How Many Fingers is Francis Holding Up Now? Amoris Laetitia and Submission

We are hearing more complaints of division. Why, goes the lament, is the Church divided? Why can we not simply “put our differences aside”?

Simply, because two logically opposed things can’t both be true.

This week, we have been offered two interviews that very helpfully delineate the main divisions in the Church today and the reason the Church is now divided into two utterly, implacably opposed camps, currently struggling for ascendancy. These, of course, are the same two sides that have been engaged for fifty years in a protracted Cold Civil War that has, with the publication of Amoris Laetitia, burst into the public consciousness, guns blazing.

In fact, the two divergent worldviews of the interviews also illustrate the great gulf that exists in all aspects of social discourse throughout the lands formerly known as Christendom. They give us an insight into exactly why Amoris Laetitia – and the shrill demands of submission to it – is so important as a line of demarcation between the remnants of the old world and the Brave New Paradigm that has been struggling for control of our civilization since the start of the 20th century.

Father Antonio Spadaro, the pope’s close friend, published an interview recently in La Civiltà Cattolica with Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, the prelate whom the pope has said is the authorized “interpreter” of Amoris Laetitia. On the same day, we have another interview with Cardinal Burke by Michael Matt, editor of the venerable Remnant magazine.

In the first, Spadaro asked Cardinal Schönborn:

Some have spoken of “The Joy of Love” as a minor document, a personal opinion of the pope, without full magisterial value. What value does this exhortation possess? Is it an act of the magisterium? This seems obvious, but it is good to specify it now, in order to prevent some voices from creating confusion among the faithful when they assert that this is not the case.…

His eminence replied:

It is obvious that this is an act of the magisterium: it is an apostolic exhortation. It is clear that the pope is exercising here his role as pastor, as master and teacher of the faith, after benefiting from the consultation of the two synods.

In the Remnant interview, Mike Matt asked Cardinal Burke essentially the same question: is Amoris Laetitia “authoritative” in the sense of a requirement by the faithful of consent.

The American cardinal responded:

“As I stated from the beginning, the very form of Amoris Laetitia, and, actually, the words of the Pope within the document, indicate that it is not an exercise of the papal magisterium. And the way the document necessarily is read, as with every document, is in the light of the constant teaching and practice of the Church. And so the statements in AL which are in accord with the Church’s constant teaching and practice certainly are very fine. But there are a number of statements that are at best confusing and they must be clarified and that’s why four of us cardinals posed, according to the classic practice of the Church, five questions to the Holy Father having to do with the very foundations of the moral life and the Church’s constant teaching in that regard.”

Look carefully at these two responses to discern the vast difference in the underlying understanding of what Catholicism actually is. Burke has addressed the nature of the document’s contents, asking us to consider whether what it says is objectively Catholic.

Schönborn is concerned only that the document itself has come from the pope. It is Catholic teaching because the pope says it is. Its contents are irrelevant. If it contradicts 2000 years of practice, if it contradicts even the words of Christ in Scripture – irrelevant. It is the pope, therefore it is authoritative.

It is only after establishing this as the highest criterion that he bothers to address the document’s content, saying, “I have no doubt that it must be said that this is a pontifical document of great quality, an authentic teaching of sacra doctrina, which leads us back to the contemporary relevance of the word of God.” But even here he gives away his positivistic mindset, implying that a contradiction – yes, adulterers can now receive Communion – can be somehow justified simply because it is 2017.

Truth, reality, human nature, God’s intentions – and therefore Catholicism – are all mutable, and it is the job of churchmen (well, some churchmen) to figure out what it is now. Schönborn again:

“We are led in a living manner to draw a distinction between the continuity of the doctrinal principles and the discontinuity of perspectives or of historically conditioned expressions. This is the function that belongs to the living magisterium: to interpret authentically the word of God, whether written or handed down.”

This, by the way, is a textbook expression of Neo-Modernism; the idea that Catholic doctrine must be “reformulated,” that is, expressed in new ways to suit “modern man”.

In his next paragraph, Schönborn is even more explicit about the pope’s intentions of abandoning traditional Catholic philosophical foundations about the nature of reality, including human nature, as immutable:

In this sphere of human realities, the Holy Father has fundamentally renewed the discourse of the church—certainly along the lines of his apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel” but also of Vatican II’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” which presents doctrinal principles and reflections on human beings today that are in a continuous evolution. There is a profound openness to accept reality.

We are not told what, exactly, these “doctrinal principles” are. But we are being told every day that no matter what they are, we are obliged to submit.

The contrasting statements in these two interviews illustrate that our divisions are based on two irreconcilably opposed understandings of the nature of reality, and therefore of Catholicism, at the very highest levels of the Church.

The first of these two divergent universal worldviews is:

Positivism [1] – Truth, reality, is whatever we perceive it to be; therefore the Catholic religion is what we say it is. It has no relationship at all to external reality – which itself may or may not exist and is, in any case, irrelevant. Catholicism can and must be changed, even in its essentials, to suit the changing needs of society, of contemporary men and women or whatever criterion we decide. Not only is there no such thing as an immutable human nature that remains subject to the same moral laws throughout human history, but there is no analogous nature to truth or even to God. God can change His mind, and it is up to us to discern, through examining the “signs of the times” or the trends of history (or whatever) what His new will is for human beings.

The idea that there is an unchanging nature to Truth and that it applies equally in all times to the unchanging human nature is inherently oppressive, regressive and unjust, legalistic, rigid and “unpastoral”.

The one thing we need to know is that this mutable will of God is conveyed through the pope, and only the pope, and/or his chosen proxies. “Do as you’re told” shall be the whole of the law for the likes of us.

The second worldview is:

Epistemological Realism [2] – Reality exists in a particular way outside our perceptions and apprehension of it. The proper use of the human intellect is to discover and articulate that reality, including the ultimate reality of God and His relationship to man. Therefore Catholicism is nothing more than an accurate description of objective, immutable, external reality and cannot be changed by human fiat. Catholicism, to the Epistemological Realist, has the same quality of value in relation to objective reality that mathematics and physics have.

This is the “classical” philosophical worldview that formed the foundation of what we now call “western” thought and civilization. In this paradigm, it is not possible for the Church to one day say something is forbidden, and then claim that through “development” or “pastoral discernment” that thing is now allowed. A “no” cannot “develop” through the mere passage of time or cultural differences into a “yes.”

Under this paradigm, Catholicism, including in its “pastoral practice” in “concrete cases,” is a unified whole that is rational; it never contradicts or conflicts with itself – including with its past – or with observable phenomena.

Epistemological Realism is, simply put, the idea that “reality is a real thing” and that it can in some respects be apprehended by human perception, through reason [3]. It appeared in recorded history in Greece and was developed in a continual stream through the medieval philosophers and has informed Catholic thought since the Church’s foundation. It is also the foundation of all modern natural science from Euclid’s geometry to Galileo and Copernicus’s astronomical observations, to medical and biological sciences to NASA. Its application in Catholicism rests on the premise that there is such a thing as a Divine and a human nature that are both the same in all times and places.

We are seeing, increasingly, that in the Church it is Positivism that is the philosophical foundation of the post-conciliar revolution. This is why we who write about this situation have started using the term “Papal Positivism” for the idea that the pope can, through some kind of mystical power granted by his office, decide that it is time to change Eucharistic practice to oppose Eucharistic doctrine.

Moreover, the furious response to the Dubia by many prelates in favour with the pope — with hysterical accusations of “schism” being flung at the four cardinals — shows us where Positivism leads. Amoris Laetitia demonstrates that as a guiding principle, Papal Positivism reduces to an exercise in sheer political power, predicated on an assumption of a pope’s godlike capacity to change, or just ignore, the very nature of reality.

One might say that Amoris Laetitia is the Orwellian four fingers being held up before the whole Church, with the demand that we all say it is five. The actual content, the actual number of the fingers, is irrelevant. The only thing that counts is our eagerness to submit.

A few days ago, just before he published this interview, Spadaro told the whole world on Twitter that the new theology doesn’t have anything to do with objective reality, and that to insist that it must is wrong-think.

The fact that the new Anti-Rational Paradigm has not yet received proper submission was demonstrated by the pointing and laughing at this absurdity in his Twitter feed. He was rather mercilessly raked over the coals for it.

This manifestly anti-rational statement was taken, quite rightly, as a sign of a half-deranged mind, or of one so intellectually deformed as to be incapable of mature thought, still less of any kind of valuable comment.

Moreover, astounding though it might seem, Spadaro didn’t remove the post in embarrassment, as one would if one had been caught carelessly posting something silly that would hurt one’s cause. Instead he doubled down, trying in further posts to justify and defend this “position”. It was apparent that he saw nothing wrong with it, could not grasp why it had received such a reaction, and learned nothing at all from the many corrections – some apparently not derisive – that he received in response.

When we wouldn’t stop laughing, he responded in the only way a Positivist can: through force. He blocked everyone who had commented. The fact that he thought his post made some kind of sense, was willing to try to defend it, and then responded with force, while being the most hilarious part of the business is also the most telling.

As I’ve been saying, one of the most helpful and fruitful effects of this pontificate has been to reveal the intellectual, doctrinal and formative failings of modern Catholic prelates. Keep talking, guys, so all the world can see and decide. We are in the time of the Great Clarification.

Today, thanks to Spadaro and Schönborn telling us what they really think, we are able to understand even more clearly than we did last week why Pope Bergoglio has put them in charge of interpreting and disseminating his ideas. This is the pope who sees no difficulty proposing wildly divergent and logically opposed ideas from one day to the next. Who has no qualms about simply changing 2000 years of Catholic teaching and practice, of re-writing Scripture to suit this or that homiletic point (No, your holiness, the miracle of the loaves and fishes wasn’t about “sharing,” nor was it a “parable.”)

What people who have decried these incomprehensible contradictions have failed to understand is that “meaning” is irrelevant. The purpose of these communications has not been to inform the Catholic faithful of the pope’s thought or reflections on Scripture. Content is irrelevant; only submission counts, only power. This means the more ambiguous, the more contradictory, the more vapid, the more illogical, the better.

And this is what people are missing. He has been perfectly consistent in all his responses, since he is always saying the same thing: submit. Indeed, we have had a report recently that he knows full well that his work to change the Church’s ancient teaching must rest exclusively on the pure exercise of raw power. When Cardinal Müller of the former Holy Office asked why Francis had demanded the abrupt dismissal of three of his best priests, the pope is reported to have responded as all tyrants do: “I. AM. THE. POPE. I don’t have to answer to anyone.”

Positivism, the denial of an objective reality, must lead ultimately to authoritarianism. If there is no objective reality, there is no need for any rules that regard it; any notion of a Rule of Law is meaningless. What have we seen happen throughout history when the Rule of Law breaks down? There can only be Rule of the Strongest, Rule of Power. This is why, now that the make-reality-up-as-you-go-along principle is firmly in place in the papal office, the pope must clamp down so furiously on “dissent,” even the softly diplomatic “dissent” of asking politely for a clarification.

What does Amoris Laetitia mean?

“It means what I say it means. It means shut up.”

Francis is the pope of many “firsts” but none of them so important as being the first pope to use the papacy to demolish Catholicism from its most elemental, philosophical foundations. He is the first pope to use the papacy as a means of injecting the new Anti-Rational Principle into the Church, an exercise of almost incomprehensible hubris. One, moreover, that he could not possibly have got away with 50 years ago, but now made possible by the near-universal triumph of the same philosophical vacuity throughout our entire civilization. We have been told all our lives that objective reality doesn’t count and we can all decide it for ourselves.

What we failed to grasp was that in a reality-vacuum, he who has the most power will decide for us.

The Anti-Rational Principle is ascendant in the Church, but because it is an untenable proposal, it must be enforced through brute force, a situation that cannot be maintained indefinitely, as the emperors and tyrants of the past all knew. In the face of this anti-rationality, a quiet, even reticent man like Cardinal Burke can strike terror into the heart of a tyrant merely by stating the obvious truth.



[1] Positivism is the philosophical theory of knowledge that asserts: “information is derived from sensory experience, interpreted through reason and logic, [and] forms the exclusive source of all authoritative knowledge.”

[2] “Truth consists in a correspondence between cognitive representations and reality.”

[3]Reason” is the application of logic to observable phenomena to accurately perceive reality. It presupposes, therefore, that there is an immutable, objective reality to be perceived.


This post has been updated.

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