A priest writes to a cardinal about “Amoris laetitia”

One day after our Link Roundup for the week (and, not coincidentally, one day after he caught us out in a r embarrassing solecism), Pater Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist., published a must-read essay on Amoris laetitia. There are two points we’d make about Pater Waldstein’s essay. First, he begins with a lengthy discussion of the requirement of submission to papal teaching in the context of the Professio Fidei implemented by John Paul II in Ad tuendam Fidem:

There has been a lamentable tendency in Catholic theology since about July of 1968 to minimalize the requirements of submission to the teachings of the popes. Submission, so goes the argument, is only absolutely necessary to infallible teachings, and according to Vatican I the pope is only infallible under four conditions: “when, (1) in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, (2) in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, (3) he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals (4) to be held by the whole Church.” Many Catholic theologians, especially in Germany, have argued that these conditions are only met in solemn definitions, in which the supreme pontiff exercises his extraordinary magisterium. This was the strategy adopted by those who wished to dissent from the teaching on artificial contraception of the encyclical Humanae Vitae. This extremely minimalistic approach to the teachings of the supreme pontiffs has always been particularly abhorrent to me. The pope is infallible not only in his extraordinary magisterium, but also his ordinary and universal magisterium, when he intends to bind the Church definitively. Moreover, the Church requires religious submission of will and intellect even non-definitive teachingsMy tendency has thus always been to the opposite extreme. And yet, this too can be taken too far.

(Emphasis supplied and hyperlink in original.) He goes on to observe, discussing Fr. Chad Ripperger’s analysis of the subject, that:

That is, the third kind of assent is not always given, but it is usually given, since one presumes that the legitimate ecclesiastical authority teaches reliably. The one exception is when a teaching contradicts more authoritative teachings of the Church. The assent is thus conditioned on the teaching not contradicting more authoritative teaching. Note that this is quite different from the carte blanche claimed by German theologians for rejecting non-infallible teachings that are not in accord with their private theological opinions. The exception here has to do with the tradition to which the whole Church, including her rulers, are bound.

(Emphasis supplied.) Given the ongoing debate over Amoris laetitia, it is important to keep some basic principles in mind, and the assent required of the faithful is one of those principles.

There are, as Pater Waldstein observes, really two risks. On one hand, one can join any number of German-speaking theologians, 1962–present, who think that everything short of a definition implicating the pope’s extraordinary magisterium is up for debate. This is, of course, how we got Amoris laetitia in the first place; Cardinal Kasper, despite being told “no” by John Paul and Benedict, kept at it until he got something he could construe as a “maybe.” This is also why women’s ordination remains an open question. Because John Paul did not explicitly invoke his extraordinary magisterium in Ordinatio sacerdotalis, some hold that there is room for debate. (Not so, Pater Waldstein observes.)

On the other hand, one can fall into a ultra-ultramontanism, which Elliot Milco has discussed at length previously, and a sort of papal fundamentalism. The danger here is, as others have noted, turning each and every pronouncement of the reigning supreme pontiff as definitive and binding, notwithstanding the prior tradition of the Church. Just as Catholics on the left have fallen into the trap of discounting every papal pronouncement short of an extraordinary dogmatic definition, Catholics on the right have fallen into this trap.

But Pater Waldstein has done more than this. He has written a letter to Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna, who has been the Holy Father’s official-enough interpreter of Amoris laetitia. A brief excerpt from Pater Waldstein’s letter:

At another point he writes: “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” (AL, ¶ 301). Again, one can say this about certain definite acts in the past, but when someone is contemplating their whole future way of life it is most dangerous to say something like this. We know that it is never necessary to do an act that it intrinsically evil; God always gives us a way out. Of course, one can foresee that it is likely that one will fall into a sin that has become habitual in a certain situation, but one can never intend to continue to commit acts that are objectively evil. How is it possible for someone in such a situation to sincerely seek God as their last end, highest good, and greatest happiness? One need only apply this way of reasoning to other kinds of sin to see how absurd it is. The Holy Father has been very eloquent in his condemnation of sins against the poor. Consider the case of a priest who would say to a capitalist, who denies his workers their just wage, “you are probably in a state of grace since, although you know the demands of the Gospel, you are not able to understand its inherent values.” What would the Holy Father say to such a priest? He would be horrified, and quite rightly so. Such a priest should say what the Holy Father himself says: “by closing your heart to the poor you are plunging into the eternal abyss of solitude which is Hell” (cf. Pope Francis, Message for Lent 2016). This is what people who are intending to live a life of continual adultery need to hear as well.

(Emphasis supplied.) This is a splendid point, which really ought to be repeated: the sin of adultery is not really different from any other grave sin, and we do ourselves no favors when we start distinguishing between our sins.

But beyond that we are deeply impressed to see Pater Waldstein take concrete action regarding his concerns about Amoris laetitia. The Holy Father has called for a serious, prayerful discussion of the ideas contained in Amoris laetitia, and it seems to us that part of that discussion needs to include priests (and laity) speaking frankly (but charitably) to bishops about their concerns and difficulties with that document.

His whole essay is, of course, well worth reading.