On Rocco Buttiglione’s Defense of Amoris Laetitia

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In the past several weeks L’Osservatore Romano has published two articles by reputable John Paul II scholars defending the teachings of Amoris Laetitia (AL). In the first article, Rocco Buttiglione, a widely respected philosopher, argues that critics of this apostolic exhortation have trouble understanding Pope Francis. Hence they fail to see that there is no disharmony with the Church’s tradition, and that the pope is not “out of step with his great predecessor, Pope John Paul II.” A week later an article appeared by Rodrigo Guerra López, a philosopher at the Center for Advanced Social Research in Queretaro, Mexico. “Creative Fidelity” contends that the teaching of Amoris Laetitia represents a proper evolution of Catholic doctrine that manages to preserve the essence of the moral magisterium, including the work of John Paul II. These articles seem to be part of an orchestrated effort to buttress support for the theological credibility of Amoris Laetitia and to demonstrate the close affinity between Pope Francis and Pope John Paul II.

But in the face of so much criticism and dismay over this exhortation, how are we to understand this latest insistence on continuity? Is Amoris Laetitia really faithful to the teaching of John Paul II’s masterful work on moral theology, Veritatis Splendor (VS)? And therefore does it help us to be more faithful Catholics?

Within the narrow compass of this critique we can only focus on Buttiglione’s essay, which is the more engaging of the two pieces. He writes that many intellectuals who criticize the pope’s exhortation do so because “they find no support in Francis’s teaching to affirm their own theories.” Professor Buttiglione invites theologians and philosophers to put aside their scholarly spectacles and see the exhortation through the eyes of a child. We can then appreciate its simplicity and acknowledge that Amoris Laetitia does not succumb to the moral subjectivism criticized in Veritatis Splendor.

Following Buttiglione’s advice, I made a good faith effort to put aside my own Scholastic spectacles in an effort to interpret this exhortation more favorably. I tried to find the “surprising freshness of Francis’s message.” However, I still perceive the same old problems and contradictions that cannot be swept away by merely concentrating on this exhortation’s original insights. Buttiglione’s defense of Pope Francis’ exhortation is crystallized in his claim that “there is no ‘ethics of circumstance’ in Amoris Laetitia. To dissect his arguments we must recognize that there are two chief issues at stake revolving around objective morality and subjective culpability. There are many objective moral norms which allow us to judge particular actions as right or wrong. These moral rules, provided by natural law and divine Revelation, protect fundamental goods and must be obeyed. However, someone may violate one of these rules and not be fully responsible due to mitigating factors. Thus, we must always consider to what degree a moral agent is blameworthy for an objectively immoral action.

When confessors evaluate such responsibility or blameworthiness they are usually looking at things retrospectively. Was the act in question done knowingly and voluntarily? If a person did not know or understand the pertinent moral rule, or she was forced into violating it, we can assume that her responsibility is limited or even nullified. A confessor might then determine that while the act was objectively sinful, the person is not subjectively culpable. However, as moral theologians like E. Christian Brugger have pointed out, the novelty of Amoris Laetitia is that it applies these conditions prospectively in order to determine the ability of someone to participate in the sacramental life of the Church. It highlights whether or not a person in an objectively sinful state is capable of overcoming his ignorance or extricating himself from that situation. If not, that person’s subjective culpability continues to be mitigated.

Amoris Laetitia also proposes that the moral rule in question may not even apply within a particular set of circumstances. In this case, the act is not objectively immoral. Moral judgements must reflect the reality that moral rules in their abstract generality cannot take into account all the concrete conditions of a person’s life.

Thus, there are two ways in which an action that violates a moral rule can be excused. First, there may be extenuating or abnormal circumstances that warrant an exception to a moral rule. Second, there may be no extenuating circumstances so the act is objectively evil, but the person is not subjectively culpable due to a lack of knowledge or freedom. Moreover, Amoris Laetitia contends that not only do these conditions mitigate blame for what transpired in the past but also the subjective culpability of one’s present situation. Thus, Pope Francis declares that those who live in an “irregular situation” may not necessarily be in a state of mortal sin because they “have great difficulty in understanding the ‘inherent values’” of the moral rule in question, or a concrete situation does not allow that person “to act differently and decide otherwise” (AL 301).  And if there is no mortal sin they should be able to receive Holy Communion even though they are involved in an invalid second marriage.

Amoris Laetitia in Light of Veritatis Splendor
How does this analysis align with the moral theology of John Paul II? To begin with, John Paul II was resolute in his conviction about specific moral absolutes including the prohibition against adultery. So here the rupture with John Paul II and Veritatis Splendor is quite explicit. According to Buttiglione, “Pope Francis, in perfect harmony with his predecessors, tells us that some actions are bad in themselves (adultery, for example), regardless of the circumstances that accompany them and the intensions of the one performing them.” However, there is no such affirmation in Amoris Laetitia that some acts like adultery are always wrong.

On the contrary, Amoris Laetitia appears to disavow the notion of exceptionless moral laws. According to Pope Francis, “It is reductive to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general rule or law, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of the human being” (AL 304). The pope goes on to say that while moral rules protect basic goods “in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations” (AL 304).  The Italian word meschino, which is translated as “reductive,” means “narrow-minded.” Thus, by claiming that an action is wrong simply because it violates the moral law, and without taking into account the circumstances involved in those “particular situations,” the focus is too narrow, and, as a result, one’s moral judgement might be unreasonable. There appear to be no exemptions for these general claims about moral rules, so one must assume that any moral rule can allow for certain exceptions.

Therefore, if Pope Francis believes in specific moral absolutes he is surely not conveying that message in this exhortation. On the other hand, John Paul II taught with great clarity that there are certain acts which are “intrinsically evil,” and “they are such always and per se … quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances” (VS 80).  He provides examples such as theft, the taking of innocent human life, and adultery. Other examples include deliberate killing of innocent civilians in war and torture.  Does Pope Francis really believe that the moral rule prohibiting torture “cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations” (AL 304)? These specific absolute moral norms rescue morality from relativity and affirm “the existence of an objective moral order” (VS 82).

Of course, John Paul II recognized that an objectively evil act might not be subjectively imputable to an individual. In the apostolic exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (RP), he explains that “external and internal factors may attenuate, to a greater or lesser degree, the person’s freedom and therefore his responsibility and guilt” (RP 16). Knowledge of those factors would be essential to assess blameworthiness for one’s past actions. But would John Paul II concur that these factors can also function prospectively? Could a person in a valid marriage who leaves his wife to enter into a second marriage not only be excused for his past sin but also welcomed at the communion rail because he still does not fully comprehend the “inherent values” implied by the moral law pertaining to marriage (AL 301)?

It is highly unlikely that John Paul II would accept any such scenario. First, he always emphasized that “while it is possible that the evil done as the result of invincible ignorance … may not be imputable to the agent, even in this case it does not cease to be an evil, a disorder in relation to the truth about the good” (VS 63). Someone who enters into a second marriage may be acting according to his or her conscience, but that person has made a serious moral error and has wandered far away from the divine and natural law. There is a “deviation from the path that leads to God” linked with that sin’s “objective content” (RP 17). Hence there is an urgent need to overcome this “disorder” and set oneself on the right path. Amoris Laetitia, on the other hand, downplays the moral chaos of a person’s life when she is in a sinful condition, even if she initially acted in good conscience. Instead, we are told that remaining within a sinful state does not preclude a “certain moral security” (AL 303).

Also, if a person goes through a credible process of discernment (as described in Amoris Laetitia), he or she will surely come to know the moral rule and appreciate its “inherent values.” The values underlying marital permanence and exclusivity are surely not that difficult to comprehend. Overcoming this ignorance removes the condition for a lack of subjective imputability in the future. The person in a second marriage discovers the moral truth, realizes his errant ways, and acknowledges the need to change his life accordingly. That leaves us with coercion. Here the issue is more subtle and complex, and Buttiglione offers examples of how coercive pressures might severely constrain a person’s freedom to act differently within a second marriage. How these unfortunate situations should be handled is another chapter that cannot be opened here. But let it suffice to say that while Amoris Laetitia indicates that sometimes “people find it very difficult to act differently,” subjective culpability is mitigated only when there is real coercion that destroys freedom, and those situations are extremely rare (AL 302).

Where does this leave us? Beyond any doubt, there is a radical discontinuity between Pope Francis and John Paul II on the issue of specific absolute moral norms. Second, there is an acute discordance between Amoris Laetita and John Paul II’s more measured discussion of subjective culpability. There is no evidence that John Paul II would be persuaded to accept a “development” within moral theology which broadens the scope of subjective imputability along the lines of Pope Francis’ exhortation. The first issue is especially critical because it pertains to the whole structure of Catholic morality. Liberal theologians have waged war over the issue of specific absolute moral norms, because they believe that it makes people subordinate to rules. It’s quite revealing that they are delighted with Amoris Laetitia, which they regard as a paradigm shift in moral theology. And unfortunately there is some justification for these claims.

The Catholic intellectual community, especially those inspired by the great work of John Paul II, must come to terms with what’s at stake in the debates about Amoris Laetitia. At best, this is an imprecise work that needs clarification; at worst, it is a subtle repudiation of Veritatis Splendor and two thousand years of Catholic moral Tradition. Absolute moral norms may not be in vogue these days in secular society. But they are the only guarantee against the arbitrariness of a subjective morality that invites self-deception and rationalization.

(Photo credit: La Stampa)

Richard A. Spinello


Richard A. Spinello is an Associate Research Professor at Boston College and a member of the adjunct faculty at St. John’s Seminary in Boston. He is the author of The Encyclicals of John Paul II: An Introduction and Commentary, and Understanding Love and Responsibility: A Companion to Karol Wojtyla’s Classic Work along with numerous other books and articles on ethical theory and applied ethics.