We have followed Rocco Buttiglione’s interpretation of Amoris laetitia with interest, finding it, at first, interesting and perhaps persuasive at first, though we have found it less persuasive with each iteration (and make no mistake: he’s one of Santa Marta’s preferred mouthpieces on this subject, no doubt for his closeness with St. John Paul II). In short, Buttiglione argues for continuity between Amoris laetitia and Familiaris consortio by hanging everything on the subjective component of mortal sin; that is, if you approach the question in the traditional framework, you see that Amoris laetitia simply approaches the question of free consent on the part of the penitent. Is that so? Now, Buttiglione has responded to the dubia proposed by Cardinals Brandmüller, Burke, Caffarra, and Meisner. We won’t waste your time going point by point through the dubia and responses, though we encourage you to do so when you have an idle hour. Instead, we will focus on the first dubium and its responsum.
The cardinals ask:
It is asked whether, following the affirmations of Amoris Laetitia (300-305), it has now become possible to grant absolution in the sacrament of penance and thus to admit to holy Communion a person who, while bound by a valid marital bond, lives together with a different person more uxorio without fulfilling the conditions provided for by Familiaris Consortio, 84, and subsequently reaffirmed by Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 34, and Sacramentum Caritatis, 29. Can the expression “in certain cases” found in Note 351 (305) of the exhortation Amoris Laetitia be applied to divorced persons who are in a new union and who continue to live more uxorio?
The first a question the eminent cardinals ask, is whether it is in some cases acceptable for absolution to be granted to people who despite being tied down by a previous marriage, live more uxorio, engaging in sexual intercourse. It seems to me, that the response should be affirmative given what is written in the “Amoris Laetitia” and what is stated in the general principles of moral theology. A clear distinction needs to be made between the act, which constitutes a grave sin, and the agent, who may find themselves bound by circumstances that mitigate their responsibility for the act or in some cases may even eliminate it completely. Consider, for example, the case of a woman who is completely financially and mentally dependant on someone and is forced to have sexual intercourse against her will. Sadly, such cases are not just theory but a bitter reality, witnessed more often than one would imagine. What is lacking here are the subjective conditions for sin (full knowledge and deliberate consent). The act is still evil but it does not belong (not entirely anyway) to the person. In criminal law terms, we are not in the realm of the theory of crime (whether an act is good or bad) but of the theory of liability and subjective extenuating circumstances.
This does not mean unmarried people can legitimately engage in sexual activity. Such activity is illegitimate. People can (in some cases) fall into non mortal but venial sin if full knowledge and deliberate consent are lacking. But, one could argue, is it not necessary for a person to have the intention of never sinning again in order to receive absolution? It certainly is necessary. The penitent must want to end their irregular situation and commit to acts that will allow them to actually do so in practice. However, this person may not be able to achieve this detachment and regain self-ownership immediately. Here, the “situation of sin” concept illustrated by John Paul II, is important. One cannot plausibly promise never to commit a certain sin if they live in a situation in which they are exposed to the irresistible temptation of committing it. In order to hold fast to one’s intent, one needs to be committed to coming out of a situation of sin.
While superficially persuasive, upon closer examination Buttiglione’s argument collapses into incoherence. Buttiglione deftly sidesteps the dubium by shifting his ground from someone living in a second relationship more uxorio to a woman held captive in an abusive relationship. But such an extreme case does not seem to be what the cardinals had in mind. They seem to have had in mind the case of a “conventional” second marriage. Indeed, in Amoris laetitia, the case of a “conventional” second marriage is what is on the Holy Father’s mind, otherwise why devote so much time to the good of the children of such a bigamous union? In other words, Buttiglione wants to treat a pathological case as though it is the situation anticipated by the Holy Father and the cardinals. To what end? The answer is obvious: everyone can agree about the extreme case, and Buttiglione wants to pretend that the extreme case is a normal case. Thus, the consensus about the extreme case becomes the consensus. He is silent upon the more relevant question, which is the point Amoris laetitia raises, of whether merely having children in a bigamous union is sufficient to diminish one’s free consent to the point where adultery is merely venially sinful or not sinful at all. He is silent, one suspects, because that is a much harder question to answer if you want to say “yes.”
But that’s not all.
Buttiglione appears to concede that a firm purpose of amendment is necessary. He even appears to concede that that means terminating the bigamous relationship. (This may be more than Amoris laetitia even concedes.) But when you drill down on his actual argument, it’s not at all clear what he means. Penitents have to be committed to coming out of the situation of sin they have put themselves in, but they will need some time to do so. It is plain that he views the adulterous union as the situation of sin—that is, when you’re living with someone, you’re tempted irresistibly to copulate (which must be rather alarming news to the millions of students and roommates who live together without being tempted to do so)—and it is plain that the penitent needs to get out of the situation. But the argument falls apart on its own terms. Merely sharing quarters with one’s partner in bigamy is irresistibly tempting. Therefore, the penitent has to be committed to leaving a situation he cannot leave. No, don’t laugh: it’s what he says. The situation is irresistibly tempting and the penitent should be given time to gain control over himself. How can he gain control over himself if the situation is irresistibly tempting? Surely, when he should be gaining control over himself, he’ll be doing, uh, other things not consistent with that resolution. That’s concupiscence for you.
The stronger argument, which we feared we would see more of after the Argentine bishops’ protocol is this: the firm purpose of amendment is not vitiated by the fear that one will commit the same sin again. Remember what St. John Paul wrote to Cardinal Baum:
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.) The Argentine bishops’ argument would swallow up the need for any firm purpose of amendment, of course, but that’s the argument. And it is superficially more convincing that some of the other arguments we have seen. Like this one. Indeed, it seems to us that Buttiglione’s contention that the penitent may need some time to get out of a situation he cannot escape is even more unsatisfactory in the light of the stronger argument.
Read the whole thing, though. It’s illuminating, if nothing else.