Monday, 23 January 2017

Amoris Laetitia: The Explosive Chapter 8

This is the chapter which above all others has come in for the greatest quantity of comment. It is very important therefore to examine the language of this chapter very closely to try and find out whether there is clear meaning.

Chapter 8 has the title 'ACCOMPANYING, DISCERNING AND INTEGRATING WEAKNESS'. Presumably the original was written in Spanish and there the word translated as 'weakness' is 'fragilidad'. The French, Italian and Portuguese all have words which I would translate as 'fragility' which has a rather different meaning from 'weakness'. One can be fragile but not necessarily weak.

De facto unions

The chapter starts with several quotes from the Relatio Synodi at the end of the first session of the Synod on the Family in 2014 concerning those who are in a less than perfect situation and the need of the Church to turn to them with love. In mentioning these 'less than perfect situations' there is a reference to the 2015 or second session at para 70 which reads:

'And finally, in other countries, de facto unions are becoming more numerous, because of not only the rejection of the values of family and marriage but also, for some, marriage is seen as a luxury due to their state in society. Consequently, in the latter case, the lack of material resources forces couples to live in de facto unions. '

It is difficult to see how such couples are forced to live in de facto unions as if they had no choice. If they are living together what force is preventing them from getting married? It goes unexplained. But AL suggests that it is the cost of a wedding that deters people. There is no mention of the availability of what is called 'safe sex' whereby many believe they can have sex without the responsibility of permanence and procreation. Surely this is a major factor in cohabitation as is the prevalence of divorce which puts many couples off from marrying because they do not want to suffer the pain of divorce themselves and think they can avoid such pain by not entering into a commitment which might lead to procreation.

The Law of Gradualness and Gradualness of the Law

There is then a heading: “Gradualness in pastoral care”. The text deals with merely civil marriage and simple cohabitation and the requirement of pastors to discern these situations. Reference is made to the so-called “law of gradualness” proposed by Saint John Paul II and the footnote refers us to Familiaris Consortio para 34 which was the apostolic exhortation written in November 1981. But it is worth going back to the homily of JPII at the close of the Synod on the role of the Christian Family in the Modern World which he gave on 25th October 1980. The homily does not appear in English on the Vatican website but the Spanish version reads as follows:

'En realidad no se puede aceptar un "proceso de gradualidad", como se dice hoy, si uno no observa la ley divina con ánimo sincero y busca aquellos bienes custodiados y promovidos por la misma ley. Pues la llamada "ley de gradualidad" o camino gradual no puede ser una "gradualidad de la ley", como sí hubiera varios grados o formas de precepto en la ley divina, para los diversos hombres y las distintas situaciones.'

I translate those two sentences as:

'In reality one cannot accept a “process of gradualness”, as it is called to-day, if one does not observe divine law with a sincere heart and seeks those goods guarded and promoted by that same law. Thus the so-called “law of graduality” or gradual path cannot be a “graduality of law” as if there were various degrees or forms of precept in God's law for different individuals and situations”.

Familiaris Consortio written a year later condenses this into one sentence:

'And so what is known as 'the law of gradualness' or step-by-step advance cannot be identified with 'gradualness of the law,' as if there were different degrees or forms of precept in God's law for different individuals and situations.'

What the homily makes clear and is thus implicit in Familiaris Consortio is that the process of gradualness is not acceptable if divine law is not accepted and good is not sought. The condemnation of “graduality of law” reinforces that point. However when we get to Amoris Laetitia we have:

'This is not a “gradualness of law” but rather a gradualness in the prudential exercise of free acts on the part of subjects who are not in a position to understand, appreciate, or fully carry out the objective demands of the law. '

Quite what this “prudential exercise of free acts” actually amounts to or means is not explained. Nor is it is easy to see what is meant by not being able to “fully carry out the objective demands of the law”. However people who do not understand or appreciate divine law are not observing it nor are they seeking the goods as required by JPII in order to make a process of gradualness acceptable.

At this point however all one can conclude is that the situation specified in AL is different from that envisaged by JPII as being suitable for a process of gradualness. Only later will we see the relevance of this. The relevant paragraph 295 in AL finishes with another quote taken out of context from Familiaris Consortio as it is not about the same gradual process.

Mercy and the Discernment of Irregular Situations

The next heading is: The discernment of “irregular” situations. Here the Pope talks about mercy. The problem is what is meant by the word 'mercy'. Is is being kind to someone (misericordia) or is it more specific where a judge shows mercy to a condemned person akin to the mercy the Lord shows to a repentant sinner. The word 'mercy' is used far too freely without giving it a precise meaning in the particular context. Nominalism?

The idea that Christ's mercy, in the sense of forgiveness of sin, is only available with confession of sin and firm purpose of amendment, is not mentioned. We thus get oddly incomplete statements as in 296: “The way of the Church is not to condemn anyone for ever; it is to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart… For true charity is always unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous” which incidentally is a quote from one of Pope Francis's own homilies.

Again in 297 we have:

“No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel!”. 

Does that not deny the possibility of eternal damnation?

Archbishop Victor Fernandez

Here we must note that it has been suggested that the whole of this chapter 8 was not written by Pope Francis but by his friend Archbishop Victor Fernandez, President of the Catholic University of Argentina, who some believe had a hand in Laudatio Si and Evangelii Gaudium. Indeed there are passages in AL which have plainly been lifted word for word from the writings of Archbishop Victor Fernandez. For further details see this Crux article.

Certainly, the Archbishop comes across as an advocate of indifferentism much like our own Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor has in his career. Now, it is perfectly legitimate to hope that all will be saved but if you take this to be a certainty people will ask what is the point in following the commandments of Christ if you are going to be saved anyway?

Objective Sin

Paragraph 297 mentions the case of someone who “flaunts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal, or wants to impose something other than what the Church teaches”. It says they should not teach or preach but may, with the discretion of the Parish Priest, engage in “some social service, prayer meeting or another way.” I think that is dangerous – I have been to too many prayer meetings where instead of expounding the teaching of the Church individuals have been invited and allowed to give witness to very heterodox ideas.

Subjective guilt and a litany of excuses

AL then turns to the divorced and remarried and comes up with the novel idea that if the second 'marriage' has been going on long enough it is somewhat better than a more recent second 'marriage'. A recipe for carry on sinning and it will all come right? Viz 298:

“One thing is a second union consolidated over time, with new children, proven fidelity, generous self giving, Christian commitment, a consciousness of its irregularity and of the great difficulty of going back without feeling in conscience that one would fall into new sins.” 

No explanation is given of what those new sins might be nor how one can speak of true Christian commitment in those circumstances.

The same paragraph 298 continues with a quote from Familiaris Consortio:

'The Church acknowledges situations 'where, for serious reasons, such as the children’s upbringing, a man and woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate.' 

In the main text it omits to state that St JPII went on to mention the requirement that they must live as brother and sister if they are to have communion. Further in his earlier homily of 25th October 1980, at the end of the Synod on the role of the Christian Family in the Modern World, he mentioned that there must be no scandal. But what is curious is that when referring to Familiaris Consortio in a footnote the following is added:

In such situations, many people, knowing and accepting the possibility of living “as brothers and sisters” which the Church offers them, point out that if certain expressions of intimacy are lacking, “it often happens that faithfulness is endangered and the good of the children suffers” (Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 51).'

It is not explained who these 'many people' are who apparently used something out of Gaudium et Spes. It is in fact a misquotation. The correct version is:

'But where the intimacy of married life is broken off, its faithfulness can sometimes be imperilled and its quality of fruitfulness ruined, for then the upbringing of the children and the courage to accept new ones are both endangered.'

More important is that it is taken completely out of context. Gaudium et Spes is not talking about an adulterous 'marriage' but about a true marriage where the intimacy is legitimate. The idea that some speculative harm could flow from ceasing to commit adultery is not a valid reason for continuing to commit adultery. This is consequentialism – judging an action by speculating about the consequences.

The next paragraph, 300, starts as follows:

300. If we consider the immense variety of concrete situations such as those I have mentioned, it is understandable that neither the Synod nor this Exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases.

But why do we need new rules? From here on the theme of AL is that the conditions for adultery to be a mortal sin are not always there and therefore it can be excused or even tolerated. It is merely a subjective issue and a matter for individual conscience. Paragraph 301 brings in St Thomas Aquinas to support that argument but that support is not really there as has been explained by several theologians including Professor Richard Spinello.

The point is that adultery is objectively an intrinsic evil and no amount of argument about the subjective state of the adulterer can alter that. It is not something that can be tolerated whatever the subjective state of the adulterer. If anyone finds that difficult to understand let us substitute for the commandment forbidding adultery the commandment not to kill and take as our example Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper who killed a series of women. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and claimed that God had told him to kill prostitutes – in fact his victims were not all prostitutes. He certainly had a habit of killing women. So how would he have be dealt with in the light of Amoris Laetitia?

Well if he had consulted a priest who follows Amoris Laetitia then the following passage from paragraph 302 might be relevant:

'The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly mentions these factors: “imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors. In another paragraph, the Catechism refers once again to circumstances which mitigate moral responsibility, and mentions at length “affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen or even extenuate moral culpability."'

Take your pick as to which of these could have applied to our serial killer. The difference between JPII's process of gradualness and that of Pope Francis is immediately apparent. And then there is the question of conscience as dealt with in paragraph 303:

'Recognizing the influence of such concrete factors, we can add that individual conscience needs to be better incorporated into the Church’s praxis in certain situations which do not objectively embody our understanding of marriage. Naturally, every effort should be made to encourage the development of an enlightened conscience, formed and guided by the responsible and serious discernment of one’s pastor, and to encourage an ever greater trust in God’s grace. Yet 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.'

Would not the priest have to accept Sutcliffe's claim that he seriously believed as a matter of conscience that God was telling him to kill prostitutes? At this point does the priest accept that in view of this habitual habit, the psychological factors and the man's sincere belief as a matter of conscience means that he is not fully culpable? That the solution can only be approached gradually and he is not going to conform to an ideal immediately? Perhaps he would advise him to make sure that in future his victims really were prostitutes as the most generous response he can make in the circumstances and in the meantime he can go to communion.

It is easy to see how his subjective guilt might not have been all that great but objectively that is irrelevant to the fact that the women have been murdered and are just as dead whatever his subjective guilt. Murder is an intrinsic evil.

If the reader finds the comparison of adultery with serial murder far-fetched think of paedophilia and the way in which many clerics handled that and the enormous damage to the Church that has resulted from not accepting that it is an intrinsic evil but merely some subjective problem for certain priests. If you ignore the objective evil of these actions you end up ignoring the victims. How many souls have been lost to Christ as a result of that episode?

No rules?

Going back to paragraph 300 and the supposed impossibility of making rules to cover all situations is AL trying to make the point that there can be no rules?

Perhaps the idea is that there all sorts of different cases and it is all just too difficult to make general rules – cases cannot be pigeon-holed in some rigid system. What you do is that you discern the particular case so that you can differentiate it from any other and then you can say because it is so different only mercy can be applied and anything goes.

Traditionally pastors, particularly Jesuits, used casuistry to decide the rights or wrongs of a case. But Pope Francis has specifically denounced casuistry when many people would have thought that casuistry was synonymous with discernment. But for Pope Francis casuistry has a result in that having looked at the detail of the case you then decide what principals govern it. His idea of discernment is that having looked at the case you cannot decide what principals apply so you just apply mercy.

Of course all that is utter nonsense. If you look at how court cases are decided no two cases are ever the same and the facts are often novel. Distinctions can always be made between one set of facts and another. It is the job of the judge to see how the existing law applies to particular facts and judge accordingly perhaps highlighting how differences can be distinguished and thereby adding to precedent law. But of course Pope Francis would reject all that – it is just the talk of Doctors of the Law. He may accept that there are general principles such as the teaching of Christ and the Church but applying them goes against 'mercy' and we just end up with a subjective mishmash where anything becomes justifiable and allowed. It is situation ethics taken to an extreme.

Remember paragraph 3 at the very start of AL which says:

3. Since “time is greater than space”, I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium. Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it. This will always be the case as the Spirit guides us towards the entire truth (cf. Jn 16:13), until he leads us fully into the mystery of Christ and enables us to see all things as he does. Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs. For “cultures are in fact quite diverse and every general principle… needs to be inculturated,if it is to be respected and applied”.

So, should we be surprised that the ambiguities of Amoris Laetitia get interpreted in one way in Malta and another way in Poland? One wonders what our own dear Conference of Bishops of England and Wales is cooking up. Sadly I can guess. Incidentally a Father Giovanni Scalese has commented on Pope Francis's “time is greater than space” saying that his idea seems to be close to Hegelian historicism i.e. that teachings can change as a result of the zeitgeist of history.

Paragraph 300 finishes with the statement:

'When a responsible and tactful person, who does not presume to put his or her own desires ahead of the common good of the Church, meets with a pastor capable of acknowledging the seriousness of the matter before him, there can be no risk that a specific discernment may lead people to think that the Church maintains a double standard.'

Double standard? Surely a standard that is going to vary from diocese to diocese and country to country.

Or did Christ teach something?

Amoris Laetitia goes on to contradict itself by saying that:

“Priests have the duty to “accompany [the divorced and remarried] in helping them to understand their situation according to the teaching of the Church and the guidelines of the bishop”.

So it accepts there are teachings and guidelines so why would be looking for new rules? Any reader is going to be confused.

The essential point is that to overlook the objective evil of adultery and seemingly to condone it, is inevitably going to cause scandal and that is serious because what it means is that many people will take the line that there is nothing so terrible about adultery, divorce and remarriage and therefore will be tempted into those sins. Amoris Laetitia will be the cause of many marriage breakdowns with all the associated misery for spouses and the damage to the children of the marriages.

Paragraph 305 and the infamous footnote

It gets worse as in paragraph 305 after an irrelevant quote from St Thomas Aquinas it reads:

'It is true that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations. At the same time, it must be said that, precisely for that reason, what is part of a practical discernment in particular circumstances cannot be elevated to the level of a rule. That would not only lead to an intolerable casuistry, but would endanger the very values which must be preserved with special care.'

Rules that can never be disregarded? But you can disregard them if you decide they do not apply to a particular situation. And in looking at particular situations you can never decide how a particular rule does or does not apply. This is irrational to a degree. Further into paragraph 305 we have:

'Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.'

It is to that statement that the infamous footnote 351 refers:

'351 In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, “I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy” (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium [24 November 2013], 44: AAS 105 [2013], 1038). I would also point out that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (ibid., 47: 1039). '

The footnote clearly suggests that communion is to be available to the divorced and remarried. Rocco Buttiglione has attacked the dubia of the four Cardinals and defended AL by quoting this paragraph 305 and claiming that it only applies to those who are not subjectively culpable.

The crucial word is 'may'. Pope Francis is referring to cases which may or may not involve subjective culpability. Rocco Buttiglione gives the example of somebody who is forced into sexual relations and therefore is not culpable any more than any woman is guilty of a mortal sin if she is raped. He correctly points out that in that situation communion is possible. The problem however remains that Amoris Laetitia is also talking of people who may be morally culpable. Buttiglione does not deal with that situation so his whole argument falls to the ground. Further quite how a person is not morally culpable if he continues with adultery after a process of discernment is difficult to imagine except in the most extreme circumstances where there is a lack of consent.

Marriage is just an 'ideal'?

Paragraph 307 starts with the words:

'In order to avoid all misunderstanding, I would point out that in no way must the Church desist from proposing the full ideal of marriage, God’s plan in all its grandeur:'

So Christ's teaching on marriage is reduced to an ideal that not everyone can be expected to adhere to. Some of his disciples were amazed at his teaching thinking it impossible of performance. Are we to follow them?

And the same paragraph goes on to say:

'To show understanding in the face of exceptional situations never implies dimming the light of the fuller ideal, or proposing less than what Jesus offers to the human being.'

What an absurd statement when we have been told that the 'fuller ideal' cannot always be followed. This is ambiguity with knobs on. It follows that it is entirely predictable to find in paragraph 308 the sentence:

'The Gospel itself tells us not to judge or condemn (cf. Mt 7:1; Lk 6:37).'

...while neatly overlooking the fact that Christ was telling us not to judge other people whereas here we are talking about making judgements about irregular situations.

Mercy again

Inevitably this is then linked to the Year of Mercy at paragraph 310. The question that goes unanswered is while God is merciful to the sinner who repents is he equally merciful to those who purposely continue in a sinful situation?

Some Responses to Amoris Laetitia

I have given some links above. One response that came out as early as May 2016 was by Dr Anna Silvas, a Romanian Catholic, Classicist, Semiticist, Patristic scholar. A copy of her concerns can be found here.

She is particularly good on the language of AL pointing our, for example, the complete absence of such words as 'adultery' other than in respect of the woman taken in adultery or the Samaritan woman.

In September 2016 we had the criteria of the Bishops of Buenos Aires which clearly stated that AL gave an opening to communion for the divorced and remarried who found continence too difficult. They referred to another footnote which has a particularly egregious and dishonest reference to a letter from St John Paul II which gives no support whatever to the idea that confession does not require a firm purpose of amendment as claimed by AL. All that JPII said was that the knowledge that one would probably sin again does not invalidate that firm purpose. In fact these criteria were merely a draft which had met criticism from some of the clergy in Buenos Aires but, when Pope Francis gave his absolute indorsement to it, it was no doubt set in concrete.

In October the Diocese of Florence came out with 'AMORIS LAETITIA: FOR ITS INTERPRETATION AND ACTUATION'. It is a curious document in that it is fairly critical of Amoris Laetitia pointing out omissions and ambiguities. But then at one point it clearly states that the divorced and remarried can be admitted to communion without stating under what conditions. No author is credited with this statement and yet at one point it says 'I said...' It strikes me as having been written by someone critical of AL but then revised by another hand so as to comply with the liberal interpretation of AL leading to a thoroughly confused and contradictory document.

Then at the end of October 2016 we had the dubia which asks five questions that can be roughly summarised as follows although it best to read the dubia itself:

  1. Can a divorced and remarried person, sexually active with their new partner be admitted to communion?
  2. Does the church still teach that there are 'absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts and that are binding without exceptions?' This is the point about objective evils discussed above.
  3. Is a person in an habitual state not in accordance with the teaching of the Church in an objective situation of grave habitual sin?
  4. Does the Church still teach “circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act ‘subjectively’ good or defensible as a choice”?
  5. Does the Church still exclude a creative interpretation of the role of conscience and that emphasizes that conscience can never be authorized to legitimate exceptions to absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts by virtue of their object?

All of these questions relate to the teaching of St John Paul II and whether his teaching still holds. As we all know Pope Francis has refused to answer these questions which surely puts paid to the idea that he is a model of humility. One can only assume that he is trying to alter the doctrine of the Church by stealth; not doing it himself but pointing others in the way; pushing the envelope as all liberals do ensuring that some erroneous teaching cannot be directly attributed to them.

There have been many other responses both in support of Pope Francis and critical of AL. Those in support are very unconvincing – for example that of Austen Ivereigh praising him for following the teachings of President Peron of Argentina is utterly ludicrous.


Early on Pope Francis suggested at a World Youth day that they, the youth, should 'hagan lio' i.e. make a mess. He has certainly managed to do just that. Basically by saying that matters both doctrinal and pastoral can be decided at the level of Bishops' conferences (see AL 3) he has allowed the Church to be split. He allowed the working of the Synod to be manipulated in the most disgraceful way and has finally come out with a signpost to heresy in the form of Amoris Laetitia.

The final chapter 9 is about spirituality in marriage. After the shocks of Chapter 8 it comes over as superfluous even though there is nothing controversial in it requiring comment.

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