I greatly agree with Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago when he says the reasoning in Pope Francis’ two-year-old document on marriage and family Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) is “nothing short of revolutionary.” But that’s where our agreements cease.
For to him, this revolution is a boon for the Church. To me, it poses a threat to the foundations of the Church’s belief.
In particular, it threatens our Catholic understanding of morality. Pope St. John Paul II addressed the perennial Catholic understanding in Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth). And he warned against moral theories regnant at the time that led to a rejection of conclusions that the Church held to be definitive.
In particular, he noted four errors of these theories:
1. Consequentialist reasoning: He said they use “circumstances and the situation … (as) the basis of certain exceptions to the general rule” and so “permit one to do in practice and in good conscience what is qualified as intrinsically evil by the moral law” (56).
2. Flawed notion of conscience: He said they wrongfully set in opposition “the precept(s) [of the moral law], which [are] valid in general, and the norm of the individual conscience, which would in fact make the final decision about what is good and what is evil” (56).
3. Moral absolutes are merely ideals: He said that they propose the “very serious error” that “the Church’s [moral] teaching is essentially only an ‘ideal,’ which must then be adapted, proportioned, graduated to the so-called concrete possibilities of man” (103).
4. Sets the pastoral against the doctrinal: And he said that in the name of “so-called ‘pastoral’ solutions,” they propose what is “contrary to the teaching of the magisterium” and “justify a ‘creative’ hermeneutic according to which the moral conscience is in no way obliged, in every case, by a particular negative precept” (56).
In the last two years since the document was released, Catholics around the world have been distressed to see that the model of moral reasoning drawn from Amoris Laetitia — called by some advocates the “new paradigm” — embodies these same four errors.
1. Consequentialist reasoning: The “new paradigm” proposes that on the basis of the “immense variety of concrete situations” or, as the Argentinian bishops call them, “complex circumstances,” some Catholics cannot be expected to conform their behavior to the general rule prohibiting engaging in sexual behavior with anyone other than one’s valid spouse; and so proponents support exceptions to the “general rule”; and in these cases, the people are free to receive the Holy Eucharist without changing their sexual behavior.
2. Flawed notion of conscience: Amoris Laetitia states, consistent with Catholic moral tradition, that conscience helps me to judge when an action of mine “does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel”; but then it goes on to teach, contrary to Catholic tradition, that conscience must also “recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God,” that is to say, conscience recognizes that I am not able to keep the Gospel’s objective demands here and now; and through this process, it says, we “come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits.”
In other words, conscience condemns my action by judging rightly that it is contrary to the Gospel; and then it acquits me from my obligation to live by the Gospel by judging that I am too weak to carry out the Gospel’s command and even allegedly hears God telling me that this is the case.
3. Moral absolutes are merely ideals: Amoris Laetitia constantly refers to the objective and absolute demands of the Gospel for sex and marriage as merely an “ideal” or a “rule,” and it says that God knows not everyone can be expected to conform their lives “fully [to] the objective ideal.” It stigmatizes an obedience-centered approach to living the Gospel as “cold bureaucratic morality,” “nothing more than the defense of a dry and lifeless doctrine,” but calls its own approach a “message of love and tenderness.”
4. Pastoral solutions contra doctrine: Amoris Laetitia refers to its proposals for living the Christian life as “new pastoral methods,” referring to them by various names such as “a process of accompaniment,” “evangelical discernment” and “gradualness in pastoral care” (See Familiaris Consortio, 34). It teaches that what’s most needed is a kind of “pastoral discernment” that recognizes that the “concrete situation” sometimes does not permit conformity to the “rule … without [causing] further sin” and says that when such a situation arises, the individuals are, in fact, called by God to set the “rule” (i.e., “the overall demands of the Gospel”) aside. And yet Amoris Laetitia confusingly insists that these new pastoral methods “can never prescind from the Gospel demands of truth and charity, as proposed by the Church.”
When Amoris Laetitia first appeared, there was doubt as to whether its pastoral plan conformed to Veritatis Splendor and Catholic Tradition. Its hermeneutic of ambiguity left open a variety of possible interpretations, not all of which were problematic.
But then, in September 2016, the Argentine bishops formally interpreted Amoris Laetitia Chapter 8 as saying that some divorcees who are civilly remarried were free to return to Holy Communion without a commitment to refrain from sexual relations:
“When a declaration of nullity could not be obtained [by civilly remarried divorcees], the aforementioned option [i.e., for the couple “to live in continence”] may not in fact be feasible. However, a path of discernment is likewise possible. If it is recognized that, in a concrete case, there are limitations that mitigate responsibility and guilt, particularly when a person considers that he would fall into a further fault, harming the children of the new union, Amoris Laetitia opens the possibility of access to the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist.”
On the same day of the publication of the text, Pope Francis privately wrote to the Argentine bishops, saying:
“I received the writing of the Buenos Aires Pastoral Region, ‘Basic Criteria for the Application of Chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia.’ Thank you very much for sending it to me. And I congratulate you for the work you have done: a true example of accompaniment of priests. … The writing is very good and makes fully explicit the meaning of Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia. There are no other interpretations, and I am sure that it will do much good.” When the Pope’s private letter was questioned, rather than saying it held no authoritative status for Catholics, the Pope formally elevated both his private letter and the Argentine bishops’ guidelines to the status of an apostolic letter, formally publishing them both in the October 2016 edition of the official Acts of the Apostolic See with the intent of making them part of his “authentic magisterium.”
By this last act, the Pope officially approved a practice that contradicts the practice of the Catholic Church dating from apostolic times: Prescribing that Catholics who divorce and “remarry” while their first spouse still lives cannot be admitted to Holy Communion because, as living in sexually active relationships with persons other than their presumptively valid spouses, their condition of life objectively contravenes the sixth precept of the Decalogue and thus contradicts the loving union between Jesus and his Church, which is signified by and made present in the Holy Eucharist.
This teaching has been reaffirmed clearly and authoritatively multiple times in the last 40 years:
1. In 1980, by John Paul II: “[They] are unable to be admitted [to Holy Communion] from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and his Church, which is signified and effected by the Eucharist.”
2. In 1981, by the same: “The Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried.”
3. In 1994, by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF): “They find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law. Consequently, they cannot receive Holy Communion as long as this situation persists.”
4. In 1997, by the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law. Consequently, they cannot receive Eucharistic Communion as long as this situation persists” (1650).
5. In 1998, by the CDF: “Under no circumstances can their new union be considered lawful, and therefore reception of the sacraments is intrinsically impossible. The conscience of the individual is bound to this norm without exception.”
6. And in 2007, by Pope Benedict XVI: “not admitting the divorced and remarried to the sacraments, since their state and their condition of life objectively contradict the loving union of Christ and the Church signified and made present in the Eucharist.”
In addition, when questions have been raised about whether the private judgments of remarried divorcees are sufficient to establish invalidity in their own cases and whether the so-called “internal forum” could be used to resolve questions of the status of their first marriages, both were answered firmly in the negative.
And yet the “process of accompaniment” outlined in Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia seems to make both a part of its ordinary pastoral plan.
The disparities between the teaching of Amoris Laetitia and Veritatis Splendor and Catholic moral tradition are causing confusion to the faithful. This needs to be addressed by the bishops and the Pope as soon as possible.
E. Christian Brugger, Ph.D., is a senior
research fellow of ethics at the
Culture of Life Foundation in Washington, D.C.