinsically evil, do not allow for any legitimate exception.” The Pope regards these precepts, then, as the hard, absolute guidelines to the moral life. They repel the claim that the principles of moral judgment are too airy or abstract to offer guidance in any concrete case. They are intelligible, precise—and unyielding.
Exacting. Hard. Absolute. Precise. Unyielding. Would the great Pope and Saint John Paul II be called “rigid” today? Perhaps he would be dismissed (as he was a quarter century ago) as too black-and-white, too harsh, too unrelenting. I don’t say so glibly. The term “rigid” seems to be strongly trending these days, proving to be one of Pope Francis’ favorite negative descriptives, often linked to the sins of the Pharisees.
A few days ago, the full text of Pope Francis’ October 24th “dialogue with the Jesuits gathered in the 36th General Congregation” was released; it contained this statement from the Holy Father:
Discernment is the key element: the capacity for discernment. I note the absence of discernment in the formation of priests. We run the risk of getting used to «white or black,» to that which is legal. We are rather closed, in general, to discernment. One thing is clear: today, in a certain number of seminaries, a rigidity that is far from a discernment of situations has been introduced.
Francis then said, “I think Bernard Häring was the first to start looking for a new way to help moral theology to flourish again. Obviously, in our day moral theology has made much progress in its reflections and in its maturity; it is no longer a «casuistry.»” It was a rather startling remark since the German priest Häring (1912-1998) was a leading dissenter against Humane Vitae, and, as a 1989 article rightly observed, “has been writing and speaking without hindrance against Church positions for 25 years.” Häring inspired the work of Fr. Charles Curran, the leading opponent of Humane Vitae from the day it was released by Paul VI in 1968. “Häring himself then and later,” wrote Curran in 2013 in praise of the late German theologian, “without doubt became the most prominent and public proponent in the Catholic world for disagreeing with the conclusion of the encyclical.” Häring, in so many ways, was precisely the sort of moral theologian whose thought and work John Paul II addressed and criticized in Veritatis Splendor. Could it be that John Paul II is precisely the sort of moral theologian that frustrates Francis? If not, how to make sense of all this?
Cardinals Farrell, Cupich, Kasper, and others repeatedly emphasize that each situation is unique and different, as if such an observation is a revolutionary leap forward in appreciating the mysteries of human existence. (Actually, in the case of Cardinal Kasper, that might well be The Point.) Then, when it is clear they are on the edge of the cliff of relativism, they insist on their belief in an objective moral law. The problem is that a truly objective and eternal moral law must exist outside of and above any subjective, temporal situation—and it certainly does, as John Paul II demonstrated so well. Thus, the question is: where does the uniqueness of my situation end and the objective moral law begin? How do we avoid the grave danger of “a radically subjectivistic conception of moral judgment” (as John Paul II put it) and instead embrace the fullness of the splendor of truth?
A clear answer is quite difficult to find; hence, in large part, the current situation. Instead, there is much talk about “discernment” and “accompanying” and “dialogue”, as if the goal is to walk about in a fog until finally bumping into an unexpected solution uniquely customized for this or that specific situation. Or, as Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn put it, in trying to explain Amoris Laetitia 8, “One cannot pass from the general rule to ‘some cases’ merely by looking at formal situations. It is therefore possible that, in some cases, one who is in an objective situation of sin can receive the help of the sacraments. … Because otherwise, there is a risk of falling into an abstract casuistry.” Cardinal Schoenborn seems to argue further that we have now reached a point when the complexities of our unique time have overwhelmed the clarity of objective truth: “To a greater degree than in the past, the objective situation of a person does not tell us everything about that person in relation to God and in relation to the church. This evolution compels us urgently to rethink what we meant when we spoke of objective situations of sin.”
Yet John Paul II, it appears, would have none of it, asserting,
some authors have proposed a kind of double status of moral truth. Beyond the doctrinal and abstract level, one would have to acknowledge the priority of a certain more concrete existential consideration. The latter, by taking account of circumstances and the situation, could legitimately be the basis of certain exceptions to the general rule and thus permit one to do in practice and in good conscience what is qualified as intrinsically evil by the moral law. A separation, or even an opposition, is thus established in some cases between the teaching of the precept, which is valid in general, and the norm of the individual conscience, which would in fact make the final decision about what is good and what is evil. On this basis, an attempt is made to legitimize so-called “pastoral” solutions contrary to the teaching of the Magisterium, and to justify a “creative” hermeneutic according to which the moral conscience is in no way obliged, in every case, by a particular negative precept. (VS, 56)
That comes in a section (“Conscience and Truth”, pars 54-64) which also takes on the faulty notion that the essential work of one’s conscience is to make a “decision”. So, for example, Cardinal Blaise Cupich has said, “I try to help people along the way. And people come to a decision in good conscience. … Then our job with the church is to help them move forward and respect that … The conscience is inviolable. And we have to respect that when they make decisions and I’ve always done that.”
But John Paul II said otherwise: “Consequently in the practical judgment of conscience, which imposes on the person the obligation to perform a given act, the link between freedom and truth is made manifest. Precisely for this reason conscience expresses itself in acts of ‘judgment’ which reflect the truth about the good, and not in arbitrary ‘decisions’. The maturity and responsibility of these judgments — and, when all is said and done, of the individual who is their subject — are not measured by the liberation of the conscience from objective truth, in favour of an alleged autonomy in personal decisions, but, on the contrary, by an insistent search for truth and by allowing oneself to be guided by that truth in one’s actions” (par 61).
John Paul II went even further in a passage that certainly could be applied to some of the arguments used for giving Communion to those who are living in objectively adulterous situations:
It is never acceptable to confuse a “subjective” error about moral good with the “objective” truth rationally proposed to man in virtue of his end, or to make the moral value of an act performed with a true and correct conscience equivalent to the moral value of an act performed by following the judgment of an erroneous conscience. It is possible that the evil done as the result of invincible ignorance or a non-culpable error of judgment may not be imputable to the agent; but even in this case it does not cease to be an evil, a disorder in relation to the truth about the good. Furthermore, a good act which is not recognized as such does not contribute to the moral growth of the person who performs it; it does not perfect him and it does not help to dispose him for the supreme good. Thus, before feeling easily justified in the name of our conscience, we should reflect on the words of the Psalm: “Who can discern his errors? Clear me from hidden faults” (Ps 19:12). There are faults which we fail to see but which nevertheless remain faults, because we have refused to walk towards the light (cf. Jn 9:39-41).
Conscience, as the ultimate concrete judgment, compromises its dignity when it is culpably erroneous, that is to say, “when man shows little concern for seeking what is true and good, and conscience gradually becomes almost blind from being accustomed to sin”. Jesus alludes to the danger of the conscience being deformed when he warns: “The eye is the lamp of the body. So if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Mt 6:22-23). (VS, par 63)
Much more could be said. The bottom line, for me, is this: if the ambiguities and problems with chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia can be clarified in accord with Veritatis Splendor, what really was the point of the past three years? Why wasn’t the Apostolic Exhortation more clear and precise from the start? Was it a failure of competence? Or something else?
But if these questions and concerns are finally addressed and clarified in a way contrary to Veritatis Splendor, what then? At the very least, we will be in deep and troubled waters, for it would mark a break with the Church’s perennial teaching on bedrock moral truths. And, that being the case, if an Apostolic Exhortation written in 2016 can take magisterial precedence over an Encyclical written in 1993, what other teachings of the Church might be up for a less rigid, less black-and-white “evolution” (to borrow from Cardinal Schoenborn)? Contrary to the opinion of Cardinal Tobin, “reducing” this to a dubium is not “naive”, but quite necessary. After all, we aren’t in this situation because of the four cardinals.
As one veteran observer of Church affairs remarked to me recently, “given the fact that bishops, including prominent cardinals, have different understandings of what AL allows or doesn’t allow, and these differences are very public, surely someone in Rome should publicly and officially indicate whether (1) AL maintains the status quo of FC 84, as Cardinal Mueller and certain others seem to think (Archbishop Chaput, the USCCB’s point man on AL, among them), or (2) it allows each bishop (or individual priest?) or bishops’ conference to decide how AL is to be understood, or (3) AL is supposed to be understood as allowing communion to the civilly remarried, on a case by case basis, so have at it. And, if the last, it would be helpful to know explicitly what principles should be employed to assess each case. This is why we have a Magisterium. ‘Figure it out for yourself’ is kinda, well, Protestant.” Dialoguing with Protestants is one thing; descending into Protestantism is quite another.
So, the four cardinals and the entire Church—not to mention attentive non-Catholics—deserve a clear answer from the Holy Father. Considering how often he gives interviews and speaks to non-Catholic writers, surely he can find the time. To say so is not an act of rigid rebellion or insecure insolence, but a simple request that the “gift of the New Law”, as John Paul II described the deposit of Divine Revelation, be upheld and treasured, befitting those who seek to follow the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. As He said: “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone?” (Mt 7:9).