A panel on Raymond Arroyo’s most recent The World Over program on EWTN had a very candid but respectful discussion of Pope Francis’ post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia.

In the half hour segment (see above) first aired last Thursday, Robert Royal, president of the Faith and Reason Institute and editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and canonist Father Gerald Murray, weighed in on various aspects of the document. 

Royal began by noting the positive points in the exhortation and that the Holy Father speaks “very clearly” about “at least five controversial issues”: contraception, the right to life, conscientious objection for medical workers, same-sex “marriage” not being in any way analogous to marriage, the right of children to having a mother and father, and the right of parents to educate their children.

But discussion then turned to Chapter 8, the most contentious part of the document, as well as other debatable passages in the text.

The guests speak about how the document appears to suggest radically different pastoral practices can be introduced depending on country and culture, and noted the use of soft language. Adultery hardly appears in the text, Royal noted, and there is also no talk of living in sin, but rather the words “discernment and accompaniment” and “irregular” situations.

Father Murray pointed out that when it comes to remarried divorcees living in a state of adultery, the document erroneously appears to suggest that people “find themselves” in such “irregular” situations. But he argued that instead “they place themselves in that situation” and the language used in the document “kind of deprives people of the moral responsibility for their actions.” Father Murray added that the Church's language has always been that “you’re a free agent responsible for your moral decisions.”

Royal drew attention to the Pope's concerns, and those of others, who feel that the words the Church has always used for these situations “puts people off.”  But he cautioned that by talking about people in “irregular, imperfect, less than ideal circumstances” means moral absolutes tend to be viewed in the document as “ideals”.

“This is not the language of the Gospel when we talk about adultery, right and wrong, sin, virtue,” he said, adding that it leads to “always having an excuse for everything”, not just about a few hard cases.

“Our Lord’s teaching is the Lord’s teaching,” he said. “If we’re going to start making explanations and perhaps even excuses for circumstances — biological, psychological — then [when it comes to] people in a gay unions, which the Holy Father has roundly rejected, what’s to say we can’t allow them to be readmitted to Communion? There’s no limit on the accompaniment that he’s talking about.”

On the subject of moral theology, Father Murray explained that it is usually "very precise, precisely because the Lord’s words have a meaning”. But by contrast the exhortation appears to say: “We know it’s hard for you, therefore we’re going to treat you as not fully guilty of sin.  We’re going to give you break.” Father Murray warned that “exceptions will apply in all realms of life if we accept that logic.”

“It’s a point in moral theology that when you become habituated to a sin, you lose your sense of the evil of this sin and you get into a false notion that somehow it’s justified and you have an exception,” Father Murray said. “Those are the cases where you really have to stir up the conscience and say: ‘No, you’re in direct contradiction with the words of the Lord and it has serious consequences including for the salvation of your soul.’”

Royal added: “We understand this Holy Father is a very charismatic man, he very much feels what other people need from him. He talks about: 'If you’re just following the rules and you’re not obeying the law of love, there’s something wrong with that', and of course there is. I mean, the rules are there precisely to serve love. But there’s a way in which everybody’s virtues can also be vices and, without going into too much detail on this, there is a point at which the Holy Father runs the risk of trying to be so comforting to people that he actually loses some of the holiness that people are called to.”  

Turning to controversial footnote 351, which mentions the Eucharist and Confession in the context of divorced and civilly remarried couples, both Royal and Father Murray found its inclusion very puzzling. Royal saw the annotation as possibly setting up “straw men” which, he said, tend to be included when you don’t want to have an argument “that’s very hard.”

Father Murray said that even though it’s a footnote, it “doesn’t diminish” the fact that it does appear to show that the Pope “would like people to have the opportunity in particular cases, after talking to a priest, after reviewing the guidelines of a local bishop, to be able to receive Communion.

“This is a direct contradiction of John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio [his 1981 apostolic exhortation on the family], and subsequent documents. It contradicts the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It is the Kasper proposal,” Father Murray said, alluding to Cardinal Kasper’s thesis that remarried divorcees could receive Holy Communion after a period of penance.

“I’m puzzled by those who say the Kasper proposal was turned down: that’s certainly not what Cardinal Schönborn said in his presentation, and this is where the problem is going to really manifest itself in the days and weeks following the publication of this document. We have something here which is not in accord with what the Church has said up till now.”

Father Murray stressed that he did not “want to criticize the Pope. I think the Pope is a wonderful man. I think he's a holy man in so many ways. I hope to be a good man and holy myself. I don't judge.

“But what I will say is when you do something in public that contradicts what your predecessor did, there has to be an accounting for it and a responsibility to upholding the Gospel. And I think that's what many bishops, cardinals and priests will call for.”

Papal press conference

The World Over aired shortly before Pope Francis’ press conference on the papal plane back from Lesbos, Greece, on Saturday. Asked whether or not there are “new concrete possibilities” that did not exist before the publication of the exhortation, the Pope replied: "I can say yes [there are]. Period. But it would be too brief an answer. I recommend you read the presentation by Cardinal [Christoph] Schönborn, who is a great theologian.”

Cardinal Schönborn said in that presentation the document makes some “organic development” of the Church’s pastoral practice for remarried divorcees. He said the following day in Austria that he was happy that the document had adopted his 5-step program in Vienna. The program involves a series of five questions a priest must ask divorced and remarried couples to see how merciful and correctly they have behaved before, it can be inferred, they are able to receive Holy Communion. 

The Pope also told the reporters that he did "not remember" footnote 351, but added: "For sure if it’s something general in a footnote it’s because I spoke about it, I think, in Evangelii Gaudium."

Today, Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, a close adviser to the Pope, announced on his Facebook page that he had written a guide to Amoris Laetitia. In a clear effort to disagree with Cardinal Raymond Burke and others who argue, based on the Pope’s own words in the document, that the exhortation is not a magisterial act, Father Spadaro said it is “loud and clear an important act of the magisterium (for those who really want to understand).” It follows his comments last week in La Civilta Cattolica, the Jesuit periodical that he edits and which is cleared by the Secretariat of State, that he believes the exhortation opens the door to Holy Communion for remarried divorcees.