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Robert Spaemann on Josef Seifert, Amoris Laetitia and the Witness to Truth

Editor’s Note: the following is an interview with Professor Robert Spaemann, conducted by OnePeterFive’s Dr. Maike Hickson. Professor Spaemann is a prominent German Catholic philosopher and a former member of the Pontifical Academy for Life.

Maike Hickson (MH): Professor Josef Seifert is a student of yours who wrote his habilitation thesis under your guidance. Thus you know him and his work personally. Also, both of you have raised your voices with a polite critique of the papal document, Amoris Laetitia. What was your reaction to the decision of the Archbishop of Granada (Spain) to dismiss Professor Seifert because of his Amoris Laetitia critique?

Robert Spaemann (RS): First of all, Professor Seifert is not my student, but the student of Dietrich von Hildebrand. He received his habilitation degree at the Philosophy Department of the University of Munich. With regard to the Archbishop of Granada’s dismissal of Seifert, I was shocked. I did not know anything about Seifert’s own intervention. Both of our reactions to the archbishop’s decision were completely independent from one another.

MH: How do you react to the reproach of Archbishop Javier Martínez that Professor Seifert, with his critical questions concerning Amoris Laetitia, “damages the communion of the Church, confuses the faith of the faithful, and sows distrust in the successor of Peter”?

RS: As I said, I was shocked. The archbishop writes that he has to make sure that the faithful are not getting confused because Seifert is undermining the Church’s unity.

The unity of the Church is based upon the truth. When the Catholic Church entrusts to a faithful professor a teaching mission, then it is because she has trust in the independent teaching of a thinker. As long as his philosophy is not in contradiction to the teaching of the Church, there exists a wide realm for his teaching.

The Middle Ages were here a model. There existed the most lively and profound differences of opinion. In these debates, it was the argument that counted, not the decision of an authority. And it would not have crossed anybody’s mind to ask whether a philosophical idea was in accordance with the opinion of the then-reigning pope.

MH: What kind of signals does such an episcopal verdict send with regard to academic freedom in general, but also especially with regard to the freedom of a well-formed conscience of the individual Catholic in particular? May a Catholic academician still discuss papal statements in a critical way, and should this be possible?

RS: In light of the verdict of the archbishop, every philosopher who works in an ecclesial institution now has to ask himself whether he can still continue his service there.

In any event, the intervention of the archbishop is incompatible with the respect for academic freedom.

What Seifert criticizes is the breach with the continuous teaching of the Church and with the explicit teachings of Popes Paul VI and John Paul II. Saint John Paul once, in Veritatis Splendor, stressed, explicitly, that there is no exception to the rejection of the “remarried” divorcees with regard to the Sacraments. Pope Francis contradicts the teaching of Veritatis Splendor just as explicitly.

MH: Do you agree with Professor Seifert’s argument that the claim in Amoris Laetitia (303) – according to which God sometimes could ask a person in an irregular marital situation to remain for now in an objectively sinful situation (such as the “remarried” divorcees who would maintain their sexual relationship in order to preserve their new relationship for the good of their children) – could generally lead to a moral anarchy and that accordingly no moral law (for example against abortion and artificial contraception) can be rescued from liberalizing exceptions?

RS: I can only agree with Professor Seifert’s argument. What he condemns is the moral-philosophical theory of consequentialism; that is to say, the teaching which says that the ethicality of an act is based upon the totality of actual and anticipated consequences, that thus there are no acts that are always bad. Josef Seifert also names some examples: abortion, contraception etc, to include adultery.

By the way, I have to mention a mistake in Seifert’s essay: he speaks about acts that are – independent of the context – always good. Already St. Thomas contradicted this view. And everybody can name acts that are always bad, but none that are always good. In this context, it is worth quoting the following words of Boethius which Thomas often refers to: “Bonum ex integra causa, malum ex quocumque defectu.” (“An action is good when good in every respect; it is wrong when wrong in any respect.”)

MH: In April of 2016, you predicted that Amoris Laetitia will split the Church. How do you see the Church’s situation now, more than a year later, and also after several bishops’ conferences have now published their own pastoral guidelines with regard to Amoris Laetitia?

RS: The split within the Church concerning Amoris Laetitia has already taken place. Different bishops’ conferences have published contradictory guidelines. And the poor priests are left alone.

MH: You and Professor Seifert had been lifetime members of the Pontifical Academy for Life (PAV) in Rome, and you have now both been removed from that office. Do you have an idea as to why you both have been removed in this unusual manner from this important office?

RS: I left the membership of the PAV when reaching the age of 80 years, according to the statutes. Seifert, however, has been dismissed from his office contrary to the statutes. Why? The answer is very simple. Seifert is also a critic of the theory of consequentialism which the pope himself teaches. And in Rome, opposing views are not any more tolerated. It did not need a Vatican expert to see that Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had to leave his office within a short period of time.

MH: In the context of the novel teachings coming from Rome and especially in the context of the new John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences, do you agree, as a philosopher, with the anthropological and sociological argument that new social changes have also to bring forth a change of the moral laws? In the context of modern scientific insights, people often claim today, for example, that one did not know in Biblical times that homosexuality is a biological inclination and that thus today the moral teaching has to be accordingly adapted and liberalized. Do you agree with such a “scientific” argument?

RS: No.

The principles of the moral law are always and everywhere the same – the application can change. When there exists a law of the state according to which people of high age or with a serious illness may be killed, it is applicable always and everywhere. The question as to how the killing is being done depends of the customs of a specific time, but it has no influence over the moral law for as long as man is man.

If there exists a dominant view and that dominant view contradicts the moral law, the essence of man, then the whole society is in a sorry state. The Christians of the early times did not adapt to the dominant view of morality. Their neighbors admired them for it. When there was talk about the Christians, people praised them for not killing their children.

The word of St. Peter “One has to obey God more than man” is still valid. A Church which takes the course of adaptation, will not be able to work in a missionary way. The General Superior of the Jesuits now says that one has to reinterpret the words of Jesus according to our time.

Especially with regard to marriage, however, this sort of “contextualization of the words of Jesus” does not any more at all correspond to the strictness of Jesus because the Commandment which forbids adultery is being perceived by the disciples in a very severe manner: “Who, then, would wish anymore to marry?”

MH: What, then, in the context of this current debate about the moral law, is still the truth?

RS: The question “What is truth?” is the answer of Pilate to Jesus’ word: “That is why I was born and have come into the world, that I may give witness to the Truth.” “I am the Truth.”

MH: Which of the Church’s doctrine do you see today as being the most ignored?

RS: Most probably the interdiction of adultery.

MH: What would you tell today priests who are now being confronted with the demand to give Holy Communion to the “remarried” divorcees, something which they cannot do in their own consciences? What if they are thus being suspended from their office for their resistance?

RS: I would like to answer here with the words of Auxiliary Bishop Athanasius Schneider:

When priests and laypeople remain faithful to the unchanging and constant teaching and practice of the entire Church, they are in communion with all the Popes, orthodox bishops and the Saints of two thousand years, being in a special communion with Saint John the Baptist, Saint Thomas More, Saint John Fisher and with the innumerable abandoned spouses who remained faithful to their marriage vows, accepting a life of continence in order not to offend God. The constant voice in the same sense and meaning (eodem sensu eademque sententia [Vaticanum I]) and the corresponding practice of two thousand years are more powerful and surer than the discordant voice and practice of admitting unrepentant adulterers to Holy Communion, even if this practice is promoted by a single Pope or by the diocesan bishops. […] It means the entire Catholic tradition judges surely and with certainty against a fabricated and short-living practice which, in an important point, contradicts the entire Magisterium of all times. Those priests, who would be now forced by their superiors to give Holy Communion to public and unrepentant adulterers, or to other notorious and public sinners, should answer them with a holy conviction: ‘Our behavior is the behavior of the entire Catholic world throughout two thousand years.’”

Recently, an African priest visited me who asked me with tears in his eyes the same question. The Commandment “Thou shalt obey God more than man” also applies to the teaching of the Church. If the priest is convinced that he may not given Holy Communion to the “divorced and remarried” then he has to follow the word of Jesus and the 2,000-year-old teaching of the Church. If he is being suspended for it, he has become a “witness to the Truth.”

MH: What would you – with all your wisdom and life experience and also as someone who grew up under National Socialism – counsel all Catholics in this current and difficult situation? What would be, so to speak, your testament for all people in the world who today take your voice very seriously and eagerly take in your words?

RS: It was easier during Nazi times to be a faithful Christian than today.

65 thoughts on “Robert Spaemann on Josef Seifert, Amoris Laetitia and the Witness to Truth”

  1. It was easier during Nazi times to be a faithful Christian than today.

    I would guess Mr. Spaemann would say that because the Church then was a rock but today it seems to be shifting sand.

    • He could also mean–and it would be tenable to assert–that the repression experienced by those living under the Third Reich was less authoritarian, and less ravenous, than that currently being exercised by the Bergoglian regime.

        • In any number of ways; and I will briefly point out just one, mindful that I am a grateful guest here in Steve’s comboxes. We–all of us dumbed-down denizens of the modern moment–are at a great self-imposed disadvantage, having swallowed Hollywood’s self-serving caricature of the Nazi era as the reality of it, rather than taking a moment to examine the abundant documentary evidence for ourselves.

          Fredric Wertham, for example, in his work “A Sign for Cain: An Exploration of Human Violence” (NY:Macmillan, 1966) devotes two chapters to disabusing us of the hackneyed and myopic notion that the Nazis were all about “sending people to the gas chambers.” Gassing people was the tip of an iceberg including “shooting, hanging, poisoning, torturing, beating to death, ‘extermination by labor,’ starvation . . .” (p. 138). But more importantly, the perpetrators were not coerced into doing what they did, but went along with these atrocities voluntarily. Regarding the T4 Euthanasia Program, Wertham writes: “It has been stated that the psychiatrists were merely following a law or being forced to obey an order. . . . The reality was very different. There was no law and no such order. The tragedy is that the psychiatrists did not have to have an order. . . .(They) did not have to work in these hospitals; they did so voluntarily, were able to resign if they wished, and could refuse to do special tasks” (p.p. 164-5). The ideological toleration extended by Nazi Germany was, at least in some ways, more liberal than that which is currently being extended towards Professor Seifert, because at least Nazi doctors could think for themselves (however diabolically) and could continue to function within an institutional setting even if they didn’t fully agree with the predominant worldview.

          I am not saying that Robert Spaemann has asserted this; I do not attempt to put words in this great scholar’s mouth. But it seems to me that the intellectual intimidation currently being inflicted upon anyone who so much as questions the highly questionable assertions of Amoris Chapter 8 exceeds–in swiftness, blindness, and sheer cruelty–even the suppression of the intelligentsia under the swastika.

          • Thank you very much, Mrs. Weir, for a very eloquent explanation. I think of the present “Gas chamber” as a kind of mental “suffocation” which causes such “fear” as Cardinal Müller stated. Then I think of a statement somewhere sometime: the stuff of martyrdom – i.e. the raw material for martyrdom – are just simple Christian like you and I, and that is what makes it so scary. The martyrs of bygone ages are not specially “geared” for this purpose. They are “Heros” only AFTER the suffering. The question is, as it was then: are we willing to suffer and even die for our faith? In order to answer “yes” to that question it will take training of the soul, as one would train his physical body, his muscles, to take up heavy charges. So do we need to train our souls to face the spiritual storm.

          • True trivia tidbit: The baptismal name of St. Maximilian Kolbe was Raymond. Maximilian was his name in religion.

            St. Maximilian Kolbe, pray for your baptismal namesake Cardinal Raymond Burke!

          • Mr. Spaemann said it was easier during Nazi times to be a faithful Christian. He didn’t say it was easier to be a good Nazi.

          • As I said, I will not abuse this excellent blog’s cyberhospitality, but I direct your attention to the book, “The Persecution of the Catholic Church in the Third Reich: Facts and Documents” (London: Burns Oates and
            Washbourne Ltd., 1942) which spells out the extensive, manipulative and vicious mistreatment of Catholics under Hitler and his henchmen. If Mr. Spaemann believes that what is going on now is worse than that, he must believe it is very evil indeed. My point is that even the Fuehrer permitted his underlings a little intellectual wiggle room, which Pope Francis evidently does not.

          • The concept under discussion is what Benedict XVI calls “the tyranny of relativism.” National Socialism was relativistic in its philosophical origins in that, rejecting the Fifth Commandment specifically, it held that there could be times when, due to the complexities of real-life limitations, conscience might discern that killing an innocent person would be the best one could do, and all God Himself might be asking. Paradoxically, this type of thinking becomes repressive rather than liberatng (if the truth sets us free, why wouldn’t attenuating it enslave us?) in the long run. I was expressing the thought that the “tyranny” part has only gotten worse since the days of Adolph Hitler; and Mr. Bender, if I have understood him correctly, very cleverly pointed out that this goes for the “relativism” part as well.

            I will be watching attentively to see if Robert Spaemann himself offers us any further elucidation of his provocative and crucial closing remark, which I sincerely hope he sees fit to do.

          • Indeed, we know Hitler allowed devout Catholics some access to him or the von Stauffenberg attempt would never have materialized.

            Not that he is in any physical danger, but I am beginning to believe Bergoglio has distanced himself by miles from anyone that might be classed as a devout Catholic….

          • Bergi is a strange mix, RodH. The Church has taught for millennia that “error has no rights”, so here we have a pope absolutely dedicated to that – except, ironically, that his view is Screwtapian; i.e., right is wrong for him: orthodoxy thus “has no rights”, see?

            He’s absolutely convinced he’s absolutely right. Those who oppose him have no right to speak against him. That’s been an underlying idea all through the whole Modernist nightmare. They’re rock-solid in their wrong belief, and won’t be happy till they’ve made us all bow to the ground before them.

            Raghn Corvinus

          • Again, the people in the Curia or Rome or the Church are not hung or shot. They have no claim to martyrdom.

          • A leader of a state should not be compared to the Vicar of Christ, as though they were or could ever be equals.

          • Sorry, Helen, while I think that your comments are fair and well-intentioned, I think that resistance today is nowhere as difficult for your own safety and life as it was then. I love and know Spaemann, but I am not sure whether this is what he means (or if he means it that way, whether he is right). I think he means: In Nazi times it was easier to know your enemy and your friends, to know “what is right” and choose sides – and then that’s that. To actually get up and voice your concerns, doubts, opposition could have cost you your life. And so relatively few people did. Also Catholics. Not so today. It is not easy to understand, see, choose and change. But it is not immediately life-threatening. Let’s not make our times more difficult than they are.

          • Your observation is based on two assumptions: 1) that it was easy to know what was going on with National Socialism, to the people experiencing it; and that 2) a threat to one’s life is worse than a threat to one’s soul. I disagree with both of them.

          • And you may! But: As a German who has studied NS all his life (more than 40 years now) I can say: As many knew or could have known then, as can or could know the crimes and challenges today. Most choose not to look, ask, think. Not much difference. In both cases few did/could imagine (or wanted to) what the real scale of the threat to life AND souls was. I agree with 2) fully, but that was only partially the question. It was easier then in terms of choosing a side – but more difficult to put your knowledge in practice, I would think. In both cases, though, souls are at stake.

  2. Being a faithful Christian certainly promises the reward of eternal life. The Third Reich promised nothing of any lasting value. That said, I have a friend who contacted me this evening regarding an inquiry he made to EWTN regarding what he sensed to be a “watering down” of their programming and seemingly lighter approach to Catholic teaching. He was informed that he will be contacted by a “missionary” to discuss his concerns. My friend stated that the person who contacted him mentioned that he should be aware of any information coming from One Peter Five or the Vortex. I am terribly disturbed that a forum with the intellectual and spiritual quality of One Peter Five would be regarded so dismissively by a Catholic medium whose foundress crusaded for the orthodoxy of the Church.

    • There was a program on EWTN recently in which a new convert ( I do not recall his name) in Austria was interviewed. He called Pope Francis a “saint”.
      But then this guy had converted to Schoenbornism rather than the True Faith, so no surprise he is so deceived.


      • Your comment about fr martin having a show on ewtn: is this a serious comment? Where can I read this announcement?

        • I have heard nothing of this. However Dan Burke, head of Natl Catholic Register which owns EWTN, called those at 1 Peter 5 “not very intelligent”.

          Sadly EWTN is salt that has lost its flavor, and anyone who donates to them in the belief they support the Faith should reconsider if their money is better spent elsewhere.

          • It’s a near infallible test: when a political or ecclesiastical forum indulges in name-calling and ad hominem arguments, you know then that they are covering up lies and distortion, that they are refusing to refute arguments with pristine logic. This has been the Left’s stock in trade since before 1789 and now pseudo-conservatives have gotten into the bad habit of using it. We can no longer rely on an organization’s past good works as an indication of present or future virtue. I’m thinking, for example, of the behavior of the K of C during the homosexual scandals in Boston. The leadership of the Knights came reflexively to Cardinal Law’s defense with their mouths and their money, lots of the latter. Now we see just how failed was the object of their affections. (Of course, even before that time, the K of C harbored many infamous public sinners in its ranks, so its defense of the now disgraced cardinal perhaps wasn’t truly a departure from form.)

          • Yes. There are no arguments from the neo-cons, only name-calling. Pllus some sophistry from the ones with PhDs

    • The Third Reich promised what–to its dupes–was the most lasting reward possible; namely, membership in the exclusive club of Nietzschean Superhumanity. Nazism denied the glory of an afterlife only by “building” that glory into an ultimately worldly endeavor, which is one reason why the current Bergoglian attempt to reduce the Gospel politically, along something of the same lines (socialism) is so greatly to be abhorred. Again, we must not settle for simplistic caricature such as, “(b)eing a faithful Christian certainly promises the reward of eternal life (while) the Third Reich promised nothing of any lasting value.” Heresy does make promises; that is why it is so seductive in the first place. Whether or not it can deliver on those promises is another matter entirely.

      • I like your phrasing, Mrs. Weir: “the exclusive club of Nietzschean Superhumanity.” Your whole paragraph is exquisitely sharp. May I quote it on my website?

        Isn’t it a form of the idea of re-entering Eden? We’ll recreate Eden here: that’s the whole premise of Socialism, because as Marx said, religion was just “pie in the sky, by and by”, but Socialism gives you pie now. (Bullets was what it gave.) Nazism would give one a world of Nordic beauties. Islam’s Sharia is the absolute will of Allah, and if we only followed it to the letter and forced everyone else to do so, too, we’ll have paradise on Earth. Etc.

        And isn’t that what our technological civilization is offering? Perfect health through genetic manipulation, turning off ageing genetically (re-entering Eden and eating of the Tree of Eternal Life) and on and on. All of it in essence a denial of the Fall of Man and the need for God to be the one to Theosis us – we’ve got on own Theosis, they seem to be saying.

        This nonsense continues despite 100 million deaths from Communism alone.

        Raghn Corvinus

        • Yes, you may quote me.

          Margaret Sanger, who preceded the National Socialists and was admired by them, was particularly explicit about the eugenicists’ goal of creating a paradise on earth. I don’t have the reference in front of me but I’ll try to find it.

  3. Only priests who uphold the historic teachings of the Christ and the Church have credibility. If I were a priest I would very publicly circulate a ‘Catholic Doctrine Commitment Agreement’ among all priests in the United States for the endorsement of the historic Truth of Catholic doctrine along with the refusal to make any compromises to the teaching on marriage, contraception, etc. If enough priests signed, Bishops would support them because, in most cases, Bishops are essentially administrations who are beholden to the political climate of the time. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit emboldens a few priests, and maybe a Bishop or two, to launch this action. They would be saving their own souls along with many in their congregation. Let us hear from those priests who would be saints.

    • “If I were a priest I would very publicly circulate a ‘Catholic Doctrine Commitment Agreement’….”

      There used to be something like that. I believe it was called the “Oath against Modernism.”

  4. “When priests and laypeople remain faithful to the unchanging and constant teaching and practice of the entire Church, they are in communion with all the Popes, orthodox bishops and the Saints of two thousand years, being in a special communion with Saint John the Baptist, Saint Thomas More, Saint John Fisher and with the innumerable abandoned spouses who remained faithful to their marriage vows, accepting a life of continence in order not to offend God.”

    And that is precisely why SSPX was the way to go for the past 50 years and is the way to go unless bishop Fellay caves in to the modernist demands. Then Resistance is the only line of defence left standing!

    • Let’s pray that bishop Fellay not give in to the modernist demands. I pray that a miracle happens and he will be elected pope. He sure would drain the swamp. You wouldn’t see weasels like Father James Martin S.J. leading souls to hell .

      Fathers like Martin and Dan Horan OFM would be either laicized or silenced.

    • None of the secrets at Fatima, Akita or Tre Fontane have indicated that there is something magical about the 100 year mark. So the analytical, intellectual comment is no, there is probably nothing that will happen.

      Okay, that said, I am concerned enough that instead of a breezy trip home from business travel on Friday, 10/13, I am taking a painful route home in Thursday that will get me home at 11:30 MDT. It’s ridiculous because, obviously, it wil, have been 10/13 in several places for several hours by the time I get home. But still….

      No matter what, it feels like something big is building. I have said this several times but it bears repeating: before the flood, God sent Noah. Nobody listened. Before He destroyed Ninevah, God sent Jonah. People repented, Ninevah was saved. Before He destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, He sent Abraham. Nobody listened. We are far worse now then the people were before Sodom or the Flood. He sent us the Virign Mary. Few have listened. Something is going to happen. I don’t know when, but it is.

      • 100 years to the day was remarkable for Louis XVI of France, and the failures of Louis XIV and XV; Let us pray that we do not follow that same path.

        • Very remarkable. And frightening because, if I am not mistaken, either at Akita or Tre Fontane the Virgin said that we have followed the errors of France and will suffer the same fate.

    • Are we taking bets here? Earthquake? Volcano? WW III? Economic collapse? If someone knew the answer for sure, he or she could make serious money on the stock market.

      • The Church is founded on the blood of the second person of the Most High Triune God
        in his human nature, any notions of collapse are manifestly IMPOSSIBLE.
        Given that the mystical body of Christ requires no material buildings, wealth, worldly
        prestige, large numbers or honours, reports of its demise are greatly exaggerated…..

  5. This quote from the learned professor is spot on:

    “RS: The split within the Church concerning Amoris Laetitia has already taken place. Different bishops’ conferences have published contradictory guidelines. And the poor priests are left alone.”

    On the eastern border of Germany, the bishops’ guidelines change in a hundred yards as you cross into Poland.
    In my own diocese in southern England, Bishop Philip has issued clear guidelines in conformity with tradition. A divorced and remarried lady who lives part of the year inside the diocese and part of the year in Malta flies between dioceses with utterly contradictory guidelines. How is an ordinary parish priest in either country supposed to advise her?

    It is not just a contradiction between two bishops. A parish priest in my diocese struggles to be loyal to Bishop Philip and to Pope Francis. Except that Pope Francis, insofar as you can understand anything he says or writes, seems to take the opposite interpretation to Bishop Philip. Francis’ letter to the Argentinian bishops plainly backs the most liberal interpretation of AL – except that this document was a private letter to the bishops of one country and not a formal clarification for the benefit of all bishops in the world.

  6. Cdl. Burke calls SSPX “schismatic”, you guys at 1P5 gonna duck this one or maybe you’re on vacation this week?

  7. I wonder why so much focus on this particular matter… After all the whole practice of no communion without confession is in shambles in Europe / the West. How many people go to Confession before they go to Communion? Who is talking to them – not just on this particular item, which is certainly grave, but on so many others, from pre-marital sex to anti-conception to abortion and various other mortal sins, not just from the realm of the flesh. Why do we narrow this discussion down, making it look like a special problem of a limited group of people (very often much in need of healing – and thus opening ourselves up to the whole “pity-argument”?)…


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