‘Real Pastoring Can’t Do Without the Truth’

Canadian theologian Douglas Farrow explains why clarity is necessary, regarding the controversial content of Amoris Laetitia.

Catholic theologian Douglas Farrow
Catholic theologian Douglas Farrow (photo: Register Files)

Six lay academics from around the world will address a conference in Rome Saturday on how to bring clarity to a controversial chapter of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love).

The one-day event, entitled “Bringing Clarity One Year After Amoris Laetitia, is being held in response to the confusion deriving from differing interpretations of the document’s Chapter 8, especially over whether or not to allow some divorced and remarried couples living in irregular unions to receive holy Communion.

The conference, hosted by Italian publications La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana and Il Timone, follows the submission last year by four cardinals of five dubia (doubts) to Pope Francis aimed at confirming whether or not ambiguous passages in Amoris Laetitia are in continuity with the Church’s established moral teaching.

The Holy Father has said he won’t respond to the five questions, each of which requested a “Yes” or “No” answer. He has said some “persist in seeing only white or black, when, rather, one ought to discern in the flow of life.” 

One of Saturday’s speakers is Canadian Douglas Farrow, professor of Christian philosophy at McGill University in Montreal, who will discuss “The Roots of the Current Crisis.”

In this April 20 interview with the Register, he explains this crisis and how the problems surrounding Amoris Laetitia stem from a crisis of authority that is both moral and doctrinal as well as one of faith and reason. He also stresses that “real pastoring can’t do without the truth,” especially today, and shares his reasons why he believes the dubia must be answered and the crisis resolved, or it will “leave a wound in the Church” that won’t be “easily healed.”


What do you say to the argument that the teaching has not changed, that the Holy Father is just trying to find a way to deal with these more complex cases in a pastoral way? Is there anything to be said for it, or is it just a red herring?

I don’t think it’s a red herring for people in the work of dealing pastorally with troubled situations, of which there are far too many. But I do think it’s a red herring theologically and canonically. The reason I say that is that helping someone pastorally is a task that requires a great deal of sensitivity and a great deal of prudence. But prudence has to operate within the parameters of right and wrong.

The question about communicating people who are living in situations that, objectively speaking, are wrong is not a pastoral one. That may seem a very strange thing to say, but it’s not. It’s a sacramental matter, determined by the sacraments themselves. The pastoring part has to do with helping people to understand right and wrong and to respond rightly to the challenges that this new knowledge of moral truth poses for them. … Just as you ought not to marry a couple who are not, as far as you can tell, properly prepared to marry, so you ought not to communicate someone who is not properly prepared to communicate.

So, in that sense, I don’t see the problem as a negotiation between sacramental discipline and pastoral support. I think that confuses the categories involved. I don’t mean to suggest that sacramental support is not pastorally useful. Of course it is. But to come to the sacrament of reconciliation in order to receive the sacrament of the Eucharist, one does have to know what the Church teaches in terms of right and wrong. And if we’re going to start negotiating what’s right and what’s wrong instead of negotiating how you respond to what’s right and what’s wrong, well, then the whole thing comes apart at the seams.


What do you say to the Pope’s argument that “reality is greater than ideas,” that he doesn’t want doctrine getting in the way of pastoring to people. Would you say that’s a false notion?

I would, yes. If doctrine gets in the way of pastoring people, then you have a bifurcated view of the human person, such that I don’t know how you would ever hope to have the emotions, intellect and volition and the body all functioning harmoniously. Doctrine tells us who and what God is and who and what we are before God. And the truth about all that is at the heart of pastoring.


The Pope should be leading people in a different way?

We don’t always need a pope who’s a great theologian, as the last couple of popes have been and several of their recent predecessors. But we do always need a pope who grasps doctrine and the role of doctrine. We can’t benefit from a bifurcation of the human person or of the ministry of the Church to the person.


You can’t be truly pastoral without the truth?

I think that’s absolutely right. What distinguishes the counsel and support of the Church from the counsel and support you might find if you went to your social worker or even your “shrink”? The latter, if wise, may be able enough to do it well, and may be very generous or even gracious, but, ultimately, they don’t have the means of grace to bear on the problem. They also don’t have that sure knowledge of the truth that the Church has. So they themselves may be uncertain how body and soul hang together. We live in a time which is increasingly uncertain whether the body is even a good. People need more than ever to learn the truth about the human person and the human condition, the truth revealed to them in the Gospel. Real pastoring can’t do without the truth.


Would you say this whole phenomenon is a product of relativism that has entered into the Church?

Yes, I would say that, but I think there’s more to it than that. The immediate practical problem in the Church concerns something that began happening decades ago, and trying to adjust to what happened back then is an enormous mistake, no matter which side of the argument you’re on, unless you’re also considering what’s happening today. The divorce phenomenon is just one of several phenomena produced by a wave of change in the way we think about ourselves. And although it’s a very important phenomenon — because divorce impacts family units and has enormously negative effects on children (there’s general consensus on that among the people who study it) — it’s nevertheless increasingly a dated phenomenon. We are moving to the point where we’re not even willing to acknowledge our own bodies as a given, as something settled, never mind a marriage covenant made with someone else.

Take, for example, the transgender phenomenon, which may to some extent be a function of the wounded psyches that come out of the earlier phenomenon, the divorce phenomenon. What does it tell us about the trajectory we’re on?  We’ve been on this trajectory, by the way, since we began to embrace contraception, which embrace [of which] taught us to tell lies about the body and lies about our relationships to one another and to God. Soon we were telling lies about abortion, and if you justify the killing of a baby in the womb, you can justify just about anything. Relativism is as much a product of our following a course of action as it is a product of philosophy.


In view of this, what do you say of the Pope’s “field hospital” analogy — that people are so broken, that relationships are so disfigured today through such things as divorce and transgenderism, that there has to be a new approach? Is there anything to be said for that?

Yes, there’s something to be said for the intention, but not for the analysis, if it means backpedaling on Christian anthropology. To press it a bit further: Suppose I’m alienated from my sex, and I identify myself as an M2F [male to female] transsexual. How does the Church go about dealing with me as this obviously broken person? Should she accept my claims? Will that help me? How far should she go in affirming my putative identity or my actual “lifestyle” choices? And what is to be gained in doing so? For the moment she hints that I may in fact be broken or disordered will she not hear from me that she is bigoted and hateful? Should she not, rather, respond to me in a way that does not pit love against truth or truth against love?


There’s a danger of the Church not lifting them out of their situation, but rather affirming them in their mistakes, of offering in the field hospital the wrong kind of medicine?

Yes, the doctor must take from the cabinet what the doctor, not the patient, thinks will do the most good.


Does much of this come down to a crisis of faith, of authority, of reason?

Yes, indeed. On Saturday I will try to make clear that we’re facing a crisis that is at once moral and doctrinal, a crisis of authority and of unity. But it can certainly be said as well that it is a crisis of faith and of reason. We can only reason faithfully with Scripture and Tradition, not against it.


On the dubia itself — what’s your opinion of the four cardinals and this initiative, and should the laity be heard more, as you’re doing, in support of them?

I accepted the invitation because I do think that the issues addressed by the dubia are issues for the whole Church. This is not a private dogfight among clerical factions. Not that such things can be settled democratically; that’s not how the Church works. So having more laity speak to them is not, in my mind, a numerical matter or a question of balance. It is not for nothing that we have bishops and a pope!

But as a lay theologian I do want to say that the whole debate is far too serious to be confined to the halls of the Vatican.   


Do you think the correction is inevitable if the Pope doesn’t respond?

What would a correction look like? How would it be effected? I do think that the situation has to have a resolution, a satisfactory and sustainable resolution. If it doesn’t come from Francis, it will have to come from elsewhere.


From his successor?

Yes, that would be the most obvious solution, because if the Church were to leave this business unresolved, the integrity of tradition would be damaged badly enough that it would leave a wound in the Church not easily healed.


Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.