The Morality of Amoris Laetitia Is Not Thomistic

In a formal address delivered during his recent visit to Colombia, Pope Francis implored his brother Jesuits to defend his embattled exhortation on marriage, which remains haunted by its obscurities and fervent vagueness. In his short discourse, the pope also enlisted Thomas Aquinas in this enterprise by insisting upon the Thomistic properties of Amoris Laetitia. He described how “the moral theology of Amoris Laetitia is Thomist, the morality of the great Thomas.” He juxtaposed this morality to the more rigid moral theology based on casuistry. And in a rather harsh tone he accused those who critiqued his exhortation of having a “purely casuistic” approach to moral reasoning.

The pope made the same controversial claims in his speech to the Jesuits gathered at their 36th General Congregation. He proposed a morality based on discernment and again chastised his critics for trafficking in casuistry. How are we to understand what the pope means by casuistry? It is difficult to address this question with precision since the pope’s meaning is not terribly clear. He seems to be asserting that the casuist is one who advocates the application of specific moral norms to concrete situations without considering circumstances and context. In another recent speech extolling Amoris Laetitia Cardinal Barbarin of Lyons claimed that the pope disavows a moral system shaped by a dichotomy between what is morally permissible and what is forbidden because of the “extraordinary variety of personal situations.” According to Cardinal Barbarin, “a moral or pastoral norm can never apply to each particular case.”

However, there is little in Amoris Laetitia that invites a comparison with Thomas Aquinas. There are some quotes from Aquinas, but several references taken out of context do not warrant categorizing the pope’s writing as Thomistically inspired. St. Thomas Aquinas’s moral philosophy is based on the natural law which is mentioned in passing only once in the entire exhortation. Furthermore, Amoris Laetitia does not build on the insights of John Paul II’s Veritas Splendor, which is thoroughly Thomistic. That encyclical is never mentioned in Pope Francis’s long document. In fact, liberal theologians have cheered Amoris Laetitia precisely because it dismisses the natural law in favor of a more “pastoral” approach to moral issues. Michael Shawn Winters of the National Catholic Reporter  notes with approbation that Amoris Laetitia represents a major shift from the natural law reasoning favored by Aquinas and by John Paul II in their treatment of sexual morality.

Aquinas claims unequivocally that no human action of moral significance can be morally right unless the object chosen conforms to the moral law. As St. John Paul II explained, “some sins are intrinsically grave and mortal by reason of their matter, that is, there exists acts which, per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are seriously wrong by reason of their object” (Reconciliatio et Paenitenia, par. 17). The intentional choice to kill the innocent is always wrong regardless of the situation or circumstances. This conviction, quite foreign to the proportionalist ethic favored by many liberal moral theologians, was strongly reaffirmed in Veritatis Splendor, but we can find no trace of this line of reasoning in Amoris Laetitia. Instead there are intimations that there must be exceptions to norms based on the concrete circumstances of a person’s life, since “it is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule” (par. 304).

Pope Francis and his supporters claim that they are being faithful to St. Thomas when they maintain that “the more we descend to matters of detail, the more frequently we encounter uncertainty” (304). But for Aquinas such moral ambiguity might arise when there are affirmative norms at stake. Amoris Laetitia completely disregards the essential Thomistic distinction between affirmative precepts (such as “one must return borrowed items”), which apply always but not in every situation, and certain negative precepts (“do not commit adultery”), which are valid without exception. According to Aquinas, while we cannot always determine what should be done in accordance with an affirmative precept, we can determine what must not be done in accordance with negative precepts (Summa Theologica, II-II, q. 140, a. 1). When it comes to some negative norms such as “do not commit adultery,” there is never moral uncertainty or confusion, no matter how deeply we plunge into the details.

It is quite difficult to argue, therefore, that this exhortation reflects a Thomistic approach to moral reasoning. Amoris Laetitia embodies a different style of thinking that puts little emphasis on principles that direct us to human flourishing. Aquinas, on the other hand, gives great prominence to rules and laws as well as to virtues. And some of those rules or moral norms prospectively exclude certain acts as always wrong by virtue of their object and regardless of personal intentions or extenuating circumstances.

Moreover, the arguments of the pope’s collaborators provide little support for his declarations about the Thomistic pedigree of this exhortation. In an early October conference on Amoris Laetitia at Boston College, papal advisor Fr. Antonio Spadaro affirmed that the pope does not believe in a one-size-fits-all approach to morality. “We must conclude,” proclaimed Spadaro, “that the pope realizes that one can no longer speak of … [a] rule that is absolutely to be followed in every instance.” Father Spadaro went on to assert that “It’s no longer possible to judge people on the basis of a norm that stands above all.” There is a germ of truth in this statement since we always have to look at subjective culpability, which is nothing new. But Spadaro seems to be arguing that moral norms or rules need not be adhered to in every circumstance. If we follow Father Spadaro’s reasoning, there seems little guarantee against the arbitrariness of subjective opinion. This view, which appears to emerge in certain passages of Amoris Laetitia, can hardly be reconciled with Thomas’s more principled moral philosophy.

The reflections of Archbishop Fernandez, who is considered the ghost writer of Amoris Laetitia, also fail to affirm the affinity between Amoris Laetitia and the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. In an article called “Chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia: What is Left after the Storm,” Archbishop Fernandez actually demonstrates the asymmetry between this work and Thomistic morality. According to Fernandez, the pope agrees with Aquinas’s about the importance of general moral norms. However, according to Amoris Laetitia “in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations” (304). Archbishop Fernandez offers this explanation: “The absolute norm in itself does not admit of exceptions, but that does not imply that its succinct formulation must be applied in every sense and without nuances in all situations.” He provides this example to illustrate his argument: the divine and natural law “Thou shalt not kill” does not admit exceptions but what is included in the term “killing?” Is killing in self-defense prohibited by this norm? No one would question, says Fernandez, the validity of inquiring whether or not killing in self-defense falls within the narrow compass of the negative precept “Thou shalt not kill.” Thus, there are absolute moral norms but we cannot formulate them properly to include all violations of that norm and therefore exceptions must be allowed. The same holds true for the simple moral norm that forbids adultery. According to Fernandez, it is perfectly valid to ask if all “acts a more uxorio cohabitation” should always fall within the negative precept that forbids adulterous behavior.

However, Fernandez offers a muddled and incoherent vindication of Chapter Eight’s contorted moral logic. He does not always clearly distinguish between the objective status of an act and the issue of subjective culpability of the moral agent who performs that act. He also argues that since norms cannot provide for all situations in their formulation, they can only be the source of “objective inspiration for the deeply personal process of making a decision.” Despite his claim to the contrary, this position is totally at odds with the thought of Aquinas and John Paul II. Fernandez argues that “uncertainty increases” in complex situations because general norms cannot account for all particularities. Such uncertainty, however, may be found in the application of positive norms, but not in the application of those negative norms that forbid lying, adultery, or the taking of innocent life. There is no uncertainty about the objective wrongfulness of such actions. John Paul II addresses this very question in Veritatis Splendor where he condemns moral theories which maintain “that it is never possible to formulate an absolute prohibition of particular kinds of behavior which would be in conflict in every circumstance and in every culture” with certain values (par. 75).

What Fernandez proposes has no basis in the thought of Thomas Aquinas. He is also flatly wrong to suggest that specific moral norms cannot be properly formulated to include all situations. His imprecise analysis invites all types of exceptions to norms based on the claim that the norm is too broad and general to encompass every unique situation. However, as contemporary Thomists like John Finnis have pointed out, there are no exceptions to the norm against killing when it is accurately stated: “Every act which is intended, whether as end or means, to kill an innocent human being is gravely immoral and never to be chosen.” The norm against killing the innocent, therefore, does not exclude lethal acts of self-defense in a dangerous attack by an aggressor where the intention is to protect oneself against the aggression. Similarly, there are no exceptions to adultery, when it is properly defined as sexual relations by or with a married person outside of marriage. If a person is in a valid marriage, then the Lord’s precept applies without exception regardless of the circumstances. For Aquinas, who deftly reconciles reason and Revelation, adultery, defined in this simple but definitive way, is intrinsically wrong, and the adulterer should make every conceivable effort with the help of grace to extricate himself from this sinful condition (see De Malo, q. 15, a.1). Yet this sentiment is nowhere to be found in Amoris Laetitia

According to Aquinas, these exceptionless negative norms are essential since they provide the concrete borders of morality. The problem with Amoris Laetitia is that it appears to do away with these unambiguous parameters of moral behavior in favor of a flexible and supple morality with porous borders. Thus, Cardinal Barbarin boldly boasts that Pope Francis has “liberated the Church’s teaching from its legislative constraints,” by supposedly preserving the moral law while also recognizing the need for exceptions. However, these exceptional circumstances are discerned by conscience, which must contend with a superficial culture where moral truth is easily obscured. The end result is a moral exorbitance that is far removed from Thomistic principles.

For anyone who wants to read a papal teaching that truly reflects the teaching of the “great Thomas,” they should turn to John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor. Unfortunately, those who call attention to the shortcomings of Amoris Laetitia and commend a retrieval of John Paul’s works to resolve the confusing arguments spun by Amoris Laetitia’s defenders have begun to pay a heavy price for their efforts. The “persecution of orthodoxy” has been on display in the firing of Professor Josef Seifert and the more recent resignation from the USCCB of Father Thomas Weinandy. Many others profess that they are afraid to speak out and declare their true convictions about the flaws that bedevil the eighth chapter of this exhortation. They see an establishment that wants to sweep away any opposition, and so even thoughtful critics are maligned and discredited for their opinions. Open and candid debate is replaced by a climate of fear and intimidation.

The ultimate problem is that some of the premises and conclusions of Chapter 8 represent a conceptual muddle. Those like Archbishop Fernandez who ardently come to this exhortation’s rescue get caught up in a maze of incongruities and imprecision as they try to defend its apparent moral errors. A direct answer to the questions of the Dubia Cardinals might resolve the confusion but that is not likely to happen. The pope has said many times that he wants his changes to be irreversible. But unless those changes are firmly rooted in the fertile ground of Scripture and the Catholic tradition they will eventually wither away.

(Photo credit: Don Doll, SJ / CNS)

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.