MUNICH — In April, Robert Spaemann, professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Munich, attracted significant attention for an interview with Anian Christoph Wimmer, editor of CNA’s German-language edition.
Greatly valued as an adviser by St. John Paul II, a friend of Benedict XVI and widely held to be the most important German-Catholic philosopher of recent decades, Spaemann expressed a distinctly critical interpretation of Amoris Laetitia.
After widespread reaction to that interview, Spaemann responded with a follow-up column in Tagespost. That column is reprinted below with permission, with style edits to conform with Register style.
We Shouldn’t Talk About a ‘Breach’: The Debate on Pope Francis and His Exhortation Amoris Laetitia
By Robert Spaemann
My critical remarks in a conversation with Catholic News Agency (CNA) on the papal exhortation Amoris Laetitia have evoked lively reactions — partly in enthusiastic approval, partly in rejection. The rejection refers primarily to the sentence that expresses a “breach with the teaching Tradition of the Catholic Church” in Footnote 351. What I wanted to say was that several of the Holy Father’s expressions are contrary to the words of Jesus, to the words of the apostles, as well as the traditional doctrine of the Church.
One should only speak of a breach when a Pope clearly and explicitly teaches something by formally invoking his apostolic authority — so not casually, in a footnote — that contradicts the aforementioned doctrinal tradition. The case is not given here, because Pope Francis does not love unambiguousness. When he recently said that Christianity knows no “either-or,” it shows he is clearly not bothered that Christ said, “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one” (Matthew 5:37). The letters of St. Paul are full of “either-ors.” And finally, “Whoever is not with me is against me” (Matthew 12:30).
Pope Francis, however, only wants to “make suggestions.” Contradicting suggestions cannot be disallowed. And one must, in my opinion, contradict him energetically when he claims in Amoris Laetitia that Jesus also had only “set forth a demanding ideal.” No, Jesus commanded, “for he taught as one having authority, and not as their scribes” (Matthew 7:29). He himself points to, in, among others, a conversation with the Rich Young Man, the inner unity of discipleship with the observance of the Ten Commandments (Luke 18:18-24). Jesus preaches no ideal; rather [he] institutes a new reality: the kingdom of God on earth. Jesus does not suggest; he invites and commands, “I give you a new commandment.” This new reality and this commandment bear a close relation to human nature, which is perceptible by the means of reason.
Even if what the Holy Father expressed does not fit well with what I read in the Scriptures and what comes to me in the Gospels, then it is not a sufficient reason to speak of a breach; and it is, above all, not a reason — as Alexander Kissler, unfortunately, does — to make the Pope an object of polemics and ridicule. When St. Paul stood before the Sanhedrin to defend himself and the high priest ordered that he be struck in the face, Paul reacted with the words, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall.” After it was made known to Paul that he was standing before the high priest, Paul said, “Brothers, I did not know that he was the high priest. For it is written, ‘You shall not curse a ruler of your people’” (Acts 23:3, 5). Kissler should have been moderate in tone when he wrote about the Pope, even if the content of his critique is, for the most part, justifiable.
The Pope complained that some — incited by the media — go more or less out of the way of his countless discussions on the alarming state of the family in order to get tied up on a footnote on the topic of receiving holy Communion. But the pre-synodal public discussion revolved only once around this topic, because there is actually only a yes-or-no answer here. The debate was continued, and, indeed, equally controversial as before, because the Pope refused to quote his predecessors’ clear statements concerning this matter and because his answer is so obviously equivocal that everyone can interpret — and does interpret — his words in favor of one’s own opinion.
“If the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will be ready for battle?” (1 Corinthians 14:8). If the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith sees himself by now forced to publicly accuse one of the closest episcopal advisers and papal ghostwriter of heresy, then things have already gone too far. Also, the Roman Catholic Church is not infinitely resilient. Pope Francis loves to compare the critics of his politics with those “sitting on the chair of Moses.” But here, the shot backfires. It was the teachers of the Law who defended divorce and handed down a regulation for them. Jesus’ disciples were, then, ultimately appalled by the Master’s strict ban on divorce: “Who then can still marry?” (Matthew 19:10) — just as the people who ran away upon hearing the proclamation of the Lord to eat his Body and drink his Blood said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it? (John 6:60). The Lord “was moved with pity for the crowd,” but he was not a populist. “Do you also want to leave?” (John 6:67): This question to the apostles was his only reaction to the decline in disciples.