Readers may have seen the recent article in the Catholic Herald reporting on a 2000-word letter that Archbishop Heiner Koch of Berlin sent to his priests instructing them to consider blessing the marriages of same-sex couples—or those, as he says, who “cannot or do not want to marry sacramentally”.
Indeed, for the Archbishop, “it is no longer possible to say that all who are in so-called irregular situations are in a state of mortal sin and have lost sanctifying grace.”
When it comes to how priests should respond to same-sex couples who wish to marry, the Archbishop writes, “Pope Francis emphatically calls for pastoral discernment,” and the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (2016) “gives the local churches, the pastors, a lot of leeway in dealing with people in so-called ‘irregular’ situations.’”
Moreover, in the letter, the Archbishop advised his priests to use their own private judgement in deciding who was eligible for such blessings and said he hoped the Berlin archdiocese would succeed in “preserving unity in diversity.”
Reading this, I thought of that unforgettably solemn passage in John Henry Newman’s Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (1875), in which he makes a point of profound relevancy to the crisis prompted by the Archbishop of Berlin.
“Did the Pope speak against Conscience in the true sense of the word, he would commit a suicidal act,” Newman wrote.
He would be cutting the ground from under his feet. His very mission is to proclaim the moral law, and to protect and strengthen that “Light which enlighteneth every man that cometh into the world.” On the law of conscience and its sacredness are founded both his authority in theory and his power in fact. Whether this or that particular Pope in this bad world always kept this great truth in view in all he did, it is for history to tell. I am considering here the Papacy in its office and its duties, and in reference to those who acknowledge its claims. They are not bound by the Pope’s personal character or private acts, but by his formal teaching. Thus viewing his position, we shall find that it is by the universal sense of right and wrong, the consciousness of transgression, the pangs of guilt, and the dread of retribution, as first principles deeply lodged in the hearts of men, it is thus and only thus, that he has gained his footing in the world and achieved his success. It is his claim to come from the Divine Lawgiver, in order to elicit, protect, and enforce those truths which the Lawgiver has sown in our very nature, it is this and this only that is the explanation of his length of life more than antediluvian. The championship of the Moral Law and of conscience is his raison d’être. The fact of his mission is the answer to the complaints of those who feel the insufficiency of the natural light; and the insufficiency of that light is the justification of his mission.
The Archbishop of Berlin has instructed his priests to flout the moral law, and he has justified this most consequential decision by making explicit reference to what he believes is the warrant of Pope Francis and Amoris Laetitia. If the pope does not denounce the Archbishop’s claim, or continues to fall back on the usual ambiguities, he will, indeed, be committing a “suicidal act.”
(Editor’s note: Amoris Laetitia was originally identified as a papal encyclical; it is a post-synodal apostolic exhortation.)
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