There was a Victorian member of the Royal Academy who boasted that his paintings were the best because they were the biggest. More perceptively, Cicero and Pascal and Madame Recamier and Mark Twain made opposite apologies: each had written a long letter because they did not have the time to write a short one. Not only is verbosity indicative of muddled thinking, it is the rhetorical indulgence of the modern age. The documents of the Second Vatican Council are wordier than the extant records of all the other ecumenical councils combined. The recent apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, is nearly two-thirds the length of all the Vatican II promulgations. The literary quality of Amoris Laetitia does not challenge the claim that the Authorized Version, or King James’s Bible, is the only successful work of art composed by a committee.
In his encyclical celebrating Pope Gregory I, Iacunda Sane, Pope Pius X makes a point of the way that great pope’s clarity of thought issued in the beauty of his Latinity. That thought also posed no contradiction between truth and mercy: “It will certainly be the part of prudence to proceed gradually in laying down the truth, when one has to do with men completely strangers to us and completely separated from God. ‘Before using the steel, let the wounds be felt with a light hand,’ as Gregory said (Registr. v. 44  ad Joannem episcop.). But even this carefulness would sink to mere prudence of the flesh, were it proposed as the rule of constant and everyday action…” (n. 26).
Much, perhaps too much, has already been said about this apostolic exhortation, often revealing as much about the commentators as their commentaries. It is true that there are parts of it that are eloquent, but most of them are quotations of God and Saint Paul. The Word does have a way with words, and the charity of the Apostle gave him the tongue of an angel. In contrast, there are a lot of gongs clanging and cymbals clashing in the contradictions and redundancies of much of the exhortation’s diction. Parts like the affirmation of Humanae Vitae settle the text in the sacred tradition, but there is also the muddled treatment of moral culpability that almost nods to the neuralgic interpretation of the “fundamental option” theory rejected by St. John Paul II (Veritatis Splendor, nn.65, 67). This had been addressed earlier by a formal declaration of the Holy See: A person’s moral disposition “can be completely changed by particular acts, especially when, as often happens, these have been prepared for by previous more superficial acts. Whatever the case, it is wrong to say that particular acts are not enough to constitute a mortal sin” (Persona Humana, December 29, 1975, No. 10).
A lack of clarity in the text might endorse the conceit already expounded in some media interviews, which says contrition is not a necessary element in petitioning for mercy. Any parish priest should wonder at the description of the confessional as a torture chamber. While it is only human when conflicted by guilt and uncertainty to approach the Sacrament of Reconciliation with trepidation, the radiance of that sacrament is inestimable in the life of the typical priest and penitent alike, and the agony of many souls and of the Church in our day can be traced in great measure to neglect of the gracious confessional. Speaking only of my own parish, in my confessional is a picture of the Prodigal Son and not the Grand Inquisitor.
Dramaturgic references like that to torture are straw horses, and a straw horse is the rhetorical device of a weak argument. It was characteristic of the aforementioned Pope Gregory the Great, a systematic thinker, that he abstained from mocking his opponents, and did not advertise humility. By grace, God can help all of us emulate that to some modest extent so long as we submit to the realities of revealed and natural law.
In describing natural law, it is fascinating that the Catechism cites Cicero of pagan Rome, the same Cicero who did not have time to write a short letter (and the Robert Harris novel Dictator about him is worth reading): “For there is a true law: right reason. It is in conformity with nature, is diffused among all men, and is immutable and eternal; its orders summon to duty; its prohibitions turn away from offense… To replace it with a contrary law is a sacrilege; failure to apply even one of its provisions is forbidden; no one can abrogate it entirely” (n. 1956). Cicero’s own domestic life was not unblemished, but neither was the marital fidelity of that other orator Martin Luther King, Jr., who is quoted in the exhortation, but the principle, if not the practice, obtains.
Parenthetically, in the ambiguities of the exhortation on conscience, we may be paying a price for the problematic way that a prudential opinion against capital punishment was edited into the Catechism. You can disagree about the application of natural law reasoning to civil punishment, but any loose sentiment in treating the matter tempts fragile thinkers to consider the death penalty as an intrinsic evil, and that only makes it easier for the same sort of imprudence (pace Pope Gregory) to modify the natural law of contraception and marriage itself. The decline of moral realism is like a shift from realism in art to impressionism and then invariably to expressionism. That expressionism, for instance, seemed to be the tone of a book by the Argentine theologian and consultant on the writing of Amoris Laetitia, Victor Manuel Fernandez: Heal Me with Your Mouth: The Art of Kissing. I imagine Henry VIII writing the foreword to that, without the approbation of Saint Thomas More.
One was perplexed when a European cardinal said, at the press conference presenting the apostolic exhortation, that it was an example of John Henry Newman’s Development of Doctrine. At the heart of Newman’s developmental economy is the “preservation of type” and it is hard to see that preservation in some of the ambiguities of Chapter 8. Newman’s exposition of Development was a justification of tradition and not a training manual for altering that tradition. Newman’s Development is not Hegel’s “dialectic.”
In 2014, Pope Francis himself received only tepid applause when he complained to his own Curia about prelates “typical of mediocre and progressive spiritual emptiness that no academic degree can fill.” Among such mediocrities are those who replace prophecy with political correctness. You can tell who they are by what they say about Amoris Laetitia. Like those bishops whom Chrysostom disdained for trimming their sails to gain preferment, the careerist cleric knows what he must say and what he must not say. For years I have saved the Punch magazine cartoon of the sycophantic curate timorously telling his bishop that parts of his bad egg are excellent. That was in a comfortable Victorian culture on which the sun would never set, but it did anyway. It was a world removed from that of Gregory the Great, but eventually Gregory moved the world instead of being moved by it. And so, as Pius X said of his great antecedent: “The ferocity of the barbarians was thus transformed to gentleness, woman was freed from subjection, slavery was repressed, order was restored in the due and reciprocal independence upon one another of the various classes of society, justice was recognized, the true liberty of souls was proclaimed, and social and domestic peace assured” (Iacunda Sane, n.36).
Bishop: “I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr. Jones.” Curate: “Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent.” (From the November 9, 1895 issue of Punch, illustrated by George du Maurier.)
Fr. George W. Rutler is pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. He is the author of many books including Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-1943 (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press) and Hints of Heaven (Sophia Institute Press). His latest book is He Spoke To Us (Ignatius, 2016).