Benedict’s letter finally revealed

At long last, the question of Benedict XVI’s letter to Msgr. Dario Viganò, prefect of the Secretariat for Communications, on the occasion of the presentation of a series of short books about Pope Francis’s theology, has been answered. Benedict declined to write a brief note introducing the series and criticized sharply the inclusion of German theologian Peter Hünermann, a strident liberal critic of John Paul II and Benedict himself. This follows a misleading presentation of Benedict’s letter by Monsignor Viganò at the presentation of the books, and a series of leaks purporting to show a very different letter. Obviously, Viganò wanted to quote part of the letter, in which the Pope Emeritus identifies an interior continuity between himself and Francis, no doubt in an attempt to silence conservative critics of the Pope. However, by omitting the passage critical of Hünermann’s inclusion in a city known for its leaks, Viganò made this conclusion inevitable.

The affair has been a slow-rolling debacle. First, the text released by the Secretariat for Communications after Monsignor Viganò quoted a bit of it, discussing the inner continuity between Benedict and Francis. This was, without a doubt, music to the ears of Francis’s partisans like social-media guru Massimo Faggioli and Francis’s biographer Austen Ivereigh. At last, they crowed, Benedict himself put paid to the idea that Francis’s pontificate represents a serious departure from his own. Then it turned out that the Secretariat for Communications had altered the letter in various ways and had to admit doing so, earning a pungent rebuke from the Associated Press. A second text emerged, with Benedict apparently (frankly) admitting that he had not read and likely would not read the books. Now, a third text has emerged presenting a very different letter: Benedict sharply criticized the inclusion of Prof. Peter Hünermann, a German theologian who, in Benedict’s assessment, “virulently attacked” papal teaching on moral theology during his pontificate. Benedict cites Hünermann’s opposition to Veritatis splendor in particular. This text appears to be the correct text and has been released by the Vatican.

One could discourse at length about the incompetence displayed in this affair, which only confirms the sense that Francis’s Secretariat for Communications, which has swallowed up the Holy See Press Office, is the worst public-relations office on earth. They completely bungled the Barros affair to the point where Francis’s personal credibility on one of the gravest matters in the Church was compromised seriously. (Remember all those bishops in the United States who had to resign in disgrace when their personal credibility on this issue was compromised?) And now we have had a disaster in slow motion involving nothing less than a letter from Benedict XVI. Now, it is obvious why the letter was selectively quoted in the first place—Viganò wanted to get that bit about interior continuity into the media. No doubt he wanted liberal journalists like Faggioli, Ivereigh, and the rest of that set to run with it. He wanted to quote Benedict to own the trads, as one might say on Twitter.

However, nothing about this pontificate has stayed secret. Almost every significant move has been leaked, analyzed, and responded to well in advance of the official publication date. The leaks range from the text of Laudato si’ to a press office summary of Amoris laetitia to the dismissal of Cardinals Burke and Müller to the coup against the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. It would require a supererogatory act of charity to think that, in such an environment, a letter marked confidential from the Pope Emeritus would be treated as such—especially after one of Francis’s officials selectively quoted from the letter.

The whole affair is deeply embarrassing at every level. First, Benedict is not wrong when he criticizes the inclusion of Peter Hünermann in a series of books with official approval. Hünermann may well be influential with Francis, but this does not change the fact that he was deeply critical of John Paul II and Benedict and has tried to resist the directions of those pontificates. Second, Viganò got out over his skis when he tried to drag Benedict into the ongoing controversy over Francis’s pontificate. Viganò, despite his role as communications chief at the Vatican, is not really a participant in the polemics in the same that, for example, Donald Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Sanders, is. (Poor Greg Burke!) Finally, everyone had to know, under these circumstances, that the actual letter would leak sooner or later. Once again, one is left scratching one’s head. How could this have happened?

But one thing is certain: this not how Francis’s closest collaborators wanted to end his anniversary week.

Five Years

On March 13, 2013, Francis walked out and greeted the people in St. Peter’s Square. Five years later, in many ways, it feels like that was the high point of his pontificate. Of course, that is far from true. One could identify other highlights of Francis’s reign, such as the release of Laudato si’ or the diplomatic work he did between the United States and Cuba. One could point to the Jubilee of Mercy or the improved relations with the Society of St. Pius X, too. Any pontificate is going to have its share of high points and its share of low points. And Francis’s reign has had its share of low points, to be sure. The ongoing doctrinal debate over Amoris laetitia, the high-visibility conflicts Francis has had with high prelates in the Church, and the serious struggles Francis has had enforcing accountability on the Church are not good by any stretch of the imagination.

One can also talk about the promise of reform of the Roman Curia, which was a major reason behind Francis’s election five years ago. There was a sense—largely correct—that a pope was needed who could take the Curial bull by the horns and introduce some much needed reforms. Five years in, we have implemented and suppressed financial reforms, we have created commissions and dicasteries, we have consolidated other dicasteries, and we have reconstituted various commissions along lines more congenial to Francis. However, there is broadly a sense that this has not amounted to much. There are worrying rumors that the sticky-fingered old regime has managed to return to power. By the same token, there are also statements that those rumors are simply chatter from the Pope’s enemies. Whether that’s true or not, it cannot be denied that there has not been a replacement for Pastor bonus and that the reforms have proceeded in an unusual manner. One has only to discuss the botched PricewaterhouseCoopers audit that was suppressed by command of the Secretariat of State to open up the whole question.

It is exactly the combination of highs and lows we just mentioned that makes it difficult to talk about Francis’s pontificate in any coherent manner. This is most acutely true in the doctrinal arena. We have been thrilled to see Francis bring anti-liberalism—albeit qualified anti-liberalism—back into the Church’s vocabulary. For too long, the narrative practically wrote itself. Once upon a time, the Church was staunchly anti-liberal, then, at the Second Vatican Council, the Church changed its mind and decided that liberalism wasn’t so bad after all. John Paul II—particularly his best known social encyclical, Centesimus annus, along with his commitment to ecumenism and interfaith dialogue—was, in this telling, simply putting the finishing touches on the new liberal face of Catholicism. Sure, there were those who rejected the direction of the Church, such as Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre’s Society of St. Pius X, but they were bad and wrong and probably schismatic.

For a long time, one corrected this narrative as best as one could. For example, John Paul’s notion of liberalism was not shared by some of his loudest American supporters. Even in Centesimus annus—and before that in Sollicitudo rei socialis and Laborem exercens—John Paul expressed reservations about the unbridled market ideology that crept into liberalism somewhere along the line. Moreover, one could argue for what is now called the hermeneutic of continuity. But forensically this was a dead-end street. Francis’s great social encyclical, Laudato si’, came long and changed the game. (Perhaps to avoid mixing our metaphors we should say that it knocked a hole in the wall at the end of the street.) With precision, clarity, and insight, Francis diagnosed the spiritual and anthropological sickness at the heart of modern liberalism and condemned the effects of the disease. Laudato si’ does not quite blot the post-Conciliar narrative, of course, but it at least returns a deeply anti-liberal strain to the Church’s teaching.

Unfortunately, Laudato si’ has not been received by the liberal elements in the Church—left-liberals and right-liberals alike—who most need Francis’s incisive critique of modern liberalism. It proved all too easy for everyone to focus on the ecological stuff, both in admiration and derision, and ignore the real genius of the encyclical. We could cite all manner of snide comments about air conditioning and carbon credits from right-liberals who are, in their own way, bound to the vision of the Church articulated by John Courtney Murray and allegedly implemented by the Second Vatican Council. On the other hand, we could find adulatory reviews of Laudato si’ that make it sound like an annex to the Paris Climate Accord. Both groups miss the point, and their missing the point has made it difficult to have the discussion that Laudato si’ demands. Furthermore, Francis’s priorities quickly shifted from expanding upon Laudato si’ and deepening his analysis there to the Family Synod and Amoris laetitia.

The debate over Amoris laetitia rages still, and in many ways has become the central issue in Francis’s pontificate, for good or for ill. The debate has been covered here and elsewhere at staggering length. The consequences of the debate, however, are clear. There is a sense not only that the doctrine on communion for bigamists has been changed or unsettled in a meaningful way but also that Francis is somehow in favor of doctrinal changes, not only on the questions addressed in the eighth chapter of Amoris laetitia but also on other questions. Here we have in mind the debate currently simmering over Paul VI’s Humanae vitae. More broadly, there is a resurgence of the post-conciliar sense that the doctrine of the Church is somehow up for grabs in a meaningful way.

Indeed, one could say that the most important development of the first five years of Francis’s pontificate is the resurgence of a post-conciliar sensibility in general. That is, the idea that the Second Vatican Council is the most important event in the Church since Pentecost—and, in some ways, the most important event—had diminished significantly under Benedict. That trend has reversed under Francis. Now, here, as everywhere else, one ought to distinguish between Francis and his partisans, especially his partisans in the media. However, it is clear that Francis at least believes that he must emphasize the importance of the Council and the reforms allegedly ordered by the Council. (Recall Magnum principium?) The Spirit of Vatican Two, so doughtily fought by John Paul and Benedict, is, as a consequence, back. We see this, for example, with various liberal prelates, particularly some of Francis’s high-profile appointments in the United States, whose names we need not mention now.

Francis’s appointments, by the way, are part and parcel of the controversy over Amoris laetitia; an important aspect of Amoris laetitia has been a sort of decentralization of teaching authority. The recent approval by Francis of the guidelines of the Buenos Aires bishops shows that this decentralization is in one sense entirely intended by Francis. For whatever reason, Francis did not want to spell out the consequences of some statements in the eighth chapter of Amoris laetitia. Some of his old colleagues in Argentina did, however, and Francis was willing to approve their guidelines as an authentic, magisterial interpretation of his own words. What this means in specific terms is yet unclear. However, in general, the meaning cannot be mistaken: Francis is happy to devolve doctrinal authority to bishops, and he has been happy to appoint bishops to high-profile sees who are very much on board with his agenda. Gone are the days when John Paul and Benedict appointed even theological or ideological opponents to high-profile sees. By the same token, however, the faithful are happy to devolve doctrinal authority to bishops in line with their agenda. Rightly or wrongly, Francis’s authority has been compromised in the minds of many Catholics disturbed by Amoris laetitia. They have turned to other figures, particularly other high prelates in the Church, for guidance and clarification. We could name some and so could you.

There are several ways to look at this development. On one hand, nowhere does one find in Pastor aeternus, Lumen gentium, or Christus Dominus a statement that the pope is the only teacher in the Church. The bishops of the Church—in communion with the pope—have a teaching office to exercise. There is nothing wrong with Francis encouraging bishops to teach and there is nothing wrong with the faithful looking to bishops to be taught. However, the pope, as we know from Pastor aeternus and other teachings, is supposed to ensure the unity of the Church’s teaching and its consistency with tradition; that is, it is probably not the pope’s job to spark a debate but to restrain a debate. Likewise, it is a very serious situation if various bishops throughout the world are seen as more reliably orthodox than the pope. This is not to say such a serious situation could not happen; we know it has happened. Yet it is difficult to respond to the position that holds that Amoris laetitia is at odds with the tradition. Francis manifestly wants a decentralized approach to doctrine, and that necessarily means disagreement, some of it likely sharp.

It is, as we say, difficult to approach Francis’s pontificate consistently and coherently. To tell the story of Laudato si’, especially from the viewpoint of the Church’s traditional teachings against liberalism, is to tell the story of a wildly successful pontificate. A pontificate, indeed, that has reinvigorated the Church’s traditional hostility toward liberalism in many ways. But to tell the story of Amoris laetitia is to tell the story of a pontificate bogged down by confusion and controversy. Lately the controversies have been mounting, too. Francis’s handling of the case of Bishop Juan Barros of Chile has ballooned into a broader controversy about Francis’s commitment to reforming what Benedict XVI memorably called the “filth” in the Church. Francis’s personal credibility took a major hit in the Barros affair when it turned out that, despite his annoyed protestations that he’d never seen any evidence against Barros, none other than Cardinal O’Malley of Boston, one of Francis’s closest advisers who holds a brief for cleaning up the abuse situation, had delivered to Francis a lengthy, extremely detailed letter from one of Barros’s accusers.

While one can debate Francis’s record on abuse—even Robert Mickens criticized Francis severely—one cannot question the fact that the Barros controversy revealed the weakness of Francis’s team. There have been other signs that Francis is not always well served by his subordinates, but the inability of the public relations operation to get in front of the furor, especially after the O’Malley angle became public, was astonishing. The Vatican’s public relations operation is more and more revealed to be a disaster, as the recent debacle over the doctored letter from Benedict XVI shows. However, Francis has made it clear that he is not the prisoner of the Vatican, instead claiming personal responsibility for acts by his collaborators in the Curia. As Damian Thompson has noted, after five years, Francis finds himself where Benedict found himself: struggling to maintain control over the bureaucracy and the message of his pontificate.

It remains to be seen, however, what long term effects these events will have. One cannot write the story of Francis’s pontificate quite yet. However, five years in, it would be curious indeed to see the highs and lows resolve themselves into the same paralysis that afflicted Benedict’s pontificate in its last years. Perhaps “curious” isn’t the right word, as such an outcome would answer many questions and give the next pope the clearest agenda in a long time.

“Burying Benedict,” tradition, and unity

Matthew Schmitz’s essay, “Burying Benedict,” has kicked up quite a firestorm in the Catholic internet. The usual suspects—ranging from Fr. James Martin, S.J., to Professor Massimo Faggioli—have chimed in to suggest that, when one pope contradicts another pope, the only important thing is that there is one pope at the moment. You can find their comments on Twitter, along with other comments in a similar vein. To take these complaints at face value, one would conclude that the reigning pope, the magisterium, and tradition are all the same thing. It seems that these defenders of the Holy Father have forgotten what the Second Vatican Council taught in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum:

And so the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved by an unending succession of preachers until the end of time. Therefore the Apostles, handing on what they themselves had received, warn the faithful to hold fast to the traditions which they have learned either by word of mouth or by letter (see 2 Thess. 2:15), and to fight in defense of the faith handed on once and for all (see Jude 1:3). Now what was handed on by the Apostles includes everything which contributes toward the holiness of life and increase in faith of the peoples of God; and so the Church, in her teaching, life and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes.

This tradition which comes from the Apostles develop in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through Episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her.

(Emphasis supplied and footnotes omitted.) While not as clear as Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani’s great, maligned schema De fontibus revelationis, Dei Verbum nevertheless makes the point that the tradition of the Church goes back to Christ Himself and, alongside scripture, constitutes one wellspring of divine revelation. Again Dei Verbum:

Hence there exists a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end. For Sacred Scripture is the word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, while sacred tradition takes the word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors in its full purity, so that led by the light of the Spirit of truth, they may in proclaiming it preserve this word of God faithfully, explain it, and make it more widely known. Consequently it is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence.

(Emphasis supplied and footnote omitted.) Nowhere in the Council’s understanding of tradition can one find the idea, articulated if dimly by Schmitz’s critics, that the reigning pope and tradition are one and the same thing. It would be just as ludicrous to say, since Dei Verbum teaches that scripture and tradition are part of one wellspring of revelation, that when a hypothetical pope contradicts scripture, the important thing is that there is one pope. It would be bizarre to imply that the pope and scripture are somehow the same thing. Public revelation ceased at the death of the last apostle; there is but one deposit of faith, handed on one generation to the next.

So much for the idea that the pope is some how himself the tradition. In fact, we know that the pope is the servant and guardian of the tradition, and has been promised the special assistance of the Holy Spirit for that ministry. Recall what the First Vatican Council taught in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ, Pastor aeternus:

That apostolic primacy which the Roman Pontiff possesses as successor of Peter, the prince of the apostles, includes also the supreme power of teaching. This Holy See has always maintained this, the constant custom of the Church demonstrates it, and the ecumenical councils, particularly those in which East and West met in the union of faith and charity, have declared it.

[…]

To satisfy this pastoral office, our predecessors strove unwearyingly that the saving teaching of Christ should be spread among all the peoples of the world; and with equal care they made sure that it should be kept pure and uncontaminated wherever it was received.

[…]

For the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles. Indeed, their apostolic teaching was embraced by all the venerable fathers and reverenced and followed by all the holy orthodox doctors, for they knew very well that this See of St. Peter always remains unblemished by any error, in accordance with the divine promise of our Lord and Savior to the prince of his disciples: “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.”

(Emphasis supplied.) This office, in service of the tradition given by Christ or through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to the apostles, which has been handed down from those times to this time, is ultimately an office of unity:

This gift of truth and never-failing faith was therefore divinely conferred on Peter and his successors in this See so that they might discharge their exalted office for the salvation of all, and so that the whole flock of Christ might be kept away by them from the poisonous food of error and be nourished with the sustenance of heavenly doctrine. Thus the tendency to schism is removed and the whole Church is preserved in unity, and, resting on its foundation, can stand firm against the gates of hell.

(Emphasis supplied.) In other words, it is not the role of the pope to set one faction of the Church against another or to choose winners and losers, but, instead, to avoid precisely that factionalism in favor of unity. By serving the tradition and Indeed, the primacy of Peter itself is an office of unity:

This power of the Supreme Pontiff by no means detracts from that ordinary and immediate power of episcopal jurisdiction, by which bishops, who have succeeded to the place of the apostles by appointment of the Holy Spirit, tend and govern individually the particular flocks which have been assigned to them. On the contrary, this power of theirs is asserted, supported and defended by the Supreme and Universal Pastor; for St. Gregory the Great says: “My honor is the honor of the whole Church. My honor is the steadfast strength of my brethren. Then do I receive true honor, when it is denied to none of those to whom honor is due.”

(Footnote omitted.) All of this is to say that the pope is not magic. He does not get to rewrite the tradition of the Church at will to meet his whims or the whims of progressive theologians. That is not what popes do. Instead, he guards the tradition of the Church to avoid schism and preserve unity.

This is, of course, the risk of a partisan spirit in the Church and the concomitant ultramontanism. And it is a real risk. “Our man” is in the Apostolic Palace (or the modern guesthouse nearby), and it’s time to get our own back. Right and left have fallen prey to this beguiling temptation. When Benedict was pope, conservatives felt as though he would singlehandedly grant them their list of wishes going back to 1965. Now that Francis is pope, modernists and progressives feel as though Francis is going to singlehandedly grant them their list of wishes going back to 1978. Benedict undoubtedly did things his supporters were pleased by, such as the new translation of the Roman Missal, the Ordinariates, and Summorum Pontificum. Francis undoubtedly does things his supporters are pleased by, such as Amoris laetitia. But the partisan spirit that motivates such assessments leads very quickly to the irrational ultramontanism we see in the reactions to Schmitz’s piece. No one really thinks the pope can do whatever he wants. No one really thinks he’s magic. But in the moment, when things are going your way? When you’re sticking it to your ecclesiastical and ecclesial opponents? Well, maybe you didn’t mean to say it quite like that.

But you did say it.

The bottom line is that it should be uncontroversial to say that the pope must serve tradition, that he must hand on what he received. We do not make all things new with each Habemus Papam.

Everything that dies someday comes back

At First Things, Matthew Schmitz has an excellent piece, “Burying Benedict,” that begins:

Though Benedict is still living, Francis is trying to bury him. Upon his election in 2013, Francis began to pursue an agenda that Joseph Ratzinger had opposed throughout his career. A stress on the pastoral over against the doctrinal, a promotion of diverse disciplinary and doctrinal approaches in local churches, the opening of communion to the divorced and remarried—all these proposals were weighed and rejected by Ratzinger more than ten years ago in a heated debate with Walter Kasper. For better or worse, Francis now seeks to reverse Ratzinger.

Schmitz then goes on to outline the course of the debate between Ratzinger and Cardinal Kasper over communion for bigamists. It is an interesting recitation of the facts, especially since Schmitz observes that some of the polemical language in Kasper’s 2001 reply to Ratzinger—a reply following several years of back-and-forth, official and otherwise—was introduced by a translator and is not present in the original German text.

But, such interesting minutiae aside, Schmitz presents an overwhelming case that, by siding with Kasper and his supporters, the Holy Father puts himself squarely in tension with Benedict. Indeed, Francis’s language is straight out of Kasper’s various pronouncements on the question of communion for bigamists. The argument for continuity between Amoris laetitia and the various documents of the Holy Father’s predecessors is, we think, rubbished entirely by Schmitz’s brief summary of the case. Francis manifestly sides with Kasper, and Kasper was clearly arguing against the magisterial position of John Paul and Ratzinger. The only way to argue for continuity is to point to the language at the beginning of paragraph 300 and argue that Amoris laetitia doesn’t actually do anything except urge pastors “to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases, one which would recognize that, since ‘the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases’, … the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same.” But such an argument is ridiculous in the face of the various instructions of the bishops’ conferences that have received varying degrees of approval from the Holy See.

This argument, which has been hashed out repeatedly over the last couple of years, takes on renewed force in light of Benedict’s brief note praising Robert Cardinal Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, which is (or was) intended as an afterword to an edition of Cardinal Sarah’s book on silence. There, Benedict wrote:

Cardinal Sarah is a spiritual teacher, who speaks out of the depths of silence with the Lord, out of his interior union with him, and thus really has something to say to each one of us.

We should be grateful to Pope Francis for appointing such a spiritual teacher as head of the congregation that is responsible for the celebration of the liturgy in the Church. With the liturgy, too, as with the interpretation of Sacred Scripture, it is true that specialized knowledge is necessary. But it is also true of the liturgy that specialization ultimately can talk right past the essential thing unless it is grounded in a deep, interior union with the praying Church, which over and over again learns anew from the Lord himself what adoration is. With Cardinal Sarah, a master of silence and of interior prayer, the liturgy is in good hands.

(Emphasis supplied.) The note is, of course, exactly the sort of thing Ratzinger has written many times over the years, and it is precisely the sort of polite, appreciative note that theologians write for each other all the time. That Benedict is the pope emeritus is, of course, a feather in Cardinal Sarah’s cap, but it hardly seemed significant to us. However, Cardinal Sarah’s many critics have gone ballistic since the publication of the letter. Cardinal Sarah’s conservative theology and evident piety drive them wild even without an endorsement from Benedict. Yet their fury was especially keen, since this was seen as an effort by Benedict to interfere in active Church politics. The progressives want to erase Benedict’s liturgical reforms and go back to the 1970s. Cardinal Sarah does not. The letter, therefore, was seen by the progressives, whose enthusiasm for progressive causes is almost solipsistic, as Benedict’s intervention in the debate.

But was it? Certainly the Holy Father’s effort to hand Walter Kasper the victory in the communion-for-bigamists debate fifteen years after the last significant exchange is no less an effort to erase Benedict’s legacy in the Church. This point is not lost on Schmitz, who concludes:

In the face of this challenge, Benedict has kept an almost perfect silence. There is hardly any need to add to the words in which he resoundingly rejected the program of Kasper and Francis. And yet the awkwardness remains. No pope in living memory has so directly opposed his predecessor—who, in this instance, happens to live just up the hill. This is why supporters of Francis’s agenda become nervous whenever Benedict speaks, as he recently did in praise of Cardinal Sarah. Were the two men in genuine accord, partisans of Francis would not fear the learned, gentle German who walks the Vatican Gardens.

And so the two popes, active and emeritus, speaking and silent, remain at odds. In the end, it does not matter who comes last or speaks most; what matters is who thinks with the mind of a Church that has seen countless heresies come and go. When Benedict’s enraptured words are compared to the platitudes of his successor, it is hard not to notice a difference: One pope echoes the apostles, and the other parrots Walter Kasper. Because this difference in speech reflects a difference in belief, a prediction can be made. Regardless of who dies first, Benedict will outlive Francis.

(Emphasis supplied.) As is so often the case, we are reminded of Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City,” which provides us the title for this post.

But we are left wondering what if?

What if, one clear morning in Rome, Benedict woke up and decided that enough was enough and issued a clear statement, written in the limpid prose he is capable of, against Kasperism. Now, it is clear that such a statement would be from Benedict as private doctor, not as pastor of the universal Church. It would have no juridical effect. Certainly the greatest living theologian of the age is entitled to comment upon the greatest theological controversy of the day. Indeed, given Benedict’s talents as a theologian, to say nothing of his prestige, one might say he has a positive duty to make known both to the pastor of the universal Church and the laity his opinion (cf. can. 212 § 3). However, if his polite praise of Cardinal Sarah is seen as a dangerous intervention worthy of attack, one can only imagine that the progressives would be convulsed with paroxysms of rage, their fury would be incandescent. The man who owed them nothing from day one would have broken his nonexistent promise of silence. But what then? 

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.

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.

Pentin, Cupich, and the dubia

Edward Pentin has a must-read article at the National Catholic Register about an exchange he had with Blase Cardinal Cupich, the archbishop of Chicago, following Cupich’s formal elevation to the cardinalate. At a press conference at the North American College, Cupich, responding to a question from Pentin about the four cardinals’ dubia regarding Amoris laetitia, suggested that the controversial propositions had been passed by 2/3rds of the synod fathers at two synods. Not so fast, Pentin replies:

But defenders of the Dubia argue that Cardinal Cupich’s comment that the controversial propositions in question were “voted on by two-thirds of the bishops” is especially problematic.

It is often forgotten, they point out, that despite the strenuous efforts by the Synod secretariat and others to manipulate and jostle the synod fathers into accepting the most controversial propositions (allegations detailed in my book The Rigging of a Vatican Synod?), none of the three most controversial propositions managed to obtain a two-thirds majority during the first, Extraordinary Synod on the Family, in October 2014.  

One of them was a proposition relating to the “Kasper proposal” of admitting the divorced and remarried to holy Communion after a period of penitence. That failed to pass, and only a proposition calling for “careful reflection and respectful accompaniment” of remarried divorcees made it through.

Under such circumstances, they would normally therefore have been rejected.

In spite of this, the Pope controversially broke with custom, which he can do, and authoritatively insisted that all three rejected proposition be kept in the document, thereby enabling them to be carried over into the working document for the Ordinary Synod on the Family the following year.

(Emphasis supplied and hyperlinks in original.) Read the whole thing there, especially Cardinal Cupich’s response to Pentin’s question.

We note with some interest that Cardinal Cupich hangs his red hat on the magisterial status of Amoris laetitia, suggesting that it has the same magisterial weight as any other post-synodal apostolic exhortation. To question the document would be to undermine all of the exhortations. Including—you guessed it—Familiaris consortio. This is, of course, the progressives’ favorite maneuver. Any document they don’t like—e.g., Familiaris consortio—is subject to renegotiation and discussion. As soon as they get a document they do like, however, it is a dogmatic pronouncement and cannot be questioned without undermining the very foundation of the Church. And when the pope who promulgated it called for reflection and discussion, as the Holy Father did with Amoris laetitia? Well, that’s not relevant. The important thing is that everyone get in line. And that’s precisely what Cardinal Cupich’s comments boil down to. The Pope has decided; deal with it. What accompaniment! What primacy of conscience!

We are reminded, also, of Professor Jessica Murdoch’s wonderful, indeed magisterial, analysis of Amoris laetitia, from a couple of months ago, in which she observed:

Given these difficulties, what is to be made of Cardinal Schönborn’s assertion that Amoris Laetitia is a binding document of magisterial authority? His analysis is unpersuasive, for three principal reasons. First, the document lacks language of formal definition. A clear example of language of formal definition appears in Ordinatio Sacradotalis, wherein Pope John Paul II uses words such as “We teach and declare” to define the Church’s teaching on the priesthood. Contrast this with the language of Amoris Laetitia highlighted by Cardinal Schönborn: “I urgently ask”; “It is no longer possible to say”; and “I have wanted to present to the entire Church.” Second, Amoris Laetitia lacks the theological and juridical precision of binding ecclesial documents, instead relying upon metaphors, imagery, and thick description, rather than clear statements. And third, if, in fact, the document does contradict either natural or divine positive law, then it simply cannot bind the faithful to the obsequium religiosum, that is, the assent of mind and will, specified by Church Lumen Gentium 25.

(Emphasis supplied.) Indeed, to our recollection, much of Amoris laetitia is simply the restatement of the final Relatio, with occasional remarks. It is interesting to consider what, exactly, the role of the supreme pontiff is supposed to be, especially in light of Our Lord’s mandate to St. Peter, if his merely repeating something, regardless of its orthodoxy, makes it quasi-dogmatic. Is the pope magic? But it is worth remembering that  the claims of the supporters of Amoris laetitia are not made in a vacuum. Thus, Cardinal Cupich not only is wrong when he claims that the problematic paragraphs of Amoris laetitia were approved by 2/3rds of the synod fathers at two synods, but he is also out on a spindly limb when he claims baldly that it is a magisterial document and that to question it would be to question all such documents.

The faithful needn’t overlook the fact that Amoris laetitia is an extraordinary document—and the Holy Father knows how to hand down ordinary documents when it pleases him to do so—when they consider these arguments.