A (Fictional) Letter Recently Written by Erasmus of Rotterdam – a Trusted Friend of St. Thomas More – Concerning the Confusion Worse Confounded Surrounding Amoris Laetitia and Its Own Ambiguities
Dr. Markus Büning
Dear College of Cardinals, High Senate of the Roman Church,
I allow myself now, after all, to comment on the permeating confusion which a recently proposed magisterial text of the Pontifex Maximus has caused – a text which is known by its somewhat unusual title Amoris Laetitia – and which also seems now to have spread throughout the whole of Christendom. I am thus very much reminded here of an episode in the long history of our Church which took place in the early 16th century and in our beautiful England. I mean here the confusion which the then-King Henry VIII brought to all of Europe because of his base conduct with respect to his own Holy Bond of Matrimony.
You might wonder why I now should have this recollection? Because, in its kernel, it is again about a theme which touches upon the very center and heart of our Faith: it is about the indissolubility of marriage. It is about the Holy Sacrament of Matrimony which – as the Apostle to the Gentiles, St. Paul, already said – is an image of the love of Christ for His Church. Just as Christ does not abandon His Church, the spouses also shall remain loyal to one another until death. As I recall, Our Lord said, after all: “What God hath joined together, man shalt not put asunder!” Yes, and what did this Henry do? He did not bother about this Law of Christ and kicked marriage with his feet. Against the will of the pope he implemented – with the help of almost the whole British episcopacy – his tactics of adultery. Only one bishop – yes, you hear correctly – only one bishop dared to oppose the king: Saint John Fisher. For this, however, he was to lose his head.
Yes, and then there was also my best friend, Thomas More – a layman known for his erudition and for his deep Fear of God – who was the former Lord Chancellor of this despot [King Henry] who also stood firm and kept loyalty to the Lord’s Word about Marriage and thus likewise had to give up his own life for it. This brave husband and father of a family could not endure the fact that the king, with the help of the bishops, had attacked the indissolubility of marriage. On the day of his own beheading [6 July 1535], I felt as if my own head was taken off me.
You surely will now ask me what all of this has to do with Amoris Laetitia and your current Pope Francis. I say to you the following: just as then, everything is now at stake! Under the guise of a merciful pastoral care without clear limits – and with additional reference to a misguided conscience and to the individual life realities of so-called remarried divorcees – there is now this analogous attempt to unhinge those Laws of the Church that have always been held to be valid. Yes, unhinge! Why? I want to tell you honestly how I see it: in order to pander to and please the world! Yes, it is an obvious capitulation away from any call to live one’s own life in loyalty and reliability. And this infuriates me as a man who has spent his lifetime amidst various academic disputes – especially, since most all of these are conducted with the aid of outrageous tricks. You also now have here, in a footnote, the door left open for the reception of the Sacraments by adulterers! Yes, in a footnote. Did the author really think people would overlook it? As it seems, this is what has actually happened with some. That is why some of you speak, as follows: Amoris Laetitia (AL) did not change anything, after all! Everything remains the same! That means that this famous footnote is not important? Others, however, make it look as if this footnote is the kernel of the message. Yes, they say, the teaching has of course been changed. That is the message that, most recently, has been coming to us out of the beautiful region of Vorarlberg [region in Southwestern Austria; Dr. Büning refers here to Bishop Benno Elbs, M.H.]. Then you hear other voices, as well, coming out of your honorable ecclesiastical circle, namely that everybody has to decide for himself – after an examination of his conscience – whether or not he may now licitly go to Holy Communion. Really? About what kind of sincere conscience are we talking here? A conscience which is oriented toward God’s Laws may not come to such a foolish decision. That is at least how I still learned it in my own studies of theology. And then there are quoted in this papal text some honorable authorities – but they are quoted out of context and only in order to give the text the appearance of Catholicity. I assure you, a St. Thomas Aquinas would put aside such a text [AL] already because of its amateurish style! I would rather not even start thinking about what his own possible assessment of the text’s actual content would be.
And you Cardinals, what are you now doing? Nearly all of you have been silent for months now and you convey to faithful Catholics the impression that this recent kind of change of teaching is, after all, now quite acceptable. Only four – yes only four – courageous men from your circle have dared to present to the pope their justified doubts. But, he does not even consider it to be necessary, let alone honorable, to answer them. Rather, in the last weeks, several vassals were sent out on a newly dubious mission, in order to intimidate these same four cardinals. O my, what corrupted morals in a Church which has purportedly been so eager to open herself up to continual dialogue. To be honest, we had ourselves behaved – at times – better than this five hundred years ago!
I only want to remind you now of the bad example your fellow bishops then gave in England, at the time of St. Thomas More. Do you also wish to enter the Church’s history this way? Do you wish to present yourself as such to Him who has given to men marriage as an indissoluble bond? Please do ask yourself – in your own deep and well-formed conscience – these very questions and pray here then especially for the intercession of three saints who are all martyrs for the Sacrament of Matrimony: St. John the Baptist, St. John Fisher, and St. Thomas More. As was the case then, today too there seem to be laymen, especially, who now step up and have called upon you Prelates – and for some months now – to protect the Sacrament of Marriage. I hope that you examine intensively once more your own sincere consciences in this essential matter.
I myself – as you do surely know – am also a sacramentally ordained clergyman – indeed an Augustinian priest – and thus cannot speak about marriage, as such, at least not from out of my personal intimate experience. But, one thing I may – and should – tell you at the end: I have suffered during my entire lifetime under the sad fact that I was a child born out of wedlock. I have always felt this to be a stain. Therefore, the more so was I pleased to see –especially during my many visits and extended stays at the More home and estate – how delightful this Sacrament of Matrimony is for mankind. At the time, I therefore wrote down the following words on marriage:
Marriage was approved by Christ at Cana; it was accepted as a part of created nature and thus condemned by heretics. It was not instituted by Lycurgus, Moses, or Solon, but by the Creator of the Universe, because God said: ‘It is not good that man be alone,’ and He created Eva – not out of soil, like Adam, but out of his rib, so that nobody would be nearer to him and more intimate than his spouse. After the Deluge, God said to mankind: ‘Be fruitful and multiply.’ Should one not, thus, honor marriage, perhaps even before all other Sacraments, because it was established first, and through the action of God Himself? The other Sacraments were established on earth [after the Fall], but that one in paradise; the others as means of healing, but this one as a community in happiness [to include children]. The others were given for the fallen nature, this one, however, was given during our unspoiled nature. If we honor later human laws, how much more should we then honor the law of marriage which we have received from Him Who gave us life. The incentive through love – which is so necessary for marriage – comes from created nature, and everything which comes from nature [by virtue of the Creation] is pure and holy. The most pious way of living – in purity and chastity – is marriage. (quoted in: Walter Nigg, Erasmus von Rotterdam. Christliche Humanität, Ostfildern 1983, p. 9 f.)
Please do take care that this most pious way of living and forming children unto eternal life will continue to be protected by the Church today; and please thus exhort the Peter of today to confess clearly and unambiguously Our Lord’s own Words, according to which marriage is indissoluble.
With these brief considerations and with my best wishes for the New Year, I remain in deep devotion,
Erasmus of Rotterdam
Translation Robert and Maike Hickson
Dr. Markus Büning was born 1966 in Ahaus (Westfalen, Germany). He studied Catholic Theology and Philosophy in Münster and München. After graduating in 1990, he studied Law in Konstanz and Münster. He received his doctorate in Law in 2001 from the University of Münster. Among other things, he has worked as Academic Assistant at the Universities of Münster and Konstanz; as an administrative lawyer in several departments; and finally as the representative of the Mayor of Gronau (Westfalen). He has authored a number of books, with a recent focus on theological books concerning the lives of the Saints. In addition, he offers theological guided tours of several museums. Dr. Markus Büning is married and has two children. He lives with his family in Münsterland.