The Big Hullabaloo
Yeah, that’s right. We’re going there. Today I’m going to talk about the Pope’s controversial Post-synodal Exhortation on Love in the Family, Amoris Laetitia (English: The Joy of Love), particularly one of the most confusing passages near the conclusion of the document, the infamous paragraph 305 and the immediately preceding paragraph, while avoiding any uncharitable assumptions.
If you’re not Catholic (After all this is an avowedly ecumenical site.) there is a larger point on morality I want to make that is relevant to all Christians, but this first part will mostly be relevant to Catholics, so be patient with me while I set up the broader moral dilemma that arises from Pope Francis’ ambiguous writing style and how a better understanding of Thomas Aquinas (who is cited in Amoris itself) and his moral theology can help resolve the issue now facing the Church.
A Poorly Written Document
I’m not going to footsie around the truth of the matter: Charitably, Amoris Laetitia is an extremely poorly written document that fails to clearly enunciate the basic teachings of the Catholic Church on the Unbreakableness of the Bond formed in a true Christian Marriage, which, by the way, boils down nicely to this:
“Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Luke 16:18)
Suppose someone didn’t know this basic teaching which forms part of the Deposit of our Christian Faith straight from the mouth of our Lord Jesus Christ that every Christian is required to believe. Well, in such a case, one might even think that Pope Francis was teaching a contrary doctrine. Judging only from what he wrote and a Webster’s Dictionary, one might legitimately think Pope Francis teaches that a Christian objectively committing adultery might not be in a serious state of sin that makes them unable to participate in the Eucharist. This is the same Eucharist Catholics believe and have always taught that people with the intention to have sex outside a valid Church-sanctioned marriage should not under any circumstances receive.
As I said at the outset, however, that would be an uncharitable interpretation of Amoris Laetitia, and one that faithful Catholics may not entertain, because it would involve accusing Pope Francis of departing from the true Faith in his teaching. Instead, Catholics are required to give assent to the authentic teaching of the Pope, even when it is not infallible (Lumen Gentium, Paragraph 25) in the service of clarifying existing Church teaching. So as I said above, I am proceeding on the assumption Amoris is just a sadly verbose and confusing letter from the well-intentioned Pontiff. Yeah, even that sounds harsh, but let’s get real: This exhortation of his has, unintentionally we assume, caused much legitimate confusion and even anger and fear among the faithful, and so far, he has declined to clarify. I’m the Pope’s loyal subject, not his cheerleader.
Some of The Problematic Text
So what am I talking about? All within paragraph 305 of Amoris (Yes, I’ve read the whole thing, most of which was fluffy and vague, but unobjectionable recapitulation of Catholic teaching. This is, in my opinion, the worst section in terms of ambiguity.), Pope Francis says:
- “[A] pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in “irregular” situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives.”
- “Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin–which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such, a person can be living in God’s grace…while receiving the Church’s help to this end.”
- “In certain cases, this [help] can include the help of the sacraments.” (Footnote 351)
Now, thanks to knowledge of what the Church has always taught on this matter, as well as many authentically Catholic Bishops with clearer writing styles than Pope Francis, we may be sure Pope Francis is not authentically teaching that people objectively committing sexual acts of adultery through a “remarriage” are admissible to the Holy Eucharist. For example, my own Bishop, the Right Reverend Stephen Lopes of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, writes in his pastoral letter addressing Amoris, A Pledged Troth:
The formation of conscience “can include the help of the sacraments,” including reconciliation and, under certain conditions, the Eucharist (351). As the Church teaches, and has always and firmly maintained, because reception of the Eucharist is the reception of Christ himself, “anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of reconciliation before coming to Communion” (Catechism, 1385)…Under the guidance of their pastor, avoiding occasions of confusion or scandal, divorced-and-civilly-remarried persons may receive the Eucharist, on the condition that when, “for serious reasons, such as for example the children’s upbringing, a man and woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they ‘take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples’” (Familiaris Consortio, 84). A civilly-remarried couple, if committed to complete continence, could have the Eucharist available to them, after proper discernment with their pastor and making recourse to the sacrament of reconciliation. Such a couple may experience continence as difficult, and they may sometimes fail, in which case they are, like any Christian, to repent, confess their sins, and begin anew.
Likewise, the Most Reverend Alexander Sample of the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, makes clear that exceptions to the moral law can never be made, as he writes in A True and Living Icon:
So constant is the deposit of faith, that the Magisterium itself “is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it.”10 The Gospel remains always whole and alive, “preserved by an unending succession of preachers until the end of time,” who “handing on what they themselves have received, warn the faithful to hold fast to the traditions which they have learned.…” Therefore, doctrine does not change, but it can develop…The indissolubility of marriage is a precious and essential teaching of the Church, revealed by Jesus and cherished in our unbroken Tradition…
As the Holy Father reminds us, the moral law is not a cudgel: “a pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in ‘irregular’ situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives.”33 Some have improperly used these considerations to claim that absolute prohibitions admit of exceptions, particularly when weakness of will or the complexity of a situation makes living up to the rule extremely difficult. This is incorrect.
And we could make reference to many other Bishops who have issued similar clarifications. On the other hand, others have interpreted Amoris quite differently. Is it a coincidence, that most (all?) of these contrary directives have been put out not by individuals, but by large amorphous bodies of Bishops? According to the Maltese Bishops’ Criteria for the Application of Chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia, paragraphs 9 and 10:
…Throughout the discernment process, we should also examine the possibility of conjugal continence. Despite the fact that this ideal is not at all easy, there may be couples who, with the help of grace, practice this virtue without putting at risk other aspects of their life together. On the other hand, there are complex situations where the choice of living “as brothers and sisters” becomes humanly impossible and give [sic] rise to greater harm (see AL, note 329).
10. If, as a result of the process of discernment, undertaken with “humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching, in a sincere search for God’s will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it” (AL 300), a separated or divorced person who is living in a new relationship manages, with an informed and enlightened conscience, to acknowledge and believe that he or she are [sic] at peace with God, he or she cannot be precluded from participating in the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist (see AL, notes 336 and 351).
This is only the latest official misinterpretation, the first of which was from Pope Francis’ own former Archdiocese in Argentina, addressed to the priests of Buenos Aires, Basic criteria for the implementation of chapter VIII of Amoris laetitia (Spanish text linked here), paragraphs 5 and 6:
5) Whenever feasible, and depending on the specific circumstances of a couple, and especially when both partners are Christians walking together on the path of faith, the priest may suggest a decision to live in continence. Amoris Laetitia does not ignore the difficulties arising from this option (cf. footnote 329) and offers the possibility of having access to the Sacrament of Reconciliation if the partners fail in this purpose (cf. footnote 364, recalling the teaching that Saint John Paul II sent to Cardinal W. Baum, dated 22 March, 1996).
6) In other, more complex cases, and when a declaration of nullity has not been obtained, the above mentioned option may not, in fact, be feasible. Nonetheless, a path of discernment is still possible. If it comes to be recognized that, in a specific case, there are limitations that mitigate responsibility and culpability (cf. 301-302), especially when a person believes they would incur a subsequent wrong by harming the children of the new union, Amoris Laetitia offers the possibility of access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist (cf. footnotes 336 and 351). These sacraments, in turn, dispose the person to continue maturing and growing with the power of grace.
Unfortunately, the German Bishops now have also released a similar directive, The Joy of Love, which is lived in Families, is also the Joy of the Church (German linked here). I haven’t been able to round up a good English translation, and I lack fluency in German, but using online translators as well as by judging the reaction to these directives, I understand the import is much the same as the Buenos Aires and Maltese documents. I would appreciate if anyone has access to a good English copy reference made to it in the comments (but not a link, as those get automatically sent to comment Purgatory, and I know not how to retrieve them).
The Solution is in the Text (Aquinas)
Apart from knowing the Deposit of the Faith, and that nothing can ever be subtracted from it, how can we have assurance that Pope Francis’ letter cannot imply that communion is permissible for the divorced and remarried who refuse to undertake living as brother and sister? In paragraph 304, Pope Francis provides us with an interpretive key from the work of St. Thomas Aquinas that helps us understand better how we should interpret his exhortation. In Part 2, we will explore that passage.