Livi: 'Amoris Laetitia' Is Vulnerable to 'Every Malevolent Interpretation'

Italian priest philosopher Antonio Livi reflects on Pope Francis’ post-synodal apostolic exhortation on the family.

Professor Antonio Livi.
Professor Antonio Livi. (photo: Screenshot)

Father Antonio Livi is a well known philosophy professor, a former lecturer at the Pontifical Lateran University and a prolific author known for his original “philosophy of common sense”.

In this reflection on Amoris Laetitia, published below, Father Livi takes the same line as Cardinal Raymond Burke by saying the exhortation “is not, and does not try to be, a magisterial act with which new doctrines are taught, providing the faithful with new authoritative interpretations of dogma.”

But without questioning the Pope’s pastoral intentions, which he has no doubt are “all holy and for the advantage and common good” of the Church, Father Livi nevertheless notes “the uneasiness” of the faithful in the reception of the document.

He doesn’t think that Amoris Laetitia has heretical passages, but notes that the great length of the text, “the abuse of metaphors” and the “ambiguity of the affirmations of principle — at times even in clear contradiction to one another — leave open the possibility of every malevolent interpretation.”

This, he says, is also the case among those “who have no right to interpret the Pope but who take advantage of the fact that the Pope did not want — for motives which will certainly have been good and holy — to be clear and precise, using language which would have been able to avoid any distortion.”

He discusses further ambiguities in the text in detail, notes that the Pope doesn’t discuss the Eucharist in the context of the divorce and remarried, at least not directly, and says the Hegelian, historicist dialectic so favored by Cardinal Walter Kasper and others is “entirely out of place” in a pontifical document of this kind that deals with pastoral issues.

Concerning subjective “limits” — ignorance, weakness, dependence upon the passions or social conditioning which may render the sinful act less culpable — he says these have always been taken into consideration by good confessors, “but not to legitimize a situation which has been prolonged in time and which seems without solution precisely because the sin was obstinately repeated.”

“Good spiritual direction,” he adds, “has always been committed to awakening the soul of the Christian who until then has never wanted to change his life.”

Father Livi ends by pinning the Amoris Laetitia's significance on what the Holy Father truly wishes to achieve with it, and hopes the document does not represent a total submission of the magisterium to public opinion, secularization, and a theology "which exalts subjectivism." 


A Reflection on Amoris Laetitia by Professor Antonio Livi

Because of its length and the particular moment in the Church’s history in which it has been drafted and promulgated, a document such as the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia requires a commentary as responsible and prudent as possible, which I do here, availing myself of my specific competence in the field of theological hermeneutics (see endnote) and of my long experience in the spiritual direction of priests, religious, and laymen.

I ought to say first, to make more comprehensible what I am about to say, that the acts of the Roman Pontiff have a different value and bearing, according to the material which they treat and the form in which they are chosen to address the Christian people.

The acts of the Roman Pontiff (recorded as such in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis) may be: 1) true and proper teachings about the faith and morals of the Catholic Church, in which case the Pope limits himself to interpreting authoritatively the dogmas already formulated by the previous Magisterium (ordinary universal magisterium), except in the case that, speaking ex cathedra, he enunciates new dogmas (a case which in the history of the church has been verified very few times); 2) new disciplinary norms regarding the Sacraments, liturgy, ecclesiastical duties, etc. (norms which are part of the corpus of canon law, currently compiled in the Code of Canon Law for the latin church and in that for the Oriental Church); 3) orientations and criteria for pastoral practice which do not change substantially that which is already established in the principles of the dogmatic and moral doctrine, as much as they do not add or subtract anything from that which is prescribed in the current laws of the Church.

On the basis of this fundamental distinction, there are diverse duties of conscience for a Catholic, in the sense that: 1) the teachings of the Pope, when he intends to confirm or develop the truths of the Catholic faith, are to be received by all the faithful with obedience, exterior and interior, with the mind and of the heart; analogously, 2) the disciplinary orders and dispositions of the Pope are to be respected and promptly executed by all those to whom the orders are given, as much as pertains to each directly; on the contrary, 3) those which are mere orientations for pastoral care are to be received by all concerned, starting with the bishops, as criteria to be considered in the exercise of their pastoral office of government and catechesis. As criteria, they are part of a whole series of principles of dogmatic, moral, and disciplinary order, which are already ordinarily present in the conscience of the pastors at the moment of taking a responsible decision on general situations in their dioceses and on some specific case.

Now, the post-synodal apostolic exhortation, both regarding the type of document it is and the subjects it addresses, is undoubtedly a pontifical act of the third type among those which I first listed. In effect, as a kind of pontifical document, this exhortation is not, and does not, try to be a magisterial act with which new doctrines are taught, providing the faithful with new authoritative interpretations of dogma. It is rather a series of pastoral directions, addressed mainly to bishops and their collaborators, among clergy and the laity, so that the doctrine on human love and marriage – which is explicitly confirmed in all its points – is better applied in single concrete cases with prudence, charity and with the desire of avoiding divisions within the ecclesial community.

These are the intentions of the Pope, as is verified from the type of document on which I am commenting. Naturally, as every faithful Christian, I, who am then also a priest, have the duty of unreservedly receiving these pastoral indications, and to be well disposed in taking account, when the occasion is presented, of helping the faithful in difficulty to approach the sacrament of Penance well prepared, or of counseling appropriately those who should find themselves in the situation of being “divorced and remarried”.

But I also have the duty of interpreting such indications in the light of the dogma, morals and canon law, seeing that the papal document cannot and does not intend to abrogate all that which the Church has already established on the matter. And when the interpretation is difficult, for there is complexity and the ambiguity in the many pages of the papal document, I have duty to refer myself to the golden rule of theological interpretation: In necessariis, unitas; in dubiis, libertas; in omnibus, caritas (unity in necessary things; liberty in doubtful things; charity in all things).

I have always been and always will be, with the grace of God, a faithful son of the Church, which is not, as some say, the “Church of Bergoglio” but it is the Church of all time, the Church of Christ. For Christ I have venerated very many popes, from Pius XI to Benedict XVI and Francis. With regard to the statements contained in Amoris laetitia, it is not right for me to doubt that the pastoral intentions of the Pope are all holy and all for the advantage of the common good of the Church of Christ. Nor can I  doubt that the practical directions suggested by him are in themselves aimed at providing the greatest possible good for the faithful for the whole Catholic world.

But the fact remains that reading the document leaves many perplexed with regard to effective clarification of points discussed in the Church for many years, both on the part of many internationally recognized theologians (for example, Cardinal Walter Kasper) and on the part of a restricted but very vocal minority of synodal fathers during the two sessions of the Synod on the Family. The discussion within the work of the synod was preceded and followed by a very full discussion in the media, both Catholic and secular. And the public has perceived the existence of two opposed factions as real: one obstinately maintaining the “abstract formalities” of the past and the other decisively wishing to reform the Church. The latter is now proclaiming throughout the world its “final victory” as if the pontifical document had truly realized that “revolution” of which Kasper had spoken, or those “openings” of which the director of the Civiltà  Cattolica, Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, speaks.

The effect of this all too human and ultimately ideological nature of the discussions which took place within the synod is the unease and disorientation of public opinion with regard to the great doctrinal themes concerning human sexuality, marriage and the family. Anyone who has a true pastoral sensibility cannot but desire, in such a situation, an authoritative pontifical intervention of clarification, a discourse accessible to all, expressed in precise and definitive terms. But  judging by how it was received by the faithful (also by the biased interpretations from those hostile to the Catholic faith) the document of Pope Francis has unfortunately increased uneasiness among the people of God. In effect, the Pope, although affirming there is no change in doctrine, when he speaks of the changes to pastoral practice of dioceses and episcopal conferences which he believes are necessary, leads us to believe that he wants an anarchical “pastoral” activity from clergy which, once the “doctrine” has been left in the attic, assumes “secular” opinions prevalent in one’s own social environment as the “pastoral rule”.  By doing so, Pope Bergoglio seems to launch a severe censure of “conservative” positions to justify without reserve the “reformist” positions. The protests of Cardinal Mueller and of many other authoritative prelates against the thesis of a practice unconnected to doctrine, already formulated by many theologians and some synodal fathers, would have amounted to nothing. Remember, for example, the anguished words of the African Cardinal Robert Sarah, who said that the idea of encouraging a pastoral practice that evolved along with worldly fashions and passions would be “a form of heresy, a dangerous schizophrenic pathology” (cf. La Stampa, 24th of February, 2015).

Understood correctly, nothing in the written text can justify this interpretation, but the prolixity of the text, the abuse of metaphors and the ambiguity of the affirmations of principle — at times even in clear contradiction to one another — leave open the possibility of every malevolent interpretation, even by those who have no right to interpret the Pope but who take advantage of the fact that the Pope did not want – for motives which will certainly have been good and holy – to be clear and precise, using language that would prevent any exploitation. Above all, this mainly concerns the “case by case” evaluation of the ecclesial situation of faithful who have fallen short of conjugal fidelity, made recourse to civil divorce and set up an adulterous living situation. This concerns those couples that are erroneously called “divorced and remarried”, with a language which is not theological, because in the Catholic Church there is only one single marriage which is recognized as valid, the sacramental one, which by its nature is indissoluble and therefore does not admit of divorce or allow any new form of conjugal union, even if recognized by the civil authority.

The Pope says that nothing changes in the canonical situation of these persons, because the issue was previously examined and adjudicated by Pope John Paul II following the Synod of Bishops on the family that took place at the beginning of the 1980s (cf. Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio, 22nd of November, 1981.). But the new practice which Francis has recommended to be adopted in “pastoral accompaniment” and in the “internal forum” is formulated with expressions so equivocal as to allow the ill-intentioned to say that the Pope wanted “in practice” to introduce a kind of “Catholic divorce” and consented to the approval of new marriages on the part of individual bishops, as in access to Communion of the faithful “in irregular situations”.

In reality, the Pope does not speak at all of the possibility of blessing new marriages, and does not even speak directly about the Eucharist: he limits himself to counseling the readmission of these faithful as godparents and some religious ceremonies (baptisms, confirmations, marriages), and invites us to consider the possibility of allowing them to assume duties in parishes or teaching religion. But the arguments adopted to sustain these criteria of “ecclesial inclusion” are unfortunately very confusing and can even be understood – certainly contrary to the real intentions of the Pope – as a radical change in Catholic moral doctrine with regard to grave sin (called “mortal” insofar as it brings with it the loss of sanctifying grace and the danger of eternal damnation, which the Scriptures call “the second death”) and with regard to its subjective culpability, especially in connection with the conditions for obtaining sacramental forgiveness with Confession.

Here is an example of expressions which unfortunately end up at least confused, if not properly formally erroneous:

1) AL 301: “Hence it is can[1] no longer simply be said that all those in any “irregular” situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace. More is involved here than mere ignorance of the rule. A subject may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding “its inherent values”, or be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin. As the Synod Fathers put it, “factors may exist which limit the ability to make a decision””.

Evidently, in the matter of “mortal sin”, it does not make sense to speak of moral qualifiers which “today” are different from those of “yesterday” — the historicist dialectic which is so pleasing to the theologians listened to by Pope Francis (like Walter Kasper) is entirely out of place in a pontifical document which gives advice on how to intervene pastorally in a situation which, from the moral point of view, was definitively classified already by the Lord himself as grave sin (adultery), whose words have been the proximate norm of the evaluation on the part of the ecclesiastical magisterium for all time (not of “yesterday”), with a character of definitiveness which does not admit “today’s” reformist. As far as subjective “limits” (ignorance, weakness, dependence upon the passions or social conditioning) which may render the sinful act less culpable in a given subject, these have always been taken into careful consideration by good confessors, but not to legitimize a situation which has been prolonged in time and which seems without solution precisely because the sin was obstinately repeated, despite the unceasing invitations of divine grace to conversion and reparation of the damage done to the spouse and to the Church. Good spiritual direction on the part of good confessors has always been committed to awakening the soul of the Christian that until then has never wanted to change his life and to resist “even till blood in the fight against sin”, which is that which the Gospel asks of us all (cf. Letter to the Hebrews).

2) AL 303: “Recognizing the influence of such concrete factors, we can add that individual conscience needs to be better incorporated into the Church’s praxis in certain situations which do not objectively embody our understanding of marriage.  Naturally, every effort should be made to encourage the development of an enlightened conscience, formed and guided by the responsible and serious discernment of one’s pastor, and to encourage an ever greater trust in God’s grace. Yet conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel.  It can  also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal.  In  any event, let us recall that this discernment is dynamic; it must remain ever open to new stages  of growth and to new decisions which can enable the ideal to be more fully realized.”

I emphasized in the pontifical text above, the adjective “our” which refers to the “understanding of marriage” of the Catholic Church. Why attribute it to an absurd “we”, as if the subject of this conception might be any opinion leader of the many which move about in our society and not the Church which guards and interprets infallibly the Gospel of Christ? This was certainly not the language, for example, of St. John Paul II, who in his catecheses on human love insisted in presenting Catholic morality as the timely and faithful expression of the intention of love of the creator God, which the Church, depository of the revelation of Jesus Christ, limits itself to express in dogmatic formulas, from which are derived both the “precepts” and the “counsels”, without inventing anything or imposing anything which is not indeed the “plan of God”.

3) AL 304 “It is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being”.

Here the discourse is even more ambiguous, because it voluntarily confuses the “external” evaluation of the moral situation of the conscience of the faithful with their “internal” situation before God: the condition of the individual’s conscience flees the human eye, even that of the spiritual director or confessor, and the authority of the Church is not called to give judgment on the conscience (“de internis neque Ecclesia iudicat” — the Church does not judge what is internal). Therefore the evaluation of the external, that which remains evident to the eyes of men, is what is enough for a merely prudential judgment which does not pretend to be absolute and definitive but concerns the duty of the ecclesiastic authority of recognizing the external behavior of men conformed to the verbal law as just and to sanction the unjust ones (a typical case of ecclesiastical sanction, apart from excommunication for graver crimes, is exactly that of denying access to Communion to those who publicly live in a condition of adultery without the intention of finding a remedy). It cannot but generate still more confusion in the faithful the fact that a Pope speaks of the moral law – already codified by the Church for centuries in dogmas and canonical dispositions — as something “abstract” which cannot be applied to “concrete” situations. Worse yet, he speaks of “concrete” situations which today would be different from those of yesterday, for which reason it would be legitimate to do today the contrary of that which the solemn and ordinary magisterium of the Church had prescribed up until yesterday. In reality, the only difference between yesterday and today which might be significant for pastoral care is that many faithful have a conscience clouded by religious ignorance and by vices, and for this reason they do not perceive any more their sin as a voluntary infraction of the moral norms, or they are not able to apply correctly the moral rule (natural and evangelical) to their personal situation. But if the Pope wanted truly to express agreement between the new praxis of “case by case” and the insensibility of the men of our time in the face of the “plan of God’s love”, then those who see his exhortation as a total submission of the magisterium to public opinion, to secularization, to the progressive theology which exalts subjectivism (that which affirms that every subject is in good faith, and the Church ought to confirm him in his unfounded presumption to be in grace!) would be right.

Antonio Livi

Antonio Livi is the Editor of some philosophical and theological journals (Sensus communis. An International Yearbook for Alethic Logic, Fides Catholica, and Divinitas). Among his works published in English there are Reasons for Believing. On the Rationality of Christian Faith (Aurora, Col.: The Davies Group Publishers, 2009), and A Philosophy of Common Sense. The Modern Discovery of the Epistemic Foundations of Science and Belief   (Aurora, Col.: The Davies Group Publishers, 2012).  About his thought William Slattery wrote The Logic of Truth. Thomas Aquinas’ Epistemology and Antonio Livi’s Alethic Logic (Rome: Leonardo da Vinci, 2015).

Translated from the Italian by Evan Simpkins

The Italian version of this article appeared in La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana


[1] The official English translation has this typo; the Italian does not