Professor Josef Seifert Shares His Views on ‘Gaudete et Exsultate’
Regarded as one of the greatest living Catholic philosophers, the Austrian scholar welcomes much of the Pope’s exhortation on holiness and believes it implicitly rejects a proposed ‘new paradigm’ of morality that draws on ‘Amoris Laetitia.’
Soon after the publication on April 9 of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on holiness, Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and Be Glad), various scholars were invited to give their responses to the document for this Register article that was published last week.
The prominent Austrian Catholic philosopher Joseph Seifert generously responded with very full answers, as did Professor Claudio Pierantoni, a patristics and medieval philosophy scholar at the Universidad de Chile.
Naturally unable to include the complete responses in the article, I publish Professor Seifert’s full contribution below, and will soon post the complete remarks of Professor Pierantoni who is strongly critical of the document.
Professor Seifert, founding rector of the International Academy of Philosophy in Liechtenstein and president of the newly founded John Paul II Academy for Human Life and the Family, has in the past warned about the dangers of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia.
He takes a more positive approach to the Holy Father’s latest document, and believes it “implicitly rejects” the “new papal moral theological paradigm” based on the Pope’s exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia, and put forward by theologians such as Professor Maurizio Chiodi.
Seifert warns that such a “new paradigm” would be “undoubtedly a disastrous error that destroys the very foundations of morality and of the moral teaching of the Church.”
What is your reaction to Pope Francis placing in Gaudete et Exsultate (GE) the lives of the unborn on an equal basis to other social justice issues?
Before answering your concrete question, I want to say that Gaudete et Exsultate is, in many respects and parts, a very beautiful document, in my opinion by far the most beautiful one of this Pontificate (prescinding from the first Encyclical that had been written to a large part by Pope Benedict XVI). GE places in the center of its message the call to holiness, a call addressed to each and every one of us by God; Haec est enim voluntas Dei: sanctificatio vestra. For this is the will of God, your sanctification. (1 Thessalonians 4:3). Thus Pope Francis stresses truly an absolutely central part of revealed truth. Holiness is the will of God for every one of us. GE insists that the core of holiness is the fulfillment of the two greatest commandments: the love of God and the love of our neighbor, and he analyzes with simplicity the “beatitudes” Jesus taught us in the Sermon on the Mount (Mathew 5:1-12). As many great Christian thinkers have seen, these eight Beatitudes give us a marvelous brief guide to holiness that permit us even to translate the first words of each beatitude: “Blessed are” by “Holy are”.
GE says many deep things about the evangelical call to holiness and warns against two dangers or teachings that lead us astray and away from true holiness: Gnosticism that puts human constructions in the place of the divinely revealed mysteries and manifests itself in many different forms, and Pelagianism that implies that we can please God by the mere natural strength of our will that does not stand in need of divine grace to inspire and nourish the good in us. Thus both Gnosticism and Pelagianism are a fruit of pride and falsify the true message of the Gospels. Although Pope Francis does not directly say so, some attentive and critical readers of GE, as Claudio Pierantoni, have rightly pointed out that the fuzzy notions of these two heresies used in AL seem to be minted at those who abide by the Church teaching on the intrinsically evil acts expressed so forcefully in Veritatis Splendor and, jointly with calling them “rigid,” direct themselves against those who have uttered criticisms of Amoris Laetitia and against the papal silence on the dubia of the four Cardinals, above all the second one that asks whether AL seeks to break with the notion of intrinsically evil acts, or because they have criticized what Father Maurizio Chiodi calls the new moral theological paradigm of Pope Francis.
My intention in this interview, however, is not a critique, however correct such a critique would be, of a number of passages in GE that imply errors or heresies, but a positive approach. By “a positive approach” I do not mean that everything GE says is true or beautiful or that Pierantoni’s and other critics are wrong, but only the following: I wish to show that the most genuine philosophical and religious insights expressed by the Pope in GE, when logically thought through, are completely incompatible with the rejection of Humanae Vitae and Veritatis Splendor ascribed to Pope Francis by a number of moral theologians. I wish to show that if he were to espouse the horrible moral theological heresy and ethical error Father Chiodi and others ascribe to him, Pope Francis would betray himself, he would despise his own deepest cognitions.
Turning, after these introductory remarks, to your first question, I think that the claim that GE puts the “life of the unborn on equal basis to other social justice issues” may well apply to some previous utterances of Pope Francis but is not a just interpretation of the two sections of GE that could give such an impression.
The first of these texts is this one:
“101. The other harmful ideological error is found in those who find suspect the social engagement of others, seeing it as superficial, worldly, secular, materialist, communist or populist. Or they relativize it, as if there are other more important matters, or the only thing that counts is one particular ethical issue or cause that they themselves defend. Our defence of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development. Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection. We cannot uphold an ideal of holiness that would ignore injustice in a world where some revel, spend with abandon and live only for the latest consumer goods, even as others look on from afar, living their entire lives in abject poverty.”
In this text, Pope Francis stresses the truth that each human life is sacred and demands love, not only the life of the unborn. In fact, he bases himself here on Matthew 25 where Christ tells us that He will put to us on the Last Day the questions whether we have given a roof to the homeless, clothed the naked, fed the hungry, visited the prisoners, etc. To remind us that we should show the same love and mercy with which we are obliged to love the unborn to all human beings in need cannot be justly said to relativize the commitment for the unborn, nor can these works of merciful love be qualified correctly as mere “social issues”.
The other text is the following, which indeed seems to deny that abortion is an incomparably graver evil than to stop the flood of migrants or emigrants, an action that we see, for example in the present Hungarian politics, and that cannot even be called clearly evil at all because the question of putting limits on immigration is a very complex issue that does not allow to apply easy black-white schemes. The Pope writes:
“102. We often hear it said that, with respect to relativism and the flaws of our present world, the situation of migrants, for example, is a lesser issue. Some Catholics consider it a secondary issue compared to the “grave” bioethical questions. That a politician looking for votes might say such a thing is understandable, but not a Christian, for whom the only proper attitude is to stand in the shoes of those brothers and sisters of ours who risk their lives to offer a future to their children. Can we not realize that this is exactly what Jesus demands of us, when he tells us that in welcoming the stranger we welcome him (cf. Mt 25:35)? Saint Benedict did so readily, and though it might have “complicated” the life of his monks, he ordered that all guests who knocked at the monastery door be welcomed “like Christ”, with a gesture of veneration; the poor and pilgrims were to be met with “the greatest care and solicitude”.”
But reading Paragraph 102 in its entirety, I do not think it can be claimed that Pope Francis denies these truths and the incomparable gravity of abortion that is first degree murder and is incomparable with putting a limit to immigration or not accepting more immigrants. Rather, Francis wants to emphasize that the foreigners, the homeless and sick also possess the same human dignity of the unborn whose life and dignity we should passionately defend. Each human person deserves full respect and love, and therefore the Gospel message “what you have done to the least of my brethren, you have done also to me”; and “what you have not done to the least of my brethren, you have also not done unto me” does not apply solely to the unborn, which is entirely true.
What fruit have you seen as a result of his wish to criticize those who rigidly adhere to doctrine and the Commandments?
Pope Francis does not call in GE, as he has done before, rigid or stubborn those who adhere to the doctrine that adultery can under no circumstances be justified and who deny that committing adultery can ever correspond to the will of God. Nor does Pope Francis in GE call rigorists those who insist that there are intrinsically evil acts that must never be committed and that there are universally binding laws that make any act of contraception, abortion, euthanasia, rape, calumny, lie, or other acts intrinsically wrong. On the contrary, he cites in GE many acts that are intrinsically evil without the slightest hint that they could in any situation become legitimate.
Pope Francis has no doubt given the impression in some previous utterances that he denies intrinsically and everywhere morally evil acts. However, there is no word that clearly would say this in GE, whose message on the call of every man to holinesss, clearly contradicts objectively condoning committing intrinsically evil acts. Not committing sins is a precondition of fulfilling the call to holiness which calls for more than just abstaining from intrinsically wrong acts; committing them can never be part of holiness, however. Did then Pope Francis return in GE to the classical natural law and Church teaching on morals that he seemed to have abandoned in some previous utterances?
Some parts of GE give us this hope, at least by implication of what is best in GE. No doubt, however, in spite of all its excellent and straightforward praise of sanctity, GE – though in a somehow veiled form – expresses at some point a kind of identification of rigorism with orthodoxy and with the adherence to the central moral teaching of natural ethics, of Humanae Vitae and Veritatis Splendor. Their teaching that contraception, abortion, euthanasia, and many other acts must never, not under any circumstance, be committed is at any rate neither clearly affirmed nor clearly denied in GE.
We can say more: As a matter of fact, the quotation of a beautiful text of the Aparecida document in note 84 can solely be logically coherent with a position that stands on the ground of Veritatis Splendor:
“The Fifth General Conference of the Latin American and Caribbean Bishops, echoing the Church’s constant teaching, stated that human beings “are always sacred, from their conception, at all stages of existence, until their natural death, and after death”, and that life must be safeguarded “starting at conception, in all its stages, until natural death” (Aparecida Document, 29 June 2007, 388; 464).”
How much must we hope that the Pope, the visible head of the Church and representative of Christ on Earth, will draw quite explicitly the good logical conclusions from the good things he says in GE! As far as I know, however, Pope Francis has not expressly rejected what Father Chiodi, a new member of the Pontifical Academy of Life and of the Papal commission to reinterpret HV in the light of AL, calls a “New Papal Moral Theological Paradigm” that he attributes to AL, according to which there is nothing intrinsically immoral about contraception, which to practice can even be an obligation according to Chiodi, just as there would not exist, according to this “new paradigm”, quite generally speaking, any intrinsically evil acts that are bad according to “a general rule.”
The noble moral tenor of GE’s discourse on sanctification as our general vocation lets us hope that this “new paradigm” is an invention of Father Chiodi, who does not proclaim any new paradigm but just warms up old ethical errors rejected and refuted by Veritatis Splendor. This alleged “new paradigm” is undoubtedly a disastrous error that destroys the very foundations of morality and of the moral teaching of the Church. I believe, however, that implicity Francis rejects in GE this “new paradigm” that has been identified by some critical readers in some passages of Amoris Laetitia. Likewise, I do not see this error of the alleged “new paradigm” (in reality the old ethical error of consequentialist proportionalism) clearly expressed in the following passage of GE, which some readers interpreted as a confirmation of the “new paradigm”:
43. It is not easy to grasp the truth that we have received from the Lord. And it is even more difficult to express it. So we cannot claim that our way of understanding this truth authorizes us to exercise a strict supervision over others’ lives. Here I would note that in the Church there legitimately coexist different ways of interpreting many aspects of doctrine and Christian life; in their variety, they “help to express more clearly the immense riches of God’s word”. It is true that “for those who long for a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance, this might appear as undesirable and leading to confusion”.
Indeed, some currents of gnosticism scorned the concrete simplicity of the Gospel and attempted to replace the trinitarian and incarnate God with a superior Unity, wherein the rich diversity of our history disappeared.
We must not read into this text Father Chiodi’s new paradigm, I propose. Instead, let us hope that Pope Francis, drawing on the rich biblical exhortation to strive for holiness, and on his own admonition to take our call to sanctity seriously, will clearly and unambigously answer the justified dubia of the four Cardinals and that Pope Francis will indeed insist that Chiodi’s interpretation of the new paradigm that denies HV and rejects the central teaching of VS on intrinsically evil acts is a huge error and far from Francis’ mind. If he were to espouse this error, one could hardly conceive of a greater tragedy and error ever having afflicted the Church.
What do you say to the view that his strategy is aimed at moving away from making “idols” of doctrine, the law and some doctrinal formulations (see Pope's homily at this year's Chrism Mass)?
In # 43 and 44 of GE, Pope Francis seems indeed to belittle doctrine and truth in the way Father Weinandy’s beautiful and sublime open letter to the Pope stated. And in GE # 57 Pope Francis writes:
This finds expression in a variety of apparently unconnected ways of thinking and acting: an obsession with the law, an absorption with social and political advantages, a punctilious concern for the Church’s liturgy, doctrine and prestige, a vanity about the ability to manage practical matters, and an excessive concern with programmes of self-help and personal fulfilment.
However, I do not see GE directly identifying the insistence on moral absolutes and on general rules according to which some human acts are always and everywhere evil with an ideology. Moreover, GE, in its uplifting reading of the Sermon on the Mount and its insistence on the absolute moral value of the love of God and the love of neighbor, of mercy, patience, etc., even clearly seems to oppose the kinds of errors Father Chiodi praised and attributed to the Pope in his lecture.
Equally important about GE is the fact that it rejects at least part of the grave errors and heresies recently attributed to the Pope by the famous atheist journalist Eugenio Scalfari who interviewed Pope Francis and attributed to him the denial of the last judgment, the denial of hell and of a personal devil who tempts us and wishes us to join him in his eternal “no” to God and wants to carry us along with himself to eternal torments. Instead, Scalfari claimed that according to Pope Francis the evil persons would be just annihilated, as Jehova’s witnesses teach. In whatever way one might explain the contradiction between GE and the description of Pope Francis’ theology of hell given by Scalfari, the fifth chapter of GE is no doubt the strongest statement of this Pontificate on the reality of the devil. Chapter 5 is likewise a particularly clear description of the spiritual fight and contains a lengthy treatment of the reality of the devil as a person and real entity (159-162, 165) that can in no way be interpreted, along the lines of Rudolf Bultmann, whom the Pope quoted in one of his Easter sermons, as a mere subjective creature of our consciousness and self-interpretation, or as a product of “kerygma”, a mere object of preaching and human consciousness that would be compatible with the fact that the bones of Christ are rotting in some tomb and that the real event of resurrection never took place, or that the Sciptural texts that speak of the devil are merely mythological and nothing more than names for the apersonal reality of evil in the world. No, Pope Francis preaches in the fifth Chapter of GE the classical Jesuit teaching of the discernment of the spirits that allows us to judge which thoughts in our soul and movements of our will are fruit of divine inspiration and which are works of the demon’s deceptions. This classical notion of discernment is quite different from the notion of discernment propounded in AL that presents it as possible that acts of adultery could be what God wills from us in a concrete situation.
To conclude, I see some truths stressed in GE as a formulation of what a Catholic ought to hope for in a pope. May God allow that this hope become fulfilled: that Pope Francis’ magisterium truly be carrying out the mission of the Pope; that instead of sowing confusion and errors, Pope Francis may become a servant of the revealed truth and of the sacred doctrine of the Church, over which the Pope is not Lord, but to which he has to submit and which he has to transmit so that all men may be moved by the truth and beauty of the Gospel and of the holiness God wills to give to each of us if we cooperate with His grace.
 See the marvelous meditation of these beatitudes in Dietrich von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ. On the Christian Attitude of Mind, last edition with a new sub-title: Transformation in Christ. Our Path to Holiness. Reprint of 1948 (New Hampshire: Sophia Institute Press. 1989).
 See also Josef Seifert, “Amoris Laetitia. Joy, Sadness and Hopes”. Aemaet Bd. 5, Nr. 2 (2016) 160-249, http://aemaet.de urn:nbn:de:0288-2015080654; the same author, “Does pure Logic threaten to destroy the entire moral Doctrine of the Catholic Church?“ Aemaet, Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift für Philosophie und Theologie http://aemaet.de, Bd. 6 (2017), 2-9.
 Pope Francis does not mention here the further part of St. Benedict’s rule that shows that offering hospitality and a roof to needy persons is not always required nor refusing it intrinsicallly evil as abortion. St. Benedict states in his rule that if a guest disturbs the community of the monastic life, he should be told that he should leave; and if he does not follow this request, two stout monks should put him outside by force.
 For example, in GE 85, he lists a number of evil actions that are no doubt intrinsically and always evil:
In Matthew’s Gospel too, we see that what proceeds from the heart is what defiles a person (cf. 15:18), for from the heart come murder, theft, false witness, and other evil deeds (cf. 15:19). From the heart’s intentions come the desires and the deepest decisions that determine our actions.
In 113 he is speaking of the intrinsic evil of vengefulness:
113. Saint Paul bade the Romans not to repay evil for evil (cf. Rom 12:17), not to seek revenge (v. 19), and not to be overcome by evil, but instead to “overcome evil with good” (v. 21).
One might add many other examples of intrinsically evil acts, quite in line with GE, for example rape, sexual abuse, homosexual acts, calumnies, perjuries, false accusations, deliberately unjust judgments of judges for the sake of personal gains, accepting bribes, etc., etc.
In his interpretation of the “Blessed are the merciful…”, he says: 80:
Mercy has two aspects. It involves giving, helping and serving others, but it also includes forgiveness and understanding. Matthew sums it up in one golden rule: “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you” (7:12). The Catechism reminds us that this law is to be applied “in every case”,especially when we are “confronted by situations that make moral judgments assured and decision difficult”.
In 82, he adds:
For this reason, in the Gospel of Luke we do not hear the words, “Be perfect” (Mt 5:48), but rather, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you” (6:36-38). Luke then adds something not to be overlooked: “The measure you give will be the measure you get back” (6:38). The yardstick we use for understanding and forgiving others will measure the forgiveness we receive. The yardstick we use for giving will measure what we receive. We should never forget this.