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.