Just yesterday I was lamenting to some colleagues about how weary I’ve become of the ongoing and escalating debate over Amoris Laetitia and its interpretation. “I would be happy,” I said, “to not write of it again.” Knowing full well the topic was not going away. Quite the contrary.
So, I am not happy. But this really isn’t about feelings, is it? Or is it?
The bishops of Malta, in a pastoral letter signed January 8th by the Archbishop of Malta, Charles J. Scicluna, and the Bishop of Gozo, Mario Grech, have offered their “Criteria for the Application of Chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia”. This document was, it is important to note, also published on pages 7 and 8 of the January 14th edition of L’Osservatore Romano, which has long been considered the semi-official newspaper of the Vatican, described by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone in 2006 as “an instrument for spreading the teachings of the successor of Peter and for information about church events”.
That was a day before Cardinal Gerhard Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, insisted: “Amoris laetitia is very clear in its doctrine and we can interpret (in it) Jesus’ entire doctrine on marriage, the entire doctrine of the Church in 2000 years of history.” Not just “clear”, but “very clear”. In the interview, given to the Italian TV channel Tgcom24, Cardinal Müller lamented—yes, there’s that word again—the dubia submitted by four Cardinals asking for clarification from Pope Francis on the proper interpretation of the lengthy and now well known (if not equally well read) Apostolic Exhortation. “Everyone, above all the cardinals of the Roman Church,” said Cardinal Müller, “have a right to write a letter to the Pope. However, I was amazed because this was made public, almost forcing the Pope to say yes or no…”
Some of us are wondering: “But if it’s so very clear, why would any of the questions be difficult?” Especially when those questions relate directly to fundamental, foundational truths about morality, conscience, and free will. (For more, see my article, “Four Cardinals and the Encyclical in the Room”.) Questions about the Exhortation have existed from the moment it was released this past spring, since Amoris Laetitia is, as I wrote back in April, “surprisingly dogmatic in places and morally incoherent in others … whole sections of chapters 6 through 8 employ various straw men in seeking to delve into the many mitigating factors that have led to many Catholics abandoning their marriages, getting divorces, and entering into second unions.” (Note that the letter by the bishops of Malta is about Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia, the epicenter of debate, confusion, and conflict.)
But it would be a mistake to think the problems are new or out of the blue, for they have existed for decades. “Since at least the 1970s,” Fr. Raymond J. de Souza wrote in an essential work of summary and overview published in the National Catholic Register at the end of 2016, “principally in the German-speaking world, there has been a sustained effort to modify the Church’s pastoral practice to allow such couples to receive absolution and Communion without a required intention to change their situation. Most prominently associated with Cardinal Walter Kasper, the proposal was authoritatively rejected as incompatible with Catholic doctrine by St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, and thus expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.” The waters run deep and long, and one of the challenges involved in understanding the past few years is getting some grasp of the past fifty years. (And for those looking for an even longer perspective, see “Denzinger Timeline of the Controversy over Communion for the Divorced and ‘Remarried’ in Adultery”.)
Some archbishops, notably Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia and Archbishop Alexander K. Sample of Portland, Oregon, made a point of interpreting AL in accord with the perennial teaching of the Church: that those Catholics who have married, divorced, and then entered into a civil marriage—which is not and cannot be recognized as a marriage by the Church—cannot receive Holy Communion unless they live as brother and sister in Christ, refraining from sexual relations. The “Pastoral Guidelines for Implementing Amoris Laetitia” issued on July 1, 2016, by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia state:
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. Undertaking to live as brother and sister is necessary for the divorced and civilly-remarried to receive reconciliation in the Sacrament of Penance, which could then open the way to the Eucharist. Such individuals are encouraged to approach the Sacrament of Penance regularly, having recourse to God’s great mercy in that sacrament if they fail in chastity.
In early October 2016, Archbishop Sample issued “A True and Living Icon”, a 13-page “Pastoral Letter on the Reading of Amoris Laetitia in Light of Church Teaching”, which said, “Despite the clear teaching of the Church, some have misused elements of Amoris Laetitia to support positions that are not compatible with Church teaching. This has created some confusion and consternation amongst the faithful.” (See my October 17, 2016 interview with His Excellency about the letter.) Three misuses, wrote the Archbishop, are the faulty beliefs that “Conscience Legitiizes Actions Contravening Divine Commandments”, “Under Certain Conditions Divine Prohibitions Admit of Exceptions”, and “Human Frailty Exempts from Divine Command”. Under the third, there is this remark:
While authentic pastoral care always accompanies people in their suffering and frailty, some have misused the Exhortation’s rightful insistence on the logic of mercy to claim that objectively wrong acts can be accepted, even perhaps sanctified, if a person judges he or she cannot do differently. Not only does this misapply mitigating factors for subjective responsibility with determinations of objective rightness, but it empties the cross of its power. Claiming that individuals cannot change their ways is tantamount to denying the efficacy and power of grace, of denying that God can do what he promises.
The bishops of Malta, put simply, engage in all three misuses, following the lead of Amoris Laetitia, which is quoted at length in nearly every section. Of particular importance are these sections (for further analysis, see Dr. Edward Peters’ essay “The Maltese Disaster”):
7. Throughout the discernment process, we need to weigh the moral responsibility in particular situations, with due consideration to the conditioning restraints and attenuating circumstances. Indeed, “factors may exist Criteria for the Application of Chapter VIII of Amoris Lætitia 6 which limit the ability to make a decision,” (AL 301) or even diminish imputability or responsibility for an action. These include ignorance, inadvertence, violence, fear, affective immaturity, the persistence of certain habits, the state of anxiety, inordinate attachments, and other psychological and social factors (see AL 302; CCC 1735, 2352). As a result of these conditioning restraints and attenuating circumstances, the Pope teaches that “it can no longer simply be said that all those in any ‘irregular situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace” (AL 301). “It is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end” (AL 305). This discernment acquires significant importance since, as the Pope teaches, in some cases this help can include the help of the sacraments (see AL, note 351). …
9. Throughout the discernment process, we should also examine the possibility of conjugal continence. Despite the fact that this ideal is not at all easy, there may be couples who, with the help of grace, practice this virtue without putting at risk other aspects of their life together. On the other hand, there are complex situations where the choice of living “as brothers and sisters” becomes humanly impossible and give rise to greater harm (see AL, note 329).
10. If, as a result of the process of discernment, undertaken with “humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching, in a sincere search for God’s will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it” (AL 300), a separated or divorced person who is living in a new relationship manages, with an informed and enlightened conscience, to acknowledge and believe that he or she are at peace with God, he or she cannot be precluded from participating in the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist (see AL, notes 336 and 351).
That is, those Catholics who have a sacramental marriage but are divorced and have procured a civil marriage are able and should receive Holy Communion if they they are “at peace with God”, seeing that they it is impossible for them to refrain from sexual relations. Full stop. Put another way, this really is about feelings and subjectivity. Period. At least according to certain bishops and pundits.
This isn’t just contrary to how Archbishops Chaput and Sample interpret Francis’ Exhortation, it is contrary to the entire Tradition and to the specific explanations of Saint John Paul II. For instance, the late pontiff, in Familiaris Consortio (1981), explained:
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.
Reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage. This means, in practice, that when, for serious reasons, such as for example the children’s upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they “take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.”
In 1994, then-Cardinal Ratzinger, as head of the CDF, issued a letter to bishops regarding Communion and those who had been divorced and remarried, which directly addressed the notion that certain situations were so complex and difficult that some should be allowed to receive Communion:
In recent years, in various regions, different pastoral solutions in this area have been suggested according to which, to be sure, a general admission of divorced and remarried to Eucharistic communion would not be possible, but the divorced and remarried members of the faithful could approach Holy Communion in specific cases when they consider themselves authorized according to a judgement of conscience to do so. This would be the case, for example, when they had been abandoned completely unjustly, although they sincerely tried to save the previous marriage, or when they are convinced of the nullity of their previous marriage, although unable to demonstrate it in the external forum or when they have gone through a long period of reflection and penance, or also when for morally valid reasons they cannot satisfy the obligation to separate. In some places, it has also been proposed that in order objectively to examine their actual situation, the divorced and remarried would have to consult a prudent and expert priest. This priest, however, would have to respect their eventual decision to approach Holy Communion, without this implying an official authorization. In these and similar cases it would be a matter of a tolerant and benevolent pastoral solution in order to do justice to the different situations of the divorced and remarried.
Even if analogous pastoral solutions have been proposed by a few Fathers of the Church and in some measure were practiced, nevertheless these never attained the consensus of the Fathers and in no way came to constitute the common doctrine of the Church nor to determine her discipline. It falls to the universal Magisterium, in fidelity to Sacred Scripture and Tradition, to teach and to interpret authentically the depositum fidei.
With respect to the aforementioned new pastoral proposals, this Congregation deems itself obliged therefore to recall the doctrine and discipline of the Church in this matter. In fidelity to the words of Jesus Christ, the Church affirms that a new union cannot be recognized as valid if the preceding marriage was valid. If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law. Consequently, they cannot receive Holy Communion as long as this situation persists. (emphasis added).
That seems clear. It is clear. But Amoris Laetitia, especially chapter 8, is not clear. As Dr. E. Christian Brugger argued in these pages back in April 2016, remarking on AL 305: “In this passage, the German bishops get all they want.” By that he meant that Cardinal Kasper, Cardinal Marx, and others had finally gotten the window they need to allow divorced and civilly “remarried” Catholics to receive Communion:
But the passage does not presume that the sinner is in invincible ignorance or that the pastor supposes that. The passage supposes that people who are objectively committing adultery can know they are “in God’s grace”, and that their pastor can know it too, and that their judgment is right because it approves what is in fact what God is asking of them here and now, which is not yet the ideal. The pastor must help them find peace in their situation, and assist them to receive “the Church’s help”, which (note 351 makes clear) includes “the help of the sacraments.”
So, again, the German bishops finally get what they want. Divorced and civilly remarried couples are in complex situations, sometimes without guilt. Pastors should help them discern if their situation is acceptable, even if it is “objectively” sinful, so they can return to the sacraments.
More than this, all those who dissented against the Church’s teachings of moral absolutes get what they wanted. For those so-called absolutes are now non-binding ideals, and people who think that contracepting, etc., are okay for them here and now are doing what God is asking of them in their complex situations.
Certain currents of modern thought have gone so far as to exalt freedom to such an extent that it becomes an absolute, which would then be the source of values. This is the direction taken by doctrines which have lost the sense of the transcendent or which are explicitly atheist. The individual conscience is accorded the status of a supreme tribunal of moral judgment which hands down categorical and infallible decisions about good and evil. To the affirmation that one has a duty to follow one’s conscience is unduly added the affirmation that one’s moral judgment is true merely by the fact that it has its origin in the conscience. But in this way the inescapable claims of truth disappear, yielding their place to a criterion of sincerity, authenticity and “being at peace with oneself”, so much so that some have come to adopt a radically subjectivistic conception of moral judgment.
As is immediately evident, the crisis of truth is not unconnected with this development. Once the idea of a universal truth about the good, knowable by human reason, is lost, inevitably the notion of conscience also changes. Conscience is no longer considered in its primordial reality as an act of a person’s intelligence, the function of which is to apply the universal knowledge of the good in a specific situation and thus to express a judgment about the right conduct to be chosen here and now. Instead, there is a tendency to grant to the individual conscience the prerogative of independently determining the criteria of good and evil and then acting accordingly. Such an outlook is quite congenial to an individualist ethic, wherein each individual is faced with his own truth, different from the truth of others. Taken to its extreme consequences, this individualism leads to a denial of the very idea of human nature. (par. 32, emphasis added)
Yes, a crisis of truth. Again and again, it is clear to me that this pontificate is working to undermine and dismantle key aspects of the teaching of Saint John Paul II. As one correspondent, well-versed in the writings of John Paul II and the current situation, recently wrote to me: “It is one thing for Pope Francis to have canonized Saint John Paul II … but was this a case of ‘promote to remove’ (promoveatur ut amoveatur)? Yes, let us honor him with canonization but disregard his teachings…” And, again, it must be emphasized that what John Paul II taught on these matters is in complete accord with two thousand years of Tradition and practice.
The current papacy of sentimentality has produced confusion and conflict. As Cardinal Caffera states in a recent interview, “Only a blind man can deny that there is great confusion in the Church.” The clarity that Cardinal Müller speaks of so strongly is not just lacking, it seems to be absent altogether. There are directly competing interpretations of Amoris Laetitia: some by “conservative” prelates who refer to the perennial teachings of the Church and some are by progressive bishops who refer only to Amoris Laetitia and are published in the Vatican newspaper. The Pope’s Exhortation may not always be clear, but his intentions and goals are increasingly so.