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.

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