Debate Continues Over Amoris Laetitia

The ambiguities of Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, continue to provoke a lively debate even as we pass its one-year anniversary. Allies of the pope marked the event by rallying to his support as they beseeched the faithful to contemplate this maligned papal document. On the other side of the ledger, orthodox theologians continue to take Pope Francis to task for refusing to clarify the obscure teaching of Chapter Eight. Of particular significance was a meeting of six lay scholars in Rome in late April. They gathered together near the Vatican with a plea that clarity will soon be brought to the immense confusion fostered by Amoris Laetitia. These scholars included Claudio Pierantoni from Chile, Douglas Farrow from Canada, and Anna Silvas from Australia. It is instructive to juxtapose their bleak assessment of Amoris Laetitia with the assessment of one of its most ardent supporters. By polarizing these two viewpoints we can evoke a sense of the present and future debates about this document.

In an eloquent essay on Crux, a web site now sponsored by the Knights of Columbus, Fr. James Keenan, S.J. of Boston College invites readers to take a closer look at Amoris Laetitia especially during the Easter season. He sees this papal letter as a crowning achievement of the Francis papacy so far because it marks a decisive turning point in papal teaching. What we find here is a “relational theology of marriage,” ministerial accompaniment, and finally “dictating consciences.” Father Keenan is especially delighted by Amoris Laetitia’s recognition of the “discerning competence” of conscience, a notion that has been dormant for too many years. In his view, this liberation of conscience is long overdue. Moreover, the Pope’s teaching on conscience resonates more clearly with Conciliar theology. According to Father Keenan, Pope Francis is shifting the entire task of moral theology: “not only does conscience acknowledge moral truth as it is taught, but it discerns and articulates its course for the future.” He points to paragraph 303 where Pope Francis says that “conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal.”

But can conscience “dictate” or “articulate” something new that contradicts or reverses the moral truths accepted in the Catholic tradition based on natural law and Revelation? Can a discerning conscience direct us to remain in sin and error with a “certain moral security” as Amoris Laetitia apparently pronounces? And is any of this consistent with what the previous Magisterium has taught? To be sure, this is not exactly what Vatican II prescribes about conscience. Gaudium et Spes stresses that fidelity to conscience means “seek[ing] to conform to the objective norms of morality” (par. 16). The Catholic Church has always taught that conscience is a judgment in a particular context about how those objective norms (or divine commandments) apply. While Amoris Laetita refers to the importance of “feeling in conscience” (298), conscience is not constituted by feeling or emotion but is a judgment of reason. In addition, Amoris Laetitia seems to conflate conscience and discernment. As philosophers Grisez and Finnis have explained, unlike conscience, discernment is not concerned with what is morally right and wrong but with the choice of one among many morally acceptable alternatives. Thus, Amoris Laetitia represents a novel but untenable view of conscience that is strikingly discordant with traditional Catholic teaching and Conciliar theology.

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Aside from Pope Francis’ vision of conscience, Father Keenan also praises the theology of accompaniment that is laid out in Chapter Eight. Religious and lay ministers are called to accompany the faithful as they form their consciences. Of course, this is one of the more positive elements of Amoris Laetitia so long we understand the proper limits of accompaniment. Fr. Keenan argues that this ministry of accompaniment, which “engages” conscience, bears a strong resemblance to the pastoral teaching of Pope John Paul II. He claims to find the Pope Francis motif of accompaniment, which can dispense with certain moral obligations, in Familiaris Consortio (par. 34). In that papal exhortation, accompaniment means that a married couple who recognize the authority of Humanae Vitae but are unable to follow its teaching, seek pastoral counsel, and through the “law of graduality” might be able to receive the Eucharist even if they practice birth control. For anyone who knows the thought of Pope John Paul II, this will strike them as a startling claim. The problem is that John Paul II makes no such assertion in this letter on the family.

On the contrary, the Pope insists that we cannot “look on the law as merely an ideal to be achieved in the future,” so married couples must follow the doctrine of Humanae Vitae as “the norm for the exercise of their sexuality” (Familiaris Consortio, 34). The Pope recognizes that some couples will progress more rapidly than others in the acceptance of that norm, but he never suggests that those who fall short can receive the Eucharist. Uniquely important, he writes, “is unity of moral and pastoral judgment by priests—a unity that must be carefully sought and ensured in order that the faithful may not have to suffer anxiety of conscience” (34). I would submit that this language is vastly different from what we find in Amoris Laetitia, which consistently gives priority to pastoral practice over moral dogma.

In his support of Amoris Laetitia, Father Keenan follows what is becoming a familiar strategy. Assure people that this benign teaching is consistent with Sacred Tradition and with what previous councils and popes have taught. We can rest assured that there is even consistency with what John Paul II, the “Pope of the Family,” has instructed about these matters. Whatever is new in Amoris Laetitia represents an organic development of doctrine that should be welcomed rather than resisted.

But where Father Keenan sees continuity and authentic doctrinal development, the lay scholars who gathered in Rome see only rupture and disharmony with both Catholic Tradition and Revelation. All of their presentations are well worth reading but the two that stand out are the ones delivered by Claudio Pierantoni and Anna Silvas. Space constraints make it impossible to explore their essays in any depth, but we can offer a general summary of their portentous remarks.

Claudio Pierantoni begins with an elaboration on the errors of two popes who have been accused of deviating from the traditional doctrines of the Church, Honorius I and Liberius. Honarius, the only pope to be formally condemned for heresy, upheld the doctrine of Monothelitism which states that Christ had one will despite his two natures. Liberius, on the other hand, did not always adhere to the doctrine of the Council of Nicaea, which declared the Son to be consubstantial with the Father. He also excommunicated Athanasius who was the most zealous defender of that dogma. What is similar about both cases is that this errancy occurred while dogma was still being settled. But there is an “aggravating circumstance” in the case of the current pontificate, since the doctrines at stake have not been unclear or in dispute, but are solidly grounded in the Apostolic Tradition. In the case of communion for the divorced and remarried, there is an “entire edifice of Catholic doctrine.”

While there have been abuses on the pastoral level, the situation changes dramatically when those abuses are given a doctrinal justification backed up by the actions of the pope himself. There is little doubt that Amoris Laetitia represents an unequivocal deviation from traditional and settled Catholic doctrine about marriage. If marriage is indissoluble, as Jesus himself has taught, but communion can be given to some divorced and remarried couples, indissolubility is no longer absolute, no longer intrinsic to the marital bond, but just a general rule, an ideal that allows for exceptions. This clearly seems to be the primary teaching of Chapter Eight, and it is incongruous with the Church’s traditional understanding of marriage rooted in Sacred Scripture.

According to Pierantoni, Amoris Laetitia is also full of confusion about the ultimate authority of the natural law which is an aspect of divine law. It assumes that there can be exceptions to the core moral laws, such as the law forbidding adultery. Those laws have a binding force and are not subject to historical or cultural contingencies. They are based securely on the human person’s nature and natural goodness and confirmed by Revelation. In support of Pierantoni’s analysis, we can look no further than the Second Vatican Council which has been quite clear about the “natural and Gospel law” (lex naturalis et evangelica), that is immutable and universal (Gaudium et Spes 74).

Anna Silvas, for her part, implores Catholics to read Amoris Laetitia in the context of the pope’s antecedent and subsequent statements rather than focus on the text in isolation. The chaos that surrounds Amoris Laetitia is not a matter of misinterpretation. What Pope Francis says here is actually rather clear, however shocking it may be to orthodox ears. Those 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. As corroboration, we can turn to Archbishop Bergoglio’s discreet practice of giving communion to these couples along with couples who were simply cohabitating. There is also Pope Francis’ letter to the Argentinian bishops that confirms this interpretation. If we read this document in the context of what the pope has said and done, there will be far less doubt about its meaning and intention.

Silvas also declares that Amoris Laetitia is a model for how Pope Francis deals with the revision of doctrine. He does not attempt to confront that doctrine directly, since he knows that such an effort has little hope of success. Rather, the goal is to change incrementally the pastoral practice associated with that doctrine, until the doctrine is marginalized and loses its efficacy. This is precisely what the Pope means by one of his favorite postulates, “time is greater than space.” Over time the revised pastoral practice will slowly push the actual doctrine to the periphery where it will remain a nice ideal. According to Silvas, “We are in a world of dynamic fluidity here, of starting open-ended processes, of sowing seeds of desired change that will triumph over time.” The pope’s fondest hope is that the heterodox message of Amoris Laetitia will eventually triumph over time, perhaps barely imperceptible to an unsuspecting laity.

The pope’s effort to relativize and idealize traditional doctrine seems to be grounded in his vision of an ecclesial community where moral law and revelation are filtered through concrete realities and possibilities. We can be sure that the pope’s strategy will not be confined to the issue of communion for those in irregular unions. There are now credible reports about a Vatican papal commission to review the teachings of Humanae Vitae. If this is true, isn’t it probable that the same flawed moral logic will prevail? Non-contraceptive sex becomes the ideal, and those who can’t quite live up to that lofty ideal can receive the Eucharist, but only after a period of “discernment.”

These lay scholars and Father Keenan concur on one vital point: Amoris Laetitia is a radical turning point in papal teaching. Unlike Father Keenan, Pierantoni and Silvas see this as a negative moment in the Church’s history. But will this deviation from established doctrine continue to go unchallenged? With few exceptions, the hierarchy seems unwilling to speak out about the blow to doctrinal integrity inflicted by this exhortation. The task then falls on the laity who must face reality and speak with candor about the deficiencies of this alien papal teaching. The errors of Amoris Laetitia must be acknowledged and confronted with truth and charity. If we have learned anything from John Paul II, it is the need to defend the truth, especially the truth of Jesus Christ, the eternal self-revealing Logos.

(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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