The Amoris highwire routine

We read, with some interest, that Archbishop Fernandez, a close collaborator of the Holy Father, has offered a spirited defense of Amoris laetitia. Of course, one hardly knows what to make of such coverage. Austen Ivereigh, a journalist supportive of the Santa Marta party, covers in Crux, a website funded by the Knights of Columbus, an essay written by Archbishop Fernandez in a special issue of CELAM’s theological journal, commenting upon the Holy Father’s exhortation, Amoris laetitia. We are supposed to think that this is what the Holy Father thinks, just as we are supposed to have thought that Spadaro and Figueroa were expressing the mind of the Holy Father with their confused essay in Civiltà. It is strange indeed to have entered a world where the mind of the pope is explained and asserted by everyone except the pope. Friendly journalists and clerical boosters—albeit clerical boosters without official briefs—tell us what was meant. And in all of this the one man who could clear things up definitively never quite does.

Nevertheless, Fernandez’s essay appears to be an attempt to have his cake and eat it too. Consider the following points reported by Ivereigh:

  • “He said Pope Francis has resisted proposals of progressive moral theologians to drop altogether a distinction between objective sin and subjective guilt, and has maintained that sexual relations by divorced people in a new union always ‘constitute an objective situation of habitual grave sin,’ even if culpability might not exist in a subjective sense in some cases.”
  • “Even in these cases, however, ‘for Francis it is not the concrete circumstances that determine the objective morality,’ said Fernández, adding: ‘The fact that conditions might diminish culpability does not mean that what is objectively bad thereby becomes objectively good.'”
  • “Turning to the process of discernment outlined in Amoris, Fernández said Francis nowhere claimed that someone can receive Communion if they are not in a state of grace, only that an objectively grave fault is not sufficient to deprive a person of sanctifying grace.”

On the other hand, Ivereigh tells us that Fernandez maintains:

  • “Such discernment, he went on, is not about the moral absolute of the norm, but about its disciplinary consequences. The norm remains universal, but its consequences or effects can vary. By making clear that this can be discerned by means of a ‘pastoral dialogue,’ said Fernández, ‘this is what opens the way to a change in [sacramental] discipline.'”
  • “That change is legitimate, said Fernández, who cites examples from history of the Church evolving, both in the understanding of her doctrine and of the disciplinary consequences that flow from it – over slaveholding, for example, or the question of the salvation of non-Catholics. Doctrine has remained constant but there have been at times clear shifts in the understanding and application of that doctrine, he added.”
  • “He went on to accuse the pope’s critics of a kind of ‘intellectual Pelagianism,’ in which a particular form of reasoning becomes the yardstick for judging the Gospel as well as the Petrine ministry. In this way, he said, ‘the Scriptures are only there to illustrate the logic of ‘that’ reasoning, administered by an oligarchic group of ethicists.'”

In other words, it’s the same old highwire act that the supporters of Amoris laetitia always have to perform. Well, they don’t have to perform it, but they seem to like performing it an awful lot, regardless of how successful they are. On one hand, they cannot chuck the doctrinal points, especially those worked out in Veritatis splendor, no matter how badly they want to. But on the other hand, they can posit a baffling distinction between doctrine and “disciplinary consequences,” in which the “disciplinary consequences” can be divorced altogether from the doctrine. Cardinal Graf von Schönborn, being a rather brilliant theologian, performs the high-wire act pretty well; Archbishop Fernandez, well, let us be charitable and say he is not Cardinal Graf von Schönborn. And here the difference shows.

As a final note, this coverage is an interesting example of one of the two approaches being taken to the Holy Father’s pontificate as we have passed the four-year mark. The Europeans—in this we include Fernandez and Ivereigh—seem to have decided that it’s time to double down on the Holy Father’s centerpiece initiative and lash out at his critics. (They seem to define his centerpiece initiative as “communion for bigamists.” So much for the brilliant, incisive Laudato si’.) The Americans, as shown in the recent Orlando festivities, want to hit the reset button and return to the carefree days of Evangelii gaudium. The problem, they tell us, is that we haven’t properly engaged with the Holy Father’s programmatic text. The American progressives have also changed the faces. Instead of the aloof Blase Cardinal Cupich or the doctrinaire Bishop Robert McElroy, we find ourselves positively surrounded with the charming, smiling Joseph Cardinal Tobin. It is probably too soon to tell whether the congenial approach is superior to the combative approach. One suspects, however, that, no matter how separate doctrine and praxis may be in the minds of the Pope’s staunchest partisans, one still catches more flies with honey.