The volume and scope of the analysis by Church scholars, theologians, and other Catholic writers on the topic of Pope Francis’ post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (AL), is little short of staggering. But in recent weeks, since the pope’s brazen approval of the Argentine Bishops’ letter making clear that there is “no other interpretation” than that AL chapter 8 provides a path for Catholics who are sexually active in post-marital second unions to receive the sacraments of Confession and Holy Communion, the urgency and forthrightness of these analyses have intensified.
I’ve spent a good portion of my day reading through and comparing three of these, and I think their importance cannot be overstated. It is worthy of note that the three publications in which they appeared — Catholic World Report, First Things, and The New York Times, respectively — while not averse to reasoned critiques, are also not among those outlets known for the staunchest of opposition to Francis’ agenda. That such thoughtful criticism is appearing in the larger world with increasing regularity is, I think, a sign that for the revolutionaries who have somehow captured the helm of Peter’s barque, their time to implement the program is running out.
The first of the articles in question is by E. Christian Brugger, a professor of Moral Theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver and Senior Fellow of Ethics at the Culture of Life Foundation in Washington, D.C. Having previously treated of the subject of AL’s problems in a widely-shared analysis in April of this year, Dr. Brugger returned to the subject in a September 20 essay that addresses the inherent dangers of AL’s attempt to subjectivize acts of conscience on matters of objective moral certitude:
Other authors have commented and reported on the papal reply, so I will not do so here. The purpose of this article rather is to critique the account of moral conscience implicit in the reasoning of the ABs and AL as defended in a recent article in National Catholic Reporter by Michael Lawler and Todd Salzman entitled: “In Amoris Laetitia, Francis’ model of conscience empowers Catholics”. The Salzman-Lawler (SL) duet made fame in 2008 for its publication of the book The Sexual Person, which set forth a fulsome defense of same-sex genital acts from Scripture, tradition, and natural reason, and which wascensured by the Committee on Doctrine of the USCCB in 2010.
In the NCR article, the authors consider what they refer to as two “diametrically opposed” understandings of conscience, one which they say overly emphasizes the “objective realm” of moral truth, and the other which, in their opinion, rightfully emphasizes the “subjective realm” of freedom and individuality. Let’s call these the “objectivist” and “subjectivist” models.
SL say that St. John Paul II,1 Archbishop Charles Chaput (“Pastoral Guidelines for Implementing Amoris Laetitia”) and Germain Grisez2 represent the objectivist model; and Pope Francis (in Evangelii Gaudium 231-232 and Amoris Laetitia Ch. 8), the German Jesuit theologian Josef Fuchs, and German Redemptorist theologian Bernard Häring represent the subjectivist school.
Before summarizing SL’s account, it’s important to understand a presupposition of their theory. They follow the reasoning of Fuchs and Häring, who in the years after Vatican II became Europe’s foremost defenders of the moral theory known as “Proportionalism”.3Although it comes in different flavors, common to all proportionalists is the insistence that intending evil as an end or means (what defenders refer to variously as “premoral evil”, “ontic evil”, “disvalue”, etc.) does not by that fact make an action morally wrong. If there are “morally relevant circumstances” justifying the commission of the evil—what they call “proportionate reasons” (not to be confused with proportionate reason as used in the classical Principle of Double Effect)—then it can rightly be chosen.
Why do I say this is important to understand? Because Proportionalism denies the existence of intrinsically evil actions, types of behavior that when freely chosen always constitute a disorder of the will. If there are no intrinsically wrongful types of action, then the Church, when it has taught that there are (e.g., adultery), has taught illicitly. And so whereas according to the Church’s teaching, conscience never rightly deliberates over whether or not to have sex with someone other than one’s valid spouse, conscience in the proportionalist account may indeed (in fact sometimes must) remain open to it. Why? Because if there are proportionate reasons for doing so, then under the circumstances it may be the right thing for me to do.
Subjectivizing the acts of conscience are a notable and consistent theme of this papacy, perhaps most infamously in the now twice-asked “Who am I to judge?” of Pope Francis. One sees evidence of this also, for example, in the permissive attitude offered by the pope as regards Lutherans making a personal decision to receive Holy Communion in a Catholic Church: “Life is bigger than explanations and interpretations,” the pope said in a meeting with Lutherans last November. “Always refer back to your baptism. ‘One faith, one baptism, one Lord.’ This is what Paul tells us, and then take the consequences from there. I wouldn’t ever dare to allow this, because it’s not my competence. One baptism, one Lord, one faith. Talk to the Lord and then go forward. I don’t dare to say anything more.”
Brugger expands on this mentality:
They [SL] bitterly criticize Archbishop Chaput’s statement that “the subjective conscience of the individual can never be set against objective moral truth.” On the contrary, they say, Vatican II’s advocacy for religious liberty demonstrates that what’s most central to conscience is its “sincere…search for goodness”, not necessarily its identification with what’s objectively good: “conscience is not at the service of doctrine.” To be sure, they say, objective moral truth is not irrelevant. But “the authority of conscience is not identified with whether or not it obeys the objective norm.”
And where have we heard this idea before of a “sincere…search for goodness”? Not long after his “Who am I to judge” statement, Pope Francis conducted the first of several papal interviews with La Reppublica’s Eugenio Scalfari. And in it, the following question and answer between journalist and pontiff transpired:
Your Holiness, you wrote that in your letter to me. The conscience is autonomous, you said, and everyone must obey his conscience. I think that’s one of the most courageous steps taken by a Pope.
“And I repeat it here. Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.”
Dr. Brugger then makes the reasonable assertion that the solution to this problem of subjective inculpability for sin due to poorly-formed consciences is not to create loopholes so that these people may continue in their sin unawares, but to form them:
This leads to an unavoidable conclusion. If faced with a putatively ignorant conscience, Catholic pastors should make every reasonable effort to assist it to step out of the darkness of ignorance into the light of moral truth. We should form consciences, not leave them in error. How can one “prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2), if one lacks knowledge of God’s law and the principles of the moral order (cf. VS 64)? When JPII exhorts pastors to put themselves “at the service of conscience”, he means at the service of true human freedom. Unless consciences are formed in the truth, they won’t be able to avoid being “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles (Eph 4:14).” Forming consciences assists them “not to swerve from the truth about the good of man,” it helps them, especially in more difficult questions, not only “to attain the truth with certainty”, but also “to abide in it” (VS 64). Only through a “frank and open acceptance of the truth” can conscience attain to authentic freedom.
To authors who say that it is better to leave people in ignorance than to teach them truths that might be hard for them to bear, we should reply that every conscience has a right not to be left in confusion and error (RP, 33). Pastors entrusted with the care of consciences have a responsibility to serve the truth.
[C]onscience in the Catholic view does indeed stand in obedience to the moral law. But this obedience is not servile and passive, not the obedience of a slave to his master. It’s the obedience of a scientist to the truth, or a famished man to a feast, or the ear to sound and the eye to color, or an explorer to his longed-for destination, or of a hunting dog to his quarry. Conscience is made for moral truth. It searches for, finds, probes and understands more deeply, then directs action as best as it can in accord with it. How can this be a threat? Is a hand a threat to a glove, or a key to a lock? A healthy conscience doesn’t close us down and restrict us. It opens us up to the good and ultimately to God. It makes possible the flourishing of the gift of freedom (See JPII,General Audience, Aug. 17, 1983, 2; Insegnamenti, VI, 2 (1983), 256).
Dr. Brugger also tackles the thorny question of whether AL demands the assent of the faithful:
One of my seminarians recently came to me with a worried look on his face wondering whether because this was taught in a papal document he was obliged in conscience to accept it as true. I told him that Vatican II teaches that Catholics are obliged to receive the teaching of the Ordinary Magisterium, which the teaching of Amoris Laetitia constitutes, with a “religious submission of mind and will” (“religiosum voluntatis et intellectus obsequium”;Lumen Gentium 25). I said this obsequium is different from the “assent of faith” (de fide credenda) required for the truths of Divine Revelation (cf. CDF, Donum Veritatis, no. 23). Obsequium means we come to the teaching with intellectual docility, giving it a presumption of truth, with a readiness to assent to it, and, if it’s moral instruction, to apply it to our lives.
But neither intellectual docility, nor readiness of will implies that we accept the teaching of the Ordinary Magisterium without subjecting it to the authority of faith and reason. We are obliged in conscience to accept what’s true. The Holy Spirit guards the Church from error when she teaches infallibly, and so we can be confident that teachings taught infallibly are true. But the guidance of the Holy Spirit to the pope and bishops when they exercise their Ordinary Magisterium does not guard them from error.
And so we must always consider these teachings of the Church in the light of what we already know to be true concerning Catholic faith and morals. If after careful consideration we conclude that some teaching of the pope or bishops is inconsistent with the teaching of Christ or with moral or pastoral issues that the Church has already authoritatively and rightly settled, then we have no obligation to assent to it and we may be obliged to oppose it.
It is on this point that I would like to turn from Dr. Brugger’s analysis to that provided by Dr Jessica M. Murdoch, a professor of fundamental and dogmatic theology at Villanova. In her September 27 article at First Things, entitled, “Creeping Infallibility”, she grapples more extensively with the question of whether AL requires our assent — particularly in light of Cardinal Schönborn’s comments — made after he was tapped by Francis as the official interpreter of AL — that AL is “an act of the magisterium” and “an authentic teaching of sacra doctrina.” Murdoch breaks down the Viennese prelate’s claims:
The Cardinal’s statement does not equivocate. It can be translated into four propositions. First,Amoris Laetitia is a binding document of the ordinary magisterium. Second, it is meant to be universal in scope. Third, it bears a doctrinal character. Fourth, it is to be understood as an authentic interpretation of the deposit of the faith. These assertions, if correct, are extremely consequential. Under settled doctrine, Catholics would be required to assent intellectually and submit their minds and wills to the pronouncements in the Exhortation. The Cardinal’s conclusions, however, do not withstand scrutiny in light of principles governing the interpretation of magisterial documents.
Space will not permit me to cite her examples as to why his conclusions fall flat, but they bear reading. Murdoch’s examination of papal authority — when it is binding and when it is not — is simultaneously one of the most accessible and comprehensive I’ve seen. I’ll excerpt some of the meatiest bits here:
The basic principles of the Church’s doctrine of infallibility provide substantive guidance here. First and foremost, the Petrine ministry participates in the infallibility of the deposit of Revelation. This is crucial to hold in view, because Revelation is ultimately the criterion of truth. The special, divine assistance of infallibility is a privilege attached to the Holy Father as the center of unity of the Church, yet this privilege is always given for the entire Church. Besides the infallibility attached to the Pope’s pronouncements taught with the fullness of his supreme authority (the “extraordinary magisterium”), the “ordinary magisterium” can also be a source of infallible teaching, when it concerns de fide doctrine (concerning faith and morals), when it is marked by unity and unanimity, and when it is proposed to be definitive and absolute teaching. Not every teaching of the ordinary magisterium, however, fulfills these criteria. Some teachings of the ordinary magisterium can be fallible, and do not command interior assent of mind and will, if such teachings are clearly contrary to reason, or to the natural law, or to the divine positive law.
And in all of this one must keep ever in mind that the charism of infallibility is one of assistance and not of inspiration. In other words, the Holy Father cannot create doctrine, but can only explain the deposit of the faith more clearly. This consideration of assistance versus inspiration raises another question, namely, what is to be done when a direct contradiction appears between one pontificate and another, or between pontifical documents? Cardinal Schönborn suggests that in such cases the older pronouncements must yield to the newer. The Cardinal said that we read Nicaea in light of Constantinople I, and Vatican I in light of Vatican II. But the Church’s longstanding practice is precisely the contrary. It emphasizes that which is prior, that is, the Church’s tradition, over and against that which is posterior and, therefore, untested. Thus, the typical hermeneutic of the Church is to read Vatican II in light of Vatican I, Vatican I in light of Trent, Trent in light of what has preceded it and so on. In other words, tradition is always privileged as the remote rule of faith.
Responding faithfully to the trans-temporal magisterium of the Church (and not simply to the magisterium of one’s own times) requires holding in view two other principles of interpretation. First, “the minor must give way to the major.” Second, the “one must give way to the many.” Taking the first principle: If there is question of conflict between two pontifical documents, the privilege must be given to the document that bears higher magisterial authority. For example, an apostolic exhortation of one pontificate does not possess more authority than an encyclical of a prior papacy. Thus, Amoris Laetitia cannot supersede the encyclical Veritatis Splendor. Now, when the documents are of the same authoritative rank, the second principle comes into play: One must privilege the harmony of the many pontificates in union with each other, and their unanimity with the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, over the one seemingly dissonant voice. This concept was famously expressed over 1,500 years ago in the Canon of St. Vincent of Lerins: “Now in the Catholic Church itself we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.” Although Amoris Laetitia and St. John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio are both apostolic exhortations, this principle would justify privileging John Paul’s document, because it seems to be more harmonious with prior magisterial teaching, both extraordinary and ordinary.
Ultimately, however, this level of discernment cannot be a matter of private judgment, but of magisterial decision. In case of real conflict between the teaching of various popes or between the teaching of one pontificate and natural or divine positive law, only the magisterium bears the obligation and authority to clarify any errors publicly.
One of the most important takeaways from the preceding four paragraphs is that we never read older or more authoritative Church documents “in light of” newer or less authoritative ones. I’ve been hearing the contrary from theologians — even at “orthodox” Catholic colleges — for years now. I’m deeply grateful that Dr. Murdoch puts this error to rest as part of her larger exposition.
So the question is: where does this all leave us?
That’s where Matthew Schmitz, literary editor of First Things, comes in. In an op-ed yesterday at The New York Times, Schmitz asks the fundamental question: “Has Pope Francis Failed?”
In a certain sense, things have changed. Perceptions of the papacy, or at least of the pope, have improved. Francis is far more popular than his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. Sixty-three percent of American Catholics approve of him, while only 43 percent approved of Benedict at the height of his popularity, according to a 2015 New York Times and CBS News poll. Francis has also placed a great emphasis on reaching out to disaffected Catholics.
But are Catholics actually coming back? In the United States, at least, it hasn’t happened. New survey findings from Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate suggest that there has been no Francis effect — at least, no positive one. In 2008, 23 percent of American Catholics attended Mass each week. Eight years later, weekly Mass attendance has held steady or marginally declined, at 22 percent.
In spite of Francis’ personal popularity, young people seem to be drifting away from the faith.
Schmitz admits that it may take time to evaluate the full effect of the Francis papacy, but offers a compelling theory as to why the pope’s popularity hasn’t translated into actual bottom line results:
Francis is a Jesuit, and like many members of Catholic religious orders, he tends to view the institutional church, with its parishes and dioceses and settled ways, as an obstacle to reform. He describes parish priests as “little monsters” who “throw stones” at poor sinners. He has given curial officials a diagnosis of “spiritual Alzheimer’s.” He scolds pro-life activists for their “obsession” with abortion. He has said that Catholics who place an emphasis on attending Mass, frequenting confession, and saying traditional prayers are “Pelagians” — people who believe, heretically, that they can be saved by their own works.
Such denunciations demoralize faithful Catholics without giving the disaffected any reason to return. Why join a church whose priests are little monsters and whose members like to throw stones? When the pope himself stresses internal spiritual states over ritual observance, there is little reason to line up for confession or wake up for Mass.
Francis has built his popularity at the expense of the church he leads. Those who wish to see a stronger church may have to wait for a different kind of pope. Instead of trying to soften the church’s teaching, such a man would need to speak of the way hard disciplines can lead to freedom. Confronting a hostile age with the strange claims of Catholic faith may not be popular, but over time it may prove more effective. Even Christ was met with the jeers of the crowd.
The hallmark of this papacy — the legacy that Francis will leave behind — is one of confusion and discord. He is a bringer of chaos. The debate rages on in many corners of the Catholic world about whether he’s even a legitimate pope at all. As I’ve said before, it’s not our place to decide, and in practical terms, it makes little difference in terms of the aftermath he will leave in his wake. (If anything, proving that Francis was an anti-pope will make cleanup easier; at least then, some of his catastrophic decisions could be nullified.)
What we are left with is a Church being systematically dismantled by the man who should be its fiercest guardian. Honest, everyday Catholics wishing to be faithful and obedient do not know what to do or whose lead to follow. Pope Francis could die tonight in his sleep, and the damage that has been done would take decades to undo. Even then, things will never be the same. They may be repaired, but the scars will remain: souls lost, divergent paths ossified in the unchangeable paths that were laid down, leading many astray. The kind of scandal being wrought here on a global scale makes Christ’s parable of the millstone seem like a slap on the wrist.
In his analysis of the 2014 Synod on the Family, Bishop Athanasius Schneider said, referring to the now-infamous mid-term relatio:
Such a synod document, even if only preliminary, is a real shame and an indication to the extent the spirit of the anti-Christian world has already penetrated such important levels of the life of the Church. This document will remain for the future generations and for the historians a black mark which has stained the honour of the Apostolic See.
Would that it were the only such black mark. Wherever one looks in Rome, such defacements of the beauty of doctrinal truth are in evidence for all to see.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have eight children. You can find more of his writing at his Substack, The Skojec File.