The SSPX declaration on “Amoris laetitia”

The Society of St. Pius X has issued a very, very subtle statement on Amoris laetitia. Before quoting the interesting bit, we observe that this document has essentially dispelled whatever doubt we had that the SSPX is on a trajectory toward canonical regularity. And soon.

We note first that the Society’s declaration, while being perhaps slightly—very slightly—stringently worded, comes down on the line that Amoris laetitia has created unnecessary confusion. But note the subtle maneuver here: the Society argues that the Church’s duty is to proclaim general rules, the concrete application of which in individual cases is left to pastors, confessors, and Catholics with well-formed consciences:

3. The question concerning admission of divorced-and-“remarried” persons to Holy Communion has already been addressed several times by the Church, whose clear answer has been repeated even recently. A new discussion of the Church’s constant teaching and practice could therefore only be detrimental and likely to confuse matters instead of clarifying them. And that is what happened.

4. In a papal document one expects to find a clear presentation of the Church’s magisterial teaching and the Christian manner of living. Now, as others have correctly noted, Amoris Laetitia is rather “a treatise on psychology, pedagogy, moral and pastoral theology and spirituality”. The Church has the mission of proclaiming the teaching of Jesus Christ in season and out of season and of drawing from it the necessary conclusions, all for the good of souls. It is incumbent upon her to remind men of God’s Law and not to minimize it or explain how it might not apply in some cases. The Church has the obligation of stating principles, the concrete application of which she leaves to pastors of souls, to confessors, and also to the conscience that has been enlightened by faith, the proximate rule of human action.

(Emphasis supplied and slightly reformatted.) Forgive us for being dense, but this does not seem like a root-and-branch condemnation of Amoris laetitia. It does not even seem like much of a condemnation of the fundamental innovation of Amoris laetitia. (We will assume that the Society did not intend to fully endorse the fundamental innovation, notwithstanding that last sentence.) Remember what the Holy Father said in paragraph 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.

(Emphasis supplied.) Despite the Society’s (presumed) resistance, it is awfully hard to see much daylight between Amoris laetitia 300 and the Society’s position. It is true, of course, that the Holy Father could have spent more time setting forth the perennial general rules as formulated by St. John Paul II and the Pope Emeritus before articulating his ideas about specific culpability. However, given the tendentious attitude toward Familiaris consortio 84 that was exhibited throughout the Synodal process, we were not hugely surprised to see it breezed past and glossed over. Nonetheless, at the end of the day, the Pope seems to be saying, albeit with many more words, something not all that far removed from the Society’s position.

The strongest criticism of the SSPX’s declaration is essentially that Amoris laetitia establishes the primacy of conscience, with all the problems that entails. That is, of course, a fair criticism not only of Amoris laetitia but the mindset that emerged during the Synod, not least given some of the comments by Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich during the Synod. (And one is kidding oneself, in our view, if this primacy of conscience business was designed to stop at communion for bigamists; it was not.) However, it seems to us that their criticism also encompasses John Paul’s personalist “theology of the body” and the Council’s understanding of marriage. In other words, the SSPX is criticizing essentially the direction of the Church as a whole over the last fifty years on these issues:

5. Because of its search for a pastoral practice based on mercy, the document is in some places marred by subjectivism and moral relativism. Objective rules are replaced, in Protestant fashion, by the individual’s conscience. This poison is in part attributable to personalism, which, in the matter of pastoral care of families, no longer places the gift of life and the good of the family first and foremost, but rather the personal fulfillment and spiritual development of the spouses. On this subject we can only deplore once again the inversion of the ends of marriage sketched out in the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes of the Second Vatican Council, an inversion that is found again in Amoris Laetitia. The so-called “law of gradualness” turns Catholic morality upside down.

(Emphasis supplied and slightly reformatted.) Certainly, to our reading, the declaration does not single out Amoris laetitia for special criticism; if anything, the declaration prescinds from special criticism of Amoris laetitia in favor of criticism of broader theological trends.

Certainly the declaration ratifies some of the comments by Society priests that express a stronger attitude toward Amoris laetitia than the declaration itself does, but it seems to us, as is the case with Amoris laetitia, you cannot take a soft line and a hard line simultaneously. On the other hand, the Society shows itself once again to be very astute and very reasonable about these issues. Compared to some of the stringent—not to say hysterical—interpretations of Amoris laetitia, the Society sounds downright placid.