Beware the “Spirit” of Amoris Laetitia

Catholic teaching holds that the Church is truly the Body of Christ, and that the Holy Spirit is the soul of the body, animating it and directing its actions. The Spirit of God, promised by Christ as the Advocate and Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth (John 14:16-17), who descended upon the Apostles at Pentecost and gifted them with a missionary zeal to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:2-41), has guided the Church from that time on in a deepening understanding of the revelation of God and a discernment of the truth. The acts of the ecumenical councils, the solemn pronouncements of the Roman pontiffs, the uniform and unified teaching of the bishops throughout the world and throughout time are all guided by God’s inspiration of his Spirit. It is the presence of the Spirit that constitutes the Church and guarantees the Church’s integrity and sanctity.

The presence of the Spirit should assure the faithful of God’s active guiding presence in his Church. Yet the way that some speak of the Spirit’s action, one would think it is less a personal Spirit that leads all into truth than a nebulous spirit that vaguely whispers to some, leaving others confused. Consider the usage of the baneful phrase “the spirit of Vatican II,” a curious expression that has served for decades as a catch-all for a collection of preferences and opinions that some would like to attribute to the work of the Second Vatican Council, but most if not all of which are strangely absent from the texts of the council. We have been told by certain prelates, theologians, and activists that everything from versus populum liturgy to soft-pedaling the dogmas on justification to radical changes in the understanding of Holy Orders and who may or may not be ordained would all follow from heeding the call of the “spirit of the council”—yet when the constitutions and decrees of the council are consulted, none of these ideas can be found, while their opposites certainly can be. The Spirit of the faith cannot be so far divorced from its formulations.

More recently, we have seen this expression used in reference to the controversies surrounding the interpretation of certain elements of the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. There can be no doubt that the document’s position on the reception of communion by the divorced and remarried is unclear, for different bishops and bishops’ conferences have released statements saying how perfectly and obviously clear it is, while coming to diametrically opposed conclusions. Thus, many parties have asked the Holy Father to clarify his teaching on the subject or declared their resolve to remain true to the traditional faith, from a filial appeal of bishops and theologians to the dubia submitted by several cardinals that have caused such a stir in ecclesial circles.

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Other parties have argued that the document is quite clear—without saying just exactly what that clear content is. (Scott Eric Alt has an excellent post on this point.) But they are sure that the teaching of the document—whatever that teaching might be—is the work of the Holy Spirit. Examples abound. Cardinal Kevin Farrell, head of the new Dicastery on Laity, Family, and Life, has said that Amoris Laetitia is “the Holy Spirit speaking.” The head of the Roman Rota, Msgr. Pio Vito Pinto, said that in the work of the two Synods on the Family, “The action of the Holy Spirit cannot be doubted.” The diocesan chancellor for San Diego has said of Bishop Robert McElroy’s planned implementation, “I think the bishop has made an opportunity for the Spirit to move in that way, and it’s a great thing.”

An article by Fr. James Martin, S.J., at the America magazine website argues that the essence of Amoris Laetitia’s teaching is the Jesuit tradition of the “discernment of spirits” in which “God deals directly with people,” apart from public revelation and defined Church teaching, to tell them what God wants of that particular person. While not explicitly stating so, Fr. Martin suggests that such a discernment, which goes beyond “only the Catechism,” could legitimately lead one to conclude that God is calling them to receive Holy Communion even though they are knowingly committing mortally sinful acts, even if the Church teaches such an action would be gravely spiritually harmful. It’s a whispering of the Spirit, you see.

Such a situation puts me in mind of an old heresy which, like most heresies, resuscitates occasionally to pester the Church anew, and which can be detected in such statements as those above. The sect of Montanism, or Phrygianism, was founded by the eponymous Montanus along with two prophetesses, Maximilla and Priscilla, in the second century in Asia Minor. Montanus believed himself to be a prophet of God through whom the Holy Spirit spoke directly, delivering new revelation to the Church. Maximilla and Priscilla eventually joined him, and the three entered ecstatic states in which they proclaimed their new truths. Chief among these innovations was a severe moral rigor and the belief that Christ’s work of redemption was incomplete. These excesses led to their condemnation by papal decree. Still, the extravagance of the seers and the allure of the possibility of being possessed by God drew many followers, most famously of all Tertullian, the influential North African theologian who is well remembered for his contributions to Christology and Trinitarian theology, even as he fell into this heresy at the end of his life.

Whether it is the second or the twenty-first century, the idea of having one’s preferred ideas supported or even inspired by the action of the Holy Spirit is a seductive one. Thus we see a long history of various groups, sects, and schools of thought putting forth their ideas and defending them by declaring them “a movement of the Spirit.” And now, we see a movement to apply this defense at the individual level. Every Christian would in essence become a moral Montanist, needing only to say, “I feel led by the Spirit to do this” to justify their actions. But could this be? Could the Spirit lead us into sin in such a way?

No. The Holy Spirit leads us into truth, because the Spirit is God, and God is Truth. And truth does not change, just as God does not change. Our understanding of the truth may improve—it may sharpen or clarify or elaborate—but it will not move us to say “yes” one moment and “no” another. Something either is the case or it is not. There may be many layers of complexity to a situation that require discernment, but discernment is a tool of clarity, a method to look ever more closely at the areas that appear gray and discover that they are in fact closely laid lines of black and white, yes and no. “Discernment” is always a discernment of truth, and truth is universal. Discernment can never be something essentially private, with no reference to anything public, universal, or general. To deny that what is true generally for human beings according to their essential nature might not be true for an individual human being—for example, to say that the moral truth “it is not good for a human being to engage in adulterous acts” does not apply to Joe or Sally—is at root to deny the universality of human nature.

In other words, since we all share in human nature, and our nature determines what is or is not good for us, then when we hold that something is harmful to human beings, we cannot in any circumstance hold that thing to be good for any particular human being. One could never discern that what God has revealed as spiritually harmful for humanity is spiritually beneficial for Joe or Sally. This would entail in effect the very kind of legalism that so many proponents of the Kasper Proposal decry, for morality would be recast from a quest to fulfill our God-given human nature into a simple list of rules that apparently apply to some and not to others, according to their own discernment of the matter.

One Timothy 2:4 tells us that “God desires all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” The two of these are inextricably linked, for the knowledge of the truth, about God, Christ, the Church, the means of salvation, and the moral life, are crucial for our salvation. If God were to give this knowledge only to some, or to tell different things to different people, his desire could hardly be said to be universal. And if the movements of his Spirit lead to the ambiguities and enigmas some claim they do, he could hardly be said to be leading us to the truth. Thank God that is not the case.

(Msgr. Pio Vito Pinto; photo credit: CNA / Daniel Ibanez)


  • Nicholas Senz

    Nicholas Senz is Director of Faith Formation at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Arlington, Texas and a Master Catechist. A native of Verboort, Oregon, Nicholas holds master’s degrees in philosophy and theology from the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, CA. He is on Twitter @nicksenz and his own blog, NicholasSenz.

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