Can Amoris Laetitia (AL) be read in light of Catholic tradition? This is the question which confronts any serious Catholic who wants to “think with the Church” but who has serious concerns about Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, particularly Chapter 8. In a recent interview with Vatican Insider, Rocco Buttiglione, renowned authority on the philosophy of St. John Paul II, claimed that the teaching of AL regarding communion for the divorced and remarried is “perfectly traditional” and that it is “grafted on a path whose foundations were laid by Pope John Paul II.” A similar view was expressed by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Pope Francis’ chosen presenter and interpreter of AL, who said that AL constitutes an “organic development” of the teaching of John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio (FC).
But if this is so, why is there so much controversy surrounding the document? Why is it that so many faithful Catholics have expressed grave misgivings about it, as when Josef Seifert, a close associate of John Paul II and former director of the International Academy of Philosophy at the Catholic University of Chile, asked publicly regarding AL, “How can Jesus and His most Holy Mother read … the words of the Pope … without crying?” Or when a petition to the College of Cardinals signed by 45 Catholic philosophers and theologians, including Fr. Aidan Nichols OP, formerly the John Paul II Lecturer in Theology at Oxford University and arguably the most accomplished theologian in the Anglophone world, said of AL: “There is no doubt that it constitutes a grave danger to Catholic faith and morals.” Unfortunately, an honest reading of AL, especially ch. 8, reveals that its teaching does in fact constitute a rupture with the magisterium of John Paul II and with the uninterrupted tradition that preceded his papacy: Not only does the document depart from the traditional theological principles enunciated by John Paul II, but it also amounts to a direct repudiation of his teaching, so closely does the magisterium of John Paul anticipate – and reject – a number of ideas found in AL.
The most obvious example of a rupture with traditional teaching concerns Communion for the divorced and remarried. John Paul II, in the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (FC) issued in 1982, upheld the Church’s perennial practice of “not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried,” unless they “take upon themselves the duty to live in complete continence.” Emphasizing the permanence of the discipline, the Pope insisted that it is “based on Sacred Scripture” (84). In 1994, after a number of bishops and theologians had put forward certain pastoral proposals, strikingly similar to those found in AL, allowing for exceptions to the discipline in specific cases, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under the auspices of John Paul II intervened and reaffirmed the traditional discipline, which it called “the constant and universal practice” of the Church: “This practice, which is presented as binding, cannot be modified because of different situations” (5).
Despite this history, AL offers “the help of the sacraments” (apparently Penance and the Eucharist) for such persons “in some cases,” since pastoral discernment can “recognize that in a particular situation no grave fault exists” (AL 305, note 351; AL 300, note 336). That this involves persons who have not taken upon themselves the duty to live as brother and sister seems clear, since the passage speaks of “an objective situation of sin” (305). While some have argued that article 305 in AL speaks only of those in certain “irregular situations” and so should not be read as applying to the divorced and remarried, it should be noted that article 300, which is clearly concerned with the divorced and remarried, uses almost the exact same language as 305 and contains an almost identical footnote to note 351, the footnote which references both Confession and the Eucharist. As the eminent German philosopher Robert Spaemann commented regarding AL’s teaching, “Article 305 together with footnote 351 … directly contradicts article 84 of Pope John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio,” adding, “That it is an issue of a breach emerges doubtlessly for every thinking person, who knows the respective texts.”
But AL’s permission of Communion for the divorced and remarried is only the terminus of a theological argument which begins earlier in the document, and it is in the earlier premises of AL’s argument that the real, epochal departure from established Catholic teaching occurs. For the traditional prohibition against Communion for those in “irregular” situations was itself based on a number of theological premises which lead inflexibly to the conclusion that such persons could not receive the Eucharist. If there was to be a change in the perennial discipline of the Church, one of those premises had to give: either divorce and remarriage must be relegated to something less than what the Catechism of the Catholic Church, promulgated by John Paul II, calls “public and permanent adultery” (CCC 2384), or the Eucharist must made available to all, no matter how grave their sins. AL primarily takes the first tack, with a few subtle nods toward the second.
But how can one reduce the gravity of that which the Lord himself explicitly called adultery? The primary way AL does so is by presenting the Church’s traditional teaching on marriage as an “ideal” (passim). This is arguably the leitmotiv of the whole document, and it colors the entirety of ch. 8’s treatment of what it calls, tellingly, “weakness.” The implications of such language are obvious: few people, if any, can reasonably be expected to live up to an ideal, and hence ordinary Christians are likely not at fault, or not completely so, for failing to follow Church teaching. Thus AL describes various “irregular” situations – including presumably those of the divorced and remarried, some of which it describes in admiring terms – as realizing the Christian “ideal” in “at least a partial and analogous way” (292). Pastoral discernment for those in such “irregular” situations must therefore take account of people’s “limits” (305), because of which a person might find himself in a “concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin” (301). In such a case, a person’s conscience can “recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response that 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.” (303).
What is so striking about this way of formulating the Church’s teaching on conjugal morality is that it was anticipated, almost verbatim, by the writings of John Paul II, especially in Veritatis Splendor (VS) and in Familiaris Consortio:
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. (VS 103)
Married people … cannot however look on the law as merely an ideal to be achieved in the future …. The “law of gradualness” … 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. (FC 34)
It is impossible to read the above passages from John Paul II without hearing echoes of ch. 8 of Amoris Laetitia. In presenting Church teaching as an “ideal” which those in an enduring situation of grave sin “realize” in a “partial way,” in describing certain sinful situations as approved by God because they do not allow a person to act otherwise “without further sin,” AL just is promoting “different degrees or forms of precept in God’s law for different individuals and situations,” that is, “gradualness of the law,” despite its protestations to the contrary.
For what AL suggests, while again disclaiming that it does so, is that in some situations certain persons are simply incapable of keeping the commandments of God. This is clearly implied, not only in the passages cited above, but throughout ch. 8. Take, for instance, AL’s claim that some Catholics are “not in a position to understand, appreciate, or fully carry out the objective demands of the law” (AL 295). Since the context is the document’s treatment of Catholics who are only civilly married or those involved in simple cohabitation, it is clear that those who aren’t in a position to “fully carry out” the law are persons living in a gravely sinful situation which persists over time. Leaving aside the question of how one could be incapable of understanding the obligation to marry (apart from some grave mental impairment) or how not appreciating (i.e., rejecting) the law could constitute a mitigating factor, the more pertinent question is: What can it mean to partially carry out the law in such a case? It seems that partially carrying out the law of God is the equivalent of not carrying out the law of God. For as John Paul II insisted in VS, the negative precepts of the law, like those forbidding adultery and fornication, “have a lower limit, beneath which the commandment is broken” (52); they do not admit of “degrees” of fulfillment (34). For how could one “partially” fornicate? Or “partially” commit adultery? If the speed limit is 75 mph, does a person partially keep the law against speeding by driving only 85 mph instead of 95? In contrast to this pessimism concerning the ability of the faithful to observe the commandments, John Paul II, reflecting what he called “the constant teaching of the Church’s tradition” (VS 102), said:
It is in the saving Cross of Jesus, in the gift of the Holy Spirit, in the Sacraments which flow forth from the pierced side of the Redeemer, that believers find the grace and the strength always to keep God’s holy law, even amid the gravest of hardships. (VS 103)
While allowance is made for occasional lapses from the law, the traditional teaching definitively precludes an enduring inability to keep the law, apart from some serious psychological malady. Put simply, for John Paul and Catholic tradition, there just aren’t any Catholics who aren’t in a position to carry out God’s law.
The second way AL attempts to reduce the gravity of divorce and remarriage is by presenting the commandments of Christ and the Church as mere “rules” (passim), which, like most rules, admit of certain exceptions. Thus, when speaking of access to the sacraments for the divorced and remarried, AL speaks of the different “consequences or effects of a rule” (300) and later argues that it is “reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule,” since such “rules … cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations” (AL 304), citing Thomas Aquinas in support of this principle. Apparently, in a “concrete situation which does not allow [someone] to act differently” (AL 301), moral laws may not apply. But as numerous commentators have pointed out, while St. Thomas does acknowledge certain positive precepts which do not hold in exceptional cases, he also affirms certain negative moral norms which oblige always and in every situation, citing in particular the laws against adultery and fornication (see Quaestiones Quodlibetales, 9, q.7, a.2). According to Aquinas, such actions have “deformity inseparably attached to them” and can never be approved, regardless of the complexity of the situation.
However, an even more vigorous proponent of exceptionless moral norms was, not surprisingly, John Paul II, who in VS rejected the idea that there are no moral precepts which “provide absolutely for all particular situations”:
The negative precepts of the natural law are universally valid. They oblige each and every individual, always and in every circumstance. It is a matter of prohibitions which forbid a given action semper et pro semper, without exception. (VS 52)
The negative moral precepts, those prohibiting certain concrete actions or kinds of behavior as intrinsically evil, do not allow for any legitimate exception. They do not leave room, in any morally acceptable way, for the “creativity” of any contrary determination whatsoever. (VS 67)
When it is a matter of the moral norms prohibiting intrinsic evil, there are no privileges or exceptions for anyone. It makes no difference whether one is the master of the world or the “poorest of the poor” on the face of the earth. (VS 96)
Indeed, John Paul II described the defense of the permanent and universal validity of certain moral norms against various revisionist theories then rampant in theological faculties and seminaries as the “central theme” of Veritatis Splendor (115). Given the forcefulness of its teaching on the existence of absolute moral laws, it is astonishing that AL could affirm the contrary.
Apart from these strictly theological departures from the traditional magisterium as embodied by John Paul II, AL’s reduction of the gravity of divorce and remarriage is also reflected in the dramatically different language it uses in comparison with previous Church teaching. For example, John Paul II’s FC speaks of the divorced and remarried as having “rejected the Lord’s command” and of the necessity of “repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ” (84). On the other hand, AL describes “irregular” relationships from cohabitation to divorce and remarriage as “situations of weakness and imperfection” (296) and calls the divorced and remarried “living members” (299) of the Church, presuming the state of grace. While, as we have seen, the Catechism bluntly describes the divorced and remarried as living in “adultery,” AL speaks of “a second union” which can exhibit “proven fidelity, generous self giving, [and] Christian commitment” (298), and even entertains the notion that the “faithfulness” of such unions is “endangered” if those involved are denied sexual intimacy, misquoting and misapplying Vatican II in the process (note 329). Is it possible that one can assent to the teaching of the Catechism that such unions are “public and permanent adultery,” and then describe them in the way AL does?
Having thus laid the groundwork for a change in discipline by softening the Church’s traditional teaching on conjugal morality, AL opens the sacraments to the divorced and remarried, since such persons “may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such” (305). Again and again, AL stresses the distinction between what it calls, awkwardly, “objective sin” (297) – is there any other kind? – and subjective guilt, citing a number of mitigating factors and asserting that “it can no longer simply be said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace” (301). It even cites the 2000 Declaration Concerning the Admission to Holy Communion of Faithful Who are Divorced and Remarried from the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts (PCLT) in support of this distinction. But this text of the PCLT was written precisely to counter those who appealed to subjective factors in arguing that Canon 915, the ecclesiastical canon which forbids Communion for those living in a state of manifest grave sin, did not apply to the divorced and remarried, calling “clearly misleading” any interpretation which would “set itself against the canon’s substantial content, as declared uninterruptedly by the Magisterium and by the discipline of the Church throughout the centuries” (2). As the Declaration points out concerning Communion for the divorced and remarried, consideration of subjective fault is irrelevant, since Canon 915 speaks only of “grave sin, understood objectively” (2).
But the same point was made – once again – by John Paul II, who said the divorced and remarried could not receive the Eucharist because of a “state and condition of life” which “objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church,” and then adding the second, ancillary reason of the danger of scandal (FC 84). In other words, the withholding of Communion in such a case is not because of the imputation of mortal sin, since as John Paul insisted in Ecclesia de eucharistia, “the judgment of one’s state of grace obviously belongs only to the person involved.” But, as he reminded the Church, “in the case of outward conduct which is seriously, clearly and steadfastly contrary to the moral norm,” Communion must be denied out of “pastoral concern for the good order of the community and out of respect for the sacrament” (37).
But how is it even possible for a minister to determine that a person living in an enduring state of grave sin is subjectively inculpable? Absent a firm purpose to live continently, divorced and remarried persons would be involved in a deliberate choice to remain in a state contrary the law of God, not a fleeting situation of weakness or inadvertence to which mitigating factors could be applied. In describing such mitigating factors, the Catechism speaks of the diminished “imputability and responsibility of an action” (CCC 1735), not of an ongoing state. Could a confessor absolve a person who says that a resolution to practice continence is out of the question “for now,” as AL suggests? Is not a firm purpose of amendment necessary for the forgiveness of sins in the Sacrament of Penance, as the Council of Trent teaches? Or what about a person who “knows full well the rule” but professes not to “understand” the “inherent values” (AL 301) of Christ’s word concerning divorce and remarriage? Is this not simply the equivalent of rejecting the teaching of Christ and the Church, an action which increases, rather than mitigates, guilt?
Ultimately, the adoption of AL as the pastoral practice of the Church would mean the de facto abrogation of Canon 915, which, as the PCLT reminds us, “is derived from divine law and transcends the domain of ecclesial law” (1). For why should the exceptions envisioned in AL be applied only to those in “irregular” marital situations? In authorizing pastors to make exceptions to the canon for some sins of the sexual variety, AL implicitly authorizes exceptions for any sins against the sixth commandment and indeed for all habitual public sins for those who “find it very difficult to act differently” (AL 302), as long as they don’t “flaunt” their sin or try to impose it on the Church (AL 297). In effect, AL has shifted the basis for ecclesial and Eucharistic communion from the visible and objective bonds upon which John Paul II insisted in Ecclesia de eucharistia (cf. 38) to primarily invisible and subjective ones, since it opens Communion to those who live in state of public contradiction to the faith of the Church. Given this shift, a further question arises: why should such exceptions not apply to anyone, Catholic or not, who shows signs of good will? The consequences for the Eucharistic discipline of the Church would be incalculably vast.
In a 1990 essay in America magazine, revisionist moral theologian Richard McCormick predicted that John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor would “eventually enjoy a historical status similar to that of Humani Generis,” Pius XII’s 1950 encyclical letter on certain dangerous trends in Catholic theology, which was largely ignored during and after Vatican II. Sadly, McCormick’s words appear to have proven prophetic. In a recent interview with La Civilta Cattolica, Cardinal Schönborn spoke of AL’s consistency with Catholic tradition “on the level of principles” but of a discipline which now “takes account of the endless variety of concrete situations,” apparently in contrast to FC. But as we have seen, in order to modify the discipline codified in FC 84, AL first had to circumvent the principles enshrined in Veritatis Splendor. No doubt this is why, in various places, AL reads like a sustained argument against the magisterium of John Paul II, especially VS, and against what Cardinal Schönborn called “the intransigent moralists,” who, in stressing the “intrinsece malum [intrinsically evil], suppress discussion of – by definition complex – circumstances of and situations in life.” Against such “intransigence” which uses “moral laws … as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives” (AL 305), AL puts forward an image of the Church as a “mother who welcomes [the divorced and remarried] always” (299) and who, while proposing the ideal, “treats the weak with compassion” (308) in order to “understand, forgive, accompany, hope, and above all integrate” (312) them. In VS, the landmark papal encyclical which AL fails to cite even one time but which lurks in the background as a kind of silent rebuke, John Paul II responds:
The Church’s teaching, and in particular her firmness in defending the universal and permanent validity of the precepts prohibiting intrinsically evil acts, is not infrequently seen as the sign of an intolerable intransigence, particularly with regard to the enormously complex and conflict-filled situations present in the moral life of individuals and of society of today; this intransigence is said to be in contrast with the Church’s motherhood. The Church, one hears, is lacking in understanding and compassion. But the Church’s motherhood can never in fact be separated from her teaching mission, which she must carry out as the faithful Bride of Christ, who is Truth in person.” (95)
Editor’s note: in the preceding text, all emphasis in the cited papal documents has been added by the author.
Josh Kusch received his MA in Catholic Thought and Life from St. Meinrad School of Theology. He teaches Catholic theology in Louisville, Kentucky, where he lives with his wife and five children.