Rocco Buttiglione on “Amoris laetitia”

Rocco Buttiglione was interviewed very recently by Andrea Tornielli about Amoris laetitia. The prominent Italian intellectual and politician, known especially for his work on the thought of John Paul II, argues for a strong continuity between John Paul’s teaching in Familiaris consortio and Francis’s in Amoris laetitia. His observations bring out a point that we think has been a little overlooked in the discussion of the Holy Father’s arguments. In particular: traditional moral theology holds that three elements are required for mortal sin—grave matter, full knowledge, and deliberate consent.

At the outset, we note that we have been surprised to see the relative lack of coverage of this interview. For one thing, Buttiglione has long been established as a commentator on (if not a popularizer of) John Paul’s thought, in addition to his credentials as a friend and adviser of the saint. For another thing, Buttiglione has been fairly forthright not only about Francis’s differences from John Paul but also about Francis’s own outlook, especially in economic matters. Thus, we can say that Buttiglione is no reflexive cheerleader of the current pontificate. And that is why we are inclined to give Buttiglione’s comments perhaps more of a hearing than others who have also argued for continuity between Familiaris consortio and Amoris laetitia.

Turning to the interview itself, Buttiglione observes first:

And now what does Amoris laetitia propose?  

“Francis is taking a further step forward in this direction. He does not say that the divorced and remarried can receive or expect communion, hurrah! No! Divorce is awful and there can be no sexual acts outside of marriage. This moral teaching has not changed. The Pope says that now the divorced and remarried can go to confession, starting a path of discernment with the priest. As is done in every confession, for every sin, the priest must evaluate whether all the conditions exist for a sin to be considered mortal. To those of my colleagues who uttered strong words against Amoris laetitia I should mention that St. Pius X – not exactly a modernist Pope – in his Catechism recalled that mortal sin requires a grave matter, but also full awareness and deliberate consent, that is, full freedom to assume total responsibility for what I did.” 

(Emphasis supplied, except for the question, which was emphasized in the original.) He went on to say:

With the apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia something has changed, then?  

“Of course something has changed! But neither the morality nor the doctrine on the indissolubility of marriage have changed. The pastoral discipline of the Church is changing. Until yesterday, for the sin committed by the divorced and remarried, there was a presumption of total guilt. Now even for this sin the subjective aspect will be evaluated, as is the case for murder, for not paying taxes, for exploiting workers, for all the other sins we commit. The priest listens and also assesses the mitigating circumstances. Do these circumstances change the nature of the situation? No, a divorce and a new union remain objectively evil. Do these circumstances change the responsibility of the person involved? Maybe yes. You have to discern.”

(Emphasis supplied, except for the question, which was emphasized in the original.) In other words, Buttiglione recognizes that, applying the traditional framework for mortal sin, there may be mitigating circumstances for adultery and bigamy in concrete cases, especially with respect to knowledge and deliberate consent. Buttiglione very correctly says that, for any other sin, when one enters the confessional, there is a process of discernment: was it grave matter? Did one have full knowledge? Did one freely consent?

Now, one must acknowledge that discernment in the context of confession cannot prescind from the truth or the Church’s traditional moral teaching (cf. Amoris laetitia ¶¶ 300, 311). Full knowledge, for example, cannot be elevated to require one to have the moral knowledge of St. Alphonsus and thereby reduce culpability in almost every case. Likewise, free consent may not be elevated to complete, joyful, malevolent consent with the same goal in mind. It is, of course, possible—though it is horrible to contemplate—to commit a mortal sin. And Fr. James Schall has noted that there is a tendency in Amoris laetitia towards the position that a mortal sin is extremely difficult to commit, if not impossible. Yet this problem does not, it seems to us, justify upending the traditional moral teaching of the Church.

Yet it seems that that is what has happened. Now, we admit that Buttiglione’s point is one that we ourselves made recently in another forum: in discussing the question of communion for bigamists in the context of Amoris laetitia, some exponents of the traditionalist view seem to stop at grave matter. Adultery and bigamy are unquestionably grave matter, thus objective adultery and bigamy are always mortally sinful. However, traditionally, the Church has taught that full knowledge and deliberate consent are also required to make a mortal sin. By focusing on the grave matter of adultery and bigamy, it seems to us that some traditionalists create a hermeneutic in which grave matter is sufficient standing on its own for mortal sin. Perhaps that’s true in the context of bigamy and adultery, though Buttiglione notes that those would be exceptions to the general rule. However, even if that’s the case, it is not correct to say in all cases that grave matter alone suffices to make every sin a mortal sin. One cannot dispense with knowledge and consent so easily. Yet one could get that impression from the discourse surrounding Amoris laetitia.

Strangely enough, the Society of St. Pius X articulated something like Buttiglione’s view in its official communique on Amoris laetitia:

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.) It is, of course, interesting to observe that the leading traditionalist group in the Church, since the Holy Father has dispelled once and for all the accusation that the Society is in schism, has what some might say is a broadminded view of the matter. This might be explained by the Society’s obvious awareness and emphasis on the Church’s traditional moral teaching on these issues. It is, we think, unlikely that the so-called fundamental option was ever taught in Society seminaries, for example.

The underlying phenomenon, we think, is part of a broader issue surrounding some of the Holy Father’s statements. Some commentators, perhaps out of zeal for tradition or a scandalized conscience, overshoot in their negation of this or that statement of the Holy Father, landing at a point where they negate not only an apparent novelty but also perfectly sound teaching set alongside the apparent novelty. A Catholic ought to be perfectly happy to affirm the Holy Father without reservation when he teaches what has always and everywhere been taught. Indeed, a Catholic ought to be willing to affirm all of the Holy Father’s teachings, provided that they are at least consistent with the prior teaching of the Church. At any rate, one ought to avoid the fundamentally political temptation to deny everything one’s opponent says, not least because the Holy Father is not one’s opponent and the Church of Christ is not politics.

None of this is of course to say that the Holy Father’s critics are not correct—and Buttiglione incorrect—when they say that Amoris laetitia represents a major change in praxis amounting to a change in doctrine. However, we point to Buttiglione’s comments primarily to point out the fact that one must be careful to not to do violence to unobjectionable teaching in one’s haste to declare this or that teaching of Amoris laetitia objectionable.