Pope Francis’s Amoris Laetitia has elicited a wide variety of reactions. Most Catholic media have accentuated the positive: this document clearly rejects abortion, the idea of calling same-sex couples “married,” and a formal process of offering Holy Communion to married Catholics separated from their spouses and living in adultery unless they commit to be celibate – since, in God’s eyes, they’re still married, as Jesus Himself made clear.
But a number of dedicated Catholics are also worried by the document – not so much for what it asserts as for what it omits and what it permits. Prominent Catholic authors such as Robert Royal; James Schall, S.J.; and Ross Douthat have expressed their grave concerns over what Douthat calls the Anglican-style “truce” that Pope Francis accepted for the Church, allowing orthodox doctrine and non-Catholic practices simply to coexist. Michael Brendan Dougherty goes so far as to call the document an instance of “hubris and cowardice” because it boldly authorizes profound changes in Catholic life without daring to alter the underlying doctrines.
From what I have read, Pope Francis seems to present the Catholic vision of a lifelong, loving, and fruitful marriage not so much as the ordinary plan God has in mind for the vast majority of humans, but rather as a noble ideal toward which we can idealistically strive – something like the lofty Franciscan vision of absolute, Christ-like poverty, or a call to bloody martyrdom. And who could blame someone for failing at that?
For all the reaffirmations of Christian morality, the document leaves a theological gap the size of the Lincoln Tunnel, which dissenters are sure to exploit, using all their institutional power to transform the sacrament of marriage along purely secular lines. As Roberto de Mattei explains (emphases added):
Everyone was expecting the answer to one basic question: Can those who have remarried civilly after a first marriage, receive the Sacrament of the Eucharist? The Church has always given a categorical no[.] …
The answer of the post-synod Exhortation is, instead: along general lines – no, but “in certain cases” – yes. (no.305, note 351) …
What is obvious is this: the prohibition to receive Communion for the divorced and remarried is no longer absolute. The Pope does not authorize, as a general rule, Communion to the divorced, but neither does he prohibit it.
The decision on whether to give the Body of Christ to Catholics who are living in what the Church considers adultery will apparently be left to local pastors. How many will have the moral courage to hold firm in the face of anguished or angry parishioners?
Nor does the pope offer much encouragement to pastors placed in this position, as de Mattei explains:
The pastors wishing to refer to the Church’s commandments, would risk acting… “as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators” (no 310). “For this reason, a pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in ‘irregular’ situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives. This would bespeak the closed heart of one used to hiding behind the Church’s teachings, ‘sitting on the chair of Moses and judging at times with superiority and superficiality difficult cases and wounded families.’
How much of this same “charitable” rhetoric will dissenting Catholics apply to people in same-sex relationships? The correct answer is “all of it.” If Catholics living in adultery are to be fully “included” in Church life, to be welcomed as godparents, religion teachers, and lectors, what exactly is the argument for rejecting those in homosexual relationships calling themselves “married”? Isn’t that simply and blatantly “homophobic”? While Francis does not himself open the door to this conclusion, history tells us that the revolutionaries in the Catholic Church never wait for encouragement from the pope.
All Revolutionaries Need Is a Loophole – and Now They Have One
If you didn’t grow up in devoted Catholic circles during the 1970s and ’80s, you might not know the pattern that established itself in the wake of Vatican II – a meeting of the world’s bishops that raised (then dashed) great expectations among “progressive” Catholics who sought to accommodate Catholic doctrine to the expectations of modern Westerners. Many of the major liturgical changes that took place after Vatican II were rejected at first by Rome – which, a few years later, was faced with a fait accompli, since the liberals had ignored the Vatican’s orders, and now millions of Catholics were accustomed to the new practices, and it would be “disruptive” and “unpastoral” to disturb their new “local traditions.”
The same thing will happen now, as theological revolutionaries claim that Francis’s call to be “welcoming” to same-sex-attracted people implies that they deserve the exact same treatment now expected for those living in adultery – a policy theologically liberal bishops pushed for, hard, at last year’s Synod on the Family, only to be rebuked by the votes of doctrinally conservative bishops from places like Poland.
How soon will it be before pastors in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and other post-Christian wastelands are authorizing transvestites to hand out Holy Communion, same-sex couples to teach pre-Cana classes, and activists promoting sodomy to serve as principals of Catholic schools and seminaries – citing the language Pope Francis used to encourage compassion toward Catholics who have abandoned their sacramental marriages?
Under previous popes, faithful Catholics at least had firm, unambiguous papal statements to cite against such destructive local abuses, and to use in court when they had to defend their religious freedom against intolerant secular activists: “I’m sorry, Your Honor, but my Church explicitly requires this…” How long will it be until a well-informed judge, or a homosexual activist attorney, finds it useful to cite Amoris Laetitia against such beleaguered Catholics, and accuses them, in the pope’s own words, of “sitting on the chair of Moses”?
Not just our faith’s integrity, but our religious liberty is endangered by the pope’s ill-chosen words.
John Zmirak is Senior Editor of The Stream. received his B.A. from Yale University in 1986, then his M.F.A. in screenwriting and fiction and his Ph.D. in English in 1996 from Louisiana State University. His focus was the English Renaissance, and the novels of Walker Percy. He taught composition at LSU and screenwriting at Tulane University, and has written screenplays for and with director Ronald Maxwell (Gods & Generals and Gettysburg). He was elected alternate delegate to the 1996 Republican Convention, representing Pat Buchanan.
He has been Press Secretary to pro-life Louisiana Governor Mike Foster, and a reporter and editor at Success magazine and Investor’s Business Daily, among other publications. His essays, poems, and other works have appeared in First Things, The Weekly Standard, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, USA Today, FrontPage Magazine, The American Conservative, The South Carolina Review, Modern Age, The Intercollegiate Review, Commonweal, and The National Catholic Register, among other venues. He has contributed to American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia and The Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought. From 2000-2004 he served as Senior Editor of Faith & Family magazine and a reporter at The National Catholic Register. During 2012 he was editor of Crisis.
He is author or co-author of six books, including Wilhelm Ropke: Swiss Localist, Global Economist, The Grand Inquisitor (graphic novel), The Race to Save Our Century, and most recently, Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism. He was editor of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s guide to higher education, Choosing the Right College and Collegeguide.org, for ten years, and is also editor of Disorientation: How to Go to College Without Losing Your Mind.
He is a native of New York City, but now resides in Dallas, TX.