Saturday, April 9, 2016

What Did the Pope Really Say? (The Amoris Laetitia Edition)

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On Friday, as I’m sure most of you know, the Vatican Press released Pope Francis’ post-synodal exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love). Predictably, everyone who foresaw sweeping changes in Church doctrine and practice were proved wrong, though that didn’t stop The Usual Gang of Radical Traditionalists from proclaiming it a heretical disaster.

Amoris Laetitia Not a Wrecking Ball

If you’re going to read it, be prepared: at 264 pages (closer to 245, if you take out blank pages and such), it’s longer than any encyclical I’ve ever read, including St. John Paul’s Evangelium Vitae, longer even than Laudato Si’. It’s a wide-ranging and somewhat undisciplined ramble, as Francis occasionally breaks from the main line of his thoughts to directly address sections of his readership. For example, in paragraph 212, in the middle of discussing short-term preparations for marriage, he offers some quick advice to the engaged couples. But while fully half of the text is enclosed in quotation marks — three-quarters of one of the longest paragraphs consists of one extensive citation of a sermon given by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — still Francis’ irrepressible enthusiasm comes through.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that Amoris Laetitia is an apostolic exhortation, not an apostolic constitution nor a motu proprio. Very early on, Francis defines his purpose: “to gather the contributions of the two recent Synods on the family, while adding other considerations as an aid to reflection, dialogue and pastoral practice, and as a help and encouragement to families in their daily commitments and challenges.” (AL § 4)

Since Francis’ focus is pastoral not doctrinal, no doctrine has been upset, no dogma contradicted, no norm disestablished. While Dave Armstrong exaggerates its importance to the life and future of the Church (“Francis’ ‘Humanae Vitae moment’”? Seriously?), it’s certainly not the wrecking ball many feared it would be.

“Doctoral” vs. “Pastoral”

Let’s first make the distinction clearer: When we say a Church document is doctoral, we mean that it addresses what the Church teaches. When we say a document is pastoral, we mean it addresses how the Church teaches — the means and methods by which the Church, particularly but not limited to its priests and bishops, brings people into proper Christian life and worship.

The level of authority of papal documents has never been fully formalized. In general, however, the weightiest acts of the Church tend to repose in apostolic constitutions, especially dogmatic constitutions. For instance, the two universally-agreed exercises of papal definition of dogma, the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mother, were contained in apostolic constitutions.

As the name implies, apostolic exhortations seek to encourage the faithful to undertake certain activities; as in the present case, they’re also used to sum up papal responses to the deliberations of the Synod of Bishops. As such, they’re generally not considered as momentous as constitutions, encyclicals, or motu proprio letters.

A Quickie Overview

Let’s turn now to Amoris Laetitia. Chapter One speaks of the Christian ideal of marriage as expressed in Scripture, especially in the pattern of Psalm 128:1-6. Chapter Two then looks at the reality of the family in the modern world and the challenges it faces. Chapter Three considers the family from the aspect of vocation. Then Francis devotes two chapters to an exploration of the meaning of love, particularly as St. Paul defined it in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, and how it manifests in marriage and family. Chapters Six and Seven then turn to offering suggestions for parish efforts in strengthening marriages and families, especially in educating children. Chapter Eight then concerns itself with treating families in “irregular situations”. Chapter Nine concludes the exhortation with a reflection on the spirituality of marriage and family, the final paragraph a prayer to the Holy Family.

The paragraphs which have drawn the most attention, according to Fr. Matthew L. Schneider, LC, are 242 – 243, 250, and 298 – 305. Paragraphs 242 – 243 call for greater pastoral care for those undergoing separation and divorce; 243 in particular emphasizes that those who have divorced and “entered a new union” should not be frozen out, and “should be encouraged to participate in the life of the community.” Paragraph 250 simply restates the Catechism’s call to accept gay people “with respect, compassion, and sensitivity” (CCC 2358). Paragraph 251, however, rejects “proposals to place unions between homosexual persons on the same level as marriage”, citing the CDF document Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions between Homosexual Persons.

So far we’re on solid ground. The Church’s teaching on the acceptance of gay people in the Church hasn’t significantly changed since 1986, when the CDF issued its letter On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons. If there were anything “new” concerning the Church’s response to divorcing/separating couples, it would be that Francis gives parishes a swift kick in the butt to actually respond and not just sit on the sidelines watching the devastation unfold.

The Search For the Middle Way

When it comes to Paragraphs 298 – 305, a kind of fog descends on Francis’ writing. Throughout his pontificate, Francis has tried to steer the Church clear of a Pharisaical legalism that treats norms and doctrinal points as ends in themselves, rather than as means to an end, wanting the Church’s discipline to “err on the side of mercy”. However, he’s also been wary of going too far in the opposite direction, of unintentionally damaging or demeaning the teachings of the Church by too permissive an approach. These two opposing dangers, legalism and laxness, lead him into the awkward position of trying to articulate a “middle way” that one suspects isn’t any clearer to him than it is to others.

The need for this via media arises from the Synod’s appreciation of the challenges facing modern marriage and family. C. S. Lewis once stated that the modern paganism’s relationship to classical paganism was the same as a divorcée’s relationship to a virgin. Put differently, where the apostles of yore encountered people with no previous knowledge of Christ and an undiluted sense of sin, the “First World missionary” now faces would-be pagans who have a surfeit of false knowledge and a febrile sense of sin. In the current cultural matrix, a simple reassertion of the Church’s magisterial authority is woefully insufficient to force the divorced and remarried to either separate from their new spouses or seek annulments of their previous marriages.

In seeking this rapprochement between the ideal and the real, Francis soft-pedals the fact that, from the perspective of the Catholic understanding of marriage, a person who ends a valid sacramental marriage and marries another without seeking an annulment of the first is objectively committing adultery. For instance, in paragraph 298, Francis writes that such marriages can exhibit “proven fidelity, generous self-giving, [and] Christian commitment”. Canon lawyer Edward Peters drily responded, “Many will wonder how terms such as ‘proven fidelity’ can apply to chronically adulterous relationships or how ‘Christian commitment’ is shown by the public and permanent abandonment of a previous spouse.”

Peters’ comment, however, doesn’t display Francis’ lack of disciplined thought so much as it demonstrates his own inability to grasp the new pastoral reality, in which monogamy is serialized and the divorced — having parted consensually and sometimes even amicably — often don’t think of themselves as having (been) abandoned (by) their spouses. Post-Christian culture is shot through with the acceptance of transience; as the Avenue Q song puts it, “Everything in life is only for now.” To call second marriages “adulterous” may be theologically correct, but it’s also alienating and judgmental. The Church is essentially back in the position of St. Paul, having to feed the Corinthians milk because they’re not ready for solid food (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:1-3).


While Amoris Laetitia addresses all types of families, its main concern is with building up marriage and family in a macro-culture that no longer supports them and actively seeks to replace them with ad hoc social constructs. It can be argued that Francis’ treatment of the divorced and remarried isn’t careful enough of doctrine; nevertheless, it would a sin of rash judgment to call the section in question heretical.

As for giving communion to the divorced and remarried, many talking heads are placing too much weight on John L. Allen, Jr.’s so-called “money quote” (AL 300, footnote 336), which speaks of “discernment” finding that “no grave fault exists”, but doesn’t offer a context in which that discernment would take place; at no point does Francis mention the “internal forum” beloved of the German bishops. It wouldn’t be surprising if some priests seized upon it as an excuse to turn a blind eye … but then, said priests were probably blinding themselves to such couples receiving communion in the first place.

It will probably be some time, perhaps years, before we see much fruit from this particular tree (if ever); it remains for the individual bishops in their dioceses to act on it or not. But for those of us who believed from the beginning that too many hopes and fears were vested in this exhortation, we can now breathe sighs of relief: given the length of Amoris Laetitia, and Francis’ tendency to misstate his meaning, it could have been much worse.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled election madness.


Some people have pointed to a couple of sentences in paragraph 297 as being materially heretical: “No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel! Here I am not speaking only of the divorced and remarried, but of everyone, in whatever situation they find themselves.”

However, it’s a mistake to read this as an eschatological affirmation. Let’s look at the surrounding paragraph:

It is a matter of reaching out to everyone, of needing to help each person find his or her proper way of participating in the ecclesial community and thus to experience being touched by an “unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous” mercy. No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel! Here I am not speaking only of the divorced and remarried, but of everyone, in whatever situation they find themselves. Naturally, if someone flaunts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal, or wants to impose something other than what the Church teaches, he or she can in no way presume to teach or preach to others; this is a case of something which separates from the community (cf. Mt 18:17). Such a person needs to listen once more to the Gospel message and its call to conversion. Yet even for that person there can be some way of taking part in the life of community, whether in social service, prayer meetings or another way that his or her own initiative, together with the discernment of the parish priest, may suggest. As for the way of dealing with different “irregular” situations, the Synod Fathers reached a general consensus, which I support: “In considering a pastoral approach towards people who have contracted a civil marriage, who are divorced and remarried, or simply living together, the Church has the responsibility of helping them understand the divine pedagogy of grace in their lives and offering them assistance so they can reach the fullness of God’s plan for them”, something which is always possible by the power of the Holy Spirit. (AL § 297; italics and bold font mine)

The phrases I’ve emphasized indicate clearly that Pope Francis is speaking of condemnation by the Church community rather than eternal damnation resulting from God’s final judgment. And, in fact, Francis is right: it’s neither the Church’s mission nor its duty to kick imperfect members to the curb. Rather, part of the Church’s evangelical charter is to keep reaching out to those in imperfect communion, to help bring them into full communion and a state of grace. If they wish to remain ex communione, it shouldn’t be because their local parish couldn’t be bothered to reach out to them, or gave up at some point, or set limits to forgiveness.

In any event, even if it were my place to judge the reigning pontiff’s orthodoxy, I’d have to say those who hold up the extract as a material heresy commit an out-of-context fallacy. Could it have been phrased a little better? Absolutely. Nevertheless, as phrased, it’s hardly a denial of the doctrines of Final Judgment and Hell.

Furthermore the deponent saith not.