A Cardinal’s Implausible Defense of Amoris Laetitia

Many of Pope’s Francis’ closest allies have presented vindications of his troubling apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia. Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, who is the President for the Pontifical Office of Legislative Texts, stepped forward last year with a booklet concentrating on the controversial claims of Chapter Eight. This guided reading is now accessible in English thanks to Andrew Guersney’s translation for Homiletic and Pastoral Review The Cardinal seeks to clarify the ambiguities that still haunt the pages of this final chapter. But are his arguments valid and rooted in truth? And do they enrich the ongoing debate about this papal teaching?

Cardinal Cupich from Chicago certainly thinks so. In his forward to the English edition he asserts that this manual can help readers navigate their way through the opaque passages of Chapter Eight in order to grasp its “rich doctrinal and pastoral message.” Cardinal Cupich seizes on the theme of the ontology of the person as Coccopalmerio’s “greatest contribution” to the current discourse about Amoris Laetitia. When dealing with irregular situations it is essential to consider both the general and peculiar aspects of a person’s life, “the full ontology of the person.”

In the narrow compass of this article we cannot do justice to all of the themes articulated in Coccopalmerio’s commentary, so let us restrict our attention to the two main intertwined arguments. The cardinal agrees with the standard interpretation of Amoris Laetitia that divorced and remarried couples in irregular situations can be admitted to the Eucharist under certain conditions, even if they do not live as brother and sister. Cardinal Schönborn’s recent statements and Pope Francis’ private letter to the Argentinian bishops also confirm this interpretation.

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Cardinal Coccopalmerio hopes to allay the concerns of those with reservations about this pastoral innovation that has divided the Church. We must all better understand the proper “pastoral attitude” of the Church toward people in such situations and the mitigating circumstances that preclude a state of serious sin. Those in irregular unions are not in a state of mortal sin if they do not understand the moral rule, have difficulty comprehending the “inherent values” of such a rule, or if there is a “concrete situation which prevents someone from acting differently without further sin.” His exposition dwells on the third and most “problematic” condition. As an example, he refers to the situation where a couple has been in an irregular union for some time with new children, and that union is characterized by mutual love and generosity. Perhaps the wife was abandoned by her husband and the request for a declaration of nullity was denied. Nonetheless, she has married again and now has several children with her second husband. This couple cannot separate without doing harm to their children. They are conscious of their “irregularity,” but practically impotent to resolve that irregularity.

The Church, of course, has always recognized those demanding situations and implored such couples to live chastely as brother and sister before receiving the Eucharist. But the Cardinal declares that for some couples this requirement is utterly impossible. The thrust of Amoris Laetitia is that the Church should admit the faithful in these illegitimate unions to the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist so long as they desire to change but cannot realize their desire. This sincere “desire” to change is the “theological element,” the decisive factor, that allows access to the Eucharist. According to Cardinal Coccopalmerio, “the impossibility of acting differently, that is, of stopping a negative situation,” is determined by objective reasons but also by “subjective reason,” or behavioral conditioning. The objective reasons in this case are the children whose lives will be disrupted if the union is dissolved. The subjective reasons are based on psychological and social factors that impede a chaste relationship and therefore severely attenuate moral culpability. Thus, in some situations, a man and woman in an adulterous relationship, who cannot dissolve the relationship and who cannot live chastely, can receive the Eucharist in good conscience. We cannot blame them for the sin of adultery because they are incapable of escaping their irregular relationship. According to Amoris Laetitia, some people are “not in a position” to “fully carry out the objective demands” of divine commands or natural laws (par. 295).

To be sure, there may be occasions where a couple in an irregular union for many years cannot dissolve that union without damage to their children. Cardinal Coccopalmerio is certainly correct about these objective reasons why an irregular union must be sustained. But he is on far less secure ground when he suggests that psychological and social factors make it impossible for them not to live chastely and avoid the sin of adultery. The moral proposition implicitly being defended by the cardinal is that it is sometimes impossible to live according to the norms of Christian morality, and this indeed seems to be the broader argument presented in Chapter Eight. However, as moral theologian Germain Grisez points out, when people say that living a Christian life is “impossible” they usually mean that the norm in question is incompatible with a way of life they prefer not to relinquish. While a couple, who has deliberately entered into this irregular union, may need to remain together for the sake of their innocent children, they can choose to live chastely as a condition for receiving the Eucharist. Coccopalmerio offers no rationale for why any couple in an irregular union lacks the capacity to make a commitment to chastity, despite psychological or social factors that might make such a commitment difficult.

The second problem is that this principle can be applied to other areas of morality. Many business people, for example, contend that it is “impossible” to be honest and fair in their business dealings because so many of their competitors bribe and cheat their way to success. Complex psychological and social forces will also be at work in these fraught situations. They too can claim that these factors overpower their desire to carry out the objective demands of the Gospel. Are we to offer them the same pastoral solicitude as the couple in an irregular union?

Cardinals Coccopalmerio and Cupich insist on the continuity of Amoris Laetitia with the Catholic tradition, but the assertion that it is sometimes impossible to live according to the Commandments cannot be reconciled with Scripture and traditional doctrine. In Sacred Scripture we are repeatedly told that nothing is impossible with God (Mt.19: 26; Lk 1:37). Moreover, the teachings of the Church councils such as Trent are quite explicit: “If anyone says that the commandments of God are impossible to observe even for a man who is justified and in a state of grace: let him be anathema.” The Second Vatican Council’s document, Gaudium et Spes, is less forceful, but affirms that while people cannot overcome sin on their own but they are liberated from sin through God’s grace (par. 13). To declare that even with the help of prayer and grace it is impossible to forgo the sin of adultery is a radical breach with Scripture and Tradition.

Cardinal Coccopalmerio also presents a philosophical foundation for his arguments in the form of an “ontology of the person,” a treatment of the person’s metaphysical structure. The Cardinal explains that we all have “common elements” that are general and abstract. But there are also more concrete “unique elements.” He writes that “in speaking of the ontology of the person, it is necessary to refer not only to the common elements, but also at the same time to the unique elements.” Those unique elements can limit the person and hinder his or her capacity to act normally.

The cardinal doesn’t elaborate on the common abstract elements that we all possess. He is far more interested in those unique characteristics, which are intimated in Amoris Laetitia by terms such as “conditioning,” “extenuating circumstances,” or “weakness.” In order to respect the full ontology of the person, the Church must give more attentive consideration to our unique situations. While some individuals are mature and strong, others are weak and so psychologically conditioned that they cannot live up to their moral responsibilities. In such cases we “must refrain from judging these people as culpable.”

This discussion on ontology, however suggestive, is woefully deficient and inevitably slides into subjectivism. It leaves too much unspecified and amounts to little more than vague and superficial rhetoric. It is true that persons have something in common and also possess a certain uniqueness. But Cardinal Coccopalmerio’s circumstantial analysis is devoid of persuasive, logical arguments that elaborate the ethical implications of his ontology. He never precisely demonstrates how these concrete differences absolutely prevent some individuals from living up to the demands of the moral law.

The philosopher Karol Wojtyla (who became Pope John Paul II), also developed an “ontology” of the person, though he never used that term. He offers a far more coherent metaphysic of the person that takes into account our uniqueness. Since all human beings belong to the same species, they must have something in common, which is the soul with its powers of intellect and will. Our souls are fundamentally the same, so all human persons can know the truth and will the good. These intellectual powers of the soul make possible self-possession, the hallmark of personhood. Every person possesses himself through self-awareness and self-governance, and therefore every person is master of his or her own actions.

Thus, we are obviously different, since every soul is adapted to a particular body, but we are not qualitatively different. Thanks to that spiritual soul, each person has the innate capacity to know and love, and each person is ordered to intrinsic goods such as life and health, marriage, and friendship which provide fulfillment. All of this we learn from metaphysics. Yet Wojtyla was not content with explaining personhood solely through these objective common structures inherited from the thought of Aquinas. Like Cardinal Coccopalmerio, he recognized each person’s “primordial uniqueness” and originality. We must, therefore, always seek to understand every person “from within,” as a concrete self, and so the category of “lived experience” has a place in ethics. Metaphysics cannot do justice to the inner subjective experience of each person, which includes her intentions, motivations, and even her noetic and moral frailties. However, while Wojtyla fully appreciated the importance of taking into account our existential uniqueness in the moral life, he also claimed that we are not “doomed to subjectivism.”

Although we are fallen creatures with certain defects, we are not so deflated by concupiscence that we are incapable of knowing and choosing the good. The contingent factors in each person’s life such as his environment or behavioral conditioning do not undermine the power of self-governance and render the will impotent. None of these subjective factors subvert our self-mastery, which is the source of our dignity as persons. Assuming that someone is not mentally ill or coerced in any way, they remain self-governing moral subjects, capable of guiding themselves toward God as their final goal through their free choices.

Coccopalmerio’s analysis also puts him squarely at odds with central doctrines of John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor. In his papal writings, John Paul II remained sensitive to the unique elements of each human life, but resisted any notion of an opening between the moral law and the person’s “concrete possibilities.” We must oppose the attitude of those who seek to make their “own weakness the criterion of the truth about the good” (par. 104). In addition, we must always recall that we are not just talking about the capabilities of the ordinary man and woman but the man and woman “redeemed by Christ,” who can access the graces necessary to live according to the Commandments (par. 103). What’s strikingly omitted in Cardinal Coccopalmerio’s commentary is any discussion of the efficacy of grace that elevates and sanctifies our fallen condition. It’s only in the light of grace and redemption that Christian moral norms become reasonable and attainable.

Unlike many of the works now coming forth from the Vatican, the writings of Wojtyla/John Paul II have lost none of their intellectual force and deep wisdom. If only more cardinals were reading them today.

(Photo credit: Catholic News Agency)


  • 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.

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