Beware the Fundamentalist, my brothers! … and shun the fractious Fomenters

How Pope Francis sees moral history vis-à-vis marriage and family reveals much about which direction he wants the Church to take and at what destination he wants her to arrive.

Pope Francis addresses priests of the Diocese of Rome during a meeting at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome March 2. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano, handout)

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son! The jaws that bite, the claws that catch! Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun the frumious Bandersnatch!” — “Jabberwocky,” by Lewis Carroll

Pope Francis, right at the start of Amoris Laetitia, identifies two sides he believes are not very helpful in announcing the Good News about marriage and family: the activist side, fueled by an “immoderate desire for total change without sufficient reflection or grounding,” and the old-school side, weighed down by an “attitude that would solve everything by applying general rules or deriving undue conclusions from particular theological considerations” (AL, 2).

The pope signals that he, as the Church’s helmsman, means to steer between the two extremes—love (without much law) and law (without much love). But, since the prevailing wind and waves, in his view, seem to be constantly pushing Peter’s Barque to the right where the shoals are rocky and the surf thunderous, he offsets the drift to starboard by frequently tacking to port.

Through the looking-glass

How Pope Francis sees moral history vis-à-vis marriage and family reveals much about which direction he wants the Church to take and at what destination he wants her to arrive. In the second chapter of Amoris Laetitia, he chides us Catholics on the way we sometimes present our Christian beliefs and treat other people. He advises humility and realism. “Then too,” he says, “we often present marriage in such a way that its unitive meaning, its call to grow in love and its ideal of mutual assistance are overshadowed by an almost exclusive insistence on the duty of procreation” (AL, 36).

It is a stunning statement, since history shows the reverse happening, certainly in Europe and America. The unitive dimension of conjugal love has been to the fore since 1968, pushed by the tsunami of dissent against Pope Paul VI’s encyclical on human life and pulled by various rationales for the efficacy of contraception, most notably the “principle of totality” (cf. Humanae Vitae, 3). Indeed, one could argue that the modifier “unitive” is closer to “recreative,” whereas the life-giving aspect of conjugal love has largely been sidelined.

The Holy Father is seemingly unaware of the fact that the overwhelming majority of married or cohabitating Catholics, at least in the West, see no moral dilemma concerning contraception. Or that the number of Catholics who understand John Paul’s theology of the body as a “re-reading of Humanae Vitae” (TOB 119:5), though growing, is still a distinct minority.

Alice walked through her looking-glass and found a fantastical, alternate world. Through his looking-glass, Pope Francis sees a Church that is doctrine-driven and therefore somewhat askew, especially in the marriage and family arena. But Catholics working in that arena—especially those who espouse and teach natural family planning—see themselves as promoters of truth and love in simultaneous and equal proportion. They know that, post 1968, the “almost exclusive insistence on the duty of procreation” never happened. Yet, that alternate, papal view is one of the main threads in Amoris Laetitia.

Admonishing the troops in the trenches

Recently Phil Lawler—Catholic journalist, editor, author, news director/lead analyst for—wrote a piece called “Pope Francis has become a source of division”. Lawler and his colleague Dr. Jeff Mirus are as trenchant and even-handed as Catholic writers can be. So, when one sees “Pope Francis” and “source of division” in the same CC blog title, one is attentive and anticipatory.

Lawler, in the first two paragraphs, spells out what is amiss:

Every day I pray for Pope Francis. And every day (I am exaggerating, but only slightly), the Pope issues another reminder that he does not approve of Catholics like me.

If the Holy Father were rebuking me for my sins, I would have no reason to complain. But day after weary day the Pope upbraids me—and countless thousands of other faithful Catholics—for clinging to, and sometimes suffering for, the truths that the Church has always taught. We are rigid, he tells us. We are the “doctors of the law,” the Pharisees, who only want to be “comfortable” with our faith.

Lawler is giving voice to many, many Catholics who have learned to love and tell the truth at the same time—the essential blend that makes a disciple. As mindful Catholics know, melding love and truth takes time, effort, humility, docilitas, maturity, prayer, repentance, the art of loving, the cardinal virtues, the theological virtues, and the prompting of the Holy Spirit—a difficult and lengthy process under the best of circumstances. Learning to walk a tight-rope while juggling flares would be simpler.

Most Catholics are better at being truthful or better at loving, but the call is always to marry both actions as best one can. Emphasizing truth over love or love over truth can adversely affect both.

Clearly the emphasis in Amoris Laetitia is on love, mercy, tenderness, and mitigating circumstances. Pope Francis does talk about truth, but not as love’s equal. Indeed, there are times when he seems to set up a false dichotomy between the two: Where love promises progression, truth suggests inertness. Where love portends discernment and mercy, truth signals casuistry and judgment. Where mercy fills the sails of Peter’s Barque, doctrine is the vessel’s anchor and chain.

The pope’s message to doctrine-driven Catholics is clear:

In such difficult situations of need [‘families living in dire poverty and great limitations”], the Church must be particularly concerned to offer understanding, comfort, and acceptance, rather than imposing straightaway a set of rules that only lead people to feel judged and abandoned by the very Mother called to show them God’s mercy. Rather than offering the healing power of grace and the light of the Gospel message, some would “indoctrinate” that message, turning it into “dead stones to be hurled at others” (AL, 49).

Pharisees—right, left, and above

Those who “indoctrinate” the Gospel and hurl “dead stones” are a direct reference to the Pharisees of the New Testament. Pope Francis uses several synonyms for modern-day Catholic Pharisees: fundamentalists, legalists, rigorists, hypocrites, doorway closers, doctors of the law, the close-minded. Such persons are deemed to come from the conservative, orthodox ranks—those “comfortable” in the faith. After all, the Pharisees in Jesus’ day were hard-charging traditionalists who lived by every jot and tittle of the Law.

Alas, there are such Catholics. They are often brittle, judgmental, mean as Habu snakes, and uncomfortable around Catholics who have a sense of humor and read novels like Kristin Lavransdatter or Brideshead Revisited. They live behind bastion walls of their own making. They are modern-day Donatists who will not countenance repentant apostates yearning to come back to the Church.

But Pope Francis does not mention Catholic Pharisees on the “left,” most likely because they are contemporary and, hence, have no corollary in the New Testament. But, truly, such persons are as adamantine as their religious opposites and can no more be budged than Half Dome. They rigidly cleave to “flexibility” in living out the Faith. Along with the formal sacraments instituted by Christ, they celebrate man-made “sacraments” that they believe positively and effectively transform the family and the world, contraception being in the lead. They are modern-day Pelagians who believe that human persons have all the crucial tools for earthly and eternal well-being. Following God’s laws, as interpreted by the Church, is not all that important in the salvific mix.

There is another group of modern-day Pharisees that has escaped notice. Members of this band reside on higher ground (higher catechetical levels) and therefore can view the other two pharisaical groups from above. They “understand” both the conservative and progressive stances, and can arbitrate, if necessary, any squabbles. In their minds, they are above the fray where besmirching does not exist. What makes them pharisaical is their sense of gratitude as they look below at the rigidly-rigid and the rigidly-flexible: “There, but for the grace of God and my own acumen, go I.”

Ambiguity and Amoris Laetitia

Article 305 is the epicenter of the controversy on whether the divorced and civilly-remarried have access to the Eucharist. The first sentence hits hard: “… a pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in ‘irregular’ situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives.” It replicates the pope’s previous reproach of those who would “indoctrinate” messages and hurl them as “dead stones” at others (AL, 49).

The third sentence says that the “natural law cannot be represented as an already established set of rules”; rather it’s a “source of objective inspiration for the deeply personal process of making decisions” (emphasis added). That gives rise to an important question: is the Decalogue a “source of objective inspiration” or is it a list of commandments that objectify what is already etched in the human heart? St Irenaeus stated:

From the beginning, God had implanted in the heart of man the precepts of the natural law. Then he was content to remind him of them. This was the Decalogue (Adv. haeres.4, 15, 1).

The Catechism emphasizes this several times, as when it quotes Pope Leo XIII:

The natural law is written and engraved in the soul of each and every man, because it is human reason ordaining him to do good and forbidding him to sin . . . But this command of human reason would not have the force of law if it were not the voice and interpreter of a higher reason to which our spirit and our freedom must be submitted. (par 1954)

The Church is clear: Natural law is not something that inspires us from the outside, as it makes up the very moral fiber of our being.

Pope Francis continues:

Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, 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.351

Footnote 351 says that, “in certain cases, this [the Church’s help] can include the help of the sacraments.” The pope goes on in the footnote to mention the confessional as an “encounter with God’s mercy” and to point out that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”

Is article 305, especially footnote 351, ambiguous? If so, does it officially change anything?

Canon lawyer Edward Peters, JD, JCD, has dissected the controversy on his “In the Light of the Law” site. He covers all possible arguments and rejoinders. The title of his commentary signals his conclusion: “The law before ‘Amoris’ is the law after”.

Among the points Dr. Peters makes is that Pope Francis’s exhortation is not a legislative document. Therefore, it cannot change Canon 915 (regarding who should not be admitted to Holy Communion). Furthermore, the canon does not deal with the subjective side of sin, only with “externally cognizable facts concerning observable conduct.” So, even if Pope Francis believed that all divorced and civilly-remarried persons were not subjectively culpable, such a conclusion “would have no bearing whatsoever on the operation of Canon 915.”

Concerning footnote 351, Dr. Peters points out that there is nothing in the note that authorizes Catholics in irregular marital situations to take Communion. Furthermore, he believes that pastors and laypeople should take seriously what the pope says about Reconciliation (“the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy”) and Communion (“the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak”). In other words, the law and love can, and should, exist at the same time, in the same space.

Papal vision and influence

Formally speaking, then, canon law and the principle of doctrinal continuity are intact. However, there is more here than meets the canonical eye.

How Pope Francis envisions things makes a difference to those he leads. If he sees mercy as more important than truth, and social justice as more important than social doctrine, the Church will move more in that direction than she already has. If he sees the Church as a field hospital for the weak, sick, and wounded, then the chief “medical” virtue will be the ability to discern mitigating factors in moral dilemmas, and the universal treatment will be the balm of acceptance and mercy.

Another difference: Willing and energized followers of a leader “read” what they believe the leader wants now and in the future, and act accordingly. Argentinian, Maltese, German, and some American prelates have “read” Pope Francis’s mind and heart and have enthusiastically welcome the perceived “opportunity” to shower sacramental love and life on the disenfranchised, especially the divorced and civilly-remarried.

Historically, one can argue that Pope Francis’s version of pastoral mercy and acceptance has been in existence, at least in the West, for some time. An illustrative case, from an April 2016 article in the Chicago Tribune titled “Cupich: Pope’s document on sex, marriage, family life a ‘game-changer’”:

Jim _____, a Roman Catholic from Oak Park [IL], said he thought the pope’s document [AL] marked a good first step. Though he divorced and then remarried in a civil ceremony in the 1980s without an annulment, he continued to receive Communion, a practice in conflict with the doctrine of his Catholic faith. After he remarried… he sought the advice of priests about receiving Communion. They told him to examine his conscience and consider an annulment, though they added they would not refuse to give him Communion.

This raises an important question: Does the pope’s call for pastoral discernment and acceptance stop with the divorced and remarried? What about same-sex unions?

Pope Francis says that there is no analogy whatsoever between heterosexual marriage and homosexual “marriage.” But the pastoral-discernment question remains: if a divorced and civilly-remarried couple decide to receive the Eucharist after examining their consciences (with the help of a priest), what “prevents” the same-sex couple from doing the same? The Chicago Tribune article (quoted above) continues:

[Archbishop] Cupich said that although the pope clarifies that same-sex marriage is not analogous to the church’s definition for marriage, when it comes to inclusion in the life of the church, the same guidelines apply. “You can’t have one particular approach for a certain group of people and not for everybody,” the archbishop said. “Everyone has the ability to form their conscience well.”

Clarity and continuity 

If Amoris Laetitia (AL) is clear in its moral message and, without question, in continuity with Familiaris Consortio (FC) concerning divorce, remarriage, and access to the Eucharist, then why the ongoing upheaval at the highest ecclesial levels? Perhaps it is because certain words and phrases in AL hold out hope, however muted, to those in irregular marital situations. “In certain cases, this [the Church’s help] can include the help of the sacraments.” On its face, that sentence from footnote 351 says nothing about doctrine, let alone doctrinal change. But it is the kind of statement that “promises,” however thinly, some relief to those who believe they are trekking across an endless sacramental-less desert.

Clarity is important. Juxtaposing article 305 of AL and article 84 of FC is enlightening. The difference is sharp: in AL 305 there is care and concern; in FC 84 there is care and concern plus clarity.

Upbraiding the Fundamentalists and the Fomenters

Recently, Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has called out two groups of prelates: (1) the cardinals who submitted questions to Pope Francis in the hope of getting clarification on article 305 of Amoris Laetitia and (2) bishops from certain countries who see the document as the “go-ahead” to offer Communion, in certain situations, to the divorced and remarried whose previous marriages have not been annulled.

Cardinal Müller argues that Amoris Laetitia is not ambiguous and should be interpreted in light of the Church’s continuous teaching. Therefore, he says, a formal correction of the exhortation is simply out of the question. Concerning the bishops mentioned, they should know that for “Catholic doctrine, coexistence between mortal sin and sanctifying grace is impossible.”

According to Cardinal Müller, then, it is not textual ambiguity that has fomented the consternation surrounding Amoris Laetitia. It is solely the result of two opposing factions misinterpreting what they have obviously misread—two missteps compounded.

The “fundamentalists” and the “fomenters” in this skirmish seem entrenched with something of a “no-man’s land” in between. What does that portend? Inter-diocesan “schisms”? Diocese-shopping for the “weak and wounded”?

All the king’s horses and all the king’s men…

For half a century, Catholics have been on either side of a watershed that sprang up, overnight, with the promulgation of Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae. Catholic progressives who see contraception as a panacea for what ails marriage and, indeed, the world, are heartened by Pope Francis’s mercy-trumps-truth approach.

Dr. Paul Ehrlich—author of the 1968 bestseller, The Population Bomb, and long-time opponent of the Church and her stance against contraception—shares the optimism. He is “thrilled with the new pope moving the Church in the right direction”. That direction, predicts Ehrlich, will include family planning with modern contraception. Like many, he is reading the “spirit” of Amoris Laetitia, rather than its letter.

The point: the same ecclesial mantra used for contraception—“follow your conscience”—may well be evoked for divorced and civilly-remarried couples who want to partake in the Eucharist: “after sincerely discussing your particular situation with your pastor, follow your mind and heart.”

Were the 2014-2015 synods on the family and Amoris Laetitia meant to pull together and bond the factions on either side of the divorce-remarriage-Communion controversy, as well as heal the wounds of the disenfranchised? Despite the efforts, all the pope’s helpers, all the pope’s brothers, and the pope himself have not been able to put truth and love back together again.

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About John S. Hamlon 9 Articles
John S. Hamlon taught religion, philosophy, physics, and chemistry at the high school level prior to teaching undergraduate and graduate courses on the Catholic Catechism, marriage, and Christian ethics. He continues to teach theology/philosophy courses for adults at Easter's Faith Formation Center, Sacramento, CA. He has an MA in theology from the University of San Francisco and did doctoral work in systematic theology at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley. He was the associate director of the St. Ignatius Institute, University of San Francisco from 1994 to 2001. Prior to that, he was the program director for national and international conferences on NFP, marriage, and family at St. John’s University, Collegeville, MN. He’s the author of A Call to Families: A Commentary and Study Guide for Familiaris Consortio.


  1. Dear Dr Obodo, My husband and I are going to the doctor today as I found out to be POSITIVE yesterday. I am in tears as I write these words. I am sure you get plenty of letter like this every day but I just wanted to thank you for the pregnancy spell and for giving hope to women at my age. I am 46 and I am finally going to be a mother. May god bless you Dr Obodo and your family. Reach Doc for help at

  2. His 2 immediate predecessors are, beyond question, giants in the intellectual and moral history of Holy Mother Church.

    Now Holy God, in His infinite wisdom, has deigned to send us a midget.

    We’ll get through this.

  3. I don’t agree with Cardinal Muller’s interpretation of AL and his deriding of the Cardinals who submitted the dubia. He and others who try to interpret Francis’ teaching on capital punishment seem to argue that it is impossible that the Magisterium contradict itself, so that Francis convoluted logic must be in agreement with what the Church has always taught because it is part of the Magisterium. However, texts have to be read and interpreted by what they actually say. to retrieve an old custom of the Church. In Rome, it exists since the 7th century.
    Besides, the author of this piece makes no mention of the fact that Francis approved the precise interpretation which Cardinal Muller says is not the correct in his letter to the Buenos Aires bishops and had that letter published in AAS. The notion that “pastoral practice” which is or always has to be based on doctrine, can somehow be changed without touching the doctrine is a huge fallacy.
    As for Dr. Peterson’s contributiom, he is strictly within the canonical field, which is not enough and AL is not a canonical document.
    Now, it seems clear also from what Archbishop Bruno Forte, who was one of the cooks in the kitchen of the first Synod on the family, stated that Pope Francis told him that it would not be possible to come out clearly stating that the divorced and remarried civilly (in other words adulterers) can receive Holy Communion, because it would cause a huge problem. So, he chose to do it via ambiguity. The publication of a wilfully ambiguous text is something that only degrades the Church’s Magisterium, as it ought to be clear that Jesus did not establish the Magisterium for the purpose of producing confusion.
    There is a video of Pope Francis declaring that people who are in de facto unions often have “proven fidelity” and are actually married. In other words, he clearly approves of fornication in this case.

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