Moral Theology and Amoris Laetitia: Some Expert Assessments

NEWS ANALYSIS: A range of opinions is found among moral theologians about the implications of the Pope’s apostolic exhortation.

(photo: Daniel Ibanez/CNA)

VATICAN CITY — Since the publication of Amoris Laetitia this month, some of the strongest and most impassioned reflections on the document have come from moral theologians.

Their responses to the Pope’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation on the family have been mixed, but can be divided into roughly three groups: those who see the document in continuity with previous papal teaching on marriage and the family; those who see the document as containing some erroneous, contradictory and vague passages, which, for some, invalidate the whole document; and those who see it as opening the door to revolutionary changes in pastoral practice (and, therefore, eventually doctrine).

For professor John Grabowski, director of moral theology and ethics at The Catholic University of America, the document represents “a deep engagement” with the teaching of Paul VI, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. “It develops John Paul and Benedict’s thought with a genuinely beautiful reflection on love [Chapter Four],” he said, which he has heard described as “the beating heart of the document.” 

While showing the deep continuity of Francis with his predecessors, Francis “puts this teaching at the service of the Church’s pastoral mission in his (very Jesuit) focus on accompaniment and discernment,” Grabowski added. “The purpose of this focus is to enable families to become agents of the pastoral care of families and of the New Evangelization (in that way, it is an extension of Evangelii Gaudium).”

And according to Father Thomas Petri, academic dean at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, the Pope is emphasizing the importance of forming conscience with the exhortation. “That’s what [Pope Francis] is doing with this exhortation: helping people to understand … what the beautiful vision of Christian marriage is,” Father Petri said.

Father Petri believes the document also “builds strongly” on Pope St. John Paul II’s 1981 apostolic exhortation on the family, Familiaris Consortio, and that part of the discernment of accompaniment “is this slow conversation in helping people understand where they are before God and where God’s grace wants them to move or is moving them to be.”

Father George Woodall, professor of moral theology and bioethics at Rome’s Regina Apostolorum university, likewise praised aspects of the document, telling the Register there is a “great deal of value in the exhortation in the sections that deal with fostering a proper preparation for marriage and for taking care of married love in the different stages of marriage. Those sections, seem to me, to be excellent and very important.”


Subjective and Objective Sin

But Father Woodall is concerned, like a number of others, about what he sees as a potentially subjectivist approach to morality and the document’s emphasis on applying the Church’s moral teaching on a “case-by-case basis.”

Moral theology has traditionally always taught that moral decisions have subjective and objective elements. “Subjective sin” involves moral responsibility for a sinful action when the person committing the action is sufficiently aware of its immorality, whereas when a person unknowingly or unintentionally commits a sinful action it is termed an “objective sin.”  

“I am very worried about what appears to me at the moment to be a very inadequate treatment of conscience — seriously inadequate,” Father Woodall continued. He said he is particularly concerned about its reference to St. Thomas Aquinas’ norm that the law applies in the majority of cases but is inadequate in a minority of cases (Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 94, Artice 4, which is quoted under Paragraph 304 on “Rules and Discernment”). “The way Thomas meant that is limited, and the way it appears to be treated in the exhortation is not,” Father Woodall said.

Peter Kwasniewski, associate professor of philosophy and theology at Wyoming Catholic College, similarly commented that the document “seems to undermine” Church teachings on the objectivity of sin, as expressed in Veritatis Splendor, Pope St. John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical on the fundamentals of the Church’s moral teaching. He recalled that St. John Paul II was “extremely concerned” about the ways in which subjectivism was creeping into moral theology. Whatever a person’s subjective condition, John Paul believed that his or her moral actions “are still objectively either in conformity with the moral law or not,” he said.

Alongside conscience are questions concerning the use of the word “discernment” throughout the document. While traditionally understood as being the effort to discern God’s will in a given circumstance in a way that upholds Church doctrine, more recently the term has been misconstrued to “circumvent what is morally right,” Father Woodall said.

If the exhortation is similarly misinterpreted, it could result in reducing conscience “to a private event,” he said. “We would risk falling into situation ethics,” the approach of flexibly applying moral law according to circumstances.


Other Concerns

Professor Anthony McCarthy, author of Ethical Sex: Sexual Choices and Their Nature and Meaning, notes that the document “rightly warns us of a ‘lukewarm attitude, any kind of relativism,’ when it comes to the Church proposing the ‘full ideal of marriage.’” But bearing this in mind, he said he found “particularly concerning” Paragraph 304, which says general rules “cannot provide absolutely for particular situations.”

While this might be true in some circumstances, McCarthy said, “it is certainly not true of negative moral absolutes, such as ‘Do not commit adultery.’ It is worrying that the exhortation does not make clear this distinction, a distinction typically denied by those who deny the existence of any moral absolutes. Such confusion could have disastrous pastoral results.”

Further questions are raised about the document’s treatment of cohabitation. Although there can be a lack of full consent, and so a person cannot be blamed for an evil act, the objective sinful character of the act remains, said Kwasniewski. But Chapter Eight of the document “sounds like the opposite, as if people living in a state discordant with the sacrament of marriage can nevertheless be entirely free from sin … and can even legitimately request and receive access to the sacraments, without repenting of that discord.”

“That’s a serious problem in moral theology and contradicts not only Veritatis Splendor but the entire framework of Christian ethics that we see in the New Testament, in the [Church] Fathers, in St. Thomas, in [the Council of] Trent, wherever you look,” he said. 

“Cohabitation means living in sin. No matter what the subjective dispositions may be, the actions themselves are discordant with natural and divine law, and therefore displeasing to God and harmful to people.”

Paragraph 303 is another passage flagged as problematic by some moral theologians. It proposes that each conscience can recognize 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.” It then adds that “this discernment is dynamic” and must remain “ever open to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can enable the ideal to be more fully realized.”

If combined with Footnote 329 in the exhortation, another controversial annotation that appears to suggest that divorced-and-remarried couples should continue having sexual relations for “the good of the children,” some believe the text becomes even more worrisome.

“If its words mean anything, it is saying that a non-married couple may ‘discern’ that to be sexually intimate and still receive the sacraments ‘is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity’ of their lives,” said one Dominican theologian in Rome, speaking on condition of anonymity. If this is indeed a correct reading, he predicted that such a development will mean that “Kasperites, and people who promote sex outside of marriage, will now declare that, under the sign of Amoris Laetitia, they have conquered.”


Calls for Reception of Communion

And that appears to be the case, according to some of the reactions put out by Cardinal Walter Kasper and others in relation to admitting remarried divorcees to Communion and acceptance of same-sex relationships. Cardinal Kasper, who first introduced the former possibility at the beginning of the synod process, said there are “clearly” openings to such an admittance in Amoris Laetitia, which he has called a “remarkable document.”

Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, editor of La Civilta Cattolica and one of Pope Francis’ closest advisers, has cited Paragraph 303 as proof that the Pope is opening the door to Communion in such cases. “Pope Francis moves forward in this direction when he speaks of a ‘dynamic discernment’ that ‘must remain ever open to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can enable the ideal to be more fully realized,’” he wrote in the Jesuit journal, whose articles are normally approved by the Secretariat of State but reportedly are now also cleared by Pope Francis. “An irregular situation cannot be turned into a regular one, but there are also journeys of healing, of exploration, journeys in which the law is lived step-by-step.”

German theologians who participated in the controversial secretive meeting in Rome last May seem also to be very pleased with the outcome of the synodal process. Professor Eberhard Schockenhoff, a key adviser to Germany’s bishops, who coined the controversial term “theology of love,” sees in the papal document a “confirmation of the Freiburg approach” whereby civilly-remarried divorcees may already receive the sacraments after a time of discernment with the help of a priest. The Freiburg Diocese, he added, “has every reason to feel confirmed in the path it has already chosen so far, and thus to continue walking on it with confidence. It would be even better if other dioceses would now likewise follow [this example].”

The theologian praised the Pope for the “case-by-case” application and for “not any more describing each deviation as grave sin.” By so doing, he continued, “the foundation for any general exclusion of the remarried divorcees from Communion is thereby taken away.”

The German bishops, the majority of whom support the “Kasper proposal,” have called the document “a real gift for married couples, the family and all the faithful in the Church. We are very happy about it,” they said in a statement.

Coupled with the Pope’s desire for decentralization, critics see such interpretations as a toxic mix that could lead to pastoral practice being inculturated in different regions and nations, something the document alludes to in its introduction. That, in turn, could result, eventually, in a change in doctrine.

“It’s very Gramscian,” said one Church philosophy scholar, referring to the 20th-century Italian Marxist who advocated spreading Communist ideology through cultural infiltration. “The defiance of traditional orthopraxy is also an attack on orthodoxy, for every principled change of practice necessarily entails a change in principles.”


Principles of Interpretation

It is not clear what Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, thinks on the matter, as he has declined to answer media questions on the document. Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, has also said he won’t be commenting.

But in his reflection on the document, Cardinal Raymond Burke, patron of the Order of Malta and formerly the prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican’s highest judicial court, has stated the document is not a magisterial act (based on the Pope’s own words in the third paragraph of the document) and urges reading Amoris Laetitia in light of the “constant teaching of the Church and her discipline that safeguards and fosters this teaching.”

It’s a view similarly backed by some theologians: To do justice to the exhortation, the document should be read “in charity and in service of the truth,” said McCarthy, and in order to do justice to the passages on love in the document, “we need to be clear on the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexual ethics.”

Chad Pecknold, associate professor of theology at The Catholic University of America, holds the same view as Cardinal Burke: that the “very lack of clarity” in parts of the document means those passages are “not authentic expressions of the magisterium” and “must be interpreted or clarified in light of the clear teaching." Matters that appear to be in conflict with Familiaris Consortio “will require clarification by Pope Francis or a future pope to alleviate legitimate concerns that I am certain the Holy Father had no intention of raising,” he said.

Father Antonio López and Nicholas Healy of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, also have advocated this interpretive principle.

“Wherever a reader may have doubts as of how to interpret a certain passage, a sound guiding principle of interpretation is to read those passages in light of the clearly affirmed doctrine of the Church,” they said. “To seek ‘doctrinal novelty,’ as some claim to have found in the text, where it is not stated, is to do violence to the text.”


Optimistic Views

CUA’s Grabowski is among those who hold an optimistic view of Amoris Laetitia, and he rejects the claim of critics that the document improperly blurs the Church’s moral teaching.

“Given the deep continuity of Pope Francis with his predecessors and his insistence that there is no doctrinal change articulated here, I think that this claim is not accurate,” he told the Register. The Pope, he said, simply wants to insist that it’s safe to assume that not all irregular situations are necessarily in mortal sin. “That simply recalls the scholastic teaching that for there to be mortal sin there must be sufficient reflection and full consent of the will, along with grave matter.”

For Grabowski, the Pope wants to show that grace “can be at work in those situations, enabling such persons to begin moving toward the good.” But he pointed out that this is “simply an elaboration of what St. John Paul II called the ‘law of gradualness’ and should not be mistaken with ‘the gradualness of the law’ (which Pope Francis rejects).”

And those who take a positive view of the document, without reading into it an opening to change settled Church teaching on reception of Communion or other contentious issues, stress that the many other positive elements of the Holy Father’s apostolic exhortation shouldn’t be overshadowed by the concerns that some have expressed about damaging potential interpretations of a few elements of its contents.

Grabowski suggests that “time will tell” what impact the document will have, but, for now, he sees it as “putting the Church’s teaching at the service of pastoral care” — a process that also indicates a movement away “from law as the dominant category of Catholic moral thinking” towards a focus on virtue, especially the “virtues of love and mercy.” 

For his part, Pecknold told the Register that he particularly welcomes Chapters Four and Five, on the conjugal love of a man and a woman in marriage and on making that love fruitful with children.

This is “the heart” of Francis’ teaching, he said, adding that the Pope “provides something of an Ignatian retreat on love, beginning with St. Paul’s hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13” and highlighting biblical wisdom for the family “such as never letting a day end ‘without making peace in the family.’”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.

Catholic News Agency contributed to this report.