In their recent La Stampa article “Does Amoris laetitia 303 Really Undermine Catholic Moral Teaching?” (Sept. 26, 2017), Robert Fastiggi and Dawn Eden Goldstein argue against certain critics of Amoris laetitia (AL) §303. Their major claim is that these critics—particularly Josef Seifert, E. Christian Brugger, and myself—base “their criticism of Amoris laetitia precisely upon what the Latin text does not say.” They add, “when read in its original Latin, [§303] has a significantly different meaning than it does in the official English translation.” They conclude: “we believe that all these critics misread and distort what Pope Francis actually says in Amoris laetitia 303. This becomes especially clear when reading the Latin text of the passage as published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis.”
Speaking for myself, I think it is unfair to criticize me of misreading and distorting AL §303. How could I be held responsible for not considering a text that did not even exist yet when I wrote my original article in April 2016? How could I misread and distort something that did not exist? They could have argued for another reading of AL §303 that clarifies Pope Francis’s teaching—yes, it does need clarification!—in the official English translation in light of the recently released Latin text, showing that these critics should now revise their reading of AL §303. That’s fair. What they did, however, was a failure in hermeneutical charity.
Nonetheless, even with the consideration of the Latin text, I think their interpretation is mistaken when one considers the whole of Chapter 8, particularly the pope’s logic of pastoral reasoning and its implications.
The matter of the “objective ideal”
What are their criticisms? For one, they claim that I misunderstand Pope Francis’s use of the term “objective ideal” (AL §303; see also §298). I allegedly claim the pope thinks that this ideal is unattainable. The Latin text uses the terms “objective exemplar,” which, according to the authors, “does not mean an unattainable ideal; it specifically means a pattern or model to follow.”
But they criticize a straw man. I never said that the “objective ideal” is unattainable on the whole. Indeed, I said:
Yes, of course Pope Francis won’t let go of the ideal of marriage and hence he insists on presenting this ideal to the individual. . . . The pope rejects ‘A lukewarm attitude, any kind of relativism, or an undue reticence in proposing that ideal, [because it] would be a lack of fidelity to the Gospel and also of love on the part of the Church for young people themselves. To show understanding in the face of exceptional situations never implies dimming the light of the fuller ideal, or proposing less than what Jesus offers to the human being’.
In AL, Pope Francis affirms that “the [moral] law is itself a gift of God which points out the way, a gift for everyone without exception; it can be followed with the help of grace, even though each human being advances gradually” (AL §295; emphasis added). In other words, Francis adds, the Church “constantly holds up the call to perfection and asks for a fuller response to God” (AL §291). This statement means to support Francis’s claim that “discernment is dynamic” and that “it must ever remain open to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can enable the ideal to be more fully realized” (AL §303; emphasis added). Pace my critics, I do not deny this point in the article to which they refer.
So, the difference between my critics and I is not over the question whether the “objective ideal” is completely beyond reach. Of course it is not because, if you will, it is a pattern or model to follow. In other words, over the course of a person’s gradual moral advancement, in order to bring about a fuller realization of the objective moral ideal, the pope explains, “‘the following conditions must necessarily be present: 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’” (Relatio Finalis 2015, 85, as cited in AL §300; see also §303, §307). Using John Paul II’s terms (Familiaris consortio §34), as I did in my article, this dynamic refers to the “law of gradualness,” meaning thereby “the knowledge that the human being ‘knows, loves and accomplishes moral good by different stages of growth” (Ibid). Pope Francis explicitly accepts this law in AL §295. “This is . . . the prudential exercise of free acts on the part of subjects who are not in a position to understand, appreciate, or fully carry out the objective demands of the law.”
The “gradualness of law”
The crucial question, in my judgment, is whether or not Pope Francis implicitly affirms what John Paul II calls the “gradualness of law.” The latter means that there are “different degrees or forms of precept in God’s law for different individuals and situations,” as John Paul describes it (Familiaris consortio §34). Here we come to Fastiggi and Goldstein’s second criticism of my reading of AL §303, namely, that I have completely misread Pope Francis by arguing that he is “suggesting that intrinsically immoral actions can correspond to the will of God in certain circumstances.” Put this bluntly, of course, their answer is that the pope is suggesting no such thing.
Yet, let us rephrase the question in terms of the distinction between subjective and objective morality. Does Francis hold that someone can make a subjectively good choice, given that this choice is the best that he can do, in an objectively wrong situation, because he has little or no moral culpability, in view of the complexity of his situation and its attendant limits? In other words, can he choose to live together, or only be married civilly, or be divorced and remarried civilly, having sexual intercourse without being judged a sinner (i.e., adultery)? Given the pope’s logic of pastoral reasoning, I believe the answer to this question is “yes.”
Why is this suggestion a reasonable conclusion to draw from the logic of pastoral reasoning, according to Francis? Pope Francis says that there is no gradualness in the law (AL §295, §300). And yet, despite his disclaimer that he is not proposing a gradualness of the law, the pope is arguing that there are exceptions to moral rules. Indeed, he claims that, according to Aquinas, a general moral principle “fails” as one descends into the details of a particular situation-and-person-specific context of discernment. What isn’t clear is which moral rules have exceptions according to Pope Francis. (He recently repeated this point during his visit to Columbia, insisting that his ethics was Thomistic.)
Francis states in AL §304: “It is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being.” He continues by quoting STh, I-II, q. 94, art. 4 as support for his claim about contextual moral discernment:
I earnestly ask that we always recall a teaching of Saint Thomas Aquinas and learn to incorporate it in our pastoral discernment: ‘Although there is necessity in the general principles, the more we descend to matters of detail, the more frequently we encounter defects. . . . In matters of action, truth or practical rectitude is not the same for all, as to matters of detail, but only as to the general principles; and where there is the same rectitude in matters of detail, it is not equally known to all. . . . The principle will be found to fail, according as we descend further into detail’.
He adds, by way of conclusion: “It is true that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations. At the same time, it must be said that, precisely for that reason, what is part of a practical discernment in particular circumstances cannot be elevated to the level of a rule.”
So, the pope here is defending the gradualness of the law, and hence the necessity of a situation-specific ethic as essential to the logic of pastoral discernment, involving precepts that hold for different individuals and situations, and, furthermore, he purports to enlist Aquinas (and the International Theological Commission) as an ally in supporting this ethic of circumstance. What is confusing is that on several occasions Francis has rejected the claim that his pastoral approach leads to a situation ethics.
Moral absolutes and presumptive moral obligations
Still, with all due respect to Pope Francis, his reading of Aquinas is mistaken and, furthermore, it is the source of the second dubium raised by the four Cardinals. They asked whether there are exceptionless moral norms, that is, moral absolutes. This question arises because Francis fails, unlike Aquinas, to distinguish between “moral absolutes” (exceptionless moral norms, or negative moral norms that hold semper et ad semper) and “prima facie obligations” (affirmative norms).
According to Aquinas, on the one hand, the negative moral norm regarding adultery is such that there are no exceptions to the moral precept that adultery is wrong, always and everywhere, in every circumstance. So, since marriage involves an unconditional promise to be faithful until death do us part, such that it is permanent, there are no conditions under which it would be right to leave one’s spouse, marry someone else, and have sexual intercourse. In that case, one would commit adultery.
On the other hand, a moral precept that has prima facie validity is such that there may be good reason to permit an exception. To take an example from Aquinas: I have a presumptive obligation to return someone’s property to him, say, his car keys, that he has put in my safe keeping. But suppose this individual gets drunk. Under that circumstance it would be morally permissible not to return his keys to him because of the danger he poses to himself and others if he drives his car. In short, there may be certain exceptions regarding the affirmative norm that one should return what one has borrowed, entrusted with for safe keeping. This makes it clear that what Aquinas has in mind here are affirmative norms that oblige always but not on every occasion, and not negative norms (moral absolutes) that hold semper et ad semper, excluding acts that are evil in themselves and cannot become good.
Francis’s failure to make this distinction between moral absolutes and presumptive moral obligations is confusing and could result in disastrous pastoral consequences.
There remains to ask whether the logic of Francis’s pastoral moral reasoning leads to the conclusion that there is a gradualness of the law. This logic is informed by the divine pedagogy of grace, says the pope, of the “Church’s pastoral care for the faithful who are living together, or are only married civilly, or are divorced and remarried [civilly].” These relationships may realize “in at least a partial and analogous way” (AL §293), in short, imperfectly (AL §78), in their constructive elements, the reality of true marriage. “‘When a couple in an irregular union attains a noteworthy stability through a public bond—and is characterized by deep affection, responsibility towards the children and the ability to overcome trials—this can be seen as an opportunity, where possible to lead them to celebrate the sacrament of Matrimony’ [Relatio Finalis 2015, 53-54]” (AL §78). These constructive elements are such that they “‘foster evangelization and human and spiritual growth’ [Relatio Finalis 2015, 70; as cited in AL §293].
One must ask why these couples are not married (AL §293, §302). Francis holds that they “are not in a position to understand, appreciate, or fully carry out the objective demands of the law” (AL §295). He, consequently, appeals to the distinction between objectively sinful and subjectively non-culpable, recognizing the gravity of the action, but also treating the mitigating circumstances to be such that there is little or no moral culpability in the agent’s action not to be married. In short, invoking the latter distinction leaves us sins without sinners.
This last approach is the one advocated by Pope Francis in AL. Mitigating circumstance absolve or diminish the moral agent’s responsibility and guilt such that, in a complex situation, it limits his ability to make a decision. “Therefore,” says Francis, “while clearly stating the Church’s teaching, pastors are to avoid judgments that do not take into account the complexity of various situations, and they are to be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience and endure distress because of their condition” (AL §79).
Distinguishing between objectively sinful actions and subjectively non-culpable conscience is precisely what Pope Francis is talking about in Amoris laetitia. “For this reason, a negative judgment about an objective situation does not imply a judgment about the imputability or culpability of the person involved” (AL §302). Furthermore, since we may have sins without sinners, it can no longer 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).
An example—and further problems
Does this mean that the person involved can make a subjectively good choice in an objectively wrong situation given that he has little or no moral culpability, in view of the complexity of his situation and its attendant limits? I will argue that it does, but my critics contest this view. The crux of their objection is that the Latin text of AL §303 appears to deny that claim:
Yet conscience can 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 amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal.
Here is the Latin of this passage as found in the Acta:
Haec autem conscientia agnoscere potest non modo statum quendam ab universali Evangelii mandato obiective dissidere; etiam sincere honesteque agnoscere poteste quod sit liberale responsum in praesenti Deo reddendum atque eadem conscientia firma quadam morali certitudine intellegere illam esse oblationem quam ipse Deus requirit inter rerum impedientium congeriem, quamvis perfectum nondum sit obiectivum exemplar.
We propose an alternative translation, based on the Latin, as follows:
This conscience, however, can not only recognize a given situation to be objectively at variance with the general mandate of the Gospel; it can also recognize sincerely and honestly what may be the generous response owed to God in the present circumstances; and this same firm conscience can come to understand with a certain moral certitude that this is the offering that God himself is asking amid the mass of impediments, although it may not yet be the perfect objective model.
The example they give is as follows: “Living in continence is difficult, but they [a divorced and civilly remarried couple] come to understand that this is the “generous response” and the offering (oblationem) God is asking of them in the midst of the concrete limitations of their present situation—even though their civil “marriage” does not correspond to the objective model of Christian marriage.” So, they live in continence, in other words, as brother and sister, until such time as they may enter into a true marriage, having received the hoped for declaration of nullity.
One could argue that this is precisely the position of John Paul II in Familiaris consortio §84, as well as his Reconciliatio et Paenitentia §34, and Benedict XVI’s Sacramentum Caritatis §29. John Paul states, “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’.”
The problem with this example is that Francis does not explicitly endorse it, in fact, he avoids citing it, explicitly referring only to the statement that it is crucial to the logic of pastoral care “‘to exercise careful discernment of situation’” (Familiaris consortio §84, cited in AL §79). If Pope Francis meant what my critics state, then why doesn’t he say so?
Furthermore, he doesn’t because he denies the legitimacy of my critics’ example by appearing to contradict it in footnote 329. He says, “In such situations [‘where for serious reasons, such as the children’s upbringing, a man and woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate’ (no. 298)], many people, knowing and accepting the possibility of living ‘as brothers and sisters’ which the Church offers them, point out that if certain expressions of intimacy are lacking, ‘it often happens that faithfulness is endangered and the good of the children suffers’ [Gaudium et spes, no. 51].” Is Francis suggesting here that under those circumstances sexual intimacy is morally permissible, a subjectively good choice, for the sake of maintaining a faithful “invalid marriage” so that the children do not suffer?
That is certainly what several of Francis’s interpreters have suggested, such as Fr. Antonio Spadaro; Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, President of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legal Texts; and Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernàndez, Rector of the Catholic University, Buenos Aires. If Pope Francis rejects their interpretation of Al §303 as a distortion and misreading of it, then why doesn’t he say so? Let me suggest that the pope does not say so because he does not hold there to be a “yes” or “no” to that question in the logic of pastoral mercy (AL §305).
Does he, then, hold that a cohabiting couple or a divorced and civilly remarried couple may be free from sin, not committing adultery, although they do not live as brother and sister because of mitigating factors that render them inculpable? I think he does. As he asks, “A subject may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding its ‘inherent values’, or be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin. As the Synod Fathers put it, ‘factors may exist which limit the ability to make a decision’ [Relatio Finalis, 51]” (AL §301). Again, let me suggest that Francis’ “logic” here allows a couple the freedom to have sexual intimacy; choosing otherwise endangers both the fidelity of those in the “invalid marriage” as well as the children they are raising raise.
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. Discernment must help to find possible ways of responding to God and growing in the midst of limits. By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth, and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God. (AL §305)
In sum, this logic of pastoral reasoning, in respect of the divorce and civilly married, is such that it appears to lead to the conclusion that God’s very will for these persons is that they are free to have sexual intimacy for the good of a faithful and stable but “invalid marriage” because that benefits the children. This couple, according to Francis’ logic, is not living in a state of adultery, of grave habitual sin, and hence in contradiction to God’s law (Mt 19: 3-9).
This conclusion has fostered confusion in the Church. Certainly, Pope Francis did not set out to create confusion. He wanted couples in “irregular unions” to be transformed in the pastoral process of accompanying, discerning, and integrating them into the life of the Church. Of course, Francis is right in saying “‘the Church has the responsibility of helping them understand the divine pedagogy of grace in their lives and offering them assistance so they can reach the fullness of God’s plan for them’ [Relatio Synodi 2014, 25], something which is always possible by the power of the Holy Spirit” (AL §297).
Still, as Cardinal Gerhard Müller recently stated in a recent National Catholic Register interview: “I think the Pope should not be blamed for this confusion, but he is authorized by Jesus Christ to overcome it.” He adds, and I conclude with these words:
This discussion is not against him, it is not against his intentions [accompanying, discerning, and integrating people], but there is need of more clarification. Also, in the past, we had discussions about the faith and the pastoral application of it. It’s not the first time this has happened in the Church, and so why not learn from our long experiences as Church, to have a good, profound discussion in promoting the faith, the life of the Church and not to personalize and polarize? It’s not a personal criticism of him, and everybody must learn it and respect his high responsibility.