Pedro Gabriel has penned a response to my most recent CWR article, which focused on the moral theology of Pope Francis. Gabriel’s essay is full of the kind of sophistry one has come to expect from the blog on which it was published. I am responding to it for one reason: his essay is a shining example of my assertion that this pope’s supporters (just like Francis himself) never answer the fundamental questions raised by critics, instead resorting to deflections, ad hominem caricatures, and straw men.
The first bit of sophistry appears early in the essay, when Gabriel claims those who are critical of Amoris Laetitia, and who see some of its teachings contradicting key aspects of Veritatis Splendor, are themselves guilty of acting against Veritatis Splendor. This is so, he argues, because Veritatis itself called for a renewal in moral theology and therefore, “those who do not want to implement new ways of doing moral theology are in open contradiction to the teachings of Veritatis Splendor. This is quite a tragic paradox, especially for those who think they are loyal defenders of the encyclical.”
In other words, Gabriel assumes that if one is critical of some parts of Amoris, one is by definition opposed to doing moral theology in new ways. The pope’s critics are backward-looking, hardline conservatives of the old school type whose beef with Amoris is that it has dared to do something new. Perhaps it doesn’t occur to Gabriel that one can be in favor of a renewal in moral theology (which I am) and still think that Amoris does not represent such a renewal. And that, in fact, it is a backward-looking document that evinces in spots a recrudescence of old-timey proportionalism of the Bernard Häring school. This is a straw man, which is why Gabriel never bothers to quote anything I have actually written about the topic.
He says folks such as myself treat Veritatis as nothing more than a set of condemnations of incorrect moral theories; further, we misunderstand that the encyclical was about establishing the principles of moral theology around which a renewal can happen—and that this is all Amoris is doing. He goes so far as to quote Veritatis to the effect that moral norms cannot be reduced to mere precepts and legal stipulations. He then insinuates that those of us who are critical of Amoris should also then be critical of Veritatis since both documents are engaged in the same anti-legalist endeavor.
This is sophistry taken to new depths of silliness. It misrepresents the critics of Amoris, without citing a shred of evidence, as hopeless legalists who misunderstand Veritatis as a purely “legalistic” document, even while it misrepresents Amoris as a mere extension of the teaching of Veritatis on the role that circumstances must play in moral adjudication. As such, Gabriel’s essay is an exercise in question begging since that is the question that the critics are raising: Is Amoris merely an extension of Veritatis on the subject of mitigating circumstances and their role in creating invincible ignorance? Or is it saying something more? Indeed, is it saying something else?
At this point, Gabriel’s essay simply devolves into an exercise in deflection. He conveniently focuses on only a few parts of Amoris in isolation from other facts of this papacy that do indeed lend credence to the notion that Amoris is calling for a change in moral theology that goes well beyond a mere extension of Veritatis. And he further ignores the problematic sections of Amoris that the critics cite, allowing him to caricature the critics as hopeless louts lacking in reading comprehension skills.
For example, Gabriel leaves unaddressed the fact that Pope Francis in 2017 explicitly and pointedly singled out the moral theology of the proportionalist Bernard Häring as the best model for renewing moral theology in the light of Vatican II.
He leaves unaddressed the fact that Pope Francis purged the faculty and leadership at the John Paul II Institute in Rome, as well as the Pontifical Academy for Life (and in both cases violated academic due process), and replaced all of them with thinkers who are on the proportionalist/progressive moral theological spectrum.
He leaves unaddressed the shocking misreading of Aquinas in Amoris where the text misrepresents a distinction Aquinas is making in the Summa (I-II, q. 94, a. 4) between negative and affirmative moral norms, making it sound as if Aquinas is embracing the idea that even with intrinsically evil actions there can be exceptions created by unique circumstances (AL 304). But that is not what Aquinas teaches at all. Negative norms apply always and everywhere regardless of circumstances, such as in adultery or murder (which is affirmed in Veritatis 79), whereas affirmative norms affirm a moral obligation in principle (such as the requirement to return a borrowed object to its owner) but which may be suspended, at least temporarily, due to changed circumstances, such as if I borrow my neighbor’s car but do not return it on the designated day because he is drunk and wanting to drive.
Amoris makes no such proper distinctions, which are the distinctions Aquinas makes. And it uses this sloppy misreading of Aquinas to further the notion that circumstances can indeed become so complex as to render even intrinsically evil actions permissible and, by implication, even morally good in many ways. (For an excellent analysis of this entire issue, see Eduardo Echeverria’s book titled Pope Francis: The Legacy of Vatican II, pages 193-196).
Worse, Gabriel leaves unaddressed the fact that Amoris Chapter 8 does indeed undermine and contradict Veritatis Splendor by treating the Church’s teaching on moral matters as mere ideals which, if you cannot live up to them, and you are only capable of half-way measures, that God will bless your status quo and the modus vivendi you have reached with the moral law and that your compromised state of life is now magically transformed into God’s will for you (AL 303).
Indeed, Gabriel just completely ignores the statement in the controversial chapter 8 of Amoris, where the Pope explicitly states the issue is not about circumstances that create invincible ignorance of the moral law (a very traditional and unproblematic idea), but instead about circumstances that make it practically impossible for you to live up to the moral law even if you do recognize it as such—and that if you are doing the best you can, that God blesses this, and it is God’s will for you. In other words (keeping in mind that God cannot will evil), the violation of a moral norm that you do know about and do affirm, in these difficult and compromised cases, by some kind of theological alchemy, is no longer a violation at all, but a positive moral good.
I do not know how you can avoid the conclusion that this is indeed, if not proportionalism straight up, at the very least “proportionalist adjacent”. And if you doubt me, I will repeat here again the pope’s own words on the matter:
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. (AL 303)
Pope Francis is indeed saying more than Gabriel will admit to—and most of Francis’s more astute supporters know it. In fact, most of those supporters celebrate it and promote it for the revolution in moral theology that it represents. But in his rush to defend the pope from his critics, Gabriel now has to twist and distort even the statements of the pope’s friends.
For example, Gabriel quotes a Father Julio Martinez, a Jesuit professor of moral theology who spoke in May at a conference on Amoris Laetitia at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, and correctly notes that Fr. Martinez stated that Amoris now allows us to “untie the knots” in moral theology created by Veritatis Splendor. But Gabriel twists those words by Fr. Martinez to mean that all Amoris is doing is untying knots that Veritatis spelled out as problems needing further adjudication, giving the impression that all Fr. Martinez means here is that Amoris is completing a project that Veritatis itself called for.
But that is not the case, as Fr. Martinez was in fact heavily criticizing Pope John Paul II for creating those awful knots in the first place in Veritatis by introducing the strange innovation of “intrinsically evil acts” into moral theology! Fr. Martinez speaks of how Amoris returns us to a proper reading of Vatican II and allows us to avoid the obfuscating “meanders” of Veritatis and its putative lack of respect for the individual conscience with its “philosophically problematical” notion of intrinsically evil actions. And this, he insists, is what tied the Church into knots, for the idea that some actions are always wrong everywhere and always, and regardless of circumstances, threw a monkey wrench into the process of “discernment” and the proper development of conscience. Fr. Martinez claims that Veritatis “very much fears what is called ‘creative conscience…'”, and made that mistake of teaching that the conscience “has to somehow be obedient to the rules and the norms of the magisterium…”
Fr. Martinez also criticized Humanae Vitae for similar reasons, stating the encyclical simply got wrong the concrete circumstances of marriage and was not “accurate” in its teachings. And almost every other speaker at this same conference drove home this same point with a repetitious monomania. They all spoke of “discernment” and “difficult and complex” circumstances and of how the Church’s moral teaching has stunted a proper development of conscience in individual believers and replaced conscience with a legalistic magisterialism, and so on.
So, no, continuity with Veritatis Splendor was not evident at all, contrary to Gabriel’s facile claims. And this was a conference which opened with a laudatory letter from Pope Francis encouraging the deliberations of those in attendance.
Similarly, and in case one doubts that this conference really represents the thought of Pope Francis, the National Catholic Reporter just ran an interview with Emilce Cuda, an Argentinian theologian who Pope Francis appointed as a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, and as co-secretary on the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Latin America. She applauds the approach of Pope Francis to the politics of abortion and implicitly criticizes the approach of John Paul II for espousing “fundamentalist” positions, claiming that the 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae “advances a deeply polarized ideology of the ‘culture of death’ against which Catholics must fight by obeying the moral law or, better, changing the civil law.” She points to a new book issued by the Academy for Life (The Theological Ethics of Life) that is “not a matter of taking fundamentalist positions, loaded with ideology, but of opening the debate within the community of moral theologians to think of a theological ethics that respects the human condition.”
There are plenty of dog whistles and code words in that latter quote, and the text she promotes is filled with similar views. The implication, of course, is that John Paul II’s moral theology did not respect the human condition and was indeed an example of the kind of “fundamentalist positions” that are “loaded with ideology” since John Paul held firmly to the notion that there is a seamless garment of life ethic, but that this does not preclude the fact there is a hierarchy of goods within that ethic, with abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia being higher in the hierarchy than gun control legislation or immigration policy. It is also telling that she equates opposition to abortion as usually being distorted by ideology, but appears to see no such ideological distortion among those who downplay the politics of abortion in favor of a politics more palatable to the Left.
The interview also quotes Therese Lysaught, who teaches at Loyola University in Chicago and is a corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy for Life. She is even less nuanced and far more blunt than Cuda, saying, “Although John Paul II wrote important social encyclicals, ‘life’ issues remained siloed from ‘social’ issues under his pontificate and were reduced to a few topics – almost exclusively abortion, euthanasia, and issues related to sexuality, framed almost entirely in the language of commandments, laws and absolutes. … Pope Francis’ tone has been very different.” There are those pesky “moral absolutes” again, with their unnuanced condemnations of such merely “cultural” issues as adultery and pre-natal homicide.
These are among Pope Francis’s most astute supporters and they correctly, I think, insist that this pope has blessed a revolution in moral theology that bears a strong family resemblance to the proportionalism of old. But according to Pedro Gabriel, all of this is in wonderful continuity with Veritatis Splendor and critics such as me are just too obtuse to see it.
Yep, there is indeed an obtuseness here. And a cultivated naivete. And it is getting increasingly difficult for the partisans of the “Pope Francis is in total continuity with John Paul II” apologists to engage in the kind of linguistic and conceptual legerdemain that is required in order to keep that narrative alive. Because now this Pope’s critics and his closest supporters all agree: Pope Francis is revolutionizing moral theology in ways that do indeed involve a rupture with the moral theology of Pope John Paul II.
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