In his magisterial history The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon identified the loss of civic virtue as the “secret poison” that undermined this sprawling global empire and inevitably led to its demise. The Catholic Church is not about to disintegrate in the same fashion as the Roman Empire, but its unity, grounded in the infallible papal magisterium, seems to be unraveling, and its eternal doctrines are no longer safe from radical revision.
We can probably isolate several such poisons in the Church that undermine the deposit of faith, but there is one that is particularly insidious. It involves a departure from what liberal theologians regard as a “sexophobic morality,” and it accounts for profane documents such as Fiducia Supplicans. As everyone knows by now, this declaration from the Dicastery of the Doctrine of the Faith sanctions the blessing of same-sex couples and those in other irregular relationships, so long as those blessings are not liturgical and do not convey the impression of marriage.
Fiducia Supplicans directly flows from principles and premises articulated in the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. Following the decadent path of moral theology of the 1970s, Amoris Laetitia misconstrues God’s authoritative commands as “rules” that express “ideals” to which we should all aspire. It ignores the fact that some of these commands, such as the divine prohibition against adultery, allow for no exceptions. On the contrary, these rules are subject to exceptions, excuses, and mitigating circumstances.
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Given our weakness and disposition to noetic and moral frailty, it’s not possible for everyone to follow these rules, especially those that pertain to sexual morality. According to Amoris Laetitia, some Catholics are “not in a position…to fully carry out the objective demands of the law” (295). The pope proceeds to explain that those in irregular situations, such as Catholics divorced and remarried without an annulment, are not necessarily living in a state of mortal sin even if they are not ignorant of the relevant rule. “A subject may know the rule, yet…be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise” (301).
Amoris Laetitia clearly suggests that the Church’s traditional understanding of indissoluble, monogamous marriage, anchored in the words of Jesus Himself, is one of those lofty ideals. It refers to “the ideal of marriage, marked by a commitment to exclusivity and stability” (34). While this “ideal” cannot be negated, more flexibility is necessary in order to achieve psychological balance for those who cannot live up to its demands. The Church must begin to modify and limit its antiquated ideas about sexuality, even if it does so in ways that are essentially contradictory. Amoris Laetitia clearly suggests that the Church’s traditional understanding of indissoluble, monogamous marriage, anchored in the words of Jesus Himself, is just a lofty ideal.Tweet This
Thus, Amoris Laetitia presents the faithful with a revised attitude about sin (and particularly sexual sin) that softens the urgent need for conversion and repentance. Sin is conceived not so much as an offense against God but as a falling short of aspirations. Some Catholics cannot keep God’s commandments and are faced with the prospect of living at a distance from ideals like indissoluble marriage or chastity. It follows from this new theology that same-sex couples merit the Church’s blessing, since their only fault is failing to live up to moral ideals that are often too burdensome.
In answering the dubia of five Cardinals submitted just before the Synod on Synodality, the pope wrote that while the sexual relationship of these same-sex couples may not be morally acceptable from an objective viewpoint, “pastoral charity requires that we do not simply treat as ‘sinners’ other people whose guilt or responsibility may be mitigated by various factors…” (emphasis added).
Moreover, according to Amoris Laetitia, “a pastor cannot feel that it is enough to apply moral laws to those living in ‘irregular’ situations as if they were stones to throw at people” (305). Instead of throwing those stones like the Pharisees in John’s Gospel, a blessing is imparted, recognizing the positive elements in the relationship—“all that is true, good, and humanly valid in their lives” (Fiducia Supplicans, 31). Those positive elements suggest at least an imperfect living out of the ideal, and a blessing expresses the hope that this couple will strive to grow in full fidelity to the Gospel. However, the only way to truly achieve that fidelity is continence or a dissolution of this gravely sinful relationship. The painful reality that these couples are engaged in immoral activity, in sodomy or adultery, is ignored and obscured by a tangled web of euphemisms.
We find this same highly questionable reasoning in answers to the recent dubia submitted by Cardinal Duka concerning reception of Confession and the Eucharist for those divorced Catholics who have entered into a second, civil union. Those dubia sought to clarify the ambiguity of Amoris Laetitia on this issue. This statement claims that after a period of discernment, divorced Catholics can receive sacramental absolution and the Holy Eucharist even if they do not live chastely in the second relationship.
For Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, these sacraments were only possible for those couples living out a chaste life. But according to the dubia, composed by Cardinal Fernández, “Francis maintains the proposal of full continence for the divorced and remarried in a new union, but admits that there may be difficulties in practicing it and therefore allows in certain cases, after proper discernment, the administration of the sacrament of Reconciliation [and the Holy Eucharist] even when one fails in being faithful to the continence proposed by the Church.” Thus, Catholic couples in a second marriage do not have to cease sexual relations if they conclude that such an action is not possible.
Of course, there are many serious deficiencies in the theological reasoning of Amoris Laetitia. The supposition that keeping God’s commandments is impossible for some is completely incongruous with Scripture and Tradition. Jesus tells us that “whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24). We can also take comfort in Jesus’ instruction to St. Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
The heterodox doctrine of Amoris Laetitia also contradicts the clear teaching of Trent: “God does not command the impossible; but in commanding he cautions you both to do what you can and to pray for what you cannot, and He helps you so that you can do it.” God’s grace, therefore, allows every Christian to avoid grave sin. Also overlooked in Amoris Laetitia is the Church’s long and unyielding tradition absolutely forbidding sins of the flesh, including adultery, fornication, and homosexual activity, that has been witnessed to by many martyrs from saints like Agatha and Agnes to St. Maria Goretti.
Pope St. John Paul II was no stranger to the arguments resurrected by Pope Francis and addressed them quite explicitly in Veritatis Splendor:
It would be a very serious error to conclude that the Church’s teaching is essentially only an “ideal” which must then be adapted, proportioned, graduated to the so-called concrete possibilities of man…. But of which man are we speaking? Of man dominated by lust or of man redeemed by Christ? This is what is at stake: the reality of Christ’s redemption. Christ has redeemed us. This means that he has given us the possibility of realizing the entire truth of our being; he has set our freedom free from the domination of concupiscence. (103)
Unlike Pope Francis, Pope John Paul II believed, as the Church has always believed, that the redeemed person, despite his weakness, is quite capable of living out the demands of the Gospel and achieving the “entire truth of his being.” That truth means that sexual relations ordered to procreation are the exclusive privilege of a married man and woman who are “no longer two but one” (Matthew 19:5).
The pope’s allies like Archbishop Paglia have referred to Amoris Laetitia as a paradigm shift, and this exuberant claim is not just hyperbole. As such, it not only opens the door for sacrileges like the blessing of same-sex relationships. In the words of Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce, it also ushers in a transition from “ascetic Christianity” to a more “secularized” Christianity. The latter will slowly lead to a complete reversal of Catholic teaching on sexuality that is affirmed so clearly in the Gospel. As Del Noce points out, this new permissive attitude wipes away from the horizon the “passive and mortifying virtues” such as chastity and purity. These private virtues are now considered “repressive” even if Church authorities dare not explicitly admit this.
Given the impaired theology proposed by Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia, it is no surprise that he does not meet with groups like Courage, which call active homosexuals to live a life of chastity. He prefers, instead, to support the work of Dignity and New Ways Ministry, which make no such demands on their followers. The pope has also spoken several times about our excessive preoccupation with “sins below the waist.” In an interview with the Portuguese Jesuits during World Youth Day, the pope lamented that the Church still looks at the so-called “sins of the flesh” with a “magnifying glass,” while other evils—such as exploitation of workers, lying, and cheating—are minimized. The implication is that political virtues should take priority over the private ones.
But is the pope right about his apparent rejection of ascetic Christianity and the ostracizing of virtues like chastity and purity? And was the Church’s magisterium so wrong until Pope Francis in preserving and promoting those virtues as integral to the Faith and to our salvation?