CRUX author: “Dissenters” from AL are predominantly wealthy lay people fixated on “reason”

Austen Ivereigh insists that the "train has left the station, the Church is moving on." But his "arguments" are derailed by hubris, rhetorical excess, and lack of substance.

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:

You 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”:

Within the Catholic Church, the authority of the Roman Pontiff is considerable. But even papal authority—and especially papal infallibility—has its limits. The Pope speaks with authority when he sets forth the deposit of the Faith, explaining—in union with the college of bishops—what 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” situations—a 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 expected—much less commanded—to 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:

The 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.

(It’s 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:

The 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 made clear.

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 grace

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”?

The 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:

However, 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:

The 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 written—it’s not, as Ivereigh is a good writer—but because it is so sloppy, uncharitable, and ill-reasoned at every turn—and seems to glory in such flaws. Ivereigh “argues” that the four cardinals and others who who have questions about AL are “dissenters”. Why?

Dissent 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 changed—especially regarding sexuality and contraception—while 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:

Catholics 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 Vatican Council.

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:

The 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 marriage.

And so forth. Apparently “continuity” meaning “continuity—but 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.

“Do 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 document?”

“We 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:

The 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?

Finally, 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. 

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About Carl E. Olson 1197 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.

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