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.