The turbulence surrounding the sex abuse debacle in the Catholic Church was recently addressed in Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s April essay “The Church and the Scandal of Sex Abuse.” Pope Emeritus Benedict’s thoughtful meditation has been justly praised for unveiling one of the root causes of this protracted calamity. Critics of the letter, primarily close allies of Pope Francis, have unfairly pilloried the Pope Emeritus for composing what they regard as a simplistic and truncated polemic. But any objective observer must admit the plausibility of his explanation for this stunning moral failure, however insufficient that explanation may be.
Not only does Pope Emeritus Benedict provide insight into the cause of the sex abuse crisis, he also subtly contradicts some of the theological positions presented in Amoris Laetitia. Benedict is quite discrete, of course, and never mentions Amoris Laetitia, but his reference to an “absolute good” and to “fundamentally evil” actions stands in sharp contrast to the more pliant moral doctrine proposed in this papal pronouncement.
Pope Francis’s 2015 post-synodal apostolic exhortation, composed after the Synod on the Family, continues to be a source of confusion and discord in the Church. Recently, a group of prominent theologians and scholars accused Pope Francis of heresy. Many of their key allegations focused on some of the dubious teachings of Amoris Laetitia. While the exhortation text itself may not rise to the level of material heresy, there is no doubt that its ambiguities and application have contributed to the dissipation of orthodox moral theology consistent with Scripture and the Church’s long conciliar tradition. Those who are inclined to defend the pope by insisting that Amoris Laetitia can be read in continuity with the Church’s substantial doctrinal tradition, seem to overlook the fact that the pope himself enthusiastically endorsed the interpretation of the Argentinian bishops.
Those bishops maintained that, according to the norms of Amoris Laetitia, under some circumstances a divorced and re-married Catholic who does not have a declaration of nullity can receive the Eucharist after a period of discernment, especially if there are circumstances that mitigate culpability. Pope Francis’s 2016 letter to the Argentinian episcopacy, promulgated later in Acta Apostolicae Sedis, the official repository of papal teachings, asserts that this interpretation is accurate “and completely explains the meaning of Chapter VIII.” Yet this viewpoint cannot be reconciled with Scripture or Tradition, since it clearly undermines Jesus’s unambiguous teaching on adultery and the indissolubility of marriage (Matt. 19: 4-9). John Paul II re-promulgated this doctrine in Familiaris Consortio where he unequivocally confirmed the need for denial of Communion to divorced and invalidly remarried Catholics (par. 84).
Theological Roots of Amoris Laetitia Examined
Pope Emeritus Benedict’s letter does not consider this contentious matter, but it does address a pivotal issue in moral theology that is quite pertinent to Amoris Laetitia’s unorthodox theological paradigm. Benedict explains how the “collapse of moral theology” impeded the Church from defending itself against the encroachment of the Sexual Revolution, which essentially reduced relationships to sexual desire and utility. A major aspect of that collapse was the belief that “there could no longer be anything that constituted an absolute good, any more than anything fundamentally evil.” Benedict recalls the work of Father Bruno Schüller, S.J., a brilliant student of Karl Rahner, who developed the thesis that the right action is whatever produces the greater proportion of benefits to harms. According to Pope Emeritus Benedict, “morality was to be exclusively determined by the purposes of human action.” This mode of moral reflection, which measures the moral value of an action by its effects, is captured in the crude formula “the end justifies the means.”
In Catholic circles, the Schüller theory came to be known as proportionalism, and its distortions have subverted Catholic moral reflection for many decades. According to proportionalism and related revisionist frameworks, there are no specific moral absolutes or exceptionless moral norms such as the absolute prohibition of adultery defined as extramarital sexual activity by or with a married person. Rather, the negative precepts are reinterpreted as general principles or rules that can guide our moral deliberations. These principles always allow for legitimate exceptions if the circumstances are warranted. No act or choice is intrinsically evil because it might be justified if it furthers a worthy purpose. Morality thereby loses its objectivity and becomes flexible and pragmatic, a far more subjective affair than the tradition of natural law. This relativity opens the door for exceptions to the norms of sexual morality, which absolutely forbid extra-marital sex, pornography, and other deviant forms of sexual behavior.
Along with proportionalism, revisionist moral theologians gave voice to a related theory known as the “fundamental option” which shifted the focus from immoral acts to one’s general orientation or disposition towards God. This theory audaciously claimed that a single evil act, no matter how disordered, need not reverse one’s deep commitment towards God, and therefore it could not be classified as a mortal sin. According to this theory, through his fundamental or “core” freedom a person could remain steadfast in his commitment to God, but through “peripheral freedom” reject God’s commandments or the divine law by means of a particular action.
As a Jesuit novice (I left the Society after a few years and was never ordained), I can vividly recall our first course on moral theology. The Novice Master, fresh from a teaching assignment at a Jesuit high school, proclaimed this revolutionary theory as a liberation from the old ways of thinking about morality in terms of mortal sin or intrinsically evil acts that immediately ruptured our relationship with the Divine. One could violate God’s will through a particular sinful choice but still remain in God’s good graces. For naïve novices in the 1970s, living in a world increasingly dominated by eroticism and self-indulgence, there was something quite alluring about this new moral synthesis. Nearly everyone in the class interpreted this doctrine as a sort of license to commit an occasional perverse act without worrying about the eternal fate of his soul. Equipped with these theories, proposed by some of the Church’s most prominent ethical thinkers, it became far easier to rationalize sexual misconduct or other forms of corruption.
Veritatis Splendor Rejects Theological Errors
Benedict goes on to describe how this dangerous line of thinking was decisively overcome by his illustrious predecessor, Pope Saint John Paul II. In Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II, a moral philosopher by training, retrieved the doctrine of exceptionless moral norms and explicitly repudiated revisionist theories such as the fundamental option. He explained how an act of faith or commitment to God and his Son cannot be separated from our particular moral choices. Such a separation does not do justice to the “rational finality immanent in man’s acting and in each of his deliberate decisions” (Veritatis Splendor, 67). Moreover, there are certain concrete actions that are intrinsically evil and “do not allow for any legitimate exception” (par. 67). One’s “fundamental orientation can be radically changed by particular acts” (par. 70) which the Church has always classified as mortal sins. Our eternal destiny is at stake in those moral choices where grave matter is concerned, and perhaps this is why Kierkegaard solemnly refers to a moral obligation as the “breath of the eternal.” The force of these absolute standards or negative moral precepts has been witnessed to by martyrs such as Maria Goretti and St. Thomas More. According to Pope Emeritus Benedict, the fact that martyrdom is no longer at stake in the theories advocated by theologians like Bruno Schüller “shows that the very essence of Christianity is at stake here.”
Amoris Laetitia, however, seems to represent a retreat from the comprehensive moral theology of Veritatis Splendor, which is never mentioned in its many passages. According to Amoris Laetitia, there is only “necessity in the general principles,” because while those principles or rules “set forth a good which can never be disregarded, … in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations” (par. 304). According to this account, the negative moral precept prohibiting adultery is a general principle that supports the good of marriage, but it cannot necessarily be applied to every concrete situation. In one paragraph of Chapter Eight, Pope Francis writes that “it is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s action corresponds 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” (par. 304). And he goes on to endorse a claim of an International Theological Commission study that the natural law does not present us with “an already established set of rules, … [but] is a source of objective inspiration for the deeply personal process of making decisions” (par. 305; my emphasis).
Amoris Laetitia Contradicts Theological Tradition
However, the natural law legacy, ratified by Vatican II but swept away by liberal theologians just as the Sexual Revolution was gaining momentum, argues for moral necessity not only in general principles but also in specific ones. Despite Amoris Laetitia’s spurious claim to the contrary, Aquinas consistently taught the authority of specific moral absolutes—negative precepts that always forbid killing of the innocent, theft, lying, adultery, and fornication. In one text, Aquinas describes how some human acts “have deformity inseparably attached to them, such as fornication, adultery, and others of this sort, which can in no way be done morally” (Quaestiones Quodlibetales, 9, q. 7, a. 2). Following Aquinas and the natural law tradition, Pope John Paul II insisted upon “the absolute validity of negative moral precepts which oblige without exception” (Veritatis Splendor 76).
The apparent denial of these exceptionless moral norms in Amoris Laetitia is an unfortunate setback for moral theology. These precepts are few in number, but they guide us toward human flourishing. According to Aquinas, the negative precepts “fix the boundary that man must not exceed in his moral actions” (Summa Theologiae, q. 79, a.2). They protect fundamental goods, including the sacramental reality of marriage, which is defined in terms of exclusivity and permanence. A flexible moral framework that allows for exceptions to negative prohibitions based on concrete circumstances threatens the integrity of those goods and makes the Church vulnerable to new forms of moral catastrophe. Pope Emeritus Benedict’s perceptive essay reaffirms the urgent need to preserve these specific negative norms, grounded in faith and reason, for a coherent moral theology. Without them, we end up with the relativity and vulnerability that allowed for the Church’s tragic surrender to the Sexual Revolution. Sexual activity outside an indissoluble heterosexual marriage is always wrong according to Sacred Scripture and natural law, but this precept cannot be found in Amoris Laetitia, no matter how long one tarries in the sinuousness of Pope Francis’s monologue.
Benedict’s essay is a cautionary tale about the need for fidelity to revelation and trust in the Church’s solid doctrinal tradition. Unlike Pope Francis, the Pope Emeritus appreciates that any disavowal of these absolute norms, no matter how tacit or indirect, undermines the foundation of Catholic moral doctrine. Amoris Laetitia seeks to lighten our moral burdens by setting aside or softening these negative moral precepts for the sake of “pastoral” concerns and “practical discernment.” However, in the words of the Second Vatican Council, these moral demands are an integral aspect of the Gospel’s “saving truth and moral teaching … [that] helps the people of God to live a holy life and to grow in faith” (Dei Verbum, 7, 8).
(Photo credit: L’Osservatore Romano / CNA)