How Amoris Laetitia Can Jeopardize the Seal of Confession

Though I have written several articles about Pope Francis’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (AL), I am repeatedly struck anew, as time goes on, by its inexorably destructive implications. Despite AL’s generally good summary of Catholic teaching on marriage and the family, its moral subjectivism ultimately undermines not only the truths affirmed in the document, but also those of Catholic morality in general. And once truth is in doubt, there is no longer any stable basis for trust.

AL certainly undermines the trust of Catholics entering marriage, as they become aware that in many countries and dioceses, perhaps even their own, a spouse can now “discern” his or her way out of a valid marriage and into a “new” one. A “co-discerning” pastor might even invite the “remarried” Catholic to receive Holy Communion. While abuses of that kind existed even before AL’s publication, the document seems to give official approval to this grievous infidelity against one’s spouse and against God, at least in certain cases. With this comes an undermining of trust in the Church’s teaching office—except, perhaps, on the side of persons who seek to take advantage of the new moral loopholes that AL has opened for the clerical and lay members of the Church intent on exploiting them.

Then there is AL’s undermining of trust in God’s omniscience, omnipotence, goodness, and providence. The document, together with some of its episcopal exponents, implies that God had failed to take into account all the burdensome historical, cultural, psychological, social, economic, and other conditioning factors to which contemporary people, unlike their forebears, would be exposed. Had God foreseen these, he would never have expressed himself in morally absolute terms: “Thou shall not.” So, we should regard his commandments merely as “general rules” that are worth obeying, if possible—or as “ideals” that are worth striving for. However, God’s grace might not always have sufficient power to help us fulfill them in our “complex situations” (AL, 37). It follows that God is no longer fully capable of providing for the persons he creates and sustains in existence.

Since divine grace has sometimes proven insufficient to help us meet our present-day challenges, God has finally realized that he must accommodate his moral expectations to our “weakness”; therefore, he might now tell us, in conscience, that we are not bound to obey his commandments amid the “concrete complexity of [our] limits” (AL, 303). Besides, our obeying them might jeopardize the “constructive elements” already present in the concrete situations marked by our limitations (AL, 292, 298, note 329). This means that God’s commandments do not always serve the true human and moral good after all.

The erosion of Catholic trust in marriage, in the Church’s teaching authority, and in God follows inevitably from the direct bearing that AL’s moral subjectivism has on these topics; however, AL’s undermining of trust within the Church will also result in innumerable other, less obvious casualties. Here we will consider how the document could adversely affect the Sacrament of Penance.

Amoris Laetitia Questions Absolute Moral Precepts
The specious reasoning by which AL unduly exalts the individual conscience over steadfast obedience to God’s absolute moral precepts could easily undermine Catholic trust in what is supposed to be the inviolable seal of confession. According to the current Code of Canon Law, a confessor is not permitted “in any way to betray the penitent, for any reason whatsoever, whether by word or in any other fashion” (can. 983.1). What is more, a confessor “is wholly forbidden to use knowledge acquired in confession to the detriment of the penitent, even when all danger of disclosure is excluded” (can. 984.1). These laws are absolutely binding on every confessor—even at the cost of his own life, reputation, or civil freedom—for the seal of confession protects a sacred trust. Because it is integral to the divinely instituted Sacrament of Penance itself, the Church regards the seal as grounded in divine law. Reflecting that fact, the relevant canons allow no exceptions; therefore, if a confessor were ever to violate the sacramental seal directly, he would incur “a latae sententiae [an automatic] excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See”; if indirectly, he would “be punished according to the gravity of the offence” (can. 1388.1).

That the Church takes the secrecy of the penitent’s confession, and hence the dignity of the penitent, so seriously should instill a great sense of security in every Catholic. But then we find this troublesome line in AL, 304, which purports to summarize a teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas (see Summa Theologiae, I-II, 94, 4): “It is true that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations.” What bearing would this claim have on the three canons cited above? Let us first consider how Thomas intended us to understand his teaching. Then we will consider how AL interprets it, and what that interpretation would mean for the seal of confession.

In ST I-II, 94, 4, St. Thomas addresses the relation of general principles to particular cases in matters involving practical reason—that is, reason as it concerns itself with human action: What is the good that I ought to do, or the evil that I ought to avoid, in this particular situation? In most cases, the relevant moral rule must be observed. As an example, Thomas cites the general rule that one ought to return a borrowed item to its rightful owner. A rule such as this is an affirmative moral precept. It belongs to the natural law, and it is therefore accessible to right reason as that which I am morally bound to do when I have borrowed something from someone. (Thomas notes, however, that some people might not recognize a general principle of the natural law because “reason is perverted by passion, or evil habit, or an evil disposition of nature.” AL would have done well to have taken this fact of fallen human nature into account.)

But what if I borrowed an ax from my neighbor and then learn that, as soon as I return it to him at the agreed-on time, he plans to use it to threaten some unruly protesters in the area? Given this circumstance, am I morally bound to observe the general rule and return the ax at the appointed time? Of course not. But why not? The reason is, this affirmative precept is governed by the nonnegotiable primary precepts of the Golden Rule and the Gospel law of love, which further specify the general rule in this situation. In order to fulfill, objectively and concretely, their unconditional demands, I must not observe, at this time, the rule about returning a borrowed item.

Now, what if we are dealing with a negative moral precept, such as, “Thou shall not commit adultery”? For in the context of AL’s chapter 8, this is one of the two “general rules” to which Pope Francis keeps alluding (the other being the traditional Church discipline of denying the sacraments of penance and Holy Communion to Catholics in adulterous unions). In citing only ST I-II, 94, 4, regarding the relation of general principles to particular cases, AL conveniently omits an inconvenient point: St. Thomas affirms elsewhere that certain human actions are intrinsically evil because of their object (e.g., ST, I-II, 18, 2). Only a disordered will would deliberately choose an object that contravenes right reason, and hence the true moral good. Sexually uniting with someone other than one’s real spouse—adultery—is one such object (e.g., ST, II-II, 154, 8; De Malo, 15, 2).

In addition, St. Thomas states unequivocally that no one can be dispensed from observing the precepts of the Decalogue (e.g., ST, I-II, 100, 8). Accordingly, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery” (no. 1756). There are no exceptions to the moral obligation to avoid intrinsic evils such as these, for observance of the Decalogue’s negative moral norms is always necessary to fulfill concretely, under all possible conditions, the inherent, unconditional demands of the primary precepts; therefore, they are not susceptible of further moral specification.

Conscience Alone Now Decides the Moral Good
AL, on the other hand, is heedless of St. Thomas’s actual position. Instead, the document has cherry picked one particular article from the Angelic Doctor’s vast corpus in order to suggest that he would consider it “reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being” (AL, 304). What is needed, rather, is “a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases” (AL, 300). Put simply, AL has given conscience the last word on what constitutes the true moral good in any given moral situation. We might even have to contravene God’s will (in this context, as expressed in the Sixth Commandment) in order to “ensure full fidelity to God” in our concrete life.

It seems that Pope Francis has invoked Aquinas’s authority to give weight to his absolutizing the general rule that general rules are not absolute. Every moral precept would then allow exceptions, which the individual conscience can “discern” within the complex circumstances in which one “finds” oneself. So, we must now ask ourselves what the implications of that claim are as regards a priest’s moral obligation to preserve the seal of confession.

Let’s say that a priest hears the confession of a man who asks forgiveness for having committed a series of armed bank robberies in which he shot and killed several people. The priest grants absolution because he is convinced of the man’s contrition. But he is also convinced that the man will relapse into his sin without some form of rehabilitation, which he refuses to seek for fear of being exposed. If a relapse does occur, more innocent people will likely die, and the priest will feel as though he himself is morally responsible for the tragedy.

As he is pondering this, two detectives are in the area interviewing people, hoping to get some leads that will help them solve the case. Soon after the penitent left the Church, the detectives entered. When the priest exited the confessional, they began to interview him.

On the one hand, there are the canonical proscriptions against the priest’s revealing in any way what he has just learned in the confessional. On the other hand, there’s AL. According to the document, “general rules,” such as canons 983.1 and 984.1, cannot take into account every possible contingency. What is more, the priest might “have great difficulty in understanding [the] ‘inherent values’” of those canons (AL, 301). After all, it doesn’t make sense to him that, on account of his silence, the penitent, now restored to God’s grace, should risk a relapse that might result in his and other people’s getting killed. Surely the priest’s fear that disaster is likely to strike again would mitigate or even eliminate his personal culpability for a decision of conscience to set the canonical rules aside in this concrete situation (AL, 302). Besides, the highest law is what conscience prescribes. Obedience to conscience therefore trumps any other claim to obedience.

And so the priest concludes that he should give the detectives the information they need to capture the guilty party and thus avert the possibility of another tragedy. The nature of this concrete situation doesn’t really allow him “to act differently and decide otherwise,” for he might then end up becoming complicit with further sin (AL, 301). Besides, he has come to “a certain moral security” in conscience that violating the sacramental seal “is what God Himself is asking” him to do in this complex situation (AL, 303). So, how could the canonical penalty of excommunication possibly apply to him under the circumstances?

Once the faithful hear that a few misguided clergy members have taken AL’s subjectivistic view of discernment to its logical conclusion and broken the seal of confession “in good conscience,” their trust in those who possess the priestly power to absolve them from sin will be seriously threatened. They might even decide it best to avoid the confessional completely from then on.

Jeffrey Tranzillo

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Jeffrey Tranzillo earned his doctorate in theology at the Catholic University of America. He is the author of John Paul II on the Vulnerable (CUA Press, 2013). Some of his recent articles have appeared in Homiletic and Pastoral Review, and he posts others on his own website, trulycatholicmatters.com.

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