New York Times columnist Ross Douthat recently published a widely circulated commentary on the recent fall-out from Amoris Laetitia entitled, “The End of Catholic Marriage”. In it, he argued persuasively that if Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on marital love comes to be generally interpreted and applied as liberally as it has been in the Diocese of San Diego, California, it will in effect mean the death of this sacrament as the Gospel of Christ and the Catholic Church have always presented it: a sacred covenant whose indissoluble character means that remarriage after divorce constitutes adultery – a violation of the Sixth Commandment that excludes one from sacramental absolution and Eucharistic communion.
Almost as if to corroborate the accuracy of Douthat’s warning, the two bishops of a Mediterranean island nation have descended like birds of prey to inflict sudden death on Catholic marriage in their jurisdiction. Malta has been famous as a bastion of fervent and orthodox Catholicism almost since St. Paul evangelized it in the first century. No more. For in one fell swoop, Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna of Malta and Bishop Mario Grech of Gozo have avoided superficial flesh wounds and darted straight in for the jugular. They do admittedly try to disguise their death-blow with the standard bland rhetoric about the need for a sincere search for God’s will, serious prayerful discernment, “humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching”, etc. But their bottom line is that in Malta there will now be no objective and enforceable limits whatsoever on the right of (non-continent) divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive the Holy Eucharist. Priest confessors are being told they may no longer be deciders in such matters, only ‘accompaniers’; for access to the sacraments for all persons in these illicit unions will ultimately depend entirely on their own subjective decision of “conscience”.
How and when did this revolution occur? On January 13, the two aforesaid bishops made public an 8-page pastoral letter to Maltese priests entitled Criteria for the Application of Chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia. (It is dated January 8, 2017, Solemnity of the Epiphany.) Here you can read the full text.
I have no inside information as to whether Pope Francis had prior knowledge of this document, but in any case the Pontiff’s predictable failure to censure it will signify his assent to its content; indeed, that message has already been spread abroad by the instant publication of the Maltese letter in the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano.
Apart from noting two articles of the Catechism of the Catholic Church about factors that can diminish personal culpability for objectively sinful acts, this letter contains no references to any pre-Francis magisterial teaching. So in Malta the year 2017 has started off looking like Orwell’s 1984, wherein inconvenient history simply vanishes down the memory hole. This is papal positivism with a vengeance: the very pontiff who constantly berates traditional Catholics for “seeing everything in black and white” is now being turned into a Superpope whose authority trumps that of all his predecessors if he chooses to call white what they called black.
Let’s take a look at the text of the document. Its general approach is clearly established right from article 1, wherein relationships that the Gospel and the Catholic Church call adultery and fornication are soothingly sociologized under the term “complex family situations”. Indissolubility is nowhere mentioned in this letter, and even an initial nod given to our Lord’s teaching on marriage reads like lukewarm lip-service. Before the two bishops turn to the manifold merciful mitigations of God’s law that really warm their hearts, they write, “As priests, we have the duty to enlighten consciences by proclaiming Christ and the full ideal of the Gospel” (art. 1). Ah, yes. Gospel teaching on lifelong marital fidelity is now just an ideal, no longer a grave obligation imposed on all spouses by Christ himself.
The same disingenuous airbrushing of Jesus’ demanding teaching is apparent when the Maltese bishops come to discuss continence on the part of invalidly remarried couples in cases where there are serious reasons for them not to separate. In article 9 we read (with emphasis added here): “Throughout the discernment process, we should also examine the possibility of conjugal continence. Despite the fact that this ideal is not at all easy, there may be couples who, with the help of grace, practice this virtue without putting at risk other aspects of their life together.”
In this passage, note first of all the word “conjugal”: the bishops are whitewashing an adulterous relationship with an adjective that refers to true marriage. Next, continence is again described as a mere ideal, not a binding obligation. Indeed, the bishops depict this “ideal” as virtually unattainable by commenting coyly that there “may be” couples who actually observe it! In fact, their existence is far from hypothetical, as most experienced pastors are aware. Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke told me several days ago (January 14th) that, in speaking to the faithful who attend his Masses and lectures in various countries, he very frequently meets divorced and remarried couples who tell him they are practicing that demanding self-discipline – and finding peace and happiness in doing so. (His Eminence was in St. Louis visiting St. Mary of Victories Church, of which I am the rector, to celebrate Mass at the invitation of ‘Juventutem’, the international young adults’ organization that promotes the traditional Latin liturgy.) The Maltese bishops go on to imply that even those invalidly married couples who “may be” able to “practice this virtue” (i.e., continence) should do so only if this doesn’t “put at risk other aspects of their life together”. In plain language: Go ahead and practice vice instead of virtue – adultery instead of chastity – if that’s what it takes to safeguard “other aspects of [your] life”. The good end will justify the evil means.
Yes, it’s frightening to see Successors of the Apostles uttering such pernicious doctrine – especially by appealing to a papal document. But it gets worse. In the next sentence all pretence of seriously advocating a ‘brother-sister’ commitment for these couples is dropped. For the bishops continue thus: “On the other hand, there are complex situations where the choice of living ‘as brothers and sisters’ becomes humanly impossible and gives rise to greater harm (see AL, note 329)”. “Humanly impossible”, Your Excellencies? Have you forgotten that the Council of Trent has anathematized as heresy the view that, even with the help of sanctifying grace, compliance with God’s commands can sometimes be impossible? (Cf. canon 18 on justification, Dz 828 [DS/DH 1568].) And how could obeying a divine command ever “give rise to greater harm” than disobeying it? Would it not be blasphemous to suggest that our loving Father could ever command us to do something that is to our real detriment, not our benefit?
It is all too easy to foresee the conclusion that will naturally be drawn from this paragraph (art. 9) by invalidly remarried Maltese Catholics: “Our official teachers of the faith are clearly telling us that sex between divorced and civilly remarried couples is not always gravely sinful; for they’re saying that the ‘brother-sister’ option is no longer a prerequisite for receiving the sacraments. And their rationale is that continence is not only humanly impossible for most couples but will in any case usually do more harm than good. So why we should even attempt to live according this so-called ‘ideal’ when our bishops are saying that if we find it too burdensome we can go to Communion anyway?”
The coup de grâce for the perennial doctrine on marital fidelity and sacramental integrity comes in the succeeding paragraph of the letter. Article 10, in full, reads as follows:
“If, as a result of the process of discernment, undertaken with ‘humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching, in a sincere search for God’s will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it’ (AL 300), a separated or divorced person who is living in a new relationship manages, with an informed and enlightened conscience, to acknowledge and believe that he or she are [sic] at peace with God, he or she cannot be precluded from participating in the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist (see AL, notes 336 and 351).”
Please note the inclusion of “separated” persons above. Our two Maltese falcons (unleashed, it must be remembered, by the chief Falconer in Rome) have not only pried open the sacramental doors for those in bigamous unions that enjoy civil recognition. Their sharply logical beaks have simultaneously ripped out and discarded the need for divorce – so often a stressful, time-consuming and expensive process. Thus, Catholics in Malta who are cohabiting with one partner while still legally and sacramentally married to another will henceforth have access to the sacraments on the same basis as the divorced and remarried. Note also the ominous word “cannot” in art. 10. The island nation’s priest confessors are being told they not only may, but must, grant absolution (and thus, access to Communion) to unrepentant adulterers provided only that the latter insist they have “manage[d], with an informed and enlightened conscience, to acknowledge and believe that [they] are at peace with God”. What, then, of the priest whose own “informed and enlightened conscience” tells him he may not comply with this revolutionary diktat? Once again Orwell’s scenario springs to mind: in Malta, it seems, all Catholic consciences may (perhaps) be equal, but some are now clearly “more equal than others”.
As if all this were not bad enough, more is in store a little further down the road. In article 3 of the letter, the bishops say that before treating their main topic (those who are “separated or divorced” from a true spouse), they “would like to address the situation of those who cohabit or who have only married civilly”. That is, Catholics who have never been validly married. While this paragraph rightly recommends a pastoral approach that would encourage these couples to move toward true marriage, it is silent about whether or not they can ever approach the sacraments in their present condition. However, the bishops hasten to emphasize, in accordance with AL #294, that among such couples “the degree of moral responsibility is not the same for all cases”, i.e., that they are not necessarily in mortal sin. So it is not hard to see what conclusion about sacramental reception will be drawn from art. 3 by many unwed sexual partners whose “informed and enlightened consciences” also tell them they’re “at peace with God”. Indeed, they will be able to tell themselves that, if anything, they should have a greater right to receive Communion than the divorced and remarried. For as simple fornicators in God’s sight, they cannot be accused of the graver sin of adultery, which violates the cardinal virtue of justice as well as that of temperance.
An explicit authorization for these folks too to approach the sacraments is probably just round the corner; and, since logical conclusions have a way of stubbornly following from their premises in practice as well as on paper, a similar permission for same-sex couples who find themselves “at peace with God” will surely not lag far behind. Not to mention corresponding concessions to polygamists all over Africa, as the orthodox Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of Durban has recently warned us.
All in all, 2017 seems to be shaping up pretty well for Protestants as they celebrate (with more than a little encouragement from our Catholic leaders) the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. For if little Malta turns out to be a canary in the coal mine – an indicator of impending death for indissoluble marriage on a wider international scale – then our separated brethren will surely rejoice that we Catholics are finally seeing the light that Luther received five centuries earlier when he boldly relativized the Gospel’s stern teaching on this matter. Whether that ‘light’ really comes from Christ, who sent His Blessed Mother to appear at Fatima 100 years ago, is of course another matter. Among other things, she warned us then that “sins of the flesh” are those which most frequently send souls to Hell.
The Rev. Brian W. Harrison, O.S., M.A., S.T.D., a priest of the Society of the Oblates of Wisdom, is a retired Associate Professor of Theology of the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico in Ponce, P.R. In 1997 he gained his doctorate in Systematic Theology, summa cum laude, from the Pontifical Athenæum of the Holy Cross in Rome.
Since 2007 Fr. Harrison has been scholar-in-residence at the Oblates of Wisdom Study Center in St. Louis, Missouri, is well-known as a speaker and writer. He is the author of three books and over 130 articles in Catholic books, magazines and journals in the U.S.A., Australia, Britain, France, Spain and Puerto Rico.