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Amoris Laetitia and all that
Remind me again what the problem was supposed to be?
Recently some Catholic writers and thinkers have been criticizing Pope Francis’s exhortation Amoris Laetitia, suggesting that it contradicts the moral principles laid out by St. John Paul II’s encyclical on moral theology, Veritatis Splendor.
Over at Where Peter Is, Pedro Gabriel wrote a clear, straightforward rebuttal to this charge, with the title “Does Amoris Laetitia untie the knots in Veritatis Splendor?” The title is a reference to a quote from an interview of Spanish moral theologian Julio Martinez, SJ that appeared in America Magazine last month. The "knots" in question, of course, aren't the objective truths taught in Veritatis Splendor but the pastoral application of its principles.
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A screenshot of the title soon became the subject of mockery for some Twitter users, including a few that identified as theology professors at small Catholic colleges. The old anti-Amoris talking points were trotted back out as if it was 2016 all over again. It seems that this issue just won’t go away. In fact, after listening to their arguments over and over for six years, it seems that their simplistic rejection of this magisterial document — based on a flawed analysis of its contents — has cemented itself into certain Catholic institutions and will remain with us for the foreseeable future, barring a miracle.
As Pedro explains clearly, Amoris Laetitia certainly doesn't violate the fundamentals of Veritatis Splendor and it doesn't teach any of the erroneous ideas condemned by the encyclical. It is clear in its acknowledgement of the reality of intrinsic evils and objective morality. Amoris doesn’t open up those issues, it accepts them as settled. What it does do is help pastors respond to situations that fall short of the objective ideal.
The resistance to Amoris Laetitia seems to be based in an inability to distinguish between giving permission to keep sinning and recognizing the circumstances and culpability of a person in an ongoing situation of objectively grave sin and accompanying that person in their journey of faith.
Amoris Laetitia not only takes the objective principles in Veritatis Splendor for granted, it also applies the traditional teaching on mortal sin — that it requires grave matter, full knowledge, and deliberate consent. It then uses these principles as the starting point for discerning the next steps in a path forward towards a life that conforms to the objective ideal.
And this, of course, requires the willingness of the pastor and the person to be honest about the reality of the situation and how the person wound up there. When working with people in irregular sexual relationships it also requires exploring the feasibility of resolving the situation through established means such as separation, annulment, convalidation, or a mutual commitment to continence by both partners.
If, in the course of the ongoing discernment (undertaken honestly and with genuine desire to live the Catholic faith), they discern that the person's culpability is mitigated in their particular situation because they are not freely and fully consenting when they commit the sin — meaning in their case the sin is venial at worst — then pastors may determine that the sacraments can help the person.
Note here that the priest is only granting permission for the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist, not permission to sin. Such a discernment would have determined that the person would not be in a state of mortal sin when receiving the Eucharist. Furthermore, this is permissible in situations where the person is committed to continuing on this journey towards living a life in conformity with the ideal.
Apparently to some theologians and bishops (and, sadly, even cardinals), the idea that Pope Francis taught that this is a legitimate way forward threatens the very foundations of Catholic moral teaching and they believe they must save the Church from an unprecedented doctrinal crisis.
Honestly, when I read Amoris Laetitia back in 2016 for the first time, I actually thought the "conservative" side had won. It was obvious that the document wasn't giving a "free pass" to anyone, nor was it blessing or sanctioning divorce and remarriage. And it certainly wasn’t advocating receiving the Eucharist in a state of mortal sin.
Yes, Francis went a bit further than JP2 was willing to permit in certain areas, but his decision still adheres to basic Catholic principles. I still have difficulty understanding why so many prominent Catholic leaders can't grasp that.
There's one other element to this debate that seems to particularly bother some critics of Amoris Laetitia. They will argue that the denial of sacraments has nothing to do with the person’s culpability. They will point to Familiaris Consortio 84 as evidence, where it says that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics cannot be admitted to the sacraments due to "the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist." In other words, even if the logic of Amoris Laetitia chapter 8 is sound, it does not address this teaching, which bars the divorced and remarried regardless of their personal guilt.
First of all, is there any sin or sinful situation that doesn't objectively contradict the union of love between Christ and the Church? Isn't all sin directly contradictory to God's love? Yet there are many sins and situations of sin that do not result in automatic denial of the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist, even when no mitigating circumstances are discerned.
Note also that John Paul says their exclusion from the sacraments is due to "their state and condition of life," not (specifically) their sexual activity. Yet in the very next passage, he writes that such couples may be admitted to the sacraments when, "repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage. This means, in practice, that .... they 'take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.'"
I have difficulty understanding the consistency here. He seems to be saying that simply dropping sex from a civil remarriage while otherwise remaining in "their state and condition of life" — keeping the legal contract, the shared life, inheritance, jointly held property, etc. — solves the "objective contradiction" that their illicit union creates.
I've seen critics of Amoris Laetitia argue that this clause in Familiaris Consortio isn't really even an "exception" because the objective contradiction has been solved by this "brother and sister" arrangement.
I understand the logic of this discipline when framed as an “exception” to the norm. What I have trouble understanding is the argument that it isn't an exception at all, because it supposedly solves the objective contradiction of the second union.
To be clear, I think John Paul drew a line that was fully within his authority to draw. And, as I already said, I agree with him that divorce and remarriage is in contradiction with the Eucharist. But so is any sin. So it can't be classified as an "error" in that it violated doctrine, but it does seem to have contained deficiencies and it was certainly not the final, definitive word on the matter.
Nor, I suspect, is Amoris Laetitia.