We’re back on the train

There is a new Amoris laetitia controversy.

Apparently, the Argentine bishops—or some Argentine bishops—issued a secret-ish protocol implementing Chapter 8 of Amoris laetitia. It says what Amoris laetitia says: under some circumstances bigamists may receive communion without committing to live as brother and sister. While stunning, in a sense, to hear bishops of the Church saying something like this, it is not especially surprising after the last couple of years. This is “Amoris laetitia 101.” Then a private letter from the Holy Father to one of the Argentine bishops was leaked, praising the document generally and saying that it represented the correct understanding of Amoris laetitia. After some back and forth about whether the Holy Father’s letter was genuine, it seems that Vatican Radio has referred to it as the real deal. There has been some critical coverage of these events.

We’re left wondering: what’s the big deal? Let us be realistic for a moment. It has been manifest for a couple of years—and explicit since Amoris laetitia was released—that the Holy Father wants pastors to admit bigamists to communion without their first committing to live as brother and sister. Now, we recognize that Chapter 8 did not propose any juridical norms; thus, one may say that, notwithstanding what the Holy Father wants, he has not actually done anything. The law before Amoris laetitia is the same as the law after Amoris laetitia. No big deal. But the ship sailed on that argument some time ago. Now, it may be an interesting question why the Holy Father has not done something explicitly that he seems to want to do very badly. (As a friend of ours has suggested privately, perhaps the Holy Spirit has protected him from formally teaching error.) But the fact remains that he wants to do this and seems willing to let it happen on a wink-and-nod basis. And maybe this recent round of the Amoris laetitia wars is a big deal with that in mind.

Now, perhaps the big deal is the fact that the footnotes are the strongest basis for the Argentine bishops’ action. Paragraphs 5 and 6 of the protocol apparently make use of the notes in Amoris laetitia for key propositions. The citations include, you guessed it, the infamous Footnote 351, which has been criticized cogently by Robert Spaemann, among many, many others. As a clever friend of ours said on Twitter in the past couple of days, all the people who talked about the time bombs in the footnotes were correct; the Argentine bishops show that the footnotes, far from being the least important parts of Amoris laetitia, are among the most important parts. The suggestion that the Pope doesn’t use footnotes to make important pronouncements about doctrine or praxis is ridiculous now. (Perhaps it always was.) At any rate, it should suffice to answer anyone who claims that the pope doesn’t use footnotes in a doctrinally serious manner to say that the Argentine bishops—whose interpretation has been praised and endorsed privately by the Holy Father—sure think he does. The burden has shifted to the defenders, we think.

And perhaps the big deal is that the Argentine bishops’ protocol also cites a 1996 letter from John Paul II to William Cardinal Baum, then the major penitentiary. (There is a translation available from EWTN of this letter, but not from the Vatican.) This document was cited in Footnote 364 of Amoris laetitia, though we have not seen it heavily discussed. (Not least since Footnote 364 contains some of the Holy Father’s characteristic polemic about particularly rigid priests. You might be excused for missing the citation to a not-hugely-well-known bit of papal moral theology.) We wonder, however, if the protocol represents a new line of attack by the defenders of Amoris laetitia. The relevant passage from St. John Paul’s letter to Cardinal Baum is this:

It is also self-evident that the accusation of sins must include the serious intention not to commit them again in the future. If this disposition of soul is lacking, there really is no repentance: this is in fact a question of moral evil as such, and so not taking a stance opposed to a possible moral evil would mean not detesting evil, not repenting. But as this must stem above all from sorrow for having offended God, so the intention of not sinning must be based on divine grace, which the Lord never fails to give anyone who does what he can to act honestly.

If we wished to rely only on our own strength, or primarily on our own strength, the decision to sin no more, with a presumed self-sufficiency, almost a Christian Stoicism or revived Pelagianism, we would offend against that truth about man with which we began, as though we were to tell the Lord, more or less consciously, that we did not need him. It should also be remembered that the existence of sincere repentance is one thing, the judgement of the intellect concerning the future is another: it is indeed possible that, despite the sincere intention of sinning no more, past experience and the awareness of human weakness makes one afraid of falling again; but this does not compromise the authenticity of the intention, when that fear is joined to the will, supported by prayer, of doing what is possible to avoid sin.

(Emphasis supplied.) Obviously the argument goes something like this: John is living in a second marriage with Jane. A holy priest has explained to John and Jane that their marriage is adulterous, whatever else might be said for it, but John cannot divorce Jane because they’re raising their child, James. With us so far? John and Jane resolve to live as brother and sister and are, accordingly, absolved sacramentally and admitted to Holy Communion. But John and Jane slip up. Now, the Amoris laetitia casuist might say that, if John and Jane are sincerely repentant in the confessional for the slip up, and if they sincerely resolve to resume living as brother and sister—even though they are aware from past experience and the awareness of their weakness, that they may well slip up again—they have the firm purpose of amendment required for a good confession. Problem solved! Perhaps so, but it is remarkably easy to start waving one’s hands at the requirements of this theory and arrive at the place where the possibility of the future slip up vitiates the requirement to resolve to live as brother and sister. One can hear a pliable priest saying, “Listen, you know you’re going to slip up again, why let yourself down? The important thing is that you’re sorry now.”

As we say, we have heard far more about Footnote 351 than Footnote 364. It will be interesting to see if the argument from Footnote 364 gets a little more currency. Currently, the Amoris laetitia defenders say, essentially, that the gravity of the sin of bigamy is reduced by concrete circumstances. That’s Rocco Buttiglione’s argument, at any rate: the bigamists don’t freely consent because of these circumstances making it impossible to break off the adulterous relationship, thus what would be a mortal sin is really a venial sin. But the Argentine bishops’ line of attack is altogether more dangerous. Of course it’s a mortal sin, our casuist says. Of course! No question about it. Familiaris consortio could not be clearer. One wishes that the whole of FC 84 had made its way into Amoris laetitia. Bigamists have to live as brother and sister if they want to receive Holy Communion. Beyond a doubt this is so! St. John Paul restated the apostolic teaching of the Church, as part of his towering contribution to moral theology. But, the same St. John Paul said that a firm purpose of amendment needn’t be such a gloomy, totalizing, all-encompassing thing. The fact that you might slip up—you probably will slip up, if you’re being honest with yourself, and sooner rather than later—in the future doesn’t vitiate your repentance in the hic et nunc. You just have to try to do better. Just try. But don’t beat yourself up over it. Everybody goofs up!

Of course, those with ears to hear know exactly what all that means.

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