Connecting the Papal Dots: Amoris Laetitia and the Separation of Church and State

Editor’s note: The following comes from a contributor who wishes to remain anonymous.

Orthodox Catholics often accuse Pope Francis’s theology of being incoherent. However, while it is true that many of his theological beliefs do not cohere with each other or with Catholic orthodoxy, there is consistency among certain ones that may seem disconnected, even if Pope Francis himself does not recognize the logical connection. For instance, his implicit promotion of Communion for invalidly remarried people who live more uxorio is quite consistent with his explicit promotion of the separation of Church and state.

What connects the two is his implied belief that grace cannot truly make a person righteous in this life. This is particularly apparent in his recent elevation of the Buenos Aires bishops’ guidelines on Amoris Laetitia to an official Vatican teaching. Those guidelines state:

[W]hen it is not possible [for the divorced and remarried] to obtain a declaration of nullity, [living in continence] may not, in fact, be feasible. Nonetheless, it is … possible to undertake a journey of discernment. If one arrives at the recognition that, in a particular case, there are limitations that diminish responsibility and culpability (cf. 301-302), particularly when a person judges that he would fall into a subsequent fault by damaging the children of the new union, Amoris Laetitia opens up the possibility of access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist (cf. footnotes 336 and 351).

Here, the idea that living in continence might not be possible indicates that some Catholics – despite receiving sanctifying grace through baptism – are not capable of being virtuous enough to follow the moral law. This implies that sanctifying grace does not have the capacity to truly sanctify people, an idea definitively rejected by the Council of Trent: “If anyone says that the commandments of God are, even for one that is justified and constituted in grace, impossible to observe, let him be anathema.” The council made this declaration in response to the Protestant doctrine of imputed righteousness, the belief that salvation consists in grace merely declaring us righteous, which opposes the Catholic doctrine of infused righteousness, the belief that salvation consists in grace actually making us righteous. In indicating that grace lacks the capacity to make people righteous enough to live in continence, Pope Francis seems to lean toward the Protestant view – and this should not surprise us, considering that, more than any other pope, he has praised the theology of Martin Luther.

Whether Pope Francis realizes it or not, his implicit belief in imputed righteousness forms the theological foundation of his conviction that Church and state should be separate, a conviction evident in the infamous remark he made to the French newspaper La Croix: “States must be secular. Confessional states end badly. That goes against the grain of history.” This view not only defies centuries of Catholic tradition, but also fails to recognize that the state relies on sanctifying grace – ordinarily given only through the sacraments of the Church – to fulfill one of its defining purposes: peace. Since the Fall, sin has caused widespread conflict that man, in his brokenness, cannot eradicate on his own, so he requires God’s gift of sanctifying grace, the only thing capable of creating lasting peace. Because God has bestowed this gift on the Church – not the state – to dispense to us through the sacraments, the state relies on the Church to achieve its goal of peace. In his book Before Church and State: A Study of Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX, Andrew Willard Jones explains:

In the realm of grace, the law was interiorized in charity. This movement was the pursuit of salvation, of true peace, an objective dependent upon sacramental grace, and so on the priesthood. It was only because the souls of the baptized were no longer subject to the power of sin that true peace could be achieved and the exterior law, the force necessary to compel men to justice, could fade away.

In short, if it is true that only sanctifying grace can make people virtuous enough for true peace, then the state must be aligned with the dispenser of sanctifying grace, the Church, in its pursuit of peace. On the other hand, if Pope Francis is correct in his implicit belief that sanctifying grace lacks this capacity, then the state does not need the Church, since the Church’s grace cannot really help it achieve peace. Pope Francis’s endorsement of the separation of Church and state thus begins to make sense.

In light of the Catholic Church’s perennial doctrine of infused righteousness, it most certainly does not make sense for a Catholic – much less the pope – to hold this view of grace. After all, this view makes grace seem defective, and because grace is God’s intervention in our lives, this view indicates that God Himself is defective as well. We therefore become the broken inhabitants of a broken world made by a broken God, incapable of disciplining our desires or even receiving help from the Church. Real transformation, real peace, becomes impossible in this life. Is that the kind of world Christ promised His people?

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