Does Amoris Laetitia Retreat from Absolute Moral Norms?

When Amoris Laetitia (AL) was first released on April 8, headlines in the secular media declared that there was no change in doctrine but only a call for greater pastoral sensitivity for those in “irregular” unions. A closer scrutiny of this apostolic exhortation seemed to indicate that it made room for a significant change in pastoral discipline. Cardinal Kasper and others quickly insisted that under some circumstances divorced and remarried Catholics could now receive Holy Communion even without an annulment or without living in a chaste relationship.

Many commentators have already discussed the problems with changing Church discipline in this manner. But what will be the ramifications of the theological arguments used to support this apparent revision in pastoral practice? How will the theological reasoning of this exhortation affect debates in moral theology that have divided theologians since the end of the Second Vatican Council?

Amoris Laetitia is an ambiguous document, so it is sometimes difficult to discern what Pope Francis is really trying to accomplish. However, there are valid fears that the principles enunciated in the controversial eighth chapter will reverse the course set for moral theology in John Paul II’s landmark encyclical, Veritatis Splendor. It’s significant that Amoris Laetitia never cites Veritatis Splendor nor engages its precise normative reasoning.  This oversight suggests a certain discontinuity with previous magisterial teaching that is rather troubling.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

We can begin to better appreciate the potential problems with Amoris Laetitia if we recall why Pope John Paul II felt it necessary to devote a whole encyclical to the theme of moral theology and natural law. Many encyclicals written by John Paul II’s predecessors dealt with specific moral issues, but John Paul II was more concerned about the proper foundation of moral theology. After Vatican II, dissent on moral issues was rampant in the Catholic Church. Moral theologians proposed novel theories such as the “fundamental option,” which claimed that a single evil act need not reverse one’s “option” for God and therefore could not be classified as a mortal sin. They promoted proportionalism—making moral choices based on whatever option yields the optimal proportion of benefits to harms. Reflecting the postmodern flight from truth and certitude, they discarded the doctrine of specific moral absolutes in favor of formal norms such as “Love your neighbor.” John Paul II witnessed the confusion spread by the revisionists and decided to intervene by writing this encyclical in 1993. The philosopher-pope dissected the shallow arguments underlying these new theories with exquisite care.

Most U.S. Catholic seminaries have been faithful to the traditional doctrines reinforced by Veritatis Splendor. Of course, there has been residual discord at a number of Catholic universities. Some moral theologians continued to teach and defend these revisionist creeds such as the fundamental option. But at least they were forced to contend with a powerful magisterial document that stood as a counterweight to this deconstructed theory.

But what will happen to moral theology in the wake of Amoris Laetitia, which seems to disregard and perhaps even oppose the highly principled reasoning of Veritatis Splendor? Will more moral theologians and clergy come to see that encyclical as an irrelevant relic of the John Paul II papacy?

Supporters of Pope Francis’s approach to moral theology might contend that Amoris Laetitia does not rebuke the work of his predecessor. This may be true, but the language of this exhortation, especially in Chapter Eight, seems to suggest that Pope Francis is distancing himself from St. John Paul II.  It seems likely that some theologians will perceive Francis’s exhortation as a vindication of the revisionist moral theology Veritatis Splendor sought to dismantle. In an article called “In Good Conscience,” one moral theologian has already proclaimed that Pope Francis “clearly believes there are few, if any, ‘one-size-fits-all’ concrete absolute norms.” He also applauds the expansive role for conscience presented in the exhortation.

Is there a strong textual warrant for the claim that this exhortation is a “game changer” for moral theology? Let’s consider just one issue: exceptionless moral norms, sometimes referred to as specific moral absolutes. These absolute moral precepts are derived from the first principles of the natural law and include proscriptions against killing of the innocent, adultery, theft and fornication. Thus, adultery, defined as extramarital intercourse involving a married person, is always wrong. These specific norms protect fundamental human goods such as marriage and human life.

The notion that certain actions are intrinsically wrong may seem to be non-controversial, but there has been a protracted battle among moral theologians over this issue. Revisionists like Josef Fuchs, S.J. and Richard McCormick, S.J. argued tenaciously against the existence of such specific absolute norms. Father Fuchs, for example, regarded the prohibition of acts like adultery as “exhortations” rather than norms in the strict sense. Conversely, traditional Catholic moral theologians have insisted that these absolute moral norms have a long pedigree in the Catholic tradition and are intrinsically related to the foundation of its moral system. They have also been witnessed to by martyrs such as St. Thomas More and St. Maria Goretti.

But Pope Francis’s exhortation seems to side with the revisionists. In one paragraph of Chapter Eight he writes that “it is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s action correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being…. It is true that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations” (AL 304; my emphasis). And he goes on to endorse a claim of an International Theological Commission study that the natural law does not present us with “an already established set of rules, … [but] is a source of objective inspiration for the deeply personal process of making decisions” (AL 305; my emphasis).

We know from the context of Chapter Eight that the moral law at stake concerns the prohibition against adultery. As Jesus says, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her” (Mk. 10:11). But it appears that this “rule” or moral law forbidding adulterous behavior now might be open to certain exceptions. Hence, it is not an absolute standard but an “inspiration” for decision making on the part of those in a second union. After weighing their subjective culpability and assessing their complex “concrete situations,” these couples (with a pastor’s help) can discern their “degree of responsibility” (AL 300). Since that responsibility is not the same in all cases, “the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily be the same” (AL 300). Therefore, “it can no longer be said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace” (AL 301).

It is true, of course, that someone can be in an adulterous union and not be subjectively guilty. There may be mitigating circumstances that reduces a person’s culpability. But the act of adultery is still wrong, and it can never be made right, no matter what the circumstances may be. In these difficult cases the pastor’s duty would be clear. Recognize the mitigating circumstances in forgiving the wrongful act, and, if there is confusion, compassionately inform this person that he is wrong in his belief that this second union is not adulterous. The only recourse is to repent and amend one’s behavior. But there is certainly the strong intimation in Amoris Laetitia that under some conditions someone can persist in an adulterous lifestyle without the culpability of grave sin and its severe consequences.

In order to fortify his overall argument Pope Francis cites Question 94 (Part I-II) of St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae (ST).  Aquinas would appear to concur with Pope Francis, since he asserts in the fourth article of this Question that general moral principles are subject to certain exceptions.  Accordingly, the Pope invites readers to incorporate this Thomistic principle into their “pastoral discernment.” Question 94 was also frequently cited by the revisionists to support their position that acts like adultery are not intrinsically evil. Aquinas declares here that since moral norms involve particular situations, they apply not universally but only generally, and so are subject to certain exceptions. Hence we can appreciate the appeal of this text for the contentions of Amoris Laetitia.

However, Aquinas’s argument is far more nuanced, and Amoris Laetitia fails to point out the critical distinction between different types of moral norms. For Aquinas, norms fall into two broad classifications.  There are negative moral norms that hold semper et ad semper, always and everywhere without exceptions, because they exclude acts that are “evil in themselves and cannot become good” (ST, II-II, q. 33, a.2). But there are also affirmative moral precepts (such as honor your parents) that hold semper sed non ad semper, that is, they oblige always but not for every occasion. The norms discussed in Question 94 (a.4) unquestionably fall in the latter category. Aquinas’s example makes this quite clear. The affirmative norm that you should return what you have borrowed is subject to certain exceptions depending on the circumstances. Thus, arms entrusted to another should not be returned to their owner if he plans to use those arms to fight against his country.

Aquinas often affirms the existence of specific moral absolutes, these negative exceptionless norms that always forbid killing of the innocent, theft, lying, adultery, and fornication. In several texts he refers to the intrinsic evil of some acts as specified by their moral object. When Aquinas confronts an Aristotelian commentator who says that adultery is not intrinsically wrong, he replies: “We should not agree with the Commentator on this point, for one may not commit adultery for any good” (De Malo, q. 15, a.1, ad.5). In another treatise he describes some human acts that “have deformity inseparably attached to them, such as fornication, adultery, and others of this sort, which can in no way be done morally” (Quaestiones Quodlibetales, 9, q. 7, a. 2).

Thus, Pope Francis’s appeal to Aquinas in this exhortation doesn’t hold up because in Question 94 of the Summa Aquinas is referring only to affirmative norms, and not the universally binding negative norm that forbids adultery. If Pope Francis wants to assert that the norms prohibiting the taking of innocent life, lying, adultery, and fornication, have exceptions when applied amidst the concrete complexities of life he cannot recruit St. Thomas Aquinas as an ally. Also, such a position goes counter to a long Catholic tradition that includes the Church’s greatest theologians like Augustine and Aquinas, and extends from Trent to Vatican II.

It is certainly possible that Pope Francis is not staking out this new territory for the Magesterium in this provocative exhortation. He may be using this softer language to help people find their way back to the faith. I have taught Veritatis Splendor to college students, some of whom recoil at terms like “intrinsic evil.” This notion is a bitter pill to swallow in our relativistic culture where secular modes of thought prevail. But it is quite difficult to express these truths in a different way without changing their essential meaning. Several key texts of Chapter Eight certainly give the impression that there is retreat from the acceptance of these specific absolute moral norms such as those cited by Aquinas.

The rejection of such norms was a popular platform for the revisionists, and it is likely to be revived with renewed vigor. Most of the theologians John Paul II had in mind when he composed Veritatis Splendor have passed away. But there are many others who will continue their work. However, unlike their predecessors, this new generation of revisionist theologians can now appeal to a magisterial document to support their beliefs.


  • Richard A. Spinello

    Richard A. Spinello is Professor of Management Practice at Boston College and a member of the adjunct faculty at St. John’s Seminary in Boston. He is the author of Four Catholic Philosophers: Rejoicing in the Truth along with The Splendor of Marriage: St. John Paul II’s Vision of Love, Marriage, Family, and the Culture of Life.

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...