Two leading Catholic philosophers have written an open letter to Pope Francis — not to criticize his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, but rather to ask him to condemn eight “erroneous positions” some have drawn from the document.

John Finnis, emeritus professor of law and legal philosophy at the University of Oxford and Biolchini Family Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame, and Germain Grisez, emeritus professor of Christian ethics at Mount St. Mary’s University, have also asked that all bishops issue their own condemnations of the eight positions they identify.

On the basis that the apostolic exhortation must be consistent with previous papal teaching, the letter deals with those who “misuse” Amoris Laetitia to support these positions which, they point out, “are or include errors against the Catholic faith.”

Their concerns come after a wide number of interpretations of the document since its publication in April, many of which appear to contradict Church teaching and have led to accusations the document has led to confusion and even a break with Church doctrine.

The lack of clarity prompted four cardinals to write 5 questions, or dubia, to the Pope in September to ascertain whether its text is consistent with past papal teaching based on scripture and Tradition. The Pope has not yet responded to the questions.

In an introduction to the letter published Dec. 9 in the journal First Things, Finnis and Grisez write that in the open letter they explain briefly how each of these 8 erroneous positions has emerged among Catholic theologians or pastors,  and “show how certain statements or omissions from Amoris Laetitia are being used, or likely will be used, to support” them. They then set out “grounds for judging the position to be contrary to Catholic faith, that is, to Scripture and teachings that definitively pertain to Tradition, each interpreted in the other’s light.”

The 8 erroneous positions in full are:

Position A: A priest administering the Sacrament of Reconciliation may sometimes absolve a penitent who lacks a purpose of amendment with respect to a sin in grave matter that either pertains to his or her ongoing form of life or is habitually repetitive.

Position B: Some of the faithful are too weak to keep God’s commandments; though resigned to committing ongoing and habitual sins in grave matter, they can live in grace.

Position C: No general moral rule is exceptionless. Even divine commandments forbidding specific kinds of actions are subject to exceptions in some situations.

Position D: While some of God’s commandments or precepts seem to require that one never choose an act of one of the kinds to which they refer, those commandments and precepts actually are rules that express ideals and identify goods that one should always serve and strive after as best one can, given one’s weaknesses and one’s complex, concrete situation, which may require one to choose an act at odds with the letter of the rule.

Position E: If one bears in mind one’s concrete situation and personal limitations, one’s conscience may at times discern that doing an act of a kind contrary even to divine commandment will be doing one’s best to respond to God, which is all that he asks, and then one ought to choose to do that act but also be ready to conform fully to the divine commandment if and when one can do so.

Position F: Choosing to bring about one’s own, another’s, or others’ sexual arousal and/or satisfaction is morally acceptable provided only that (1) no adult has bodily contact with a child; (2) no participant’s body is contacted without his or her free and clear consent to both the mode and the extent of contact; (3) nothing done knowingly brings about or unduly risks significant physical harm, disease transmission, or unwanted pregnancy; and (4) no moral norm governing behavior in general is violated.

Position G: A consummated, sacramental marriage is indissoluble in the sense that spouses ought always to foster marital love and ought never to choose to dissolve their marriage. But by causes beyond the spouses’ control and/or by grave faults of at least one of them, their human relationship as a married couple sometimes deteriorates until it ceases to exist. When a couple’s marriage relationship no longer exists, their marriage has dissolved, and at least one of the parties may rightly obtain a divorce and remarry.

Position H: A Catholic need not believe that many human beings will end in hell.

They conclude in their introduction to the letter by warning how promoting any of these 8 positions can do "grave harm to many souls", and point out "some ways in which this may happen." They also note the "grave damage these errors do to marriage and to young people who otherwise might have entered into authentic married life with good hearts and been signs of Christ’s covenantal love for his Church."

Finnis and Grisez then take on the common argument by those proposing these false positions: that they are dealing "realistically" with situations facing Catholics “influenced by secularized culture” and who are “breaking with the Church or drifting away.” The philosophers say that such a strategy “sets aside the Church’s tradition and primary mission—to preach the Gospel everywhere and always, and to teach believers all that Jesus has commanded.”

They go on to argue that experience has shown that similar strategies, where Christian identity has been compromised, that that identity “held little interest for subsequent generations.” They then exhort those “ordained to act in the person of Jesus” to “teach the truth as he did and went on doing even when many of his disciples said they found his word too hard and drifted away.”

In comments to the Register, Grisez said he and Finnis hoped their letter would, in a “small way”, contribute to the “praise of Jesus’ name and the good of all his holy Church.” 

The full text of the open letter can be read here.

A summary of the 8 positions can be found on Professor Grisez's website here.