A problem confronting the builder of bridges

News has broken in the last several days that Fr. Franz Schmidberger, former superior general of the Society of St. Pius X and rector of the Society’s “Herz Jesu” seminary in Zaitzkofen, Germany, has written a lengthy memorandum for the consideration of other Society leaders regarding the (increasingly likely) prospect of full regularity in its relations with Rome. (We say “full regularity” for lack of a more euphonious term: it is plain that the Holy Father does not view the SSPX as schismatic, though he acknowledges some canonical irregularity.) Richard Chonak, at New Liturgical Movement, has prepared a translation of Fr. Schmidberger’s memorandum. While Fr. Schmidberger’s memorandum was originally prepared as a private brief, Chonak’s translation has been approved by Fr. Schmidberger. Rorate Caeli has provided the French original.

There has already been some media coverage of Fr. Schmidberger’s memorandum. At the National Catholic Register, a news story notes that Fr. Schmidberger’s memorandum comes in the wake of Archbishop Guido Pozzo’s extraordinary recent interview, in which the secretary of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei suggested in very strong terms that complete acceptance of the various documents of the Second Vatican Council was not a precondition for full union. And, of course, Bishop Fellay recently met privately with the Holy Father in Rome. Plainly, things are happening.

For our part, the collapse of negotiations in 2012 was a bitter event, not least since full union—or full regularity—between Rome and the Society was plainly a project of immense personal significance to Benedict XVI. However, it certainly appears that Pope Francis has picked up where his predecessor left off, and made a commitment this time to take concrete steps to regularize the Society one way or another.

We were particularly struck by a couple of points that Fr. Schmidberger made, which seems especially apt in the wake of Amoris laetitia, and the reactions in some quarters to some responses to that exhortation. First, Fr. Schmidberger emphasizes the distinction between the papacy as a divinely ordained institution and any particular pope:

The Church is infallible in her divine nature, but she is led by human beings who can go astray and also be burdened with failings. An office should be distinguished from the person in it at a given moment. The latter holds office for a certain time and then steps down—either through death or through other circumstances; the office remains. Today Pope Francis is the holder of the papal office with the power of the primacy. At some hour that we do not know, he will step down and another Pope will be elected. As long as he occupies the papal throne, we recognize him as such and pray for him. We are not saying that he is a good Pope. On the contrary, through his liberal ideas and his administration he causes much confusion in the Church. But when Christ established the papacy, He foresaw the whole line of popes throughout Church history, including Pope Francis. And nonetheless He permitted the latter’s ascent to the papal throne. Analogously, the Lord instituted the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar with the Real Presence, although He foresaw many sacrileges over the course of history.

(Emphasis supplied.) Setting to one side the tricky question of the extent to which the Holy Spirit participates in the selection of a particular man as pope at a particular time, Fr. Schmidberger’s second point there (or the second point we emphasized) is something that traditionally minded Catholics should repeat to themselves whenever they are troubled by this or that coming out of Rome. Fr. Schmidberger went on to note:

We have already pointed out the necessary distinction between office and officeholder. No doubt the current Pope has the God-given task of showing everyone plainly what the Council really was and what its ultimate consequences are doing to the Church: confusion, the dictatorship of relativism, setting pastoral concerns above doctrine, friendship with the enemies of God and the opponents of Christianity. But precisely because of this, people here and there are coming to understand the errors of the Council and to infer the cause from the effects. Furthermore, those who relied too much on Benedict XVI personally, instead of putting the papal office first and its holder second, were left out in the rain by the resignation of the Pope emeritus. Let us not make the same mistake again of relying too much on the specific person, instead of on the divine institution! Maybe, too, Pope Francis is precisely the one who, with his unpredictability and improvisation, is capable of taking this step. The mass media may forgive him for this expedient, whereas they would never ever have forgiven Benedict XVI. In his authoritarian, not to mention tyrannical style of governance, he would probably be capable of carrying out such a measure even against opposition.

(Emphasis supplied.) This, too, is a point that ought to be considered very seriously, especially as traditionally minded Catholics seem to be looking to other prelates than the Holy Father for guidance and reassurance.

Link Roundup: Apr. 24, 2016

Fr. Gerald E. Murray has a lengthy essay at The Catholic Thing, arguing that Amoris laetitia did change the Church’s teaching about communion for bigamists and, pace Cardinal Burke, was a magisterial act.

Speaking of Amoris laetitia—despite our best intentions not to—Edward Pentin has an enormous piece collecting various reactions to the exhortation.

Yesterday, if you said the 1960 Breviary, you might have noted that a commemoration of St. George was made at lauds (it was otherwise the Saturday Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary). Gregory DiPippo has a fascinating essay at New Liturgical Movement, pointing out that there has long been skepticism in the West to St. George’s historicity.

Fr. John Hunwicke has a fascinating post about the circumstances under which Archbishop George Errington was removed as Cardinal Wiseman’s coadjutor archbishop of Westminster by the great Pius IX.

Pater Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist., has decided to tantalize his readers horribly by giving us the abstract from a paper of his titled: The Dialectics of Individualism and Totalitarianism in Charles de Koninck, David Foster Wallace, and Michel Houellebecq. We hope that he’ll make the whole paper—or at least lengthy excerpts—available soon.

At Rorate Caeli, there is a new, exclusive interview of Bishop Athanasius Schneider by Dániel Fülep of the John Henry Newman Center of Higher Education in Hungary. (Note that the interview took place before the release of Amoris laetitia, though it touches upon some of the issues raised by that document.)


The other revolution of “Amoris laetitia”

In the furor over Amoris laetitia, one point, we think, has escaped wider notice: what are we to make of the Holy Father’s frequent quotation of aspects of the Relatio finalis of the Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops? For example, various paragraphs in the hugely contentious chapter eight consist primarily of quotations of the Relatio finalis (e.g., ¶¶ 294, 299–300). And at least one commentator—we can’t remember who just now, but we definitely recall that someone has—has observed that this wholesale quotation of the Relatio finalis is a factor that ought to be considered when determining the magisterial weight of Amoris laetitia. Certainly, Familiaris consortio did not consist of repeating vast excerpts of the Synod’s report. Neither, for that matter, did Evangelii gaudium, which, in addition to being the Holy Father’s “party program,” was supposed to be a post-synodal exhortation following a synod on the “new evangelization.” (Remember that? Us neither.)

Notwithstanding Cardinal Burke’s lengthy, learned argument to the contrary, there is a broad consensus that Amoris laetitia has done something. The Pope’s close collaborator, Fr. Antonio Spadaro, a likely contributor to Amoris laetitia, contends that it’s magisterial. (If we had written it, we would say it’s magisterial, too.) And traditionalist commentators have been, frankly, as aggressive in articulating this view as those pleased by Amoris laetitia. (Why this is so, we daren’t guess.) Now, we are not especially convinced, not least because Amoris laetitia explicitly did not change the Church’s law (¶300)—but we have seen where legalism has gotten Cardinal Burke. But let’s set aside for the moment whether or not Amoris laetitia did anything and assume that it did. If that’s the case, then we’ve witnessed a revolution bigger than anything regarding communion for bigamists. We have witnessed the Synod take on the appearance of legislative authority without a formal papal act granting it such authority.

The Synod process was not explicitly legislative. Recall what happened. Questionnaires were circulated and an instrumentum laboris was prepared based upon those questionnaires. (Cardinal Erdö tried to corral the debate envisioned by the instrumentum laboris with his initial presentation, but that plan was shot down pretty quickly.) Small groups issued their own reports and made suggestions for a final report. A final report was prepared and voted upon and passages that received the necessary majority (all the important passages, at any rate, even if only just) were included in the final report. And that final report was not in the nature of a decree or other juridical document settling questions of doctrine and practice. It was, essentially, an extended discussion of issues, some of which fell into the “Some Synod fathers say X, but others say not-X” mode of reporting. The report was then forwarded to the Holy Father, who responded to it with Amoris laetitia.

As we said, nothing about this process is necessarily legislative. (We’ll see here in a minute that the Synod can be imbued with legislative authority, albeit on an ad hoc basis.) Yet, throughout the synodal process there was a sense among observers that whatever the Synod voted, the Holy Father would ratify. The votes on the relationes were, therefore, hugely significant. (Remember the attention to and tension surrounding the 2014 and 2015 rounds of voting? We do.) The thinking went: if the bad paragraphs got into the final report—as, in fact, they did—then something bad would happen. While we would never denigrate the catastrophe of a broad cross-section of bishops and special papal appointees falling into error, there was a sense that the votes were more significant than that. In other words, the Synod had the air of a legislative assembly, even if it was not properly constituted as such.

And, certainly, the Holy Father’s response to the Synod’s final report confirms that sense of authority. While the Holy Father did not explicitly establish a penitential path or a forum internum solution, despite speculation that he would, he did put the stamp of papal approval on the final report by quoting vast sections of it and referring to it over and over (and over and over) in his footnotes. Thus, the concern that whatever the Synod voted, the Pope would ratify, was to some extent completely justified. The Pope did ratify whatever the Synod voted, with some exceptions; however, the Pope did not grant the Synod explicit legislative authority. It just sort of became a legislative body.

Of course, the possibility of a legislative synod has been present since the beginning. Paul VI, in his 1965 apostolic letter issued motu proprio, Apostolica sollicitudo, by which he established the Synod of Bishops, established:

The Synod of Bishops has, of its very nature, the function of providing information and offering advice. It can also enjoy the power of making decisions when such power is conferred upon it by the Roman Pontiff; in this case, it belongs to him to ratify the decisions of the Synod.

(Emphasis supplied.) So, Paul acknowledged the possibility of a legislative synod, but only if the pope conferred upon it legislative power and if he ratified the decisions. In a sense, therefore, a decision of a legislative synod is a decision of the pope: he gives the synod authority to decide and confirms its decisions. Yet one has the sense that Paul did not exactly believe in the idea of a legislative synod:

1. The general purpose of the Synod are:

a) to promote a closer union and greater cooperation between the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops of the whole world; 

b) to see to it that accurate and direct information is supplied on matters and situations that bear upon the internal life of the Church and upon the kind of action that should be carrying on in today’s world; 

c) to facilitate agreement, at least on essential matters of doctrine and on the course of action to be taken in the life of the Church.

2. Its special and immediate purposes are:

a) to provide mutually useful information;

b) to discuss the specific business for which the Synod is called into session on any given occasion.

(Emphasis supplied.) In other words, the primary purposes of the Synod of Bishops as Paul conceived of them were essentially advisory and communicative, not legislative. As an idle aside, one wonders what dear Papa Montini, so grieved by the changes that were unleashed in his name, would have made of the 2014–2015 Synod of Bishops, especially with respect of its stated purpose of “facilitat[ing] agreement, at least on essential matters of doctrine and on the course of action to be taken in the life of the Church.” Certainly no one thinks that there is more agreement on the question of communion for bigamists than before 2014. Certainly no one thinks even that there is more agreement on the framework to discuss the question than before 2014. Regardless of Amoris laetitia—and remember, we’re assuming, with the majority of leading voices in the traditionalist blogosphere, that it did something—no one can dispute that the 2014–2015 Synod is one of the most divisive events in the life of the Church since 1965. (And, even then, pretty much everyone signed the conciliar decrees, whatever happened in the aula. Even dear Cardinal Ottaviani. [Santo subito!])

Moreover, one of the complaints about the Synod under John Paul and Benedict is that the assemblies were low-risk, stage-managed affairs. That is, the interventions were thoroughly vetted, the final reports were carefully written by central authority, and the post-synodal exhortations, when they came out, were more of the same. The Holy Father has made it a priority to revitalize the Synod as a deliberative assembly. But, at the same time, it seems to us that there is something to be said for a quieter, low-risk approach; if Paul’s initial vision for the Synod was based upon closer union among the bishops of the world, exchanging information, and facilitating agreement, the high-stakes, high-conflict Synod is plainly at odds with that vision. Thus, it seems to us that John Paul and Benedict may well have been in greater continuity with Paul’s vision for the Synod than the Holy Father, who seems to like the idea of the Synod as a mini-Vatican II with all that entails. But we digress.

The Apostolica sollicitudo settlement found its way into John Paul’s 1983 Code of Canon Law, under canon 343:

It is for the synod of bishops to discuss the questions for consideration and express its wishes but not to resolve them or issue decrees about them unless in certain cases the Roman Pontiff has endowed it with deliberative power, in which case he ratifies the decisions of the synod.

(Emphasis supplied.) Thus, under the law currently governing the Synod, Paul’s intention remains: the Synod does not have authority to “resolve” issues, unless the pope gives it that authority and ratifies its decisions.

Yet, despite these clear conceptual and juridical limits to the Synod’s authority, there was, as we say, a sense that the advisory report of the Synod would represent some victory (or defeat, depending on your position). We do not recall the Holy Father granting the Synod any specific legislative authority, as Apostolica sollicitudo and canon 343 would require. Yet everyone fairly quickly assumed that the Synod’s vote mattered. Indeed, everyone fairly quickly assumed that the Synod itself was a body that mattered, a body with authority. This is extraordinary, isn’t it?

Of course, this is, we think, a major point in the Holy Father’s program for the Church. Remember what he said as recently as last fall in Florence:

I prefer a restless Italian Church, ever closer to the abandoned, the forgotten, the imperfect. I would like a glad Church with a mother’s face, that understands, accompanies, caresses. You too dream of this Church, believe in her, innovate with freedom. The Christian humanism that you are called to live radically affirms the dignity of every person as a Child of God, it establishes among all human beings a fundamental fraternity, teaches one to understand work, to inhabit creation as a common home, to furnish reasons for optimism and humour, even in the middle of a life many times more difficult.

Although it is not for me to say how to accomplish this dream today, allow me to leave you just one indication for the coming years: in every community, in every parish and institution, in every diocese and circumscription, in every region, try to launch, in a synodal fashion, a deep reflection on the Evangelii Gaudium, to draw from it practical parameters and to launch its dispositions, especially on the three or four priorities that you will identify in this meeting. I am certain of your capacity to put yourselves into a creative movement in order to make this study practical. I am sure of it because you are an adult Church, age-old in the faith, firmly rooted and with an abundance of fruit. Therefore be creative in expressing the genius that your great ones, from Dante to Michelangelo, expressed in an incomparable way. Believe in the genius of Italian Christianity, which is neither a legacy of individuals nor of elites, but of the community, of the people of this extraordinary country.

(Hyperlink in original, but emphasis supplied.) And just a little before that, at the ceremony marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Synod, the Holy Father stated:

From the beginning of my ministry as Bishop of Rome, I sought to enhance the Synod, which is one of the most precious legacies of the Second Vatican Council. For Blessed Paul VI, the Synod of Bishops was meant to reproduce the image of the Ecumenical Council and reflect its spirit and method. Pope Paul foresaw that the organization of the Synod could “be improved upon with the passing of time”. Twenty years later, Saint John Paul II echoed that thought when he stated that “this instrument might be further improved. Perhaps collegial pastoral responsibility could be more fully expressed in the Synod”. In 2006, Benedict XVI approved several changes to the Ordo Synodi Episcoporum, especially in light of the provisions of the Code of Canon Law and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, which had been promulgated in the meantime.

(Hyperlinks in original, but footnotes omitted and emphasis supplied.) He went on to observe in a lengthy passage:

In a synodal Church, the Synod of Bishops is only the most evident manifestation of a dynamism of communion which inspires all ecclesial decisions.

The first level of the exercise of synodality is had in the particular Churches. After mentioning the noble institution of the Diocesan Synod, in which priests and laity are called to cooperate with the bishop for the good of the whole ecclesial community…


The second level is that of Ecclesiastical Provinces and Ecclesiastical Regions, Particular Councils and, in a special way, Conferences of Bishops. We need to reflect on how better to bring about, through these bodies, intermediary instances of collegiality, perhaps by integrating and updating certain aspects of the ancient ecclesiastical organization. The hope expressed by the Council that such bodies would help increase the spirit of episcopal collegiality has not yet been fully realized. We are still on the way, part-way there. In a synodal Church, as I have said, “it is not advisable for the Pope to take the place of local Bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory. In this sense, I am conscious of the need to promote a sound ‘decentralization’”.

The last level is that of the universal Church. Here the Synod of Bishops, representing the Catholic episcopate, becomes an expression of episcopal collegiality within an entirely synodal Church. Two different phrases: “episcopal collegiality” and an “entirely synodal Church”. This level manifests the collegialitas affectiva, which can also become in certain circumstances “effective”, joining the Bishops among themselves and with the Pope in solicitude for the People God.

(Footnotes omitted and emphasis supplied.) It is therefore plain that the Holy Father has a clear vision of a synodal Church, which extends well beyond Paul’s vision for the Synod of Bishops, which was simply a closer union among the bishops of the world, an exchange of information, and a process of finding points of agreement. It is plain, furthermore, that the Holy Father may well think that the turbulence and disagreement of the 2014–2015 Synod was, after a fashion, desirable, insofar as it reflects restlessness (on the part of the progressives) and dynamism.

Thus, no one should be surprised that the Synod has just sort of become an important, legislative assembly without actually receiving that authority from the Holy Father. We would be surprised, in fact, if it were an accident. But it seems to us that once the door is open—and it is open—it will be difficult for future popes to shut it. If the 2014-2015 Synod is so significant, and the next Synod under the Holy Father will be similarly significant, then “John XXIV” or “Paul VII” will be at a serious disadvantage if they try to restore the Synod to something closer to what Paul VI imagined when he created it. And this constitutes, in our view, a very quiet revolution in Church governance.

Link Roundup: Apr. 17, 2016

We took a break from Link Roundup last Sunday, largely since we did an Amoris laetitia special edition and because everyone was talking (in circles, for the most part) about Amoris laetitia. They still are, of course, but that does not mean that interesting things aren’t being said on other topics—if you can imagine that.

While on the island of Lesbos, the Holy Father, the Ecumenical Patriarch, and Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens and All Greece issued a Joint Declaration regarding the refugee situation and the crisis in the Middle East. No reference is made, as far as we can tell, to Pius XII’s great Exsul Familia Nazarethana, which addressed these very topics in the wake of the Second World War.

Canonist Ed Peters has a fascinating post about the concept of Eucharist-as-medicine, with copious citations to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Bishop Bernard Fellay, superior-general of the SSPX, in a homily on April 10, in which it was revealed that, apparently, in the last days of Benedict’s pontificate, the SSPX received an ultimatum: accept the then-current offer from Rome by a date certain or be excommunicated. Benedict apparently decided to leave the matter for his successor and Francis apparently decided not to go forward with it. There have been discussions previously about offers made during those extraordinary, portentous final days of Benedict’s reign, but they did not include the “or else” Fellay mentions.

Matthew Hazell has a new book out: Index Lectionum. The first of a projected three-volume work, Hazell’s book is nothing less than a comparison of the EF lectionary and the OF lectionary. Valuable for those who are interested to know what got kept, cut, and shuffled in the post-conciliar reforms. (There is also an interesting discussion in the comments.)

Edward Pentin reports that the Holy Father met with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders briefly, while Sanders was at the Vatican to address a conference marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of Centesimus annus. Carol Glatz has a good overview of the conference, albeit with a focus on the Sanders angle, including some quotes from Cardinal Maradiaga’s address.

At Opus Publicum, Gabriel Sanchez has a very interesting review of a new book discussing John Paul and Benedict’s reactions to Balthasar’s speculation about Christ’s descent into hell on Holy Saturday.

Bernie Sanders addresses “Centesimus annus” conference


Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, currently running for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, had this to say today:

I am honored to be with you today and was pleased to receive your invitation to speak to this conference of The Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. Today we celebrate the encyclical Centesimus Annus and reflect on its meaning for our world a quarter-century after it was presented by Pope John Paul II. With the fall of Communism, Pope John Paul II gave a clarion call for human freedom in its truest sense: freedom that defends the dignity of every person and that is always oriented towards the common good. 

The Church’s social teachings, stretching back to the first modern encyclical about the industrial economy, Rerum Novarum in 1891, to Centesimus Annus, to Pope Francis’s inspiring encyclical Laudato Si’ this past year, have grappled with the challenges of the market economy. There are few places in modern thought that rival the depth and insight of the Church’s moral teachings on the market economy.

(Emphasis supplied.) He went on to observe:

The essential wisdom of Centesimus Annus is this: A market economy is beneficial for productivity and economic freedom. But if we let the quest for profits dominate society; if workers become disposable cogs of the financial system; if vast inequalities of power and wealth lead to marginalization of the poor and the powerless; then the common good is squandered and the market economy fails us. Pope John Paul II puts it this way: profit that is the result of “illicit exploitation, speculation, or the breaking of solidarity among working people . . . has not justification, and represents an abuse in the sight of God and man.” (Para43).

(Emphasis supplied.)

Sanders was at the Vatican, you may remember, for a conference marking the 25th anniversary of Centesimus annus, hosted by the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences. There was some controversy about Sanders’s visit to Rome, since the invitation, made at the behest of Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, though that’s not really the interesting part of the story. The interesting part of the story—at least for us—is that an American presidential candidate traveled to the Vatican to discuss Centesimus annus, Rerum novarum, and Catholic social teaching more generally.


On Cardinal Burke’s analysis of “Amoris laetitia”

Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke, eminent canonist and Curial cardinal, has written a very lengthy comment on Amoris laetitia as an exclusive for the National Catholic Register. It is Cardinal Burke’s opinion that,

The only key to the correct interpretation of Amoris Laetitia is the constant teaching of the Church and her discipline that safeguards and fosters this teaching. Pope Francis makes clear, from the beginning, that the post-synodal apostolic exhortation is not an act of the magisterium (No. 3). The very form of the document confirms the same. It is written as a reflection of the Holy Father on the work of the last two sessions of the Synod of Bishops. For instance, in Chapter Eight, which some wish to interpret as the proposal of a new discipline with obvious implications for the Church’s doctrine, Pope Francis, citing his post-synodal apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, declares:

I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion. But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, a Mother who, while clearly expressing her objective teaching, “always does what good she can, even if in the process, her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street” (No. 308).

In other words, the Holy Father is proposing what he personally believes is the will of Christ for His Church, but he does not intend to impose his point of view, nor to condemn those who insist on what he calls “a more rigorous pastoral care.” The personal, that is, non-magisterial, nature of the document is also evident in the fact that the references cited are principally the final report of the 2015 session of the Synod of Bishops, and the addresses and homilies of Pope Francis himself. There is no consistent effort to relate the text, in general, or these citations to the magisterium, the Fathers of the Church and other proven authors.

(Emphasis supplied, but hyperlinks in original.) Cardinal Burke also brings up the example of Paul VI’s 1967 interviews with Jean Guitton, published by Fayard as Dialogues avec Paul VI, as a cautionary example for the faithful:

I remember the discussion which surrounded the publication of the conversations between Blessed Pope Paul VI and Jean Guitton in 1967. The concern was the danger that the faithful would confuse the Pope’s personal reflections with official Church teaching. While the Roman Pontiff has personal reflections which are interesting and can be inspiring, the Church must be ever attentive to point out that their publication is a personal act and not an exercise of the Papal Magisterium. Otherwise, those who do not understand the distinction, or do not want to understand it, will present such reflections and even anecdotal remarks of the Pope as declarations of a change in the Church’s teaching, to the great confusion of the faithful. Such confusion is harmful to the faithful and weakens the witness of the Church as the Body of Christ in the world.

(Emphasis supplied.) But one could just as easily mention any of the other explicitly non-magisterial documents that have emanated from the Vatican since 2013. Recall, for example, that, in Evangelii gaudium, the Holy Father explicitly declined to exercise the papal magisterium in a definitive manner (EG ¶¶ 16–18). And “The Gifts and the Calling of God Are Irrevocable”, the recent reflection of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, was likewise explicitly non-magisterial (Preface). Certainly, when the Holy Father wishes to issue magisterial, binding documents he knows how to do so—consider, for example, Mitis iudex Dominus Iesus or Fidelis dispensator et prudens and the various statutes of the financial entities—thus one can safely conclude that there is some intent behind his decision here.

It seems to us, therefore, that Cardinal Burke’s conclusion—”the Holy Father is proposing what he personally believes is the will of Christ for His Church, but he does not intend to impose his point of view, nor to condemn those who insist on what he calls ‘a more rigorous pastoral care.'”—is eminently sensible. If one views the exercise of the papal magisterium as a switch, then one could say that the Holy Father went out of his way to leave the switch in the “off” position throughout Amoris laetitia. One cannot say that Cardinal Burke is twisting Amoris laetitia to fit his own ideological preferences. Indeed he is taking the Holy Father at the Holy Father’s own work. Look: the Holy Father himself says that it is non-magisterial (AL ¶3). And, again, the Holy Father says that he is not providing general norms, applicable to all situations, in chapter 8 (AL ¶ 300). Indeed, the Holy Father specifically characterizes chapter 8 as “reflections” (AL ¶309). Thus, Cardinal Burke is doing nothing more than pointing out, calmly and soberly, what the Pope has already said about Amoris laetitia.

Of course, we suppose that some traditionally minded Catholics are going to be disappointed by Cardinal Burke’s analysis. No doubt they wanted to hear him criticize in stringent language the infelicities, ambiguities, and (putative) errors of Amoris laetitia. Indeed, we have seen Twitter today and read various other blogs, so we know that some traditionally minded Catholics are deeply disappointed by Cardinal Burke’s response, going so far as to characterize it as a betrayal of some sort or another. At the very least, the situation represents a cautionary tale to traditionally minded Catholics about deciding that this or that prelate is “our man in Rome” or “on our side.” (This is an error American Catholics habitually make in the political context, treating the Republican Party as “our men in Washington” or “on our side.”) Certainly, liturgical traditionalists have had friends and supporters in Rome over the years, and look what they’ve had to endure.

One of our oldest friends has pointed out that Cardinal Burke, in responding to Amoris laetitia, has shown himself to be far more sympathetic and charitable than anyone, his friends or his foes, usually gives him credit for. Certainly no one imagines that Cardinal Burke was especially pleased by Amoris laetitia; his consistent witness, both at the Extraordinary General Assembly and in the intervening eighteen months, shows that he has a clear sense of the Church’s perennial teaching on this subject. And he is far from ignorant of the pastoral consequences of that teaching, as his moving comments about experiences from his youth and life as a priest show. But, rather than detailing the numerous infelicities, ambiguities, and (putative) errors of Amoris laetitia, to say nothing of any personal disagreements he may have, Cardinal Burke has taken the Holy Father at his word and explained the value and the limitations of the document. Cardinal Burke has engaged in the dialogue the Holy Father says he wants.

For our part, we wonder why anyone would be disappointed or feel betrayed by Cardinal Burke’s analysis. As some commentators have recognized already, Cardinal Burke’s commentary boils down to this: Amoris laetitia did not change anything because it could not change anything, both by the Holy Father’s explicit intention and by its nature. More than that, he explains:

Certain commentators confuse such respect with a supposed obligation to “believe with divine and Catholic faith” (Canon 750, § 1) everything contained in the document. But the Catholic Church, while insisting on the respect owed to the Petrine Office as instituted by Our Lord Himself, has never held that every utterance of the Successor of St. Peter should be received as part of her infallible magisterium.

The Church has historically been sensitive to the erroneous tendency to interpret every word of the pope as binding in conscience, which, of course, is absurd. According to a traditional understanding, the pope has two bodies, the body which is his as an individual member of the faithful and is subject to mortality, and the body which is his as Vicar of Christ on earth which, according to Our Lord’s promise, endures until His return in glory. The first body is his mortal body; the second body is the divine institution of the office of St. Peter and his successors.

(Emphasis supplied.) Recall, for example, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s 1998 doctrinal commentary on the profession of faith instituted by Ad tuendam Fidem:

The third proposition of the Professio fidei states: “Moreover, I adhere with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman Pontiff or the College of Bishops enunciate when they exercise their authentic Magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by a definitive act”.

To this paragraph belong all those teachings – on faith and morals – presented as true or at least as sure, even if they have not been defined with a solemn judgement or proposed as definitive by the ordinary and universal MagisteriumSuch teachings are, however, an authentic expression of the ordinary Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff or of the College of Bishops and therefore require religious submission of will and intellect. They are set forth in order to arrive at a deeper understanding of revelation, or to recall the conformity of a teaching with the truths of faith, or lastly to warn against ideas incompatible with those truths or against dangerous opinions that can lead to error.

A proposition contrary to these doctrines can be qualified as erroneous or, in the case of teachings of the prudential order, as rash or dangerous and therefore ‘tuto doceri non potest’.

(Emphasis supplied, but italics in original.) One can very easily see how Amoris laetitia fits—or, in fact, doesn’t fit—into this framework. And it is well worth noting that Ad tuendam Fidem modified canon 750, and, therefore, it could be said that the doctrinal commentary is in pari materia, so to speak, with canon 750. But setting to one side the precise connection, our point is this: Cardinal Burke is correct when he notes that there is no obligation to believe, with “divine and Catholic faith,” propositions that are not functions of the Pope’s “authentic Magisterium,” to say nothing of meditations on discerning subjective culpability in irregular situations. Thus, Cardinal Burke’s point is twofold: (1) Amoris laetitia did not change anything and (2) Amoris laetitia is not necessarily binding on one’s conscience. What, exactly, is so disappointing about that?

And this is perhaps what is so valuable about Cardinal Burke’s insight. One respects the Pope, one loves the Pope, one smiles happily when one passes his picture in the hallway, one remembers him in one’s prayers, but one need not try to square the circles in Amoris laetitia. If one likes the second chapter or the fourth chapter, super-duper. The Holy Father is always at his best when waxing rhapsodical, isn’t he? And if one is scandalized by the eighth chapter, well, one shouldn’t feel compelled to even try to assent to it. The Holy Father certainly has ideas, doesn’t he? One doesn’t have to try to put a brave face on things. Or convince others that this is the greatest catastrophe since the days of Liberius and Damasus. One doesn’t have to do anything.

But if one does want to convince others of something—anything—about Amoris laetitia, what better way to begin than to say, “All of us are free to reach our own conclusions about the Pope’s reflections, and these are the conclusions that we have reached”?


Scoring the Thomism in “Amoris laetitia”

If you were like us, you noted that the Holy Father appeared to rely on St. Thomas Aquinas fairly heavily at crucial moments of Amoris laetitia. (And if you didn’t notice it, take our word for it.) We have been left wondering what the general quality of the Holy Father’s Thomism was, not being ourselves in a position to judge it. At the always-excellent blog, Laodicea, “Thomas Cordatus” walks through the Thomistic arguments in Amoris laetitia. He’s not uniformly impressed. A sample,

Paragraph 304 seeks to recruit St Thomas in favour of having no unvarying law about how to act towards those in e.g. adulterous situations. It quotes a passage from 1a 2a 94, 4: “Practical reason deals with contingent things, upon which human activity bears, and so although there is necessity in the general principles, the more we descend to matters of detail, the more frequently we encounter defects…  In matters of action, truth or practical rectitude is not the same for all, as to matters of detail, but only as to the general principles.” Presumably one is supposed to think that St Thomas would have said that therefore you can’t have a fixed principle of not giving Holy Communion to those who live in an adulterous relationship, but only a defeasible presumption of not doing so. The problem with this is that it ignores his, and the Church’s, teaching about intrinsically evil actions. Since some actions are intrinsically evil, one can indeed have unvarying negative precepts, saying that such and such a thing must never be done, whatever the circumstances. Affirmative precepts, on the other hand, such as giving back a loaned article when the lender requires it, bear on a good to be done and not on an evil to be avoided, and since goodness requires not only a good object but also the right circumstances, affirmative precepts can be suspended in particular cases (e.g. don’t return a gun to a madman.) The precept of not giving Holy Communion to those in public mortal sin is a negative precept, based on the intrinsic evil of dishonouring the Church.

(Emphasis supplied.) Read the whole thing there.

And while you’re there, you also need to read the comments. “Thomas Cordatus” points out in some detail a potential contradiction between Amoris laetitia, para. 301, and Trent’s eighteenth canon on justification, which itself refers to Romans 11. It’s a straightforward application of “you’ve got to dance with the one what brung you.” You cannot say that the commandments of God are impossible, even for one in a state of grace (can. 18); since Amoris laetitia teaching that those in irregular situations may be in a state of grace (AL ¶301), Trent says that you cannot say that the commandments of God, including, of course, perfect continence in their irregular situations, are impossible for them. But Amoris laetitia says, “[a] subject may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding ‘its inherent values’, or be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin” (¶301 [emphasis supplied]). Now, at no point does Amoris laetitia say straight out that it’s impossible for the subject to obey God’s commandment, but it sure sounds like it says that.

I guess we’ve really been out of touch

At Rorate Caeli, there is a translation of Roberto de Mattei’s first comments on Amoris laetitia. It is probably the best, most dispassionate exposition of the case against Amoris laetitia that we have seen so far.  A brief selection:

Furthermore, the exception is destined to become the rule, since the criteria to receive Communion in Amoris laetitia, is left to the “personal discernment” of the individuals. This discernment takes place through “conversation with the priest, in the internal forum” (no. 300), “case by case”.  However, which pastors of souls will dare forbid the reception of the Eucharist, if “the Gospel itself tells us not to judge or condemn (no.308) and if it is necessary “to integrate everyone” (no. 297) and “[appreciate] the constructive elements in those situations which do not yet or no longer correspond to [the Church’s] teaching on marriage?”(no.292).

(Emphasis supplied.) Read the whole thing there.

To be all broken up and delirious

As we have meditated on Amoris laetitia over the past day or so—or at least those parts of Amoris laetitia that we have read, since we will likely never read the whole thing unless explicitly commanded to do so by a superior—we have come back to a couple questions (variations, really, on one question): does it matter that the Holy Father did not formally authorize communion for bigamists? Does it matter that the Holy Father did not actually say that the divorced-and-remarried are not living in mortal sin?

Why do the questions matter at all? No one really cares what Amoris laetitia actually says, right?  The Kasperites see their opening and are already moving to capitalize on it. But, if we’re being honest, they were capitalizing on the Kasper proposal before there was a Kasper proposal. The fact of the matter is that a lot of priests and extraordinary ministers don’t pay all that much attention to who troops up at communion time. (This is, of course, not at all a tolerable situation.) And before Amoris laetitia, we suspect that explanations for this shocking laxity would have hinged on individual conscience and discernment. And now, after Amoris laetitia, the explanations for this shocking laxity will hinge on individual conscience and discernment. (Of course, we’ll be shocked if any of the Kasperite bishops and priests actually engage in the serious, in-depth examination of conscience actually called for by chapter 8. It sounds like a lot of hard work to us.)

On the other hand, it’s clear that the traditionalist narrative is essentially that the Holy Father’s vagueness has brought about a change in praxis undermining the clear teaching of Our Lord and St. Paul. In other words, because the Holy Father didn’t quote verbatim Familiaris consortio 84 and call it a day, and because he taught that objectively irregular situations do not necessarily constitute mortal sin due to a variety of factors lessening subjective culpability, he has forever undermined Church doctrine. Indeed, some have gone so far as to argue that this approach undermines in a serious way the Church’s entire approach to sin. (And even if he doesn’t use those words, it’s what he means.) Everyone can come up with extenuating circumstances reducing their subjective culpability. Thus, these commentators argue that the Pope has either formally taught heresy or his lack of clarity and some of his omissions are the next best thing. (And even if they don’t use those words, it’s what they mean.) Both the traditionalists and the Kasperites can find textual support for their positions. (Remember, of course, that our primary grievance with Amoris laetitia is that it is overlong and vague.)

The question matters because, at no point does the Holy Father actually say, “Divorced-and-remarried persons may receive communion.” He does not even say, “If divorced-and-remarried persons check the following boxes, then they may receive communion.” In a series of tweets, Kurt Martens, professor of canon law at the Catholic University of America and editor of The Jurist, makes the important point that a full implementation of the Kasper proposal would have required canonical norms. But Francis explicitly refuses to provide such rules (AL ¶300). Ed Peters makes the same point in greater detail: Amoris laetitia did not change the Church’s law, and, therefore, the canons that bar the divorced-and-remarried from receiving communion remain in full force and effect. If traditionalists are bound and determined to have a catastrophe, to live in the age of Pope Honorius, and to comfort themselves with talk of a remnant Church, that’s fine. Since the Council, some traditionalists have done just that with great success. And, certainly, they can find support for their position in Amoris laetitia. On the other hand, it seems to us that, if one wanted to mount a counterattack, one could do much, much worse than proclaiming the point ably made by Martens and Peters: The Pope explicitly refused to change the law. 

Indeed, the Holy Father refused even to devolve authority to change the law to the bishops’ conferences, as had been hinted at. At The Spectator, Damian Thompson makes this (unpopular) point, among others:

Catholic liberals had guessed that the Pope wasn’t going to readmit divorced-and-remarried people to Communion. They pinned their hopes on an announcement that bishops’ conferences would be given the power to bend the rules fairly dramatically. That’s not happening either. This exhortation encourages priests to reach spiritual accommodation with repentant divorcees – but the only hint that this may include admitting them to Holy Communion is banished to the above footnote. ‘But the devil is in the footnote,’ conservatives are wailing already. Oh, please. If the ‘devil’ (i.e. liberals) has achieved his aim, why are the proponents of ‘reform’ in such despair today?

(Emphasis supplied.) The most the Holy Father did, in paragraph 3, is to say that unity of doctrine and practice is necessary for the Church, but ways of inculturating that unity can vary from place to place. This is borderline incomprehensible. But it is nonetheless not a mandate for the episcopal conferences to come up with new rules. The law of the Church, which includes a prohibition on communion by notorious public sinners, remains the law.

It is, therefore, clear that the problem with Amoris laetitia is one of emphasis and tone. It sounds too much like the Kasperite proposal. Or does it? Joseph Shaw, chairman of the Latin Mass Society, makes this observation:

Kasper argued (so far as I could tell) that grave sins, done in full knowledge of their gravity, could be compatible with the life of grace, and therefore with reception of Holy Communion, because of the psychological difficulty of avoiding them, and of the need to maintain a home for the children of an adulterous relationship. The Exhortation mentions all the elements of this view, but it doesn’t, quite, draw Kasper’s conclusion.

Thus we hear that, just because a couple is in an illicit union on some definition or other, doesn’t mean that they are in a state of mortal sin. There may be complicating factors. True: for example, there may be a failure of moral knowledge, or the couple may be living as ‘brother and sister’, or they may just have gone to Confession and be working things out. The subsequent discussion, however, does not appeal to any of these possibilities. Instead, it draws attention to other kinds of complication, which, while interesting and important, won’t stop acts of adultery being mortally sinful, such as a concern for the health of the relationship in light of the children, force of habit, and other psychological impediments to a conversion of life. Then again, the Exhortation doesn’t draw the conclusion that the second kind of complicating factors are such that the sins committed are not mortal. It leaves that up to the judgment of pastors…

(Hyperlink in original and emphasis supplied.) In other words, while sounding like the Kasperite proposal, Amoris laetitia stops just short of reaching the conclusions of Cardinal Kasper and his followers. The Kasperites, we have seen, are perfectly happy to supply the next step or two or ten and say that Amoris laetitia has reached Kasper’s conclusions. And traditionalists are perfectly happy to do essentially the same thing, though perhaps for very different reasons. Shaw again:

It is open to people to say: this is teaching by hint, or ‘dog-whistle’. But it also raises the question: if the Pope really wanted everyone to conclude that, for example, an adulterous couple with a strong habit of vice and a child whose home is underpinned by the sinful relationship, can receive sacramental absolution without a firm purpose of ending their acts of adultery, why did he not just say so? If the Pope did want to say that, and drew back from saying it, I suppose his reason must have been a concern not to cause things like scandal, schism, and an open break with the teaching of the recent Papal Magisterium, not to mention Scripture and the Fathers. On this presupposition, it is a deliberate decision, and the way we understand the teaching must respect the fact that the decision was made as it was. The Pope could have told adulterers to go to Communion with a light heart; he did not do so.

(Emphasis supplied.) And this is the point that we have a really hard time answering. If the Holy Father wanted to teach the Kasperite proposal and meant to teach the Kasperite proposal, then he would have done so. Nothing would have been easier than to establish a few, vague canonical norms or simply to throw open the doors to the Church to bigamists with the vague warning that if they guess wrong about their internal disposition, they’ll have to answer to the Head of the Church. And yet he didn’t do that. He talked around the issue for the most part, and addressed it directly in one footnote, maybe two. It must therefore be said that Amoris laetitia does not authorize communion for the divorced and remarried. Of course, neither Kasperites nor traditionalists are much bothered by this. Both groups are willing, for primarily ideological reasons, to supply the missing phrases and declare triumph or bemoan catastrophe.

Of course, tone and emphasis have been problems for this pontificate almost from the beginning. For example, the infamous 2014 Christmas address to the Curia contained fifteen separate “diseases” of the Curia. The closing address at the 2014 extraordinary general assembly of the Synod, which came after the startling revolt by the orthodox bishops against not only the Kasper proposal but also some of the manifest errors and heresies of the Relatio post disceptationem (written by Archbishop Bruno Forte), was likewise a critical analysis of some of the faults of the Synod fathers. We could go on. But the fact of the matter is that the objections to the Holy Father’s various statements are as much a function of the Holy Father’s tone and emphasis as they are a criticism of his content. (For the record, we think Laudato si’ was wonderful and the parts of Amoris laetitia building upon Laudato si’ were likewise wonderful. If the Holy Father and Archbishop Fernandez wanted to spend more time developing their critique of self-centered, convenience-obsessed modernity, we would not complain for a second.)

Now, this is not to say that there are not troubling passages in Amoris laetitia, or that one needs to read the exhortation through the lens of their ideological preferences in order to find questionable bits. Above all, we are still deeply, deeply troubled above all by footnote 329, which—despite a little rhetorical distancing—appears to set Familiaris consortio in opposition to Gaudium et spes, without explaining why such an attitude is wrong. Indeed, we had to read it several times, carefully, to figure out that there was any rhetorical distancing at all involved. Someone reading quickly or inattentively could very easily get the idea the Holy Father thinks that Familiaris consortio is in opposition to Gaudium et spes. And that’s no good at all. We hope very much that someone in authority—the Holy Father or one of his collaborators—issues some sort of statement about this footnote and shuts down the disturbing implication available in the text.

Paragraph 297 is another example of a troubling passage. We are fairly sure that the Holy Father uses “condemnation” there to mean “condemnation by humans, expressed through a sanction of excommunication” or something like that, since he’s talking about the extent to which the divorced and remarried can participate in the life of the Church. However, we also acknowledge that it would have probably been better, and just as easy, to say that, instead of what is actually said. And while we are perfectly happy to give the Holy Father the benefit of every doubt, we do wish that someone in authority would issue some statement clarifying that point, too.

More broadly, we agree that the Holy Father’s vague formulations about circumstances reducing culpability appear to point toward a conclusion that (almost) no one ever commits a mortal sin. Jesuit James V. Schall explains:

The burden of the Pope’s final discussion on marital problems—such as divorce, living together, and unfaithfulness—is to picture the Church, not as a judge or bureaucratic organization, but as a compassionate mother willing to listen and to stay with someone through his trials. It would be difficult to know what else to call this section but an exercise in sophisticated casuistry. Every effort is made to excuse or understand how one who is in such a situation is not really responsible for it. There was ignorance, or passion, or confusion. We are admonished not to judge anyone. And we are to welcome anyone and make every effort to make him feel at home in Church and as a neighbor. Attention is paid to victims of divorce who are treated unfairly, and especially children. But the prime interest is in mercy and compassion. God already forgives everything and so should we. The intellectual precision that the Holy Father uses to excuse or lessen guilt is cause for some reflection. The law cannot change but the “gradual” leading up to understanding this failure to observe the law takes time and patience.

But when we add it all up, it often seems that the effect of this approach is to lead us to conclude that no “sin” has ever occurred. Everything has an excusing cause. If this conclusion is correct, we really have no need for mercy, which has no meaning apart from actual sin and its free recognition. One goes away from this approach not being sorry for his sins but relieved in realizing that he has never really sinned at all. Therefore, there is no pressing need to concern oneself too much with these situations.

(Emphasis supplied.) And, while the Holy Father’s discussion is in the context, obviously, of divorce and remarriage, it is not at all clear that there’s a limiting principle to the idea that, if one looks hard enough, one can find an excuse reducing one’s subjective culpability.

But, as we noted above, at no point does the Holy Father ever actually say that the divorced and remarried are, as a rule, not in mortal sin. What he does say is, “it is can [sic] no longer simply be said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace” (AL ¶301). That’s not quite the same thing, is it? Of course, this is a straw-man argument, since no one ever said that every couple in an irregular situation was living in mortal sin. And maybe one could argue that the Holy Father is talking about those who live as brother and sister. Given Cardinal Schönborn’s statement at the Q&A Friday that Familiaris consortio was not affected by Amoris laetitia, one could even plausibly make that argument. When the Holy Father talks about “find[ing] possible ways of responding to God and growing in the midst of limits,” (AL 305), one could argue that he is talking about leading people to a place of setting aside sinful, adulterous acts and living as brother and sister. It’s possible! But, while there is textual support for that conclusion, to be sure, the tone of the document does not make one feel warm and snug with that conclusion.

And that brings us back to where we started. Sure: Amoris laetitia certainly points in a troubling direction, but when it comes time for the Holy Father to state the conclusions he has been pointing toward, he simply refuses to do so. But the tone of the document leads one to believe that if the Holy Father felt that he could state those conclusions, he sure would have. And perhaps that insight is the one crucial to answering our initial question. It does matter that the Holy Father did not formally authorize communion for bigamists because he recognized he could not do so. And if he recognized that he could not do so, then we ought to interpret Amoris laetitia accordingly.

In Tunbridge Wells with “Amoris laetitia”

Amoris laetitia is here. It is very long and not always hugely gripping, as we predicted. Last night, Rorate made available a summary, prepared by the Holy See Press Office, which is itself not especially brief. But it’s a sight briefer than the behemoth exhortation. It is probably a good idea to use the summary to search out specific paragraphs in the full text, especially since some of the most important paragraphs, especially given the debates of the last eighteen months, are in the 300s.

At the end of Lawrence of Arabia, after Prince Feisal and the British have colluded to get Lawrence safely out of the way—as he is inconvenient to all concerned—they reach a compromise on power-sharing in Damascus. Prince Feisal, well on his way to being King Feisal, asks Mr. Dryden (played inimitably by Claude Rains), the representative of England’s Arab Bureau, what he thinks of the compromise. Dryden responds, “On the whole, I wish I’d stayed in Tunbridge Wells.”* And that is very much our take on Amoris laetitia and the Synodal process itself.

As we said on Twitter, everyone can maintain, in good faith, the opinions they held yesterday about Amoris laetitia. Kasperites and progressives, though they certainly did not get what they wanted (formal approval of a penitential path or the forum internum solution), certainly got an opening. And, depending on how gloomy one’s outlook is, they probably got much more. Conservatives will likely be able to point to some broad areas of continuity and the fact that the serious crisis—direct authorization of communion for bigamists—was averted. And traditionalists will be able to find all manner of new and exciting heresies in the text, because, after all, it does not recite Familiaris consortio 84 verbatim. In other words, everyone is going to react exactly like they would react and exactly like they have reacted to everything else the Holy Father has done. And this is made possible by the fact that the document is, fundamentally, vague and ambiguous in the really important parts. Everyone can plausibly find support for his or her pet position in the text.

And this is the problem with Amoris laetitia. While there are some good parts—chapter one and chapter two are both very good and chapter two, in many ways, continues upon the strengths of Laudato si’—but the parts people actually care about are prolix and vague. Indeed, it seems as though this is a pastoral document never intended to be read by the flock. Or most of their shepherds, for that matter. The PDF the Vatican has made available is 261 pages (including the table of contents). Some passages—such as the already-hugely-controversial chapter eight—are confusingly, vaguely, repetitively written. For example, in chapter eight, the Holy Father takes three very long, not hugely clear paragraphs to state the basic truth that, sometimes, subjective culpability can be lessened by circumstances. (This was not a controversial point before today.) He then lists some of the ways in general this can happen. However, he declines to offer any specific examples or concrete situations to show how these general principles could be applied to situations families find themselves in. Even acknowledging the limitations of such a document, such as they are here, examples would have helped.

We won’t keep you in suspense any longer. In our view, the most important paragraphs of the exhortation—at least with respect to the debates that have shaken the Church over the past eighteen months—are:

(We apologize for the unconventional quotation formatting, but for some reason, WordPress’s block quote formatting causes the text to become centered.)


300. If we consider the immense variety of concrete situations such as those I have mentioned, it is understandable that neither the Synod nor this Exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases. What is possible is simply a renewed encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases, one which would recognize that, since “the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases”, the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same. Priests have the duty to “accompany [the divorced and remarried] in helping them to understand their situation according to the teaching of the Church and the guidelines of the bishop. Useful in this process is an examination of conscience through moments of reflection and repentance. The divorced and remarried should ask themselves: how did they act towards their children when the conjugal union entered into crisis; whether or not they made attempts at reconciliation; what has become of the abandoned party; what consequences the new relationship has on the rest of the family and the community of the faithful; and what example is being set for young people who are preparing for marriage. A sincere reflection can strengthen trust in the mercy of God which is not denied anyone”. What we are speaking of is a process of accompaniment and discernment which “guides the faithful to an awareness of their situation before God. Conversation with the priest, in the internal forum, contributes to the formation of a correct judgment on what hinders the possibility of a fuller participation in the life of the Church and on what steps can foster it and make it grow. Given that gradualness is not in the law itself (cf. Familiaris Consortio, 34), this discernment can never prescind from the Gospel demands of truth and charity, as proposed by the Church. For this discernment to happen, the following conditions must necessarily be present: 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”. These attitudes are essential for avoiding the grave danger of misunderstandings, such as the notion that any priest can quickly grant “exceptions”, or that some people can obtain sacramental privileges in exchange for favours. When a responsible and tactful person, who does not presume to put his or her own desires ahead of the common good of the Church, meets with a pastor capable of acknowledging the seriousness of the matter before him, there can be no risk that a specific discernment may lead people to think that the Church maintains a double standard.

301. For an adequate understanding of the possibility and need of special discernment in certain “irregular” situations, one thing must always be taken into account, lest anyone think that the demands of the Gospel are in any way being compromised. The Church possesses a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations. Hence it is can no longer simply be said that all those in any “irregular” situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace. More is involved here than mere ignorance of the rule.A subject may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding “its inherent values”, or be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin. As the Synod Fathers put it, “factors may exist which limit the ability to make a decision”. Saint Thomas Aquinas himself recognized that someone may possess grace and charity, yet not be able to exercise any one of the virtues well; in other words, although someone may possess all the infused moral virtues, he does not clearly manifest the existence of one of them, because the outward practice of that virtue is rendered difficult: “Certain saints are said not to possess certain virtues, in so far as they experience difficulty in the acts of those virtues, even though they have the habits of all the virtues”.

302. The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly mentions these factors: “imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors”. In another paragraph, the Catechism refers once again to circumstances which mitigate moral responsibility, and mentions at length “affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen or even extenuate moral culpability”. For this reason, a negative judgment about an objective situation does not imply a judgment about the imputability or culpability of the person involved. On the basis of these convictions, I consider very fitting what many Synod Fathers wanted to affirm: “Under certain circumstances people find it very difficult to act differently. Therefore, while upholding a general rule, it is necessary to recognize that responsibility with respect to certain actions or decisions is not the same in all cases. Pastoral discernment, while taking into account a person’s properly formed conscience, must take responsibility for these situations. Even the consequences of actions taken are not necessarily the same in all cases”.

303. Recognizing the influence of such concrete factors, we can add that individual conscience needs to be better incorporated into the Church’s praxis in certain situations which do not objectively embody our understanding of marriage. Naturally, every effort should be made to encourage the development of an enlightened conscience, formed and guided by the responsible and serious discernment of one’s pastor, and to encourage an ever greater trust in God’s grace. Yet conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal. In any event, let us recall that this discernment is dynamic; it must remain ever open to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can enable the ideal to be more fully realized.


(Emphasis supplied and some reformatting provided.)

Francis explicitly declines to establish canonical and generally applicable rules in Amoris laetitia. Crisis averted. Nothing has changed.

Or has it? Francis then proceeds to set forth, perhaps not without some irony, we hope, some detailed, if not clear, principles by which pastors can help the divorced-and-remarried come to a better understanding of their situations, acknowledging the clear teaching of Our Lord but also acknowledging that individual situations may contain factors that reduce subjective culpability according to the Church’s well-settled moral theology. When we spoke above about a lack of even illustrative examples, this is why. It would not be a stretch, given this text, to say that mere inconvenience and upset are sufficient to reduce meaningfully an individual’s culpability. Indeed, the text suggests as much fairly strongly in paragraph 298:

The divorced who have entered a new union, for example, can find themselves in a variety of situations, which should not be pigeonholed or fit into overly rigid classifications leaving no room for a suitable personal and pastoral discernment. One thing is a second union consolidated over time, with new children, proven fidelity, generous self giving, Christian commitment, a consciousness of its irregularity and of the great difficulty of going back without feeling in conscience that one would fall into new sins. The Church acknowledges situations “where, for serious reasons, such as the children’s upbringing, a man and woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate”. There are also the cases of those who made every effort to save their first marriage and were unjustly abandoned, or of “those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children’s upbringing, and are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably broken marriage had never been valid”. Another thing is a new union arising from a recent divorce, with all the suffering and confusion which this entails for children and entire families, or the case of someone who has consistently failed in his obligations to the family. It must remain clear that this is not the ideal which the Gospel proposes for marriage and the family. The Synod Fathers stated that the discernment of pastors must always take place “by adequately distinguishing”, with an approach which “carefully discerns situations”. We know that no “easy recipes” exist.

(Emphasis supplied and footnotes omitted.) But that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. You can take all this and do with it what you like. Want to see a continuity—albeit a poorly phrased, fairly confusing continuity—with Familiaris consortio (to say nothing of Humanae vitae and Casti connubii)? You could make that argument. (As we’ll see in a minute, Cardinal Schönborn and Father Spadaro make just that argument.) Want to see a dangerous departure from the Church’s teaching? You can do that, too, as Dr. Maike Hickson and Rorate Caeli do. Everything is just vague enough to permit any reading you like.

It’s the Catholic Bloggers Full Employment Act of 2016, as we said on Twitter. Amoris laetitia will no doubt keep bloggers of all stripes—including us—busy and happy (even if the definitions of happiness are a little strange) for the foreseeable future.

There are a couple of footnotes that you should read, too. Footnote 329:

John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (22 November 1981), 84: AAS 74 (1982), 186. In such situations, many people, knowing and accepting the possibility of living “as brothers and sisters” which the Church offers them, point out that if certain expressions of intimacy are lacking, “it often happens that faithfulness is endangered and the good of the children suffers” (Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 51).

(Emphasis supplied.) More on this extraordinary argument in a minute. And footnote 351:

In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, “I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy” (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium [24 November 2013], 44: AAS 105 [2013], 1038). I would also point out that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (ibid., 47: 1039).

(Emphasis supplied.) This latter note is as close as the Holy Father comes to directly addressing the Kasper proposal. That’s it. And, as we’ll see, Joseph Shaw points out that there is an interpretation of this footnote that is entirely orthodox and reasonable and consistent with everything the Church has taught previously. Such an interpretation, however, is, we think, intentionally amusing. There’s an interpretation that he’s given pastors the green light to err on the side of diminished culpability and access to the Eucharist, too. And this is, we suppose, why we sympathize so strongly with Dryden at the end of Lawrence in Arabia. After all this trouble, after all this strife and debate, it came down to a footnote that can best be summarized as “You know, it’s probably possible,” with the inflection on “possible” determined by one’s ideological predispositions. However, that is a profoundly unsatisfying answer given all the difficulty that we’ve been through on this issue.

Regardless of what Amoris laetitia did or did not do—and all it did, in our view, is stabilize the status quo that existed on the ground, as opposed to in Familiaris consortio, the day before yesterday—it seems to us that the faithful, especially those faithful in “irregular” situations, have been left in the lurch. Amoris laetitia actively resists, by its length and its opaque prose—being read and understood by the lay Catholic in the street. It also actively resists being understood by the average parish priest, who has a lot on his plate without having to go to the moral theology manuals to understand the Church’s teaching on diminished culpability. In essence, everyone will rely on commentators and reporters to tell them what to think, and given that any commentator and any reporter can craft any interpretation of the exhortation, everyone can find an interpretation that pleases him or her. And so we’re left in the unenviable situation of nice Fr. O’Donnell at St. Bernadette giving divorced-and-remarried Catholics communion and nasty Fr. Flaherty at St. Pius X refusing to do so (or heretical Fr. O’Donnell and heroic Fr. Flaherty, if you prefer) and both Fr. O’Donnell and Fr. Flaherty having plenty of sources and cribbed arguments to respond to parishioners challenging their choices. And if Twitter today is any indicator, the rancor and dissension is only going to increase as both sides of the debate harden their positions.

This is no good.

That said, some representative comments from other, no doubt wiser heads:

Edward Pentin, as you’d expect, has a good summary of the exhortation. Probably a good idea to give that a read before diving into some of the more ideologically inflected commentary.

Next, noted canonist Ed Peters offers a simple, direct (legal) take—notable, in particular, for its brevity, which is a real gift under these circumstances—which we mostly agree with:

Some juridic issues that were widely anticipated include:

Holy Communion for divorced-and-remarried Catholics. Francis does not approve this central assault tactic against the permanence of marriage, but neither does he clearly reiterate constant Church teaching and practice against administering the Eucharist to Catholics in irregular marriage situations. And, speaking of ‘irregular marriage’, nearly every time Francis uses that traditional phrase to describe what could more correctly be termed pseudo-marriage, he puts the word “irregular” in scare quotes, as if to imply that the designation is inappropriate and that he is using it only reluctantly.

Internal forum. Francis makes almost no commentary on the so-called “internal forum” solution. What little comment he does make on the internal forum in AL 300 is not controversial.

Canon law in general. Francis makes almost no use of canon law in Amoris. What few canonical comments he does make are not controversial.

(Emphasis and hyperlink in original.) We may part ways with Peters when he says that Francis makes “almost no commentary” on the forum internum solution proposed by the Germanicus small group and largely ratified in the Synod’s final Relatio. It seems to us that Francis’s lengthy—lengthy—discussion of subjective culpability and the manner in which subjective culpability may be reduced below that indicated by objective circumstances is pointing toward the sacramental forum. (As does the already-infamous FN 351.) But, Peters also observes some problems with the exhortation. Two such problems:

1. Speaking of divorced-and-civilly-remarried Catholics, Francis writes: “In such situations, many people, knowing and accepting the possibility of living ‘as brothers and sisters’ which the Church offers them, point out that if certain expressions of intimacy [i.e., sexual intercourse] are lacking ‘it often happens that faithfulness is endangered and the good of the children suffers’ (Gaudium et spes,51).” AL fn. 329. I fear this is a serious misuse of a conciliar teaching. Gaudium et spes 51 was speaking about married couples observing periodic abstinence. Francis seems to compare that chaste sacrifice with the angst public adulterers experience when they cease engaging in illicit sexual intercourse.

2. Speaking of “Christian marriage, as a reflection of the union between Christ and his Church”, Francis writes “Some forms of union radically contradict this ideal, while others realize it in at least a partial and analogous way.” AL 292. This simple phrasing requires significant elaboration: forms of union that most radically contradict the union of Christ and his Church are objectively adulterous post-divorce pseudo-marriages; forms of union that reflect this union in a partial, but good, way are all natural marriages. These two forms of union are not variations on a theme; they differ in kind, not just in degree.

(Emphasis supplied.)

At The Catholic Thing, Robert Royal has a similarly direct, if somewhat longer, take, noting both the good and the bad. To the good, he observes:

Francis points to their necessity in our time, as never before, because young people around the world often come to marriage now with false or unrealistic expectations created by modern media. And given the poor to non-existent formation they get at home or in parishes these days, he urges parents, teachers, catechists, pastors to recognize how much they need to do before young people get anywhere near the altar in a culture like ours, which puts enormous economic, moral, and social obstacles in their way.

This leads to some lengthy and, at times, quite moving pages on how married persons have to learn to live in true love with partners who are imperfect, and maybe even deeply flawed, as we all are, by sin and our personal histories. There is, he says, a kind of dynamic growth all during married life. It’s unusual to find this kind of advice-to-the-lovelorn material and even a kind of folksy pastoral shrewdness in an official document by a pope. But it’s clear that Francis intends readers to linger over these pages and seriously contemplate how they may reduce tensions within families and the incidence – still rising around the globe – of marital breakdowns.

(Emphasis supplied.) But, Royal recognizes some of the problems with the exhortation, too:

Indeed, the pope seems almost to think that mercy short circuits what have been regarded as the grounds for Catholic teaching on marriage: “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.” The image here is clearly intended to suggest that dutifully following traditional teaching is akin to stoning the woman taken in adultery. As if our Lord’s own words on indissolubility – and his warnings that divorce/remarriage is adultery (not mere “imperfection” or “irregularity”), were somehow nullified by mercy. (Lk. 16:18; Mt. 19:9; Mk 10:11, 1 Cor. 7:10, etc.)

Amoris Laetitia hopes to resolve the situations of many in the modern world, but is far more likely only to add further fuel to the holocaust. It doesn’t take a crystal ball to predict that once Communion can be taken by the divorced/remarried in some circumstances, it will soon be assumed licit by all. And – why not? – by people in gay relationships, who probably have an equally good claim to mitigating circumstances.

(Emphasis supplied.)

 Rorate, of course, has declared it a “catastrophe.” Also on the less-enthusiastic end of the spectrum, at One Peter Five, Dr. Maike Hickson argues that Amoris laetitia departs seriously from Church teaching. For example, she asserts:

This statement of the pope seems to do away with any moral foundation on the question of marriage and divorce. It breaks apart the very basis of moral law, and opens the door to a lax and relativistic approach to the sanctity of marriage.

Taken together, we see that the pope is claiming that “remarried” couples who have children should continue to live as “husband” and “wife” and should not live “as brother and sister” and that all “irregular” relationships which are not in accordance with God’s laws do not, in his estimation, necessarily mean that persons in such situations are living in a state of sin. Thereby, the pope also indirectly opens the door to the admittance of all these persons to the sacraments, and, at the same time, undermines not just one, but three sacraments: the Sacrament of Marriage, the Sacrament of Penance, and the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.

There is much more in the document that still demands to be unpacked. But on the basis of these points alone, we see the potential for serious danger to the souls of the faithful who would follow the advice laid out herein.

(Emphasis in original.) We agree with some of Dr. Hickson’s concerns, particularly her discussion of footnote 329. (We discussed footnote 351 above, which is the bombshell Ross Douthat first referenced last night, and which Latin Mass Society Chairman Joseph Shaw dissects brilliantly, hilariously.) In footnote 329, the Holy Father says,

John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (22 November 1981), 84: AAS 74 (1982), 186. In such situations, many people, knowing and accepting the possibility of living “as brothers and sisters” which the Church offers them, point out that if certain expressions of intimacy are lacking, “it often happens that faithfulness is endangered and the good of the children suffers” (Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 51).

(Emphasis supplied.) Does this mean to imply that Gaudium et spes creates a tension between the life of perfect continence required of the divorced-and-remarried? If so, this is an extraordinary and extraordinarily strange. Peters’s comments noted the same thing, calling it “a serious misuse of a conciliar teaching.” This goes beyond mere vagueness, we think, even if one wants to distance oneself from the idea by saying “many people . . . point out.” In that case, “many people” are wrong and it ought to be clearly pointed out that many people are wrong. Remember what Ed Peters said.

On the other end of the spectrum, Fr. Antonio Spadaro, S.J., the Holy Father’s close collaborator (who we suspect was involved in the preparation of Amoris laetitia), argues very subtly for the continuity of Familiaris consortio and Amoris laetitia:

If we go back to Familiaris consortio, we can verify that the conditions placed 35 years ago by it were already a concretization more open and more attentive to the experience of the people, with respect to the preceding time. On the divorced and civilly remarried the Apostolic Exhortation of St John Paul II (1981) affirmed: «I earnestly call upon pastors and the whole community of the faithful to help the divorced, and with solicitous care to make sure that they do not consider themselves as separated from the Church, for as baptized persons they can, and indeed must, share in her life» (FC 84). On access to the sacraments, John Paul II reiterated the preceding norm, and always affirms that the divorced and civilly remarried and who live their conjugal life together, raising together children and sharing daily life, can take communion. But it places a «condition» (that is at another level with respect to the norm): that of assuming «on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples» (ibid). Therefore in Familiaris consortio the de facto norm does not apply always and in all cases. In the situations described, it is already of an epiekeia about the application of the law to a concrete case, because, as the continence eliminates the sin of adultery, it does not always suppress the contradiction between the marital breakup with the formation of a new couple—who live even so bonds of an affective character and of coexistence—and the Eucharist.

Regarding the sexual relationships, the formulation of St John Paul II required «taking on themselves the duty to live in complete continence». In Sacramentum caritatis Benedict XVI had renewed this concept, but with a different formulization: «the Church encourages these members of the faithful to commit themselves to living their relationship in fidelity to the demands of God’s law, as friends, as brother and sister» (SC 29, emphasis ours). The «encouragement to the commitment» implies a journey and focuses more and in a more adequate manner the accent placed on the personal dimension of conscience. Pope Francis moves forward on this line when he speaks of a «dynamic discernment», that «must remain ever open to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can enable the ideal to be more fully realized» (AL 303). You cannot transform an irregular situation into a regular one, but paths of healing, of deepening, paths in which the law is lived step after step exist. After all «the Church’s way, from the time of the Council of Jerusalem, has always been the way of Jesus, the way of mercy and reinstatement…The way of the Church is not to condemn anyone forever» (AL 296).

(Emphasis supplied and some reformatting provided.) This is similar to a point made by Christoph Cardinal Schönborn during the presentation of the exhortation. According to the Catholic Herald:

At the press conference to mark the publication of Amoris Laetitia, Cardinal Schönborn was asked twice whether the Pope intended to break with John Paul’s Familiaris Consortio. That document said that remarried people should not be allowed access to communion unless they live “in complete continence”.

The key passage comes in paragraph 84 of the document. A journalist asked: “Has anything in the entirety of those paragraphs changed? Does everything still stand as is?”

“I don’t see why there should be a change,” said Cardinal Schönborn.

“The Pope is not innovating,” the cardinal said. “There are no novelties in this document. But the cautious pastoral care tradition can help here.”

There had been speculation that Pope Francis would teach in contradiction to Familiaris Consortio. But the cardinal said that Amoris Laetitia was a development in continuty with Pope John Paul II’s teaching.

(Emphasis supplied.)

* A very sharp young Jesuit of our acquaintance mentioned that scene in Lawrence of Arabia while we were discussing elsewhere the preliminary reports of the exhortation. Great artists steal.