By Father Brian W. Harrison, O.S.
Editor’s note: The following is an updated version as of April 14.
April 13, 2016 (LifeSiteNews) – Pope Francis’ long-awaited Apostolic Exhortation on the Family, Amoris Laetitia (AL), was finally been released on Friday, April 8, 2016.
A proper understanding, appreciation and evaluation of this lengthy document will require considerable time, study and prayerful reflection. But it is already quite clear from certain key passages that, with carefully crafted language, plausible arguments and persuasive rhetoric, the Holy Father is quietly introducing revolutionary change into the heart of the Catholic Church’s moral teaching and pastoral/sacramental practice. He is not repudiating in principle the objective truth of any revealed dogma or moral norm; but at the level of praxis he is shifting the emphasis away from objective standards of right and wrong behavior and placing it instead on presumed subjective sincerity and individual conscience. Thus, in the name of Christ’s ‘mercy’, the exhortation tends to downplay the gravity of sin instead of maintaining the uncomfortable bipolar tension between the two that runs through the Gospels.
To be fair, AL presents us with a great many valuable and timely observations and recommendations concerning marriage and family life in our troubled times, notably a fine meditation on St. Paul’s teaching on the true nature of love (I Cor. 13). But these positive features of the exhortation are outweighed in importance, unfortunately, by Francis’ audacious departure from the teaching and discipline of all his predecessors in regard to the pastoral care and ecclesial status of Catholics living in illicit sexual relationships.
The tendency to gloss over grave sins against chastity first shows itself in the very defective treatment – or rather, non-treatment – of contraception in this document. Just one paragraph (#222) out of 325 alludes indirectly to this sin, but without actually mentioning it. We read here that “family planning fittingly takes place as the result [of] a consensual dialogue between the spouses”. A heavy emphasis is then placed on the role of their own consciences in this decision-making process, but without reaffirming that Catholic consciences must be formed in accordance with the Church’s magisterium. Humanae Vitae and Familiaris Consortio are mentioned only for their general helpfulness in “counter[ing] a mentality that is often hostile to life”. So, at a time when violation of the divine law against unnatural birth control has reached tsunami proportions among Catholics, Pope Francis gives it the silent, elephant-in-the-living-room treatment. He goes no further than saying that “methods based on the law of nature and the incidence of fertility are to be promoted”; but he doesn’t add that contraceptive methods are not to be “promoted”, and much less that they are to be reprobated as intrinsically immoral. Thus, most contracepting readers of AL will feel their consciences soothed, rather than pricked. For the Pope himself seems to insinuate that natural family planning is just an ‘ideal’, so that if your own inter-spousal dialogue tells you pills or condoms are OK in your situation, you’re not guilty of serious sin in using them.
Next, we find a seriously inadequate treatment of sex education. In the six full paragraphs of AL (280 – 285) dedicated to this topic, we do not find even a passing nod to the Church’s constant teaching about the primary responsibility of parents in this area (cf., for example, Familiaris Consortio, 37 and the Pontifical Council for the Family’s 1995 document, “The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality”). Instead, right after quoting Vatican II’s brief statement about the need for an age-appropriate “positive and prudent” education in sexual matters (Gravissimum Educationis, 1), Pope Francis seems to take it for granted that classrooms are the main place for this to be given: “We may well ask ourselves,” he comments, “if our educational institutions have taken up this challenge”.
The most troubling aspect of AL, however, is its treatment in Chapter 8 of those living in irregular sexual relationships. Not a few stalwart champions of the magisterium are reassuring us that, basically, all is well. Canonist Ed Peters insists that the exhortation effects no change in church law. That is true, but it misses the point. For in paragraphs 302 (last section), 304 and 305 Francis has sent a clear message to priests that in individual cases they can and should bypass, rather than apply, the law, making ‘pastoral’ exceptions to it according to their own ‘merciful’ discretion. Robert Moynihan and George Weigel assure us that there is no change of doctrine embodied in the new document. But that’s only half true. Moral doctrine (i.e., teaching proposed as divine law) will be effectively changed not only if the Pope directly contradicts it, but also if he undermines it by relaxing disciplinary measures needed to protect it. Lamentably, like a tiny mustard seed full of massive potential, this kind of change has now been carefully planted in the fertile soil of two footnotes to an Apostolic Exhortation.
In notes 336 and 351 to paragraphs 300 and 305 respectively, the Holy Father breaks with the teaching and discipline of all his predecessors in the See of Peter by allowing at least some divorced and civilly remarried Catholics (with no decree of nullity and no commitment to continence) to receive the sacraments. Since “discernment can recognize that in a particular situation no grave fault exists” owing to a variety of mitigating psychological and other factors, Francis affirms in n. 351 that the Church’s “help” to these Catholics living in objectively illicit relationships can “in certain cases . . . include the help of the sacraments”. The context indicates that this means mainly Penance and Eucharist. Commentators of all beliefs and none have almost universally interpreted the footnote in that sense, and their widely trumpeted claims have been confirmed by eloquent silence from the See of Peter.
I have addressed this issue of mitigating factors in my article, “Divorced and Remarried Catholics: Diminished Imputability?” in The Latin Mass, Summer 2015, pp. 6-12. (See it online here.)
In allowing exceptions to the ‘no-Communion’ law for sexually active Catholics in invalid marriages, Pope Francis is departing from the clear bimillennial teaching confirmed by Pope St. John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio #84, and reaffirmed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (nos. 1650, 2384 and 2390). Also under John Paul‘s authority, a Declaration of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts (6/24/2000) has asserted that the obligation to exclude such Catholics from Communion “is by its nature derived from divine law and transcends the domain of positive ecclesiastical laws” (#1), so that “no ecclesiastical authority may dispense the minister of Holy Communion from this obligation in any case, nor may he issue directives that contradict it” (#4). According to the Declaration, it’s irrelevant whether the subjective imputability of remarried divorcees might in some instances be diminished. Why? Because, it says, the admission to Communion of those who are publicly living in a situation which Jesus himself calls adultery will send a clear message that the Church doesn’t really take too seriously this teaching of our Lord. And this will inevitably cause scandal – in the theological sense of tempting and leading others into similar sins. Pope Francis nods briefly to this PCLT Declaration, but only by uncritically reproducing a selective and deceptive citation found in the 2015 Synod Relatio (#85). Thus, both the Relatio and Amoris Laetitia omit altogether the main point of the 2000 Declaration, which is that the obligation of priests and other ministers to refuse Communion to civilly remarried divorcees “is by its nature derived from divine law and transcends the domain of positive ecclesiastical laws: the latter cannot introduce legislative changes which would oppose the doctrine of the Church” (section 1).
Also, this Declaration points out that logically, a concession to some remarried divorcees on the grounds that their subjective conscience may not be gravely guilty will open the way for further concessions, on the same grounds, to many who are living publicly in other objectively immoral situations. For instance, now that some civilly remarried divorcees are to be admitted to sacramental absolution and Communion, will not at least some same-sex couples have to be admitted these two sacraments on the same grounds (i.e., ‘diminished imputability’)?
Must we believe that Francis alone is right on this issue, and that all his predecessors, including the still living Benedict XVI, as well as the Catechism promulgated by St. John Paul II, have been wrong and ‘unmerciful’ in allowing no exceptions in this area? Isn’t it far more likely that, as in the 1330s under John XXII, just one pope is wrong, and that all the others popes have been right? And that, as in that critical situation, respectful public “resistance” to Peter (cf. Gal. 2: 11), from cardinals, bishops, theologians and other faithful, is now urgently needed?