Why is there confusion in the Catholic Church over Amoris Laetitia, and what consequences does it have for Church unity? I argue here that the confusion is ultimately over two de fide dogmas of Christian faith and that one consequence of the confusion is de facto schism within the Catholic Church.
When de fide (“of the faith”) is used in Catholic theology to designate a doctrine, it signifies a truth that pertains to Divine Revelation. The term Divine Revelation refers to truths by which God chose to reveal himself and his will to humanity in order to reconcile the world to himself so men and women might live united with him imperfectly in this world and, after death and judgment, perfectly with him in the Kingdom. Thus, the Church considers de fide doctrines necessary for salvation. Their status in Catholic teaching is irreformable. And their mode of proclamation is infallible.
This essay has three aims. First, it introduces and explains the theological concept of “secondary objects of infallibility” and shows how almost all of the truths pertaining to sexual matters taught by the Catholic Church belong to the category of secondary objects of infallibility, and so are rightly designated de fide doctrines. Second, it argues that beginning with the intra-ecclesial dissent from the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, the Catholic Church has existed in a grave state of disunity over de fide doctrines, and that this disunity is deepened by the problems caused by Amoris Laetitia. Finally, it offers practical advice to the hierarchy and laity for responding to the crisis.
Secondary Objects of Infallibility
The documents of the Second Vatican Council teach that Jesus willed the Catholic Church’s infallible authority in defending and teaching the truths of divine revelation (also known as the “deposit of faith”) to extend not only to formally revealed truths, but also to truths necessarily connected to the truths of divine revelation, even if they have never been proposed as formally revealed. These can be taught infallibly because they are necessary for religiously guarding and faithfully expounding the truths of divine revelation (Lumen Gentium, no. 25). These are sometimes referred to as “secondary objects” of infallibility, in contrast to “primary objects,” which refers to formally revealed truths.
Pope John Paul II notes in a 1998 Apostolic Letter that the Church not only possesses primary truths of divine revelation by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, it also possesses these secondary objects of infallibility by “the Divine Spirit’s particular inspiration.” In his commentary, Joseph Ratzinger, then-Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), writes that when compared with doctrines set forth as formally revealed, “there is no difference with respect to the full and irrevocable character of the assent which is owed to these teachings.” Ratzinger designates the assent owed to them as “based on faith in the Holy Spirit’s assistance to the Magisterium and on the Catholic doctrine of the infallibility of the Magisterium.” So, like formally revealed truths, these truths too are owed an assent of faith, even if they also could be understood without the assistance of divine revelation.
Although “de fide doctrine” has ordinarily (though not always) been reserved for teachings set down by the Church as formally revealed, it is no less true that Catholic teachings specifying secondary objects of infallibility are de fide doctrines—as Ratzinger calls them, “doctrines de fide tenenda (to be held by faith).” Canon law says they “must be firmly accepted and held” and that anyone who rejects them “sets himself against the teaching of the Catholic Church” (Canon 750, § 2).
Moral Doctrines on Sex and Marriage
The moral norms on sex and marriage taught by the Catholic Church fall into both the categories of primary and secondary objects of infallibility. Primary objects include truths explicitly taught in Divine Revelation, such as the prohibition against adultery and the indissolubility of marriage; secondary objects include teachings on sex and marriage taught by the Church since apostolic times as to be definitively held. These latter, in virtue of the way they have been proposed, should be held as taught infallibly by the Church’s Ordinary and Universal Magisterium, which teaches infallibly when the bishops “though dispersed throughout the world, but still preserving the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter, teaching authentically on a matter of faith and morals (res fidei et morum), agree on a single judgment (on that matter) and teach that judgment as to be definitively held (definitive tendendam).”
There can be no reasonable doubt that the Church’s teachings on the singular context of marriage for upright genital sexual expression and the wrongfulness of every form of freely chosen non-marital sexual behavior (e.g., masturbation, extra-marital intercourse, homosexual acts, contraceptive acts, etc.) have been taught by the bishops in universal agreement, always and everywhere, as clearly pertaining to the temporal and eternal welfare of the faithful, and so definitive tendendam. The fact that Catholics in recent times have denied some or all of the teachings in no way compromises the fact that the conditions for an infallible exercise of the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium have been met for most of the Church’s long history.
It follows that the basic truths of sexual ethics taught and defended by the Catholic Church pertain either directly (as primary objects) or indirectly (as secondary objects) to the deposit of faith and thus may be referred to—and in fact are—de fide doctrines.
Unacknowledged Ecclesial Schism
Beginning with the dissent from the Catholic Church’s reassertion of its ancient teaching on the wrongfulness of contraceptive intercourse in Humanae Vitae (1968), and carrying through the widespread acceptance of utilitarian—called “proportionalist”—reasoning in Catholic moral theology in the 1970s, many Catholics began to deny the existence of intrinsically evil actions (i.e., actions that are never morally legitimate to choose because their choosing always radically contradicts the good of the human person). This logically led to the rejection of the Church’s teachings on the wrongfulness of all types of sexual activity traditionally designated as intrinsically evil. This rejection has existed at all levels in the Catholic Church, from the laity to the hierarchy, and has been both resolute and obstinate.
The Catholic Church has thus existed for decades in a condition of objective and grave disunity over matters of de fide doctrine. Another way to say this is that the Catholic Church has existed in a de facto state of schism.
Confusion, Disunity, and Amoris Laetitia
There is confusion in the Catholic Church over Amoris Laetitia because some bishops are saying—and prescribing as policy in their dioceses—that remarried divorcees, under certain circumstances, may return to Holy Communion without resolving to live in perfect continence with their partners. Other bishops, in continuity with Catholic tradition, hold that this is not and cannot be legitimate.
The matters of de fide doctrine raised by these conflicting interpretations are the intrinsic wrongfulness of adultery and the absolute indissolubility of Christian marriage, both of which are infallibly affirmed by Scripture and Tradition. If the doctrines are true, then a divorcee who is sexually active with someone other than his first valid spouse, while his first spouse still lives, is committing adultery.
Although Cardinal Kasper, and other episcopal defenders of granting permission to civilly remarried divorcees to receive Holy Eucharist, affirm the wrongfulness of adultery and the indissolubility of marriage, their affirmations would seem to be incompatible with the permission they defend. For no one in manifest unrepentant objective serious wrongdoing can be freed to receive the Holy Eucharist, not by a priest or bishop or anyone, since their “state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist” (Familiaris Consortio). They must therefore not be doing anything objectively wrong. But this can only be the case if adultery is sometimes licit, or marriage is not indissoluble.
Many bishops recognize this contradiction and so oppose granting the permission. But others believe there is no conflict and so grant permission.
Thus, the hierarchy exists in a state of grave disunity on matters pertaining to the deposit of faith. In other words, as I have said, the Catholic Church is in de facto schism. The conflict over Amoris Laetitia is not the cause of the disunity, which has existed for decades. But it perpetuates the division and deepens it in a very significant way. It deepens it because the pope has gone on record defending the position that is contrary to the Church’s perennial teaching. It is hard to overstate the seriousness of this situation.
Duties of the Holy See
What should the Holy Father do? He should begin by directing Cardinal Müller of the CDF to reply to the five dubia submitted by Cardinals Brandmüller, Burke, Caffara, and Meisner. This would help to clarify some of the harmful confusions raised by chapter eight of Amoris Laetitia. Then he should teach clearly and authoritatively what is true on matters of sexual morality that have been thrown into doubt and confusion since the beginning of his pontificate. He should teach that each and every consummated Christian marriage is absolutely indissoluble; every form of freely chosen non-marital sexual behavior is always wrong, especially adultery, but also homosexual acts, contraceptive acts, masturbation, and fornication; sexual intercourse with someone other than one’s valid spouse is always adulterous; one who is bound by a valid marriage bond, who lives with a different person more uxorio (in a marital way), is in an object state of adultery; and such a one must refrain from Holy Communion unless and until he confesses with contrition his wrongful actions and resolves to live chastely.
Finally, knowing that the episcopate is divided on de fide doctrines of morality, he needs to lead his brother bishops to face frankly this crisis in the Church and to resolve firmly to overcome it. He should convene a closed-door synod exclusively of the world’s bishops at Assisi or Castel Gandolfo or some other venue out of the spotlight—no media, periti, ecumenical observers, etc.—on the theme of episcopal unity in matters of morality. The synod’s length should be unspecified, so it can last as long as necessary. He should address his brothers in charity, without scolding or innuendo, on how very injurious—indeed, how catastrophically harmful—it is to the salvation of souls when the successors of the apostles are not united on de fide matters.
As both a father to his sons and a brother among brothers, Pope Francis should admonish all to set aside petty and unchristian posturing, all vice and proud ignorance, and every expression of party spirit, to repent of the divisions that they themselves should long ago have addressed, and to commit themselves to the common goal of episcopal unity. He should allow—and not merely say he allows—his brother bishops to speak freely on matters of disagreement without fear of reprisal. He should use his exceptional Argentinian warmth to persuade his brothers to want unity in the episcopate; to urge them to talk to each other freely and forthrightly; and to facilitate consensus on whatever agreements need to be reached. The unity toward which he strives and on which he insists should extend no further than matters pertaining to the deposit of faith, insisting that the Church tolerates diversity on everything else, and being the first to model this to all of his brothers.
Finally, he should be willing to do whatever it takes, including laying down his own life, to facilitate among the bishops of the Catholic Church the dying request of Jesus to his Father, that “they all may be one.”
Duties of the Lay Faithful
What should lay Catholics do? They should form their consciences in accord with the definitive moral truths taught by the Catholic Church, especially the norms of sexual ethics and teachings about marriage. They should see that every negative norm (“thou shalt not”) that the Church defends is necessarily entailed by some positive good that that norm protects and promotes (e.g., we shouldn’t kill the innocent, because life is a great good). They need to see now more than ever that the teachings on the absolute indissolubility of marriage and the prohibition of adultery are not club rules, but moral truths entailed by the great goodness of Christian marriage. Jesus willed marriage to be a sacramentum (a divinely instituted sign or symbol) of his absolutely indissoluble love for his Church; thus consummated Christian marriage is absolutely indissoluble; divorce is not only wrong, it’s impossible: just as Jesus cannot be divorced from his Church, a man cannot be divorced from his valid wife. It follows that if he has sex with anyone else, for any reason, however socially acceptable, while his valid wife still lives, he’s an adulterer. Adultery can be forgiven, like every sin; but to be forgiven, it requires contrition and a firm resolve to avoid the sin. These are Christian moral truths; and they are de fide doctrines of the Catholic Church.
Moreover, Catholics should not allow distress over the present situation to shake their faith in Jesus’s promise to preserve the Church from damnable error and to provide a trustworthy barque for the salvation of souls. They mustn’t succumb to Wycliffe, Luther, or Zwingli’s temptation to turn their frustrations with churchmen, however justified, against the Church of Christ herself. They should realize that the Church has suffered from without and within many times over the centuries, and compared to other periods in history—the fourth century Arian heresy, the fourteenth century Great Schism, the French Reign of Terror, the German Kulturkampf—her problems today are mild.
Additionally, every baptized Catholic should resolve to live as a saint. Only the fewest saints make it to stained glass windows. The rest never gain great attention or grow famous enough to garner a “cause” in Rome. But they do their best to discern and follow Jesus’s will every day, turning from wrongful self-love, spurning ambition, accepting humiliations serenely, repenting of every sin they become aware of, saying no to every inclination to think about or act upon non-marital sexual desires, turning from immoderate anger, and denying, denying, denying the godless social constructivist narrative on sex, gender, and marriage promoted by the modern secular mind.
Every Catholic needs to be convinced that social and ecclesial renewal begins with him or with her. In history, renewal has almost never come from the top down, from the papacy and Rome, but rather from the bottom up. It has come from Christians firmly resolving to live by faith in Christ and endeavoring to know the power of his resurrection, sharing patiently in his sufferings so as to attain the resurrection from the dead that he promised.
Finally, they should pray for the unity of the episcopate.
Editor’s note: This essay first appeared February 22, 2017 in Public Discourse, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute and is reprinted with permission.