Archbishop Fernández Defends ‘Amoris Laetitia’ From Its Critics

The ghostwriter of the Pope’s apostolic exhortation says the Holy Father wanted to discreetly change the Church’s pastoral practice on a key part of the Church’s moral teaching, while a prominent English Dominican calls for a procedure to correct papal errors in the document.

Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández, rector of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina, at the Vatican Press Office, Oct. 8, 2014.
Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández, rector of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina, at the Vatican Press Office, Oct. 8, 2014. (photo: Daniel Ibanez/CNA)

One of Pope Francis closest advisers has publicly responded for the first time to trenchant criticisms of the Pope’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, insisting that, on the issue of remarried divorcees receiving Holy Communion, the Pope intended to discreetly change pastoral practice by taking into account the importance of responsibility and culpability in complex cases.

Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández, rector of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina and the author who drafted Amoris Laetitia, said the Pope wishes pastors to consider “the complexity of particular situations” where he believes the terms “fornicator” or “adulterer” would be inappropriate.

He also said critics who quote from Scripture to forbid opening the door to Holy Communion in such cases are presenting a “death trap” through forcing others to “assume a particular logic.” 

The Church has always forbidden civilly remarried divorcees receiving Holy Communion if they are engaging in sexual relations with their new spouse and if their previous marriages have not been annulled.

The teaching is based on Christ’s clear words in Matthew 19:9: “I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery.”

But Archbishop Fernandez, whose remarks come at the end of the article in a special edition of the Latin American journal Medellín and reported by Austen Ivereigh in Crux (a full translation has now been published here on Rorate Caeli's website), offered the following example to argue why he believes it is important to take into account the complexity of situations when applying this teaching:

“It is also licit to ask if acts of living together more uxorio [i.e. having sexual relations] should always fall, in its integral meaning, within the negative precept of ‘fornication.’ I say ‘in its integral meaning’ because one cannot maintain those acts in each and every case are gravely dishonest in a subjective sense. In the complexity of particular situations is where, according to St. Thomas [Aquinas], ‘the indetermination increases.’ Indeed, it is not easy to describe as an ‘adulterer’ a woman who has been beaten and treated with contempt by her Catholic husband, and who received shelter, economic and psychological help from another man who helped her raise the children of the previous union, and with whom she has lived and had new children for many years.”

Elsewhere, Archbishop Fernandez presents and argues the following points:

  • The Pope sought to advance this controversial issue “in a discreet way,” through footnote 351, because he wanted the other chapters on love to be the central focus of the document;
  • Archbishop Fernandez acknowledges the furor that ensued over the footnote, so the opposite happened from what was intended.
  • He affirms that the Pope gave the footnote authoritative backing through his letter to Argentine bishops, opening the door to giving Holy Communion in particular cases.
  • Pope St. John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation, Familiaris Consortio, already paved the way for this change by allowing remarried divorcees who live chastely to receive Holy Communion.
  • Moral norms are absolute, and yet the Pope believes there are situations where it is not possible to formulate such norms, as in the excerpt above.
  • Francis is concerned not with a person’s awareness of the gap between their situation and the objective moral norm, but rather the issue of responsibility and culpability, which can be diminished depending on circumstance.
  • The Pope continues to believe that sexual relations between remarried divorcees is an “objective situation of habitual grave sin” and remains “objectively bad” even if, due to a complex case, the couple may not be subjectively culpable.
  • Francis has always maintained that only a person in a state of grace can receive Holy Communion, but also that an objectively grave fault is not sufficient to deprive a person of sanctifying grace, thus “permitting a path of discernment” to receiving the Eucharist, along with a person using their conscience, aided by a pastor and enlightened by Church teaching.
  • The moral norm remains universal, Archbishop Fernandez argues, but its effects can vary and can be discerned through “pastoral dialogue.”
  • Francis’ “great innovation” has been to allow this discernment to have practical consequences on applying this moral norm in the internal forum. 
  • Archbishop Fernandez justifies such a change by recalling how the Church evolved in its application of doctrine when it came to slaveholding, salvation outside the Church, excommunication of remarried divorcees.
  • He criticizes critics of the change, saying they are applying a “particular logic” and reasoning which is a “death trap” as it allows for no other ways of reasoning.
  • He accuses such critics of “intellectual Pelagianism” and being an “oligarchic group of ethicists” who see the Scriptures as there simply to “illustrate the logic” of their kind of reasoning.
  • Francis is not elevating conscience to “create the truth as it pleases, or adapt it to his desires,” nor should a pastor ever conceal the “full light of truth.”
  • Amoris Laetitia is “very demanding,” taking into account complex realities and concrete lives, whereas “the comfortable rigidity” of its critics “can be a betrayal of the heart of the Gospel.”
  • Archbishop Fernandez dismissed critics of the document as a “small but hyperactive” group.


At Odds with Veritatis Splendor

Register commentator Father Raymond de Souza has already questioned many of the arguments put forward by Archbishop Fernandez.

Noting that the relevant Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia is clearly at odds with Pope St. John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor, Father de Souza issued the following critiques in an article published in January this year:

  • That while there is nothing problematic in stating that someone might be in mortal sin but not subjectively culpable due to lack of full knowledge or consent, there can be “no lack of knowledge that the behavior is objectively wrong” in these cases because the discernment process Amoris laetitia proposes requires not only knowledge of the teaching, but a “love of Church teaching.”
  • If Holy Communion is allowed for very few exceptional cases of divorced and remarried persons, what is to stop this approach from being applied to the whole of the moral life where circumstances may be equally or more complex? Why limit it to this and not apply it to other moral categories?
  • He gives several examples of other moral situations, outside marriage and family, where extricating oneself from a habitually sinful situation would be more difficult than sexual abstinence for a couple in an irregular situation.
  • He argues it is incumbent on defenders of Amoris Laetitia to show how the role of conscience can apply in one area of the moral life (sexual morality and marriage) differently than it applies in other areas of the moral life.

In a new article in the Homiletic and Pastoral Review, Capuchin Father Regis Scanlon accused the authors of Amoris Laetitia of allowing, through deliberate ambiguity, some non-chaste civilly remarried divorcees to receive Holy Communion.

He criticizes it for “concealing key passages of Familiaris Consortio and finally misappropriating a key Church document on marriage, Gaudium et Spes(51), in order to obtain the appearance of legitimacy in order that the divorced and remarried may receive Communion.” 

Noting the widely differing interpretations of the document (some bishops’ conferences firmly ruling out Holy Communion in these cases, others taking the Pope’s line), Father Scanlon asserts that even though Church leaders “hope the orthodox interpretation will be emphasized, it is not what is being stealthily insinuated in this document.”


'Extremely Grave' situation

Drawing on these and other criticisms of the document, prominent Dominican Father Aidan Nichols said last week that Amoris Laetitia has led to an “extremely grave” situation that may need a canonical procedure “for calling to order a pope who teaches error.”

The English theologian said the interpretation of the document, such as the one given by Archbishop Fernandez above, contradicts the perennial teaching of the Church, and that the exhortation effectively argues for “tolerated concubinage.”

Referring to passages in Chapter 8, he also said it seemed to say that actions “condemned by the law of Christ can sometimes be morally right or even, indeed, requested by God.”

He added that as Amoris Laetitia seems to say that it is not always possible or even advisable to follow the moral law, “then no area of Christian morality can remain unscathed.”

Father Nichols' criticism comes after Cardinal Raymond Burke last week reiterated the need for a correction, and outlined how that might be undertaken.