Sense and Nonsense: The Latest Defense of Amoris Laetitia

A brave theology professor at my diocesan seminary, Rev. Gerald J. Bednar, has taken upon himself to defend the ambiguity that exists in Amoris Laetitia against the Dubia famously presented by “dissenters” (i.e. the four cardinals). He wrote an article that appeared in Emmanuel Magazine published by the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament. A shortened version of the article appeared in L’Osservatore Romano.

A Spanish blog, reacting to the article asked, “How are we to take L’Osservatore Romano seriously when it publishes such writing?” On the contrary, I think that the publication of such an article should alarm us and make us take very seriously the use of an instrument of ordinary magisterium for the purpose of silencing sincere critics of the very ambiguous teaching in Amoris Laetitia about the communion of the divorced and remarried without benefit of annulment and sacramental marriage.

Besides, it could have been worse: they could have published the whole article with its sophomoric allusions to literary examples. The L’Osservatore Romano article was entitled “Mercy and law in Amoris Laetitia” and wisely avoided the absurd and inaccurate interpretation of Jane Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility, which is integral to the Emmanuel essay. Instead of seeing Austen’s point about the superiority of sense to emotional “sensibility,” Bednar says that Pope Francis, who “famously” has “championed mercy as the forgotten virtue in Christian thought and practice today” represents sensibility and this avoids the “mean-spirited application of the law” (which I suppose is just sense, perhaps even common sense). Sense and sensibility must be combined, the defender of the Holy Father says, “so that both may not only avoid disagreement, but also support each other.”

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Mean-spirited application of the law versus mercy is thus the key to the defense that Bednar makes against the Dubia. Mercy, according to Bednar, is strictly speaking ineffable. At least that is what I gather from his attempts to describe the counterpart to “law”: There is no law of mercy. No recipe exists for when and how it should be applied. Mercy subsists in another realm. These sentences are consecutive, believe it or not, and Bednar’s paean to mercy includes other poetic reaches quite beyond his grasp. (I am not surprised that the editors of the English edition of L’Osservatore missed that Bednar’s haiku had some miscounts in the syllable department. In the same issue a headline said that the pope had “impugned” the use of cell phones.)

Bednar insists that mercy is “a way of applying laws” and gives a concrete example of why the divorced-and-not-remarried-sacramentally should be admitted to communion. In other words, why a Catholic man who is living with a woman without benefit of clergy as the old expression had it should not feel restricted about receiving the Eucharist.

According to the papal apologist, Pope Francis advocates that partners in a second marriage may enter a period of discernment with an experienced priest, who will help them reflect on “relevant issues.” There is then a “suitable period of time; after which “they may celebrate a sacramental confession” (if they feel like it?), followed by the acceptance of an “appropriate penance” with absolution. Can we be any more vague about this?

Father provides us with a case study. A man “selfishly leaves his wife early [my emphasis] in a valid marriage.” (Why early? That is a good question, because if he stayed longer it would condition things?) The man marries a second time and then, “years” later, comes to understand his sin for leaving his wife. Does this conversion then impel him to change his life? Bednar seems to think it is enough that the man be sorry for what he did. After all, “what if his first wife remarried?” It would be physically, psychologically, morally impossible for him to return to his wife. Why can’t he receive communion?

Would Bednar say that an unmarried man who had sex with his girlfriend should take communion? Would he say that it is irrelevant for a Catholic to be married “in the Church”? Why should couples marry at all? The anti-Dubia professor spends some time suggesting that Matthew 19:8-9 modified Jesus’s absolute prohibition of divorce (found in Mark 10:11-12). St. Paul did the same, according to Bednar in his allowing Christians to enter a second marriage if their spouses did not convert. What if St. Paul was just indicating an inchoate acknowledgement that sacramental marriage, “in the Lord” was different from natural marriage?

The pope is not fashioning a new doctrine, says the priest, but only “trying to incorporate [sic] a merciful way of interpreting the law.” This incorporating involves seeing that the people have “all too late” come to repentance. But because it is “too late” they must continue their lives as is and be readmitted to communion. Nowhere is there a mention of seeking a decree of nullity for an invalid marriage. Does this process of discernment with these experienced priests start after it has been determined that the first marriages cannot be declared invalid? Is this a question of internal forum? That is not contemplated, nor is the question of those who are outside the Church but would like to enter into communion with the Catholic Church. Divorced Catholics who are remarried civilly but not sacramentally have a right to communion, but not a Protestant who wants to enter into the Church?

The article has a more than passing resemblance to the logic of the characters in Alice Through the Looking Glass: “”When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

According to Bednar, Matthew changed the law about marriage and so did St. Paul. These changes are an argument for why the pope can change the law about divorced in second or third, etc. marriages. However, “Francis is not trying to formulate a new law.” There is a kind of having-your-cake-and-eating-it-too-ishness about such a logical gambit.

Further, “The issue is not whether divorce is permissible. Clearly it is not. The issue is whether a second marriage must be characterized continuously as adultery.” (Emphasis added.) So, divorce is not permissible, but the consequences of divorce are….? And adultery cannot be “continuous”?

One of Bednar’s howlers from the first article regrettably did not make it to print in Rome. It shows his style of thinking, however, and is worth quoting: “Discussion around Amoris Laetitia has grown tense, particularly when people suggest it can cause a schism in the Church. Issues don’t cause schisms. People do.” (As if people are not motivated by ideas.)

The ghost of the original article with its initial opposition and then false harmonization of sense and sensibility appears in the final paragraph of the L’Osservatore piece, “Opponents try to force sensibility into a rule that is compatible with the rest of the rules” (Shame on them, I guess, is the tone implied here).

I think that Bednar is trying to make of “sensibility” a principle that “overrules” all the other rules. That he has been given such an audience to assert such faulty logic is downright frightening. His answer to the Dubia provokes multa dubia in my own mind, and that does not exclude judgements about the editorial quality of L’Osservatore Romano.


  • Msgr. Richard C. Antall

    Monsignor Antall is pastor of Holy Name Parish in the Diocese of Cleveland. He is the author of The X-Mass Files (Atmosphere Press, 2021), and The Wedding (Lambing Press, 2019).

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