“I believed myself to be doing good”

Yesterday, Edward Pentin ran a lengthy interview with Francesco Cardinal Coccopalmerio, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, about his new book about chapter 8 of Amoris laetitia. It is a stunning interview, especially given Cardinal Coccopalmerio’s role as one of the Church’s top lawyers. In fact, as we read it, we had the sense that it was going disastrously and, what’s more, the participants knew how badly it was going. An excerpt:

Isn’t it better to try to stop the situation of sin completely?

How can you stop the whole thing if that will harm people? It is important that this person doesn’t want to be in this union, wants to leave this union, wants to leave, but cannot do it. There are two things to put together: I want to, but I cannot. And I cannot — not for my own sake, but for the sake of other people. I cannot for the sake of other people.

If the two can live together as brother and sister, that’s great. But if they cannot because this would break up the union, which ought to be conserved for the good of these people, then they manage as best they can. Do you see? That’s it. And it seems this whole complicated thing has a logical explanation, motivation. If others depart from other points of view, they can also arrive at other conclusions. But I would say there would be something missing of the human person. I can’t damage a person to avoid a sin in a situation that I haven’t put myself into; I already find myself in it, one in which I, if I am this woman, have put myself into without a bad intention. On the contrary, I’m trying to do good, and, at that moment, I believed myself to be doing good, and certainly I did do good. But maybe if, already at the beginning I had known, if I knew with moral certitude that this is a sin, maybe I would not have put myself in that condition. But now I already find myself there: How can I go back? It is one thing to begin, another to interrupt. These are also different things, no?

(Emphasis supplied.)

In keeping with our Lenten suggestion, here is a passage from St. John Paul’s encyclical Veritatis splendor (no. 81), which seems to be relevant to this idea:

In teaching the existence of intrinsically evil acts, the Church accepts the teaching of Sacred Scripture. The Apostle Paul emphatically states: “Do not be deceived: neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the Kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:9-10).

If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it. They remain “irremediably” evil acts; per se and in themselves they are not capable of being ordered to God and to the good of the person. “As for acts which are themselves sins (cum iam opera ipsa peccata sunt), Saint Augustine writes, like theft, fornication, blasphemy, who would dare affirm that, by doing them for good motives (causis bonis), they would no longer be sins, or, what is even more absurd, that they would be sins that are justified?”.

Consequently, circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act “subjectively” good or defensible as a choice.

(Emphasis supplied and footnote omitted.) John Paul went on to teach (no. 82):

Furthermore, an intention is good when it has as its aim the true good of the person in view of his ultimate end. But acts whose object is “not capable of being ordered” to God and “unworthy of the human person” are always and in every case in conflict with that good. Consequently, respect for norms which prohibit such acts and oblige semper et pro semper, that is, without any exception, not only does not inhibit a good intention, but actually represents its basic expression.

(Emphasis supplied.) Consider the full effect of what John Paul taught. First, one cannot, by means of “trying to do good” and believing oneself to be doing good, transform an objectively evil act—like adultery—into a good act. The most they can do is make it less evil. Moreover, an intention to do an objectively evil act, even, one suspects, if it is a convenient or congenial intention, cannot be a “good intention.” In other words, the intention to do an objectively evil act does not lessen the evil of the act.

In any event, it is an open question for us whether one could reasonably believe that one acted with a “good intention,” though we know that that belief would be objectively mistaken, if one intended to do something objectively evil. Again John Paul, discussing conscience (no. 58):

 The importance of this interior dialogue of man with himself can never be adequately appreciated. But it is also a dialogue of man with God, the author of the law, the primordial image and final end of man. Saint Bonaventure teaches that “conscience is like God’s herald and messenger; it does not command things on its own authority, but commands them as coming from God’s authority, like a herald when he proclaims the edict of the king. This is why conscience has binding force”. Thus it can be said that conscience bears witness to man’s own rectitude or iniquity to man himself but, together with this and indeed even beforehand, conscience is the witness of God himself, whose voice and judgment penetrate the depths of man’s soul, calling him fortiter et suaviter to obedience. “Moral conscience does not close man within an insurmountable and impenetrable solitude, but opens him to the call, to the voice of God. In this, and not in anything else, lies the entire mystery and the dignity of the moral conscience: in being the place, the sacred place where God speaks to man”.

(Emphasis supplied and footnote omitted.)


De Koninck and the modern age

At Sancrucensis, Pater Edmund Waldstein has a very interesting comment by Jacques Maritain about Charles de Koninck’s The Primacy of the Common Good (1943). Most followers of De Koninck know that Fr. I. Thomas Eschmann, O.P., wrote a scathing critique of The Primacy of the Common Good, called In Defense of Jacques Maritain. Eschmann’s defense was published in 1945. De Koninck responded in 1945, with a very lengthy tract, In Defense of St. Thomas. Pater Waldstein notes that, in a 1945 letter to Étienne Gilson, another eminent Thomist, Maritain largely approved Eschmann’s critique. It is not clear whether Maritain had seen In Defense of St. Thomas when he wrote to Gilson. This may clarify somewhat Maritain’s position in the debate between De Koninck and Eschmann, which remains a little shadowy.

Then again, it might not. Another sharp friend of ours pointed us to a chapter from Ralph McInerny’s 1988 collection of essays on Maritain, Art and Prudence, in which Maritain, writing in 1947, thanks Eschmann for his defense, but ultimately claims not to hold the positions criticized in The Primacy of the Common Good. McInerny also discusses a list of theses set forth by Yves Simon that purports to mark out the common ground between De Koninck, Maritain, and Simon. The letter Pater Waldstein cites helps form an interesting perspective on Maritain’s response to De Koninck. On the one hand, Maritain rejected the suggestion that he actually held the positions at issue in the debate between De Koninck and Eschmann. On the other hand, Maritain certainly approved on Eschmann’s response to De Koninck and thought it wrought by the master hand, so to speak.

At any rate, we encourage you, dear reader, to read The Primacy of the Common Good, if you have not, and, if you have an appetite for controversy, In Defense of Jacques Maritain and In Defense of St. Thomas. Volume two of McInerny’s edition of The Writings of Charles De Koninck contains not only The Primacy of the Common Good, but also Eschmann’s response and De Koninck’s reply. (It also has De Koninck’s fascinating Ego Sapientia, which discusses the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament as applied to Our Lady, and his brief Notes on Marxism.) Pater Waldstein admirably summarizes the importance of De Koninck’s work, especially as conceived in opposition to “Neo-Liberalism, Neo-Individualism, and . . . Neo-Pelagianism,” as Maritain puts it.


For a Catholic—indeed, for anyone operating in the western tradition—man is a political animal (Politics I.2, 1253a2–3; ST I-II q.72 a.4 co.). And, from this fact, as McInerny argues, man belongs to his community. To say otherwise is strange and results in strange, usually bad, consequences (Politics I.2, 1253a19–39.) Concern for the common good is, therefore, both inescapable and necessary. Yet much of the modern project—we would say “political project,” but to do so would be to equivocate on the nature of politics—is an attempt to escape concern for the common good. De Koninck discusses any number of errors about the common good—the most pernicious of which is, of course, totalitarianism—and you can, dear reader, see these errors propounded in any number of venues.

As Pater Waldstein observes, De Koninck’s critique of personalism has the note of prophecy about it. It is essential, therefore, to return to authors like De Koninck when contemplating the state of things and the possibility of a way forward. But, as we have said before, the state of theological and philosophical education among Catholics is shocking. Not only have we lost the recent social magisterium of popes like Leo XIII but we have also lost the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition. The reaction of the Council and the post-conciliar Church against neo-Scholasticism and “manualism” has gone beyond blotting out the baroque neo-Thomism that so terrorized the Council fathers when they were in seminary to blotting out Thomism itself. And it shows: Catholics are entirely unprepared to grapple with the problems of modernity, including neoliberalism and neo-individualism. They fall into various errors, as a result, some of which are, to our mind, much worse than the problems confronted.

We observe, perhaps idly, that most of these errors seem to find their roots in imperfect understandings of the common good. Funny how that works.


The political Church

We have had on our mind for some time to write a comment about the political approach to the Church and the damage it does. But, for a variety of reasons, we simply have not gotten around to writing it. However, Pater Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist., well known to readers of Semiduplex, has gotten around to writing such a piece. At his blog, Sancrucensis, he writes, taking a sermon then-Cardinal Ratzinger gave in the United States in 1990 as his theme:

I have been thinking a lot about that sermon of Ratzinger’s recently, because of the controversies about Amoris Laetitia, which have made the ever present danger of dividing the Church through a party spirit apparent. I have to ask myself: am I being faithful to Christ, or am I dividing Him. Is my position an “I am for tradition” in the way in which a Corinthian party might say “I am for Paul” and look down on the naïve party of Cephas? Conversely, of course, certain others should ask themselves whether they are really being faithful to Peter, or whether they are saying “I am for Cephas” because the opinions of the current pope fit their preferences. Now, I do not think that I have been motivated by a party spirit in what I have said and written about Amoris Laetitia. But then, as Nietzsche says, “we are unknown to us, we knowers, ourselves to ourselves.”

(Emphasis supplied.) Read the whole thing at Sancrucensis.

The Message for the World Day of Peace and the social-conflict teaching of John Paul II

Today, the Vatican released the Holy Father’s message to the 50th World Day of Peace. It is an interesting document, taking as its theme nonviolence. The Holy Father says:

On this occasion, I would like to reflect on nonviolence as a style of politics for peace. I ask God to help all of us to cultivate nonviolence in our most personal thoughts and values. May charity and nonviolence govern how we treat each other as individuals, within society and in international life. When victims of violence are able to resist the temptation to retaliate, they become the most credible promotors of nonviolent peacemaking. In the most local and ordinary situations and in the international order, may nonviolence become the hallmark of our decisions, our relationships and our actions, and indeed of political life in all its forms.

(Emphasis supplied.) The message goes on to extol the value of nonviolence as, as the Holy Father puts it, “a style of politics.” While not as extensive as an encyclical or even some of the longer addresses that the Holy Father has given, it certainly represents an authentic exercise of the Holy Father’s social magisterium.

But we are troubled, we suppose, by what, exactly, the Holy Father means by nonviolence. While actual violence in the sense of taking up arms and taking to the streets is to be viewed as a last resort, governed carefully by the Church’s clear doctrine on revolt and resisting illegitimate rules, we think the Holy Father means more than mere exclusion of actual violence. He seems to point toward the exclusion of conflict. For example, he says,

Nonviolence is sometimes taken to mean surrender, lack of involvement and passivity, but this is not the case. When Mother Teresa received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, she clearly stated her own message of active nonviolence: “We in our family don’t need bombs and guns, to destroy to bring peace – just get together, love one another… And we will be able to overcome all the evil that is in the world”. For the force of arms is deceptive. “While weapons traffickers do their work, there are poor peacemakers who give their lives to help one person, then another and another and another”; for such peacemakers, Mother Teresa is “a symbol, an icon of our times”. Last September, I had the great joy of proclaiming her a Saint. I praised her readiness to make herself available for everyone “through her welcome and defence of human life, those unborn and those abandoned and discarded… She bowed down before those who were spent, left to die on the side of the road, seeing in them their God-given dignity; she made her voice heard before the powers of this world, so that they might recognize their guilt for the crimes – the crimes! – of poverty they created”. In response, her mission – and she stands for thousands, even millions of persons – was to reach out to the suffering, with generous dedication, touching and binding up every wounded body, healing every broken life.

(Emphasis supplied and footnotes omitted.) Francis goes on to say,

This is also a programme and a challenge for political and religious leaders, the heads of international institutions, and business and media executives: to apply the Beatitudes in the exercise of their respective responsibilities. It is a challenge to build up society, communities and businesses by acting as peacemakers. It is to show mercy by refusing to discard people, harm the environment, or seek to win at any cost. To do so requires “the willingness to face conflict head on, to resolve it and to make it a link in the chain of a new process”. To act in this way means to choose solidarity as a way of making history and building friendship in society. Active nonviolence is a way of showing that unity is truly more powerful and more fruitful than conflict. Everything in the world is inter-connected. Certainly differences can cause frictions. But let us face them constructively and non-violently, so that “tensions and oppositions can achieve a diversified and life-giving unity,” preserving “what is valid and useful on both sides”.

(Emphasis supplied.) To some extent, therefore, the Holy Father seems to exclude social conflict altogether. To the extent that he does, he has overlooked an important source of teaching for the question of “frictions” in society: the magisterium of his predecessor, St. John Paul. In some regards, the Holy Father’s Message is consistent with John Paul’s teaching, but in other regards it seems to us that the Holy Father seeks to take a step back from some of John Paul’s really very radical conclusions.

And it may well be a conscious decision to step back. It is not as though the Holy Father does not acknowledge a debt to John Paul. In the Message, he says,

Nor can we forget the eventful decade that ended with the fall of Communist regimes in Europe. The Christian communities made their own contribution by their insistent prayer and courageous action. Particularly influential were the ministry and teaching of Saint John Paul II. Reflecting on the events of 1989 in his 1991 Encyclical Centesimus Annus, my predecessor highlighted the fact that momentous change in the lives of people, nations and states had come about “by means of peaceful protest, using only the weapons of truth and justice”. This peaceful political transition was made possible in part “by the non-violent commitment of people who, while always refusing to yield to the force of power, succeeded time after time in finding effective ways of bearing witness to the truth”. Pope John Paul went on to say: “May people learn to fight for justice without violence, renouncing class struggle in their internal disputes and war in international ones”.

(Emphasis supplied.) It will be seen shortly that there may be something of an equivocation here, since John Paul referred to class struggle in its Marxist sense in Centesimus annus, as distinct from social conflict more broadly conceived. But that aside, reading this passage consistently with the whole message, the Holy Father seems to quote John Paul for the proposition that social conflict was to be deplored totally.

However, a close reading of John Paul’s social magisterium shows that the saint acknowledges not only that social conflict was permissible under certain circumstances but also that, under the right conditions, it could be positive. We begin with his 1991 social encyclical, Centesimus annus, in which John Paul teaches us that:

From the same atheistic source, socialism also derives its choice of the means of action condemned in Rerum novarum, namely, class struggle. The Pope does not, of course, intend to condemn every possible form of social conflict. The Church is well aware that in the course of history conflicts of interest between different social groups inevitably arise, and that in the face of such conflicts Christians must often take a position, honestly and decisively. The Encyclical Laborem exercens moreover clearly recognized the positive role of conflict when it takes the form of a “struggle for social justice”; Quadragesimo anno had already stated that “if the class struggle abstains from enmities and mutual hatred, it gradually changes into an honest discussion of differences founded on a desire for justice”.

However, what is condemned in class struggle is the idea that conflict is not restrained by ethical or juridical considerations, or by respect for the dignity of others (and consequently of oneself); a reasonable compromise is thus excluded, and what is pursued is not the general good of society, but a partisan interest which replaces the common good and sets out to destroy whatever stands in its way. In a word, it is a question of transferring to the sphere of internal conflict between social groups the doctrine of “total war”, which the militarism and imperialism of that time brought to bear on international relations. As a result of this doctrine, the search for a proper balance between the interests of the various nations was replaced by attempts to impose the absolute domination of one’s own side through the destruction of the other side’s capacity to resist, using every possible means, not excluding the use of lies, terror tactics against citizens, and weapons of utter destruction (which precisely in those years were beginning to be designed). Therefore class struggle in the Marxist sense and militarism have the same root, namely, atheism and contempt for the human person, which place the principle of force above that of reason and law.

(Emphasis supplied and footnotes omitted.) Not enough attention has been devoted to John Paul’s teaching on social conflict. It is remarkably rich and deep. And it is surprising. Here, the pope who spearheaded the final battle against the atheistic communism of the Soviet Union, the pope with the highest praise, we are told, for American-style capitalism, teaches us not only that social conflict is not always and everywhere forbidden but also that it is “inevitable” in historical terms. And he roots his conclusion in the magisterium of Leo XIII, who (along with St. Pius X) is often cited for what amounts to a quietism in social questions. Thus, the pope finds support for social conflict stretching back to the very beginning of the Church’s social teaching. But there are clear limits to such conflict. What is forbidden is an amoral, exterminationist view that seeks only the annihilation of one’s class opponents. John Paul (and Pius XI before him) indicate that the goal, as in all political action, ought to be the common good.

Now, one could, as the Holy Father does in his message today, take a minimalist view of social conflict. And it is true—acknowledging again that there may be an equivocation in the use of the term—that John Paul called for an end to class struggle in Centesimus annus. But it must be noted also that John Paul never excluded outright opposition in social questions. Far from it, in fact. In Laborem exercens, his 1981 encyclical on labor, he observes,

Catholic social teaching does not hold that unions are no more than a reflection of the “class” structure of society and that they are a mouthpiece for a class struggle which inevitably governs social life. They are indeed a mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice, for the just rights of working people in accordance with their individual professions. However, this struggle should be seen as a normal endeavour “for” the just good: in the present case, for the good which corresponds to the needs and merits of working people associated by profession; but it is not struggle “against” others. Even if in controversial questions the struggle takes on a character of opposition towards others, this is because it aims at the good of social justice, not for the sake of “struggle” or in order to eliminate the opponent. It is characteristic of work that it first and foremost unites people. In this consists its social power: the power to build a community.

(Emphasis supplied.) To the extent that there is “a character of opposition towards others,” John Paul tells us in both Laborem exercens and Centesimus annus that this is positive when it is opposition aimed toward the common good and social justice. It is when opposition is exalted for its own sake or pursued for the extermination of opponents that the serious moral problems crop up. At any rate, it does not require much imagination to see that there is some range of freedom of means available to those who pursue social justice and the common good.

Here, an especially clever interlocutor might cite St. Thomas, ST IIa IIae q.64 a.2 ad 3, and say, well, when one departs from the order of reason, one loses one’s human dignity and becomes as a beast, so the Pope’s caution against stringent social conflict, which may be more akin to Marxist class struggle, may overstate the matter. One needn’t be a Stalinist to see the consequences of the argument. Certainly, it is a departure from the order of reason to prize a proper good to the common good. Charles de Koninck, in the reply to the first objection in The Primacy of the Common Good Against the Personalists, taking up this question, says,

But the dignity with which the rational creature is invested on account of its end is so dependent upon this end that the creature can lose it as it can lose the attainment of its end. “By sinning, man sets himself outside the order of reason, and consequently, he loses human dignity, as namely man is naturally free and existing for himself, and he places himself in some way in the servitude of animals… For the bad man is worse than an animal.” [this is from ST IIa IIae q.64 a.2 ad 3 – pjs] Far from excluding the ordination of his private good (or his proper good when this is understood as not already including the common good) to the common good, or from making it indifferent to the common good, as though this ordination were purely a matter of freedom of contradiction, the dignity of the intelligent creature involves, on the contrary, the necessity of this ordination. Man fails in his human dignity when he refuses the very principle of that dignity: the good of the intellect realized in the common good. He subjects himself to the servitude of the animals when he judges the common good to be a foreign good. The perfection of human nature is so little an assurance of dignity that it suffices for man to turn himself inward upon his own dignity as upon a sufficient reason and first foundation, in order to fail to attain his being-for-self.

(Emphasis supplied.) Social conflict presupposes either that the common good has not been rightly understood or that someone is not acting in accord with the common good. They then seek to disrupt the ordination of their proper good(s) to the common good and, thereby, lose their dignity as humans. This, then, brings them within Thomas’s sharp statement. To this clever Aristo-Thomisto-Marxist interlocutor, one might say that this is true, but public authority is necessary to implement Thomas’s conclusion. And it is passing hard to imagine that public authority would be present on either side of this situation for the usual reasons. Furthermore, note the precise turn of De Koninck’s argument: anyone who judges the common good to be an alien good loses his human dignity, the personalist and the totalitarian alike. Thus, the Marxist engaged in eliminationist class struggle in the name of an ultimately alien common good has just as serious a fault with his dignity in Thomistic terms as the individualist-capitalist who prefers his proper good to the common good. Enough of this, though. Back to John Paul.

Certainly, merely saying that social conflict is not always and everywhere forbidden is radical. But the radicalness of John Paul’s approach goes beyond that. To appreciate it, one should look to other interventions of the magisterium treating upon Marxism and class struggle. For example, the 1984 Instruction on Certain Aspects of the “Theology of Liberation” of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. As everyone knows, at its inception, there were disquieting elements of then-current Marxism present in liberation theology. Because of the admixture of Marxist thought, the Instruction contains sustained magisterial analysis, going far beyond, say, Octogesima adveniens or even Quadragesimo anno, of Marxism. In that document, Cardinal Ratzinger observed:

For the Marxist, the <praxis>, and the truth that comes from it, are partisan <praxis> and truth because the fundamental structure of history is characterized by <class- struggle>. There follows, then, the objective necessity to enter into the class struggle, which is the dialectical opposite of the relationship of exploitation, which is being condemned. For the Marxist, the truth is a truth of class: there is no truth but the truth in the struggle of the revolutionary class.

The fundamental law of history, which is the law of the class struggle, implies that society is founded on violence. To the violence which constitutes the relationship of the domination of the rich over the poor, there corresponds the counter-violence of the revolution, by means of which this domination will be reversed.

The class struggle is presented as an objective, necessary law. Upon entering this process on behalf of the oppressed, one “makes” truth, one acts “scientifically”. Consequently, the conception of the truth goes hand in hand with the affirmation of necessary violence, and so, of a political amorality. Within this perspective, any reference to ethical requirements calling for courageous and radical institutional and structural reforms makes no sense.

The fundamental law of class struggle has a global and universal character. It is reflected in all the spheres of existence: religious, ethical, cultural and institutional. As far as this law is concerned, none of these spheres is autonomous. In each of them this law constitutes the determining element.

In particular, the very nature of ethics is radically called into question because of the borrowing of these theses from Marxism. In fact, it is the transcendent character of the distinction between good and evil, the principle of morality, which is implicitly denied in the perspective of the class struggle.

(Emphasis supplied and paragraph numbers omitted.) To borrow an old Marxist chestnut, John Paul stands the Marxist approach to class struggle on its head. Recall that John Paul acknowledges that social conflict is inevitable in historical terms (but not the fundamental law of history) and that Christians are called upon to take sides in the conflict. But John Paul denies completely the concept that social conflict is truth. Instead, he teaches that social conflict takes place in the framework of truth. The framework of truth includes the moral and juridical considerations John Paul holds to be objective and absolute. And these moral and juridical considerations exclude the exterminationist, total-war approach condemned by Leo, Pius, and John Paul. Thus, the pernicious consequences of class struggle—political amorality, the denial of morality itself—identified by Cardinal Ratzinger are avoided. In other words, John Paul saves social conflict from the errors of Marxist class struggle as the Church identified them.

We will lay aside the question of whether or not the magisterial characterization of Marxism in the Instruction (or in Centesimus annus or Laborem exercens) is accurate for each and every instantiation of Marxism. It probably is not, as Marxism may be said in many ways and Marxists frequently disagree with each other about the precise contours of Marxist thought. However, it is plain that the Church’s understanding, complete or not, of Marxist class struggle up to 1991 was very much on John Paul’s mind when he wrote Centesimus annus, and that understanding is important to understand just how far John Paul was willing to go to in support of positive social conflict. To put it another way: it is not hugely important whether or not the Instruction categorizes the spectrum of Marxist thought, what is important is that it reflects the Church’s understanding of class struggle in the Marxist sense during the first part of John Paul’s reign.

What, therefore, do we have in John Paul’s magisterium? Several things. We have a statement that social conflict is, in historical terms, inevitable. Groups in society will inevitably come into opposition. When that happens, Christians have a duty to choose sides. This conflict can take on the character of opposition, provided that the opposition is pointed toward the common good and social justice. Opposition in these circumstances is positive, to use John Paul’s phrase. It is when the opposition takes on the character of total war, of seeking to annihilate one’s opponents at any cost without reference to objective moral and juridical norms, that social conflict becomes impermissible.

On one hand, therefore, the Holy Father’s message today reflects John Paul’s thinking. Recall that he says,

It is a challenge to build up society, communities and businesses by acting as peacemakers. It is to show mercy by refusing to discard people, harm the environment, or seek to win at any cost. To do so requires “the willingness to face conflict head on, to resolve it and to make it a link in the chain of a new process”. To act in this way means to choose solidarity as a way of making history and building friendship in society. Active nonviolence is a way of showing that unity is truly more powerful and more fruitful than conflict. Everything in the world is inter-connected. Certainly differences can cause frictions. But let us face them constructively and non-violently, so that “tensions and oppositions can achieve a diversified and life-giving unity,” preserving “what is valid and useful on both sides”.

(Emphasis supplied.) He recognizes, we think, the aspects of social conflict that John Paul recognizes, notably that, as a historical fact, it is inevitable. He also recognizes that the total-war approach to social conflict is impermissible; one simply may not seek to win at any cost. As we have seen at length above, these are key points in John Paul’s teaching on social conflict.

Another brief digression, if you’ll bear with us. We probably do not have room here to unpack the Holy Father’s meaning when he talks about solidarity as “a way of making history.” But it is a particularly interesting phrase, given what we have seen so far. Perhaps we are predisposed to seeing it this way, but the expression seems to be a literal negation of the Marxist concept of history as class struggle. Furthermore, while John Paul did not speak in terms of making history through solidarity, one could read numbers 39 and 40 of Sollicitudo rei socialis in these terms, especially as John Paul saw solidarity as the key toward moving away from the “politics of blocs” and the collapse of imperialism, two major features of politics in the 20th century in his view. Whether or not the Holy Father intended to point in this direction and toward the famous “end of history” discussed at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union is an open question, which we will ultimately lay aside, too. However, it is an interesting and evocative phrase that probably does merit exploration.

However, returning to the matter at hand, we think that the Holy Father, in promoting nonviolence as a “style of politics,” takes a step back from the radical conclusions John Paul reached. Motivated by the common good and keeping in mind the limits imposed by morality, opposition is sometimes necessary. When properly understood, opposition can be positive. Now, we do not mean to underplay the importance of the limits articulated by John Paul. They are serious limitations that must be considered very carefully, but neither should they be seen as marking out a space that cannot be inhabited. For his part, the Holy Father seems to resist the conclusion that social conflict may be permissible in his message today, instead promoting small-scale solidarity and “diversified and life-giving unity,” however that is to be understood.

It would be perverse, it is safe to say, to spend a lot of time talking about the circumstances under which social conflict is permissible in a message for a World Day of Peace. At the same time, it seems strange to present an approach to resolving inevitable conflicts in society that minimizes opposition as a viable option. Certainly every effort should be made to resolve these inevitable conflicts through solidarity on a personal level and through efforts to achieve unity, but some conflicts require one party or the other to take on the character of opposition. The solution, of course, is to base politics on the common good, remembering that the common good of the state is peace. This, ultimately, is the insight John Paul brings to his discussion of social conflict. (Unsurprisingly, Pius XI left it there for him to develop.)

We have devoted a lot of space to the dubia submitted by Cardinals Brandmüller, Burke, Caffarra, and Meisner to the Holy Father regarding Amoris laetitia, and we will not bore you with a rehearsal of that issue, except to note that it is John Paul’s magisterium that is in question there. Especially his major intervention on moral theology, Veritatis splendor. We are in the midst, it seems, of a great forgetting of John Paul’s pontificate. That one might overlook this or that document or speech or event is understandable. Between 1978 and 2005, John Paul produced a staggering amount of stuff, magisterial and otherwise, and it is likely that only John Paul was able to keep it all straight in his head. However, it is less understandable that major interventions of his pontificate, including Centesimus annus, Laborem exercens, and Sollicitudo rei socialis, are forgotten or mentioned briefly. Especially when they treat in detail a particular question, such as social conflict. Now, one can talk about broader trends in moral theology and traditional doctrine, but one has a much harder time getting around John Paul in the social magisterium, since, given the relative newness of the Church’s teachings and John Paul’s lengthy reign, he accounts for rather a lot of it.

Perhaps, as we go forward, the Holy Father’s comments, as with this message, will spark a ressourcement of John Paul’s teaching. It has gone from being misrepresented to being forgotten. Maybe in the next iteration, it will simply be followed.

A moving reflection from Matthew Schmitz

There is something going on at First Things. Yes, Rusty Reno and Mark Bauerlein jumped on the Trump bandwagon, but we’re not talking about that. There are a lot of very sharp, young Catholics writing for First Things, expressing something other than the neocon, neo-Cath fusionism of Fr. Neuhaus’s circle. Among the bright lights of the magazine is literary editor Matthew Schmitz, who has written today “How I Changed My Mind About Pope Francis.” An excerpt:

I was not then, and never will be, against Francis. In June of that year, I celebrated the publication of Laudato Si’: “Francis’ encyclical synthesizes the great cultural critiques of his two most recent predecessors.” I was glad to see Francis smashing the false idols we have made of progress and the market.

Then Amoris Laetitia came out. In it, Francis sought to muddy the Church’s clear teaching that the divorced and remarried must live as brother and sister. “I have felt the Church’s teaching on marriage land like a blow, yet I take no encouragement from this shift,” I wrote. It was clear by then that my initial rosy assessments were wrong. Francis meant to lead the Church in a direction that I could not approve or abide. He believes that “the great majority of our sacramental marriages are null.” This renders him unable to resist the lie that says a man may abandon one wife and take up another. Instead, he reassures us that we can blithely go from one partner to the other without also abandoning Christ. This is the throwaway culture baptized and blessed, given a Christian name and a whiff of incense.

My admiration for Laudato Si’ has only grown with time, but I fear the import of that document is bound to be obscured by Amoris Laetitia. A pope who speaks with singular eloquence of our need to resist the technocratic logic of the “throwaway culture” seems bent on leading his Church to surrender to it. What is more typical of the throwaway culture than the easy accommodation of divorce and remarriage?

(Emphasis supplied and hyperlinks in original.) Schmitz’s reflection, moving as it is for his frank admission that he got it wrong and tried too long to explain what, in retrospect, was clear, is all the more moving because it points to the unrealized promise of this pontificate. Laudato si’ is a brilliant dissection of the sickness at the heart of modernity. The environmental stuff is ballast. That is not to say that the pope does not have the authority to pronounce on such matters—he certainly does—merely that it is less compelling than his diagnosis of the disease that has atomized society, disconnecting man from himself, his neighbor, his world, and, most destructively, his God. Yet the Holy Father does not seem all that interested in revisiting these issues.

Consider also the opportunity missed on the subject of integral human development. While Cardinal Müller has a reputation as a rock-ribbed doctrinal enforcer, if largely ignored these days, he has done a lot of important work on liberation theology, especially in correcting some of the errors condemned by the Church. And, of course, Francis’s time as Jesuit provincial in Argentina was marred by his conflict with his brethren who were very enthusiastic about liberation theology. Thus, the Holy Father and his doctrinal chief have extensive experience dealing with theology aimed at development and liberation, while being clear eyed about the errors that crept into liberation theology. Imagine, then, the work they could do in articulating an authentic, orthodox vision in the vein of Pacem in terris, Populorum progressio, and Caritas in veritate. However, instead of an encyclical building upon not only Laudato si’ but also the previous social magisterium, we are dealing with Amoris laetitia and the pressing question of how the Pope can admit bigamists to communion without formally admitting bigamists to communion. One cannot escape the sense that time and energy are being wasted.

But the problem confronting many Catholics is more serious than merely wasted potential. Wasted potential in and of itself would not be a huge problem. After years of a pope’s reign, it is easy to look back and see missed opportunities and mistakes. No, the situation is more serious. Schmitz goes on to observe:

I was inspired this week to revisit my past writings by Austen Ivereigh’s recent interview of Antonio Spadaro, one of the pope’s close advisers. Ivereigh notes that it’s “striking how many of AL’s critics are lay intellectuals, rather than pastors,” and suggests there is “a basic division in the reactions to AL between, as it were, the pastors and legalists.” Spadaro seems to agree. Am I, as a lay critic of Amoris, guilty of an unpastoral legalism? Probably so, if it is legalistic to wish that Francis’s defenders were as ready to offer doctrinal clarifications as they are to hand out psychological diagnoses.

But I also wonder at the assumption in Ivereigh’s question. If fewer pastors than laypeople have criticized the document, is that because the pastors approve of it? Or is it because they fear the damage that would be done to the Church by a public division? If the latter is the case, I wonder what Francis would have to do or say before more bishops begin to speak out. Is it unobjectionable for a pope to contradict his predecessors, the faith, and Christ himself, so long as he doesn’t explicitly say that’s what he’s doing?

(Emphasis supplied and hyperlink in original.) This is, we think, a question that many Catholics are now asking themselves. And, at this point, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Holy Father means to contradict Familiaris consortio and Veritatis splendor. His supporters—especially men like Ivereigh and Fr. Spadaro who have a lot of their professional prestige wrapped up in the “Francis revolution”—will talk about what St. John Paul really taught and how he really would have agreed with Amoris laetitia. But this is window dressing: they know as well as the next person that if St. John Paul had meant to endorse communion for bigamists living more uxorio he would have done so.

In a certain sense, it seems to us, the so-called Francis revolution is deeply reactionary. The Holy Father and his supporters apparently want to roll the clock back to 1975 or so, when all things indeed seemed possible in the wake of the Council. The careful theology of St. John Paul and Benedict XVI, intended largely to continue the work of the Council in applying the magisterium to modern problems (to say nothing of correcting the erroneous perceptions of the Council), has been jettisoned for the most part. And rightly so for the men and women who saw the Council as an opportunity to make the Church in the world’s image. The bitterness of their disappointment on that October night in 1978 has only recently become manifest. They saw, it now seems, the period from late 1978 to early 2013 as a deviation from the course marked out by the Council.

But this is an anxiety that only men and women alive in 1975 or so can share. To those who grew up as spiritual children or grandchildren of St. John Paul and Benedict, these concerns are not only dated but also wrong. Those of us who remember John Paul and Benedict remember that, whatever else they did and whatever their flaws were, they treated us like adults who were prepared to take up our crosses and follow Christ as Christians in the modern age. That is not the message we see uniformly from Santa Marta these days, which is often as not deep pessimism about our ability to do what Christ tells us He will help us do. Schmitz concludes:

Francis says his critics desire rigidity. Once I disregarded the polemical edge of that word, I came to see that he is right. In a world that has been massively deregulated, both morally and economically, people are bound to desire the security of structure. Is seeking this structure a form of “rigidity” to be mocked and denigrated, or an honest human need worthy of consideration by any pastor? Francis wants the Church rebuilt to suit the freewheeling ways of the baby boomers. It’s no accident that their children don’t like the changes.

(Emphasis supplied.) The only younger Catholics excited by what they see are those young Catholics with a primarily political agenda. (This includes clerical careerists, would-be spinmeisters, and political operatives sent into the Church by secular politicians.) But it is unclear, from our limited experience, that serious young Catholics are all that committed to this revolution, not least because, as Schmitz rightly observes, they have long paid the price for the free-to-be-you-and-me world dreamed of by the men and women of 1975.

Read the whole thing at First Things. It’s very good.

The sensus fidei, “Amoris laetitia,” and the state of the Church

At Rorate Caelithere is a translation of a talk Roberto de Mattei gave back in October. It is all about infallibility, indefectibility, and the sensus fidei. It is stupendously good, and you need to read it. A brief selection to whet your appetite:

The ultimate rule of the faith is not the contemporary ‘living’ Magisterium, in what it contains as non-defining, but Tradition, or rather the objective and perennial Magisterium, which constitutes, along with Holy Scripture, one of the two sources of the Word of God. Ordinarily the Magisterium is the proximate rule of faith, inasmuch as it transmits and applies infallible truths contained in the deposit of Revelation, but in the case of a contrast between the novelties proposed by the subjective or “living” Magisterium and Tradition, the primacy can only be given to Tradition, for one simple motive: Tradition, which is the “living” Magisterium in its universality and continuity, is in itself infallible, whereas the so-called “living” Magisterium, meant as the current predication by the ecclesiastical hierarchy, is only so in determinate conditions. Tradition, in fact is always divinely assisted; the Magisterium is so only when it is expressed in an extraordinary way, or when, in ordinary form, it teaches with continuity over time, a truth of faith and morals. The fact that the ordinary Magisterium cannot constantly teach a truth contrary to the faith, does not exclude that this same Magisterium may fall per accidens into error, when the teaching is circumscribed in space and time and is not expressed in an extraordinary manner.

This does not mean in any way that the dogmatic truth must be the result of the sentiment of lay-people and that nothing can be defined without first hearing the opinion of the universal Church, as if the Magisterium was simply a revealer of the faith of the people, quasi-regulated by them in its magisterial function. It means, however, as Padre Garcia Extremeno asserts, that the Magisterium cannot propose anything infallibly to the Church, if it is not contained in Tradition, which is the supreme regula fidei of the Church.

Tradition is maintained and transmitted by the Church, not only through the Magisterium, but through all the faithful, “from the bishops down to the laity”[70], as the famous formula by St. Augustine, cited in Lumen Gentium no. 12 expresses. The doctor from Hippo makes an appeal in particular to “the people of the faith”[71], who do not exercise a Magisterium, but on the basis of their sensus fidei guarantee the continuity of the transmission of a truth. 

(Emphasis supplied.) The whole talk is absolutely essential reading, not least since questions of infallibility (or lack thereof), indefectibility, and the sensus fidei have come up with some regularity in recent years.

In addition to his own cogent and engaging argument, Professor De Mattei does us a great favor by pointing to a 2014 intervention of the International Theological Commission: Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church. It is a lengthy document, but it is very accessibly written and well worth your time. We have some comments of our own upon it, as a matter of fact. The document observes:

Three principal manifestations of the sensus fidei fidelis in the personal life of the believer can be highlighted. The sensus fidei fidelis enables individual believers: 1) to discern whether or not a particular teaching or practice that they actually encounter in the Church is coherent with the true faith by which they live in the communion of the Church (see below, §§61-63); 2) to distinguish in what is preached between the essential and the secondary (§64); and 3) to determine and put into practice the witness to Jesus Christ that they should give in the particular historical and cultural context in which they live (§65).

‘Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God ; for many false prophets have gone out into the world’ (1Jn 4:1). The sensus fidei fidelis confers on the believer the capacity to discern whether or not a teaching or practice is coherent with the true faith by which he or she already lives. If individual believers perceive or ‘sense’ that coherence, they spontaneously give their interior adherence to those teachings or engage personally in the practices, whether it is a matter of truths already explicitly taught or of truths not yet explicitly taught.

The sensus fidei fidelis also enables individual believers to perceive any disharmony, incoherence, or contradiction between a teaching or practice and the authentic Christian faith by which they live. They react as a music lover does to false notes in the performance of a piece of music. In such cases, believers interiorly resist the teachings or practices concerned and do not accept them or participate in them. ‘The habitus of faith possesses a capacity whereby, thanks to it, the believer is prevented from giving assent to what is contrary to the faith, just as chastity gives protection with regard to whatever is contrary to chastity.’

Alerted by their sensus fidei, individual believers may deny assent even to the teaching of legitimate pastors if they do not recognise in that teaching the voice of Christ, the Good Shepherd. ‘The sheep follow [the Good Shepherd] because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run away from him because they do not know the voice of strangers’ (Jn 10:4-5). For St Thomas, a believer, even without theological competence, can and even must resist, by virtue of the sensus fidei, his or her bishop if the latter preaches heterodoxy. In such a case, the believer does not treat himself or herself as the ultimate criterion of the truth of faith, but rather, faced with materially ‘authorised’ preaching which he or she finds troubling, without being able to explain exactly why, defers assent and appeals interiorly to the superior authority of the universal Church.

(Emphasis, both bold and red, supplied and footnotes omitted). De Mattei discusses this at some length, calling it ultimately “Catholic common sense.” That is, when confronted with an intervention of a “legitimate pastor,” which includes, we would think, anyone from one’s parish priest up to the most exalted prelates in the Church, a believer needn’t check his or her “common sense,” so to speak, at the door. If, to use the ITC’s music analogy, the notes are wrong, that may not be rigidity or stiff-necked resistance, but, instead, the sensus fidei alerting the believer to trouble. And, alarmed by the inconsistency between the teaching and one’s common sense, one “appeals interiorly to the superior authority of the universal Church.”

A little later on, discussing concrete applications of the sensus fidei, the ITC document observes:

There is a genuine equality of dignity among all the faithful, because through their baptism they are all reborn in Christ. Because of this equality they all contribute, each according to his or her own condition and office, to the building up of the Body of Christ.’ Therefore, all the faithful ‘have the right, indeed at times the duty, in keeping with their knowledge, competence and position, to manifest to the sacred Pastors their views on matters which concern the good of the Church’. ‘They have the right to make their views known to others of Christ’s faithful, but in doing so they must always respect the integrity of faith and morals, show due reference to the Pastors and take into account both the common good and the dignity of individuals.’ Accordingly, the faithful, and specifically the lay people, should be treated by the Church’s pastors with respect and consideration, and consulted in an appropriate way for the good of the Church.

The word ‘consult’ includes the idea of seeking a judgment or advice as well as inquiring into a matter of fact. On the one hand, in matters of governance and pastoral issues, the pastors of the Church can and should consult the faithful in certain cases in the sense of asking for their advice or their judgment. On the other hand, when the magisterium is defining a doctrine, it is appropriate to consult the faithful in the sense of inquiring into a matter of fact, ‘because the body of the faithful is one of the witnesses to the fact of the tradition of revealed doctrine, and because their consensus through Christendom is the voice of the Infallible Church’.

The practice of consulting the faithful is not new in the life of the Church. In the medieval Church a principle of Roman law was used: Quod omnes tangit, ab omnibus tractari et approbari debet (what affects everyone, should be discussed and approved by all). In the three domains of the life of the Church (faith, sacraments, governance), ‘tradition combined a hierarchical structure with a concrete regime of association and agreement’, and this was considered to be an ‘apostolic practice’ or an ‘apostolic tradition’.

Problems arise when the majority of the faithful remain indifferent to doctrinal or moral decisions taken by the magisterium or when they positively reject them. This lack of reception may indicate a weakness or a lack of faith on the part of the people of God, caused by an insufficiently critical embrace of contemporary culture. But in some cases it may indicate that certain decisions have been taken by those in authority without due consideration of the experience and the sensus fidei of the faithful, or without sufficient consultation of the faithful by the magisterium.

(Emphasis, bold and red, supplied and footnotes omitted) Now, this is interesting. On one hand, one sees that the canonical provision that the faithful have the right to express themselves to their pastors and one another is not a condescension of the hierarchy, which could be revoked and replaced by “pay, pray, and obey” at any minute. No, the right of the faithful to express themselves is founded in the equality of dignity, itself founded in baptism, of all the faithful. Certainly one would not, keeping in mind the Apostle on the various ministries within the Church and the papal documents Quod apostolici muneris and Fin dalla prima nostra, though those documents are from another context, argue that this equality of dignity makes everyone equal in a natural sense. There is still a hierarchy—multiple hierarchies, really. And this must be kept in mind when the faithful manifest their opinions to their pastors and to each other.

Putting that to one side, this is important: the sensus fidei “enables individual believers to perceive any disharmony, incoherence, or contradiction between a teaching or practice and the authentic Christian faith by which they live.” Based upon this perception, which may be more or less inchoate (the individual may not be able to explain precisely why he or she perceives a disharmony, incoherence, or contradiction), the believer has the right, founded in his or her dignity as an adopted son or daughter of God, to express to the magisterium (i.e., the hierarchy) his or her concerns about the teaching. Obviously, this must be done in keeping with the believer’s state in life, but St. Thomas teaches all Catholics how to correct their prelates, if necessary, while remembering not only their station in life but also the demands of charity. This is interesting enough, insofar as it draws a connection between one’s Catholic common sense and the correction, if necessary, of one’s prelate.

But it is what the document goes on to say that is more interesting. On one hand, a teaching that is not received by the faithful, either through indifference or outright rejection, may reflect a failure of faith on the part of the faithful. The most obvious example of this is the teaching against contraception in Humanae vitae. (Though we are sympathetic to the argument that the prohibition was actually proclaimed, perhaps infallibly, by Pius XI in Casti connubii, and merely restated by Paul in response to the clamor of the proponents of contraception in the 1960s.) However, this is not the only possibility. It is possible that the resistance of the faithful represents a failure on the part of the hierarchy to consider the Catholic common sense of the faithful or to consult with the faithful sufficiently. That is, if, exercising their common sense, the faithful don’t accept a teaching, then there is a possibility that the faithful know better than the hierarchy, and this ought to be considered by the hierarchy. In this regard, the sensus fidei can serve as a firewall within the Church.

What does this mean? Does it mean, as some might have it, that the question is to be decided in majoritarian terms? Does it mean that, if a majority of the faithful are okay with a teaching, then the matter is settled, the teaching is consistent with the sensus fidei? By no means. The ITC notes:

It is clear that there can be no simple identification between the sensus fidei and public or majority opinion. These are by no means the same thing.

i) First of all, the sensus fidei is obviously related to faith, and faith is a gift not necessarily possessed by all people, so the sensus fidei can certainly not be likened to public opinion in society at large. Then also, while Christian faith is, of course, the primary factor uniting members of the Church, many different influences combine to shape the views of Christians living in the modern world. As the above discussion of dispositions implicitly shows, the sensus fidei cannot simply be identified, therefore, with public or majority opinion in the Church, either. Faith, not opinion, is the necessary focus of attention. Opinion is often just an expression, frequently changeable and transient, of the mood or desires of a certain group or culture, whereas faith is the echo of the one Gospel which is valid for all places and times.

ii) In the history of the people of God, it has often been not the majority but rather a minority which has truly lived and witnessed to the faith. The Old Testament knew the ‘holy remnant’ of believers, sometimes very few in number, over against the kings and priests and most of the Israelites. Christianity itself started as a small minority, blamed and persecuted by public authorities. In the history of the Church, evangelical movements such as the Franciscans and Dominicans, or later the Jesuits, started as small groups treated with suspicion by various bishops and theologians. In many countries today, Christians are under strong pressure from other religions or secular ideologies to neglect the truth of faith and weaken the boundaries of ecclesial community. It is therefore particularly important to discern and listen to the voices of the ‘little ones who believe’ (Mk 9:42).

It is undoubtedly necessary to distinguish between the sensus fidei and public or majority opinion, hence the need to identify dispositions necessary for participation in the sensus fidei, such as those elaborated above. Nevertheless, it is the whole people of God which, in its inner unity, confesses and lives the true faith. The magisterium and theology must work constantly to renew the presentation of the faith in different situations, confronting if necessary dominant notions of Christian truth with the actual truth of the Gospel, but it must be recalled that the experience of the Church shows that sometimes the truth of the faith has been conserved not by the efforts of theologians or the teaching of the majority of bishops but in the hearts of believers.

(Emphasis, bold and red, supplied.) This is, we think, a strong rebuke to some voices in the Church today, who claim that this or that disputed question has been resolved because this or that group—be it the College of Cardinals or the Synod of Bishops or this or that group of theologians—has made a decision or endorsed a decision. (We will have more on this in a moment.) The sensus fidei, which serves as an important voice in the Church (indeed, one may argue that it may be the response of the faithful to the voice of the Holy Spirit), is not a numerical question. And when the sensus fidei is opposed to this or that decision, taken by this or that pastor or group, even if the group of faithful is not numerically large, it is necessary, the ITC observes, to consider what that means. It could be, as with the case of Humanae vitae, that the faithful have simply embraced worldly concerns. But it could be that the hierarchy has simply gotten out of tune with the pure, apostolic faith and the Catholic common sense of a group of faithful detects the sour notes. This is a question of discernment, obviously, but discernment is not buffaloing the faithful with indignant pronouncements of division and numerical superiority. It is a process of consultation.

Now, one might object and say that this is simply traditionalist rhetoric: “the Tradition of the Church is thus and such and I know thus and such as well as the pope by virtue of my sensus fidei.” In a very real sense, the whole point of the sensus fidei fidelis is that a believer, by virtue of his or her Catholic common sense, who makes efforts to form his or her sensus fidei correctly, may well know thus and such as well as a pope, especially when something sounds off. But the ITC undermines that argument in another way, noting that the Second Vatican Council, which it refers to in dreary “new Pentecost” language, reinvigorated the concept of the sensus fidei, which is indeed an ancient idea. Moreover, the ITC argues that it was none other than Yves Congar who led the Council to inject new life into the doctrine:

 Yves M.-J. Congar (1904-1995) contributed significantly to the development of the doctrine of the sensus fidei fidelis and the sensus fidei fidelium. In Jalons pour une Théologie du Laïcat (orig. 1953), he explored this doctrine in terms of the participation of the laity in the Church’s prophetical function. Congar was acquainted with Newman’s work and adopted the same scheme (i.e. the threefold office of the Church, and the sensus fidelium as an expression of the prophetic office) without, however, tracing it directly to Newman. He described the sensus fidelium as a gift of the Holy Spirit ‘given to the hierarchy and the whole body of the faithful together’, and he distinguished the objective reality of faith (which constitutes the tradition) from the subjective aspect, the grace of faith. Where earlier authors had underlined the distinction between the Ecclesia docens and the Ecclesia discens, Congar was concerned to show their organic unity. ‘The Church loving and believing, that is, the body of the faithful, is infallible in the living possession of the faith, not in a particular act or judgment’, he wrote. The teaching of the hierarchy is at the service of communion. 

In many ways, the Second Vatican Council’s teaching reflects Congar’s contributionChapter one of Lumen Gentium, on ‘The Mystery of the Church’, teaches that the Holy Spirit ‘dwells in the Church and in the hearts of the faithful, as in a temple’. ‘Guiding the Church in the way of all truth (cf. Jn 16:13) and unifying her in communion and in the works of ministry, he bestows upon her varied hierarchic and charismatic gifts, and in this way directs her; and he adorns her with his fruits (cf. Eph 4:11-12; 1Cor 12:4; Gal 5:22)’. Chapter two then continues to deal with the Church as a whole, as the ‘People of God’, prior to distinctions between lay and ordained. The article (LG 12) which mentions the sensus fideiteaches that, having ‘an anointing that comes from the holy one (cf. 1Jn 2:20, 27)’, the ‘whole body of the faithful … cannot err in matters of belief’. The ‘Spirit of truth’ arouses and sustains a ‘supernatural appreciation of the faith [supernaturali sensu fidei]’, shown when ‘the whole people, … “from the bishops to the last of the faithful” … manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals’. By means of the sensus fidei, ‘the People of God, guided by the sacred teaching authority (magisterium), and obeying it, receives not the mere word of men, but truly the word of God (cf. 1Thess 2:13)’. According to this description, the sensus fidei is an active capacity or sensibility by which they are able to receive and understand the ‘faith once for all delivered to the saints (cf. Jude 3)’. Indeed, by means of it, the people not only ‘unfailingly adheres to this faith’, but also ‘penetrates it more deeply with right judgment, and applies it more fully in daily life’. It is the means by which the people shares in ‘Christ’s prophetic office’.

(Emphasis supplied.) Now, one needn’t get too far into Congar’s argument or the argument in Lumen gentium, to say nothing of the ITC’s argument, to see that we are not adverting to ancient doctrines to serve as a bulwark against Modernist innovations. Such bulwarks should not be needed, though whether that is the case is up to you, dear reader. Our point is merely this: one finds oneself deep in the heart of the thought of the Second Vatican Council and the theologians of the 20th century who shaped that Council’s thought when one talks about the sensus fidei.

Obviously, we’re talking about Amoris laetitia. So is Professor De Mattei. The Santa Marta party has decided to defend that document’s troubling conclusions about communion for bigamists in a couple of ways, most notably these: (1) the Pope has acted with a definite act of the magisterium, which must be obeyed; (2) most of the world’s cardinals and bishops are with the Pope, except for a few malcontents; and (3) a Synod reached these conclusions. (The third is actually false, but we’ll take it as true.) And for all these reasons, the sensus fidei is relevant.The faithful do not have to check their Catholic common sense at the door when receiving teachings from pastors. Now, they owe, as a threshold question, submission to teachings from their pastors, and we would argue that that means that they ought to make every reasonable effort to reconcile a troubling teaching with the tradition of the Church and the previous magisterium. However, that the faithful may retain the use of their Catholic common sense when receiving teachings has consequences for each of the arguments advanced by the Santa Marta party. In short, if the teaching of a pope, joined by any number of cardinals and bishops, based upon a synod’s relatio, doesn’t jive with one’s Catholic common sense, this is a problem.

Of course, this does not mean that snap judgments and prejudices are the order of the day; instead, the faithful have an obligation to form their Catholic common sense carefully and with reference to the authentic life of the Church, including participation in the sacraments, the reading of scripture, and right reason. But, if one has formed one’s common sense carefully and with reference to the authentic life of the Church and one still hears a false note in a teaching, that cannot be ignored or set aside lightly. In extreme cases, the faithful may defer assent and appeal to the authority of the universal Church, making, we suspect, every effort to resolve their difficulties about the teaching. And if there is a group of faithful who share these doubts, they may not be dismissed purely on numerical grounds; the sensus fidei is not a question of numbers (even numbers of prelates), but instead a question of faith. And, given the dignity of the faithful as sons and daughters by adoption of God, a dignity that they share with the most exalted prelates, they have the right to make their doubts and concerns about a teaching known to their pastors and to each other.

Now, we hasten to note, briefly, that the response to Humanae vitae must be kept in mind. Sometimes the faithful will delay assent to a teaching because the faithful are too close to the lures of the world. This is obvious. Yet, there is a difference, manifestly, between ignoring or rejecting out of hand a teaching, and expressing concerns or doubts about a teaching, founded carefully in a well-formed sensus fidei fidelis. To treat one like the other does violence not only to the concept of the sensus fidei but also to the dignity of those Catholics who, in good faith and in communion with Peter, want to talk about a teaching in the light of the tradition of the Church. It may be inconvenient for some of the leaders of the Santa Marta party to explain themselves or take seriously the objections of prelates and faithful alike, but the faith is occasionally inconvenient.

To put it another way, this is hardly the teaching of rigid traditionalists who imagine themselves as Paul addressing Peter in Antioch. It is certainly, as the ITC document demonstrates clearly, an ancient teaching with Patristic origins. But, more relevantly for our purposes, it is the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, of Yves Congar, of the International Theological Commission under the Holy Father. Therefore, it may be said that the arguments of the Santa Marta party, seeking to silence Cardinals Burke, Brandmüller, Caffarra, and Meisner, to say nothing of the faithful who have expressed grave concerns about Amoris laetitia, or certain interpretations of Amoris laetitia, cut against the teachings of the Council. So far from representing the sort of dialogue and discernment that is required whenever groups of the faithful, appealing to the universal Church, defer assent to magisterial acts, their response represents an ossified clericalism that, we are told, was rejected at the Council.

Buttiglione responds to the cardinals

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?

Buttiglione responds:

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.

(Emphasis supplied.)

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.