Last week saw the release of an important interview (PDF link) given by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna and one of Pope Francis’ most trusted theological advisers and spokesmen, to the Roman Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica. The topic was the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia (AL):
This interview has already made waves round the world, mainly because of His Eminence’s insistence on three points: first, that an apostolic exhortation such as AL is indeed an authoritative magisterial document, containing teaching that Catholics must assent to; secondly, that all previous teachings on marriage and the family must now be interpreted in the light of AL; and finally, that AL is indeed to be understood as allowing divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist in some cases, even without a commitment to live ‘as brother and sister’.
I actually have no quarrel in principle with Cardinal Schönborn’s first point, about the status of apostolic exhortations. Though relatively recent in origin, they are fairly high in the ‘pecking order’ of magisterial documents – probably just a tad beneath encyclicals. To a large extent they are indeed hortatory and pastoral in tone and content, rather than strictly doctrinal. But Schönborn is correct in pointing out that when certain passages are worded in such a way as to manifest the Pontiff’s intention to inculcate some doctrinal truth, that certainly counts as magisterial teaching. I also agree with the principle of theological method that underlies Cardinal Schönborn’s second controversial statement – that all previous magisterial statements on marriage and the family must now be interpreted in the light of AL. However, what His Eminence says is not the whole truth.
Let me explain. It has often happened in the historical development of Catholic doctrine that certain teachings which at an earlier stage were not fully explicated were subsequently clarified by new interventions of the magisterium. For instance, the ancient faith of the Church that the Blessed Virgin was without sin did not make entirely clear whether her perfect sinlessness began at the very moment of her conception. Hence, as is well known, some distinguished theologians over the centuries disputed her Immaculate Conception until Bl. Pius IX finally settled the question dogmatically in 1854. So when a later magisterial teaching adds precision or clarity to an earlier one, or draws out its logical implications, then of course we’re going to interpret the earlier statement(s) in the light of the later one.
But what happens when the reverse is the case – when a more recent magisterial statement is less clearly expressed than an earlier one? This has been a problem with certain documents of Vatican Council II. Since the sometimes deep theological cracks between ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ Fathers had to be papered over so as to get a consensus vote, the final texts on some topics – e.g., religious freedom, biblical inerrancy, ecumenism, the definition of Christ’s Church, his social kingship, and whether those dying as non-believers can be saved – are less clear than earlier relevant statements of the magisterium. In this new situation, correct theological methodology requires us to interpret the new teaching in the light of the old one. Unfortunately, Cardinal Schönborn’s one-sided presentation says nothing about this complementary norm.
In both situations, the basic interpretative principle is the same: we should interpret less clear magisterial statements in the light of those that are expressed more clearly, regardless of which happened to come first. That common-sense norm derives from a still more basic principle, namely, the revealed promise of Jesus that his Holy Spirit will always be present in the Church to guide and keep her in the path of truth (cf. John 14: 16-17, 26). So when two apparently contrasting magisterial statements can reasonably be harmonized, they should be.
However, that raises another question: What if it seems impossible to reconcile two papal affirmations dealing with faith and morals? This brings us to the third and most contentious of the controversial positions now espoused by Cardinal Schönborn. Some have sought to reconcile with previous papal teaching Pope Francis’ statements in AL #305 and its notorious footnote 351, which says that “in certain cases” Catholics living “in an objective situation of sin” (notably the divorced and civilly remarried) can receive “the help of the sacraments” – sacraments which the same footnote identifies as Penance and Eucharist. According to would-be reconcilers, the Holy Father should here be understood as implicitly restricting this sacramental “help” to those who commit to live ‘as brother and sister’.
Given the context, this bland reading of note 351 never struck me as very plausible. In any case, it has now been rejected decisively – almost scornfully! – by the learned prelate whom Francis himself has repeatedly designated as the most trustworthy commentator on the new apostolic exhortation. Moreover, this occurs in an interview that the Pope would almost certainly have read beforehand. (Every issue of this top-drawer Jesuit journal is vetted by the Vatican Secretariat of State prior to publication.) When editor Spadaro asks Schönborn if he agrees that it’s “obvious” Pope Francis is not limiting this sacramental “help” to couples living as brother and sister, His Eminence immediately responds, “Yes, certainly!” He then spells it right out: the present Holy Father “does not stop short at the kinds of cases that are specified [by John Paul II] in no. 84 of Familiaris consortio.” (That is, those cases where the couple abstain from sexual intimacy.)
Hopefully Schönborn’s authority will at least settle the debate as to what Pope Francis means and intends on this point. But let’s look again at this key article of Pope St. John Paul II’s 1981 apostolic exhortation on the family. In the troubled wake of AL, most appeals to the authority of FC #84 have cited its exclusion of (sexually active) remarried divorcees from the Eucharist. But still more basic is what this article says about the sacrament of Penance. For if you can’t be absolved, you can’t go to Communion anywhere – not even in a church where this would cause no scandal. And John Paul affirms, “Reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance, which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, . . . take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.”
Now, this is where the rubber hits the road, folks. Pope John Paul, in continuity with all his predecessors from time immemorial, has reaffirmed that only those divorced and civilly remarried Catholics who commit to live in complete continence may be given sacramental absolution. But Pope Francis now says that those who make that commitment are not the only such Catholics who can be absolved.
“Only” vs. “Not only”. No ‘hermeneutic of continuity’ can mask that stark contradiction. But that hasn’t stopped some from trying. We have seen two principal attempts to square the circle.
First, some admit the incompatibility, but argue that the Church’s previous exclusion from the sacraments of all non-continent divorced-and-remarried couples was a matter of merely human discipline – ecclesiastical law. So Pope Francis, in giving greater recognition now to certain cases where confessors can discern diminished imputability for this objectively adulterous behavior, has, we are told, merely mitigated that discipline, and has not compromised any existing doctrine or divine law.
However, in Familiaris Consortio #84 itself, Pope John Paul presents a manifestly doctrinal consideration – one that by its very nature applies in all times and places – as the main reason why these folks are prohibited from receiving Communion (and, therefore, from the sacramental absolution that would lift that prohibition). He asserts, “They are unable to be admitted thereto from 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” (emphasis added). Since it’s that “objective” state of adulterous contradiction with the revealed sacramental meaning of Christian marriage that is the main barrier to their receiving Communion (John Paul adds causing scandal as a separate, secondary reason), and since that objective state remains constant under the Law of Christ regardless of how subjectively culpable or inculpable those concerned may be, the claim of mutable church discipline is unsustainable. The pre-Amoris Church has understood and taught this prohibition as a truly doctrinal matter – an immutable exigency of divine law under the New Covenant sealed with the Blood of Christ.
This is amply confirmed in subsequent magisterial documents from the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI: for instance, the 1984 Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, #34; the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 1994 Letter to Bishops, in which the exclusion from the sacraments of those under discussion is called “doctrine” no less than three times (cf. articles 3, 4 and 6); and Pope Benedict’s 2007 Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, in which he affirms in art. 29 that this practice of the Church is “based on Sacred Scripture”, i.e., it has divine, not merely human, authority.
The second line of argument that tries to reconcile John Paul’s “only” with Francis’ “not only” is one being advanced by some noted prelates and theologians. Nevertheless, I find it so outlandish that it leaves me wondering whether to laugh or cry. It seriously claims that Popes John Paul and Benedict didn’t really mean it when they affirmed, in formal magisterial documents, that “only” those divorced and civilly remarried Catholics who live as brother and sister may receive the sacraments. We are asked to believe that the real, authentic Catholic position on this point has never been the clear-cut, exceptionless norm asserted in the pre-Amoris magisterial documents I’ve cited above, but rather, has all along been the fuzzy, mitigation-rich, “soiled-by-the-mud-of-the-street” approach that Pope Francis advocates in Chapter 8 of AL. According to this second view, Francis is now doing nothing more than going public with a norm which previous popes had already approved, but had kept under wraps – and even publicly and officially denied! It was supposedly a closely guarded clerical secret, long deemed fit for the ears of confessors only, and so passed on confidentially by word of mouth in seminary classrooms and rectories. In this scenario, the only laity under previous pontificates who would ever get to learn this secret would be some living in illicit sexual unions who managed to persuade a priest confessor that they are sincere in their dissent from the teaching of Christ and the Church about marriage and divorce, and/or sincere in feeling they can’t possibly comply with it. In such cases, we are told, the Church, long before the present pontificate, already quietly authorized the priest: (a) to consider the “sincerity” of such penitents as constituting lack of full knowledge or of full consent of the will; (b) to conclude on that basis that their continuing commission of objectively adulterous acts will not place them in mortal sin; and therefore (c) to grant them absolution on the condition that they avoid scandal by keeping this a secret and going to Communion only where they won’t be recognized.
This amounts to a kind of magisterial conspiracy theory, or perhaps, that of a hearsay magisterium which can trump the authority of public magisterial documents. Frankly, I find it preposterous. For a start, I have long been in the clerical club – a priest and theology professor for over 30 years – but had never until very recently heard so much as a whisper about this “approved confessional practice”. Neither had most of my priest friends, young and old alike, heard of such a theory until reading certain commentaries on Amoris Laetitia.
Now, I don’t doubt for a minute that in the permissive climate that has metastatized throughout Church institutions since Vatican II, steps (a), (b) and (c) above have often been recommended to future priests by certain moral theology professors. However, even on the dubious supposition that steps (a) and (b) might sometimes be justifiable (I say “dubious”, because dissent from what one knows to be Catholic doctrine is itself gravely sinful – an aggravating, not a mitigating, circumstance), I find quite incredible the claim that a priest would be in compliance with the “real” (though under-the-counter) magisterium of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI if he proceeded from (b) to (c). For step (c) flatly contradicts the public and official words of John Paul, cited above, which do not even hint at any exceptions: he affirms that only those civilly remarried divorcees who commit to practice continence may be absolved. And the 1994 CDF Letter to Bishops on this topic asserts that, without that commitment, such Catholics are in “an objective situation that of itself renders impossible the reception of Holy Communion”. Since it’s their “objective situation” that “of itself” has this effect, it follows logically that the priest must deny them absolution even in those (presumably rare) cases where they seem to be subjectively free of mortal sin. He must tell them kindly but firmly that they can’t be absolved yet, because that would constitute permission to receive the Eucharist; and that the reason they can’t be given that permission is that their present life-style is in grave conflict with the teaching of Christ and the Church, whether they recognize that or not.
Fr. Thomas Michelet, O.P., is one of the theologians trying to reconcile Amoris Laetitia with Familiaris Consortio by this bizarre theory that John Paul’s real teaching was the same as that of Francis, and that his contrary, ‘no-exceptions’ teaching in public was just a façade to prevent confusion among the untutored laity.
Michelet writes, “The innovation of the document [AL] is above all here: in the fact of presenting in full light a practice that previously remained in the shadows, in the secrecy of the confessional.” In other words (although Michelet of course does not admit this), the recently canonized Pope John Paul, teaching as Christ’s Vicar on earth, actually lied in a key teaching of a major magisterial document affecting the lives of millions of Catholics!
Moreover, Fr. Michelet seems quite oblivious to the deep irony of his position. In his account of the pre-Amoris Church, this “approved” confessional secret was kept “in the shadows” in order to avoid scandalizing the laity – i.e., leading them into sin, confusion, or even loss of faith. Well, that certainly makes sense. For if lay people were told that the Church actually makes exceptions to her own ‘no-sacraments’ rule for non-continent remarried divorcees, they might well “be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage” (to quote John Paul II in FC #84). And of course, such error would not remain at the theoretical level. The centuries-long history of our separated Christian brethren shows that it would soon be followed by ever-increasing divorce and remarriage (to say nothing of concubinage, fornication, same-sex partnerships, etc.) The irony is, of course, that since public knowledge of these (alleged) exceptions to the norm would have caused scandal before Pope Francis trumpeted them round the world on April 8, 2016, then – since our fallen human nature remains the same – it’s still going to cause scandal after that date. But instead of deploring the fact that this highly dangerous cat has now been let out of the bag, Fr. Michelet expects us to heave sighs of relief on learning that it really was inside the bag previously, i.e., that in AL the Holy Father is (supposedly) teaching in continuity with his predecessors.
In fact, Francis has not let any cat out of its bag; rather, he has pulled a rabbit out of his hat. There was no previous secret papal approval of the exceptions he grants in AL, note 351. He has ‘created’ them out of nothing, thereby creating a double scandal: a rupture with previous Catholic teaching and a further opening to marital instability, sexual license, and desecration of Christ’s Eucharistic Body.
Cardinal Schönborn, in his new interview with La Civiltà Cattolica, also hints at Michelet’s artificial ‘hermeneutic of continuity’ in his own attempt to smooth out the irreconcilable differences we have seen between the respective teachings of Popes John Paul and Francis. Assuring us that Amoris Laetitia represents “a homogeneous evolution in the understanding and in the expression of the doctrine”, His Eminence claims that both Pope John Paul, implicitly, and the future Pope Benedict, in private conversation, already taught in its essentials the same permissive doctrine of AL, Chapter 8, that has so deeply perturbed millions of faithful Catholics, from devout lay people to Princes of the Church. According to Schönborn,
Francis has taken an important step by obliging us to clarify something that had remained implicit in Familiaris consortio, about the link between the objectivity of a situation of sin and the life of grace in relation to God and to his Church, and — as a logical consequence — about the concrete imputability of sin. Cardinal Ratzinger had explained in the 1990s that we no longer speak automatically of a situation of mortal sin in the case of new marital unions. I remember asking Cardinal Ratzinger in 1994, when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had published its document about divorced and remarried persons: ‘Is it possible that the old praxis that was taken for granted, and that I knew before the Council, is still valid? This envisaged the possibility, in the internal forum with one’s confessor, of receiving the sacraments, provided that no scandal was given.’ His reply was very clear, just like what Pope Francis affirms: there is no general norm that can cover all the particular cases. The general norm is very clear; and it is equally clear that it cannot cover all the cases exhaustively.
With due respect to Cardinal Schönborn, an alleged “homogeneous evolution” of doctrine based on such flimsy argumentation and evidence simply won’t stand up to scrutiny. We must not let a spurious “hearsay magisterium” consisting of supposedly approved secret confessional practices, reports of off-the-record and off-the-cuff conversations, and alleged “implicit” teachings of popes who explicitly and officially said the exact opposite, turn our hearts and minds away from the true Catholic magisterium. The magisterium we have always known about. The magisterium consisting of official, public, and duly promulgated papal and conciliar pronouncements which can only mean what they plainly say.
And when a constant stream of previous documents of this true magisterium are united in teaching a certain clear doctrine about who can and cannot receive the sacraments, we must respectfully but firmly resist and reject any claim that the latest papal document can overturn and replace that doctrine by means of mere hints, insinuations, and footnotes.
The Rev. Brian W. Harrison, O.S., M.A., S.T.D., a priest of the Society of the Oblates of Wisdom, is a retired Associate Professor of Theology of the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico in Ponce, P.R. In 1997 he gained his doctorate in Systematic Theology, summa cum laude, from the Pontifical Athenæum of the Holy Cross in Rome.
Since 2007 Fr. Harrison has been scholar-in-residence at the Oblates of Wisdom Study Center in St. Louis, Missouri, is well-known as a speaker and writer. He is the author of three books and over 130 articles in Catholic books, magazines and journals in the U.S.A., Australia, Britain, France, Spain and Puerto Rico.