Amoris Laetitia and the Post-Modern Papacy of Pope Francis

Pope Francis (AFP)

It has been nine long months since the publication of Amoris Laetita, but there is still no end in sight to the confusion and turmoil it has unleashed within almost every corner of the Catholic Church. Bishops have now turned to the excruciating task of implementation as they try to elicit the pastoral implications of this exhortation amidst the abiding shadows of Chapter Eight. It is no surprise that these bishops offer strikingly different answers to the question of whether or not under certain conditions Catholics with a sacramental marriage, who are now divorced, can receive the Eucharist even if they do not live as brother and sister. This is the so-called Kasper proposal named after Cardinal Kasper of Germany who brought it forth to the Holy Father in an important pre-Synod meeting. The proposal was the subject of intense debate at the two Synods on the Family in 2014 and 2015.

On one end of the spectrum we find Bishop McElroy of San Diego and most recently the bishops of Malta. For these bishops, everything has changed, as they embrace the most liberal interpretation of Amoris Laetitia. The Maltese bishops, for example, have stated that if as a result of a process of discernment a divorced person believes that he or she is “at peace with God,” that person cannot be excluded from the Eucharist. There is no need for conjugal continence if that proves to be an impediment to marital bliss. It might be nice to consult with a priest but that “accompaniment” doesn’t seem necessary. It’s all a matter of one’s personal conscience, which becomes the final arbiter of worthiness for this sacrament. Bishop McElroy has endorsed a very similar approach. According to the San Diego diocese’s statement, after a process of discernment Catholics may “conclude that God is calling them to return to full participation in the life of the Church and the Eucharist.”

At the opposite end of the spectrum we find American bishops like Chaput of Philadelphia and Sample of Portland along with the Polish bishops who proclaim that nothing has changed. In keeping with the teaching of St. John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio, divorced and remarried Catholics cannot receive the Eucharist unless they live as brother and sister. Similarly, Cardinal Giuseppe Betori of Florence has declared that Catholics in this situation cannot receive the Eucharist with the exception of one particularly difficult case, already accounted for in moral theology, where there may be “a temporary lack of clear resolution concerning sexual continence.” And in the middle of this spectrum we find the dioceses of Rome and Argentina. In Rome, Cardinal Vallini has determined that divorced and remarried Catholics can receive Holy Communion after a period of discernment with the permission of a confessor even if they do not practice conjugal continence, so long as they have an urgent reason not to do so.

The Argentinian bishops also open the door for Communion for these couples in very narrow “complex” circumstances. In those cases, there are limitations that “diminish responsibility and culpability,” especially when a person judges that the welfare of the children of this new union would be put in jeopardy by the practice of conjugal continence. The pope himself wrote a letter to the Argentinian bishops saying that their approach captured the subtle meaning of Chapter Eight. It might appear, therefore, that Pope Francis fully endorses the Argentinian interpretation, but that is far from obvious. The Vatican has not distanced itself from the radical interpretation coming forth from Malta. On the contrary, the letter of the Malta bishops has been published in LOsservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper and a self-described instrument for spreading the teachings of the successor of St. Peter. Given the pope’s vision of a decentralized Church, perhaps he is comfortable with this severe rupture within the episcopal hierarchy.

However, for most Catholics these different interpretations of Amoris Laetitia are unsettling. They clearly fracture the unity of Catholicism and bring the Church to the brink of doctrinal chaos. When the Maltese and Polish bishops derive such divergent pastoral practices from this document, they do so based on different assumptions about marital indissolubility, mortal sin, and sacramental theology. This is not decentralization, but divisive disharmony and eclecticism. In the months ahead, more bishops, who have so far been silent, will enter the fray. Their energies will be absorbed in resolving for their flocks the pastoral implications of Amoris Laetitia’s obscure eighth chapter. They will issue pastoral letters and take their place somewhere on this broad spectrum. The gradual unfolding of this drama will undoubtedly aggravate the confusion and theological fissures already present in the Church.

Amidst these pastoral proclamations, a document was made public last fall by Cardinals Raymond Burke, Joachim Meisner, Walter Brandmüller, and Carlo Caffarra, expressing their profound doubts about certain aspects of Amoris Laetitia. The prominent Dubia cover five pivotal questions which demonstrate the obstacle of reconciling this exhortation with well-grounded Catholic doctrine. The first dubium asks whether it is now possible to admit to Holy Communion a person who, although bound by a valid marital bond, lives together in a civil marriage without abstaining from sexual relations. An affirmative answer to this question implies an undeniable discontinuity with perennial moral teaching of the Church including Familiaris Consortio (par. 84). A second dubium inquires whether one still needs to accept the validity of John Paul II’s doctrine affirming the existence of absolute moral norms which prohibit intrinsically evil acts that are binding without exceptions?

In addition to the Dubia, a letter to the pope from twenty-three distinguished Catholic scholars argued that clarification of Amoris Laetitia was urgent since the Church was now drifting aimlessly along like a ship without a rudder. Still another letter to Pope Francis was sent by the famous moral theologians, Germain Grisez and John Finnis. In their carefully worded document, “The Misuse of Amoris Laetitia to Support Errors Against the Faith,” they highlight eight ways in which this papal teaching could be exploited to propagate errors against the Catholic faith. Like the four cardinals, they beseech the pope to clarify the vague sections of his exhortation.

The pope has neither answered the Dubia nor any of these other questions, and he is unlikely to do so. The polemical tweets of his advisor, Antonio Spadaro, S.J., assert that these questions have already been adequately answered. But the doubts posed by all of these theologians and cardinals have not been specifically addressed. What we find instead among some of the pope’s supporters are ad hominem attacks or empty pretensions that avoid tackling these valid concerns with candor, nuance, and intellectual honesty.

However, the pope has taken his critics to task on several occasions. He has proclaimed that there is nothing in the Amoris Laetita that was not approved by the Synod Fathers. But this argument is not very persuasive. In the First Synod the proposition related to the Kasper proposal did not receive the two-thirds majority need to remain in the final relatio, but the pope kept it in that document anyway. The Fathers of the Second Synod were presented with deliberately nebulous proposals and never explicitly approved the Kasper proposal. Moreover, other doctrines referenced in the Dubia, such as the role of conscience or the status of intrinsic evil acts, were certainly not the focus of either synod.

Also, in a “Dialogue” with the Jesuits at their 36th General Congregation, the pope effusively praises a morality based on the dynamic discernment of moral situations. Without discernment, he says, “we run the risk of getting used to ‘white’ or ‘black,’ to that which is legal.” In that same dialogue he compliments the work of Barnard Häring who was famous for his dissent from the teaching of Humanae Vitae and his trenchant critiques of John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor. The pope continues to insist on the Thomistic pedigree of Amoris Laetita, arguing that St. Thomas’s moral synthesis is comprised only of general or formal moral principles. Those principles hold for everyone, but they sometimes require adaption and exceptions in light of particular circumstances and motivations. However, this position oversimplifies the moral philosophy of St. Thomas. The Church’s greatest theologian taught that while affirmative moral precepts (such as “return borrowed items”) hold always but not in every situation, certain negative precepts (such as “do not commit adultery”) apply always and in every situation (semper et pro semper). There are many references to these negative precepts in both Aquinas’s early and later writings (see, for example, De Malo, q. 15, a.1, ad.5). The pope is either unaware of these texts, or he chooses not to acknowledge them.

This teaching of St. Thomas belongs to an unbroken tradition in Catholic morality, which has always been a morality of absolutes. The specific moral norms defended by St. Thomas and John Paul II proscribing adultery, theft, and the taking of innocent life without exception constitute the backbone of morality, and softening those norms paves the way for moral subjectivism. Moreover, the validation of these absolute moral principles does not detract from the positive thrust of Amoris Laetitia which calls the Church and her confessors to give more scrutiny to the subjective conditions of sinners.

Yet one detects in the ambiguities of Amoris Laetitia along with the pope’s musings on moral theology, a disturbing trend. The moral certitude implicit in Sacred Scripture is being dissolved in favor of a more relaxed paradigm where virtually every moral rule is subject to exception after a process of discernment. In the pope’s view, the critics of Amoris Laetitia see complicated moral issues like adultery too simplistically. In a veiled reference to the authors of the Dubia the pope declared in an interview with Avvenire:  “Some, as with certain responses to Amoris Laetitia, persist in seeing only white or black, when rather one ought to discern in the flow of life.” Since the moral terrain is so dimmed by shades of gray, moral principles can do no more than give us a sense of direction. Conscience must do the rest of the work by applying those principles in concrete circumstances. Conscience, therefore, has primacy in the moral life along with the sovereignty to determine when exceptions to moral norms are warranted. However, this theology overlooks how easily conscience is beguiled by emotion and rationalization, especially in our modern culture where it is so difficult to find models of sound moral reasoning.

These ideas, which were popularized by Häring and other revisionists in the 1960s, represent a radical breach with the Catholic moral traditional that was most recently reaffirmed in Veritatis Splendor. John Paul II’s encyclical confirms that the faithful must acknowledge “the absolute validity of negative moral precepts which oblige without exception” (VS 76). A person who is contemplating an abortion or euthanasia does not need to “discern” whether this action is morally justified no matter how exigent the circumstances may be. The taking of innocent human life is always an objective evil. To be sure, we must follow our informed conscience. But the big question is how that conscience is formed. Is it informed only by formal principles that permit exceptions in hard cases, or is it informed both by exceptionless negative precepts that bind every conscience and by affirmative precepts where conscience has more latitude? The future of Catholic moral theology and sexual ethics hangs on how that fundamental question is resolved.

The Catholic Church faces a dangerous cultural landscape in the years and decades ahead. It must contend with an unabated global Sexual Revolution that threatens marriage and family, and with ongoing threats to religious liberty. A divided and polarized Church cannot speak with a unified, convincing voice. But Pope Francis’s mindset, which so effortlessly tolerates contradictions and polarities, mirrors the post-modern mentality that celebrates disunity and indeterminacy over unity, continuity, and moral closure. Thus, instead of the consistent clarity of mind and coherence of popes like Pius XI, Paul VI, and John Paul II, we encounter a web of incongruities and obscurities. Perhaps this is what we must expect from a post-modern papacy where all is gray and personal conscience reigns supreme.

(Photo credit: AFP)

Richard A. Spinello

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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.

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