Rocco Buttiglione’s Response to the Four Cardinals’ Dubia

The noted Italian Catholic politician and philosopher Rocco Buttiglione has emerged as one of the most prominent defenders of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia (AL).  Well, even the most brilliantly qualified apologist is going to have an uphill battle if he seeks – as Buttiglione does – to demonstrate that this very confusing document is perfectly in line with traditional Catholic doctrine.

Buttiglione has recently weighed in over the now-famous Four Cardinals’ Dubia: that is, the submission of Cardinals Walter Brandmuller, Raymond Leo Burke, Carlo Caffarra, and Joachim Meisner to Pope Francis, asking for a clear confirmation of five vital points of Catholic moral teaching which appear to be cast in doubt by AL. The Holy Father has declined to answer Their Eminences; but Professor Buttiglione has now stepped up to the plate with his own response.

Here are some critical observations on what he says:


This has to do with the most immediately pressing practical question arising from AL: Is the exhortation to be understood as permitting Holy Communion to some divorced and invalidly remarried Catholics who live more uxorio (i.e., who remain sexually active)?  Buttiglione says – and I think rightly – that the response to this dubium must be affirmative, i.e., that AL does indeed permit this in certain cases. And how does he argue that this hitherto unheard-of permission is in line with traditional doctrine? “A clear distinction”, he says, “needs to be made between the act, which constitutes a grave sin, and the agent, who may find themselves bound by circumstances that mitigate their responsibility for the act or in some cases may even eliminate it completely. Consider, for example, the case of a woman who is completely financially and mentally dependent on someone and is forced to have sexual intercourse against her will” (emphasis added).

This strikes me as a red herring which avoids the point at issue and just confuses the whole discussion.  Buttiglione is in fact describing someone who is a ‘sex slave’ undergoing rape (see italicized words above). But if the intercourse is “against her will”, it is not even a human act on the part of the woman, much less a sin; and so theologians across the board would agree that she would not need to confess it in the sacrament of Penance. But that is simply not the situation the Holy Father is talking about in AL, as Buttiglione ought to be aware. Francis has in mind invalidly ‘remarried’ persons who  willingly live more uxorio and want sacramental absolution and the Eucharist without any commitment to live in continence.

Buttiglione then goes on to acknowledge that a firm purpose of amendment from sin is necessary in order to receive sacramental absolution. But he continues: “However, this person may not be able to achieve this detachment and regain self-ownership immediately. Here, the ‘situation of sin’ concept illustrated by John Paul II, is important. One cannot plausibly promise never to commit a certain sin if they live in a situation in which they are exposed to the irresistible temptation of committing it.”

Again, this just confuses the issue. A necessary element of the required firm purpose of amendment – an element commonly expressed in the penitent’s Act of Contrition – is a resolve to avoid the near occasions of sin. If a remarried penitent confessing to illicit intercourse is not yet willing to separate from his/her civil spouse, and if living under the same roof constitutes for him/her an “irresistible temptation” to adulterous acts, then that penitent must be denied absolution, just as an habitual drunkard must be denied absolution if he tells the priest he is not willing to stop frequenting bars with his buddies after work. Contrary to what Buttiglione says, it’s not that this penitent is unable at that moment to make the decision to separate from his/her civil spouse, but rather, he/she is unwilling to do so. God never commands the impossible, and offers us the necessary grace to fulfill his will. As St. Paul assures the Christians at Corinth: “No trial has come to you but what is human. God is faithful, and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out” (I Cor. 10: 13-14).


Buttiglione’s seven-line comment on this dubium – as to whether, in the light of AL #304, Veritatis Splendor #79 is still valid in teaching the existence of exceptionless prohibitions of intrinsically evil acts – is very superficial. He replies, “It certainly is [still valid]”, on the grounds that Pope Francis is not giving a “different valuation of the act” from that of John Paul II, but only recognizing the differing subjective circumstances that may sometimes diminish imputability for such intrinsically evil acts.  If only it were that simple! Buttiglione completely fails to recognize what prompted the Four Cardinals to formulate this dubium. In AL 304, Pope Francis is not merely saying that imputability for breaches of the moral law against adultery can sometimes be diminished by subjective factors. He appears to be saying there can be exceptions to the law itself. For he appeals here to a passage of the Summa (Ia IIae, Q. 94, a. 4) in which St. Thomas is not talking about subjective imputability, but about general rules of conduct that do not apply in every particular situation. In the context of Chapter 8 as a whole, the Holy Father seems to be implying in #304 that, on the basis of St. Thomas’ teaching, we can classify the moral law forbidding sexual intimacy outside of valid marriage as one of these “general law[s] or rule[s]” to which there can be exceptions in particular cases. Indeed, in the preceding article of AL (#303), Pope Francis says that the “conscience” of someone living in an irregular sexual relationship “may come to see with a certain moral security that [this relationship] is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits” (emphasis added). Since God could never “ask” us to do what contradicts his own commands, the sexual acts in question would in that event have to be objectively justifiable, not just subjectively excusable. In other words, Pope Francis appears to be teaching in AL 303-304 the shockingly novel thesis that people’s “conscience” can rationally discover true exceptions, applying to themselves, to the divine law which prohibits all sexual intimacy outside of a valid marriage.

Moreover (as various Thomist scholars have pointed out), Aquinas neither states nor implies that this can ever happen, so the appeal to his authority in AL #304 is misplaced. Here in Q. 94, a. 4 he is focusing on positive precepts of the natural law, to which, indeed, there can sometimes be exceptions. This is clear from the one concrete example he gives: while it is true as a general rule that “Goods entrusted to another must be restored to their owner”, there may be particular circumstances, he notes, in which it would not be right to do so: for instance, if it were clear that a loaned weapon would be used for an evil purpose if it were returned to its owner at that moment. St. Thomas never suggests that there can be exceptions to negative precepts such as “Thou shalt not commit adultery”. Indeed, in the very next article of the Summa (Q. 94, a.5) he makes it clear that even the special revelation given to the prophet Hosea to “take a wife of fornications” is not to be understood as an exception to the divine law against adultery.


Here the cardinals ask whether, after AL #301, we can still affirm that those who live in contradiction to a commandment of God’s law (such as the Commandment against adultery) are in “an objective situation of grave sin”. Buttiglione answers “Yes” to this question, provided the distinction is made between “grave sin” (the objective evaluation of a person’s immoral conduct) and “mortal sin” (the subjective loss of sanctifying grace, which would not occur when there is lack of full knowledge or consent). But Buttiglione again only skims the surface of the problem, and so fails to discern the reason for this dubium. Pope Francis, speaking of divorced and invalidly remarried Catholics who remain sexually active, makes the shocking statement in #301 that some of them can “be in a concrete situation that does not allow [them] to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin” (emphasis added). But if it were sinful for people in that “concrete situation” to abstain from sex with the partner who is not their true spouse, then their continuing sexual relationship with that partner would not in fact be “an objective situation of grave habitual sin”, much less a subjectively culpable situation of mortal sin.  On the contrary, it would be morally obligatory!

Also, Buttiglione’s understanding of why folks in that situation have perennially been denied absolution and Communion is very superficial and defective. He says, “Canon 915 excludes those persevering in manifest grave sin from the sacraments irrespective of the fact (recognised as a possibility) that they may not be in a condition of mortal sin. Public scandal is, obviously, the reason.” But in regard to the exclusion from those sacraments of civilly remarried and sexually active divorcees, “public scandal” is only a secondary reason, according to Pope St. John Paul II. The primary reason is by its very nature strictly doctrinal, and therefore not a matter of changeable ecclesiastical law. John Paul affirms:

“However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried [with no commitment to practice continence]. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage” (Familiaris Consortio [FC], #84, emphasis added).

It should be emphasized that the Pontiff’s words emphasized above imply that no mitigating circumstances can ever justify granting sacramental absolution and Communion to the people in question, even supposing that scandal to others could be completely avoided. Since their exclusion from the Eucharist is grounded first and foremost on “their state and condition of life”, which “objectively contradict” the profound nuptial meaning of the Eucharist, and since that objective contradiction clearly remains even if they are subjectively free of mortal sin because of diminished imputability (lack of full knowledge and/or consent), it follows that no priest faithful to St. John Paul’s teaching may ever open the way to the Eucharist for such persons by giving them sacramental absolution. John Paul reinforces this in the same paragraph by explicitly affirming that they may be absolved “only” if they make a commitment to live in continence. It amazes me that a scholar of Buttiglione’s eminence shows himself completely oblivious to these teachings of FC #84, and indeed, does not even refer to this key magisterial text.


I would agree with Buttiglione here that if AL #302 (the paragraph mentioned by the cardinals in this dubium) is taken in isolation, it probably allows for an affirmative answer to their question as to whether it still allows us to hold, with John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor (VS) #81, that circumstances and intentions can never transform an intrinsically evil act into a good or defensible act. However, the statements in AL ##301, 303 and 304 discussed above seem to call this radically into question.


The Four Cardinals finally ask whether, in the light of AL #303, we can still hold, with John Paul II in VS #56, that conscience does not have a “creative” role which could “legitimate exceptions to absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts by virtue of their object”. Buttiglione answers a facile “Yes”, without coming to grips in any way with the statements in AL ##303 and 304 that have prompted the cardinals’ concern (see discussion of the Second Dubium above).

Rocco Buttiglione concludes by affirming, “It seems obvious to me, therefore, that Amoris Laetitia is perfectly in keeping with the doctrine and sacred tradition of the Church”. His confidence strikes me as remarkably misplaced, and unwarranted by the shallow arguments he adduces in defense of this deeply problematical apostolic exhortation.

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