Exemplar, oblatio, and terra firma

At Vatican Insider, there is an article by theologian Robert Fastiggi and the theologian and journalist Dawn Eden Goldstein, arguing that the Latin version of paragraph 303 of Amoris laetitia has a significantly different meaning than the English translation. Their argument hinges on the translation of objectivum exemplar as “objective ideal” instead of “objective model” and on the nontranslation of oblatio. It is their opinion that these translation choices have had an impact on the understanding on Amoris laetitia by its critics. In short, Fastiggi and Goldstein argue that the critics are wrong about what paragraph 303 says because they are basing their arguments on translations at variance with the Latin original. It’s an argument.

On one hand, it is nice to be back on the terra firma of arguing about Latin words and precise interpretations of papal texts in Latin. On the other hand, it would have been altogether more generous of Fastiggi and Goldstein to admit that Amoris laetitia was released in Latin only in the last few months. Some of the essays they critique may have been written and in the publication process before the Latin text of Amoris laetitia was widely available. Ordinarily, we agree that it is best wait for the Latin text, but the Holy Father, since his accession to the Petrine See, has not always released important texts in Latin. (As far as we know, Evangelii gaudium, despite its incipit, is not available in Latin.)  And, as everyone knows, the initial round of debate over Amoris laetitia was based upon the versions initially released in vulgar tongues. Indeed, it seems to us to be profoundly ungenerous to critique interpretations of Amoris laetitia that were based on vernacular versions that everyone, including high prelates, were using at the time. The critiques were based upon the texts that were considered definitive until earlier this summer. Furthermore, it is far from clear to us that the vernacular versions are not in some way definitive. Fastiggi and Goldstein neglect to note that the Argentine bishops’ based their norms upon the vernacular text. And, as Archbishop Fernandez helpfully observed, the Pope sent an appreciative letter to the Argentine bishops about these interpretations. If this appreciative letter has magisterial weight, as Archbishop Fernandez contends it does, which it has conveyed to the Argentine bishops’ norms, can it be said that the vernacular translations of Amoris laetitia are entirely meaningless? It is not an easy question. And, again, it would have been more generous of Fastiggi and Goldstein to answer the question—or at least acknowledge it.

Turning from the authority of the Latin text to the argument, we have a couple of points in response. We acknowledge that exemplum more precisely means “pattern, model, exemplar, original, an example” (per the standard reference Lewis & Short dictionary). Fine. But what is the difference between a pattern or a model and an ideal? They never say. It is enough for them to suggest that, well, the Latin original says exemplum. Their philological argument, to our mind, comes up short. Examples of usage of exemplum would have been more persuasive, especially if they could find examples of exemplum in comparison to other terms closer to their sense of “ideal.” Maybe they have a philological point, but it would be nice if they’d condescend to make it in terms comprehensible to a philologist.

Second, as most defenders Amoris laetitia do, Fastiggi and Goldstein set aside their technical discussion of exemplum (and oblatio) to play the what-if game. But their argument raises a couple of more interesting points that they simply leave to one side. First, they talk about the conscience discerning what God is asking a person to do in a given situation. But we have seen—and Cardinal Caffarra would have explained had he not gone on to his reward—Bl. John Henry Newman’s argument about what conscience is or is not. In Newman’s account, conscience is God’s law apprehended in the minds of men more or less well. It is emphatically not a free will responding or not to conditions it apprehends. Fastiggi and Goldstein come close to this sort of argument, but never quite manage to get across the goal line. For example, they say:

We believe the key to understanding what Pope Francis is saying in Amoris laetitia 303 is found in Amoris laetitia 305, where he quotes section 44 of his 2013 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii gaudium: “Let us re­member that ‘a small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order, but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties.’”

It is very clear from the Latin text of Amoris laetitia 303 that Pope Francis is describing how conscience can discern that God himself is asking for a small step in the right direction in the midst of a mass of impediments and limitations. The Holy Father is not saying that God himself is asking certain people “to continue to commit intrinsically wrong acts such as adultery or active homosexuality.” This is a most unfortunate reading of the text by Seifert. Instead Pope Francis is saying that in certain difficult situations God is asking for a “generous response” (liberale responsum), an offering (oblationem)—that is, a step in the right direction. 

(Emphasis supplied.) What does this mean? Is this a case of an individual better apprehending God’s law, and therefore following better his conscience? Or do they mean to imply that God’s law is not written on our hearts and we choose to respond to God’s law once we apprehend it more or less well? The former case seems to us to be more readily reconciled with Newman’s definition of conscience. The latter case seems to be fraught with difficulties. And it is unclear, even from Fastiggi and Goldstein’s example, what they mean. While we are perfectly happy to be polemical, we are genuinely curious.

Moreover, what is the relationship between the oblatio “requested” by God through the means of conscience and the eighteenth canon of the Council of Trent on justification (sixth session, January 13, 1547)? That is, “Si quis dixerit, Dei præcepta homini etiam justificato et sub gratia constituto esse ad observandum impossibilia: anathema sit.” This remains a serious question. In other words, “If anyone says that the commandments of God are, even for one that is justified and constituted in grace, impossible to observe, let him be anathema.” God does not demand the impossible, and thus it seems to us that there is some question about the oblatio in a given situation, particularly if the oblatio is somewhat less than compliance with God’s law. Once again, we are simply curious as to what Fastiggi and Goldstein mean.

An interesting article, to be sure, and one that leaves much room for further discussion.