Reflections on Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia
In No. 136 of the Fraternity of St. Vincent Ferrer’s quarterly review Sedes Sapientiæ, there is a commentary on Chapter 8 of Amoris Lætitia, written by Father Louis-Marie de Blignières (one of the 45 signatories of the Critique on Amoris Laetitia). This article, before its publication was sent to several bishops and cardinals who expressed their gratitude and agreement to the author. In particular, it received warm support from Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, Archbishop Emeritus of Bologna and the first President of the John Paul II Institute on the Family: “It is an excellent text, which I endorse completely.” “It is one of the best studies I have read [on the matter].”
Reflections on Chapter 8 of the Post-synodal Exhortation by Pope Francis of 19 March 2016
The aim of these reflections is to seek to understand a controversial chapter of Amoris Laetitia and to propose an interpretation of it, salvo meliori judicio.
1. Christian marriage is presented as an ‘ideal’, a ‘perfection’, ‘a fuller (or more perfect) response to God’: 291, 292 (2 occurrences), 293, 294, 297 (2 occurrences), 298, 300, 303, 307 (2 occurrences), 308 (2 occurrences). These types of expressions can be interpreted correctly. Christian marriage, compared to all other types of union, is the perfection of the stable union of a man and a woman with a view to founding a family. But the terminology ‘ideal’ or ‘a fuller response towards God’ presents here, as in other areas of morality, the problem of favouring the idea that Christian marriage is only something to strive towards; and it makes it easy to lose sight of the fact that sacramental marriage is the only form of legitimate union between the baptized.
2. Symmetrically, irregular situations are presented as ‘weakness’, ‘incomplete participation’, ‘partial or analogous realization’, containing ‘elements (…) that can lead to a greater openness to the Gospel’, ‘signs of love which in some way reflect God’s own love’, ‘imperfection’, ‘possible ways of responding to God and growing in the midst of limits’, ‘paths of sanctification which give glory to God’: cf title of chapter 8, in 291 (2 occasions), 292, 293, 294, 296, 305, 308 (2 occasions). Here too, all these terms can be interpreted in an acceptable and legitimate way (albeit with a lot of good will). But the choice of the term ‘weakness’ in the title of the entire chapter, recurring repeatedly and insistently, leaves out the role of culpably disordered passions and of malice (which is only alluded to indirectly in 298 and 300), something that pastors know frequently play an important role in the beginning of these so-called ‘irregular’ situations. On the other hand, in constant contrast with the vocabulary of ‘perfection’ and ‘the ideal’ referring to lawful marriage, the terminology of ‘weakness’ subtly suggests something akin to venial sin (…precisely of weakness).
3. The Ecclesial key is ‘the logic of integration’ (296), presented as ‘the key to pastoral accompaniment’ (299). It is the ‘logic of pastoral mercy’ (title of the last paragraph), the ‘logic that must dominate the Church’ (312). ‘It is a matter of reaching out (di integrare tutti) to everyone, of needing to help each person find his or her proper way of participating in the ecclesial community’ (297). The text clarifies that this does not mean a stable position in which one must remain, but a path towards ‘the fullness of God’s plan’. (297)
The logic of integration is consistently opposed to a logic of exclusion. The Holy Father comes back thirteen times to those who are tempted, in different ways, by this latter logic and the pastoral care which flows from it, ‘ a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion’ (308). Pope Francis’s views are stern apparently.
The judgments of these pastors ‘do not take into account the complexity of various situations’ (296); they ‘pigeonhole or fit into overly rigid classifications’ (298); mean-spirited, they merely consider whether ‘an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule’ (304); they are content to apply these moral laws to people in irregular situations ‘as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives’ (305); as the Pharisees’ sitting on the chair of Moses and judging at times with superiority and superficiality difficult cases and wounded families’ (305); ‘they think that everything is black and white’ (305); they turn the confessional into ‘a torture chamber’ (note 351); they don’t avoid ‘the aggravations or unduly harsh or hasty judgements’ (308); ‘they keep their distance from the maelstrom of human misfortune’ (308); they ‘act as arbiters of grace’ and let others think of the Church as a tollhouse; they ‘put so many conditions on mercy that they empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance. That is the worst way of watering down the Gospel’ (311); they develop ‘a cold bureaucratic morality in dealing with more sensitive issues’ (312).
Confessors can usefully meditate on each of these warnings. What is surprising is the accumulation and the vehemence of the remarks. Of course, the literary technique itself is not illegitimate. Just as St Pius X gives a ‘photofit’ of a modernist in the encyclical Pascendi , against modernism, which does not wholly match any individual modernist; so Francis seems to create a ‘photofit’ of a rigorist priest to inspire us with horror. However, in a society that has seen an invasion of hedonism over the last half century, where Christians, even practicing ones, are tainted by laxism, where seminarians have received a deficient formation in moral theology, where St John Paul II had to consecrate a whole encyclical on the foundations of morality, condemning several errors circulating amongst moral theologians and confessors; where bishops have sinned more through laxism then by excessive rigour in guiding their clergy, etc…in such a society does not one have to ask oneself whether there isn’t as much urgency to warn against the lack of formation and the laxism of certain confessors?
4. A pastoral consequence of this ‘logic of integration’ is given in 299: ‘Their [the divorced and remarried] participation can be expressed in different ecclesial services, which necessarily requires discerning which of the various forms of exclusion currently practiced in the liturgical, pastoral, educational and institutional framework, can be surmounted.’ This ties in with a pre-occupation already manifested by the Holy Father in an interview given in December 2014 to the Argentinean newspaper La Nacion:
‘But they cannot be godparents at baptism, they cannot read the readings at Mass, they cannot give Communion, they cannot be catechists. There are about seven things they cannot do. I have the list over there. Come on! If I tell all this, it seems that they are excommunicated de facto! So let us open the doors a bit more. Why can’t they be godparents? “No, no, no, what testimony will they be giving their godchild?” The testimony of a man and a woman saying, “Look, I made a mistake, I was wrong here (sono scivolato su questo punto), but I believe our Lord loves me, I want to follow God, sin will not have victory over me, I want to move on.” Is there any more Christian witness than that?’.
5. This will be accomplished, not through legislation, but through an invitation to pastoral discernment (300), which, of course, takes into account ‘the teaching of the Church and the guidelines of the bishop’. It is about a ‘conversation with the priest in the internal forum’. With an attitude of humility and discretion, ‘fundamental for avoiding the grave danger of misunderstandings’, with ‘an examination of conscience’, led by ‘a responsible and tactful person, who does not presume to put his or her own desires ahead of the common good of the Church’, with the help of ‘a pastor capable of acknowledging the seriousness of the matter before him.’
6. One of the forms of exclusion that can by overcome, in certain cases, is the non-admission of divorced and remarried people to the sacraments, in particular to the Eucharist.
Robust doctrinal and pastoral objections have been raised on this topic by theologians, bishops and cardinals. This possibility is clearly suggested in 300 with note 336, and again in 305: ‘Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.’ With note 351: ‘In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, “I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy” (Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium [24 November 2013], 44: AAS 105 , 1038). I would also point out that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (ibid., 47: 1039; my emphasis). The language is prudent, but the guidelines are clear.
Nowhere does the text formally say that this sacramental help can be given through the public reception of Holy Communion (as sadly happens in some churches). But neither is there a formal request for Holy Communion to be received in private. Admittedly, the discreet phrase: ‘while avoiding any occasion of scandal’ (299) suggests the private nature of this help, especially as this was previously the norm in the case of those living as brother and sister. But it remains that the eventual ‘privatization’ does not resolve the question. Is it licit to give Communion privately to the divorced and remarried living as man and wife, who have not sincerely decided to live as brother and sister? The traditional pastoral, as well as the common sensical, answer is no.The Exhortation suggests that through the criteria of pastoral discernment as they are laid out, in some cases the answer can be yes (we will come back to this).
I will not comment on the inadequacy of this practice with regards to the doctrine of the sacraments of marriage and the Eucharist. This point has been elucidated by certain Prelates who have written on the topic since the 2014 Synod.
7. The two elements of this invitation to pastoral discernment are : the consideration of factors that diminish accountability, and a doctrine on conscience.
The text recalls the traditional doctrine of conditioning and other factors that may diminish the accountability of sins, in the paragraph entitled: ‘Mitigating factors in pastoral discernment’ (301–303). ‘The Church possesses a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations’ (301). What is significant is that the consideration of these situations is placed alongside the judgment of conscience (objectively erroneous): ‘Recognizing the influence of such concrete factors, we can add that individual conscience needs to be better incorporated into the Church’s praxis in certain situations which do not objectively embody our understanding of marriage’ (303).
The doctrine on conscience is formulated in 298 and 301–303. In certain situations, when a person thinks that they cannot go back ‘without feeling in conscience that one would fall into new sins’ (my emphasis) (298). They can ‘be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin (301). ‘Under certain circumstances people find it very difficult to act differently […]. Pastoral discernment, while taking into account a person’s properly formed conscience, must take responsibility for these situations’ (302). Of course, the pastor must ‘encourage the development of an enlightened conscience’. ‘Yet conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal’ (303).
Thus, the discernment aimed at ‘an awareness of their situation before God’ (300) can lead to a judgment of conscience that could conclude ‘sincerely and honestly’ that:
I have listened ‘with humility, discretion and love for the Church’ (300) to the pastor who is accompanying me to help me form ‘a correct judgment’ (300) with regards to my situation, in a discernment that does not ‘prescind from the Gospel demands of truth’ (300); I understand that I was in a situation that does not ‘embody our [the Catholic] understanding of marriage’ (303), ‘in an objective situation of sin’ (305). ‘I do not presume to put my own desires ahead of the common good of the Church’ (300) and I desire ‘the possibility of a fuller participation in the life of the Church’ (300). But I think that I cannot now get out of this situation without committing a new sin (298, 301); even though I am in an ‘irregular situation’ (301), I can ‘live in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end’ (305) and even ‘the help of the sacraments’ (note 351). By remaining ‘open to the new stages of growth’, I have ‘come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal’ (303).
And the pastor, if he sees on the one hand, ‘the weight of mitigating circumstances’ (303), which diminishes culpability, and on the other hand, the subjective honesty and sincerity in judging the great difficulty of resolving the situation, and if he also notes that, in resolving the irregular situation, the penitent would be aware of committing new sins; then the pastor may judge that the one he is accompanying is of good faith : ‘Hence it is can no longer simply be said that all those in any “irregular” situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace’ (301). Leaning on the indications of the Exhortation (notes 336 and 351), the pastor can therefore very well give to the person he is accompanying the help of the sacraments ‘while avoiding any occasion of scandal’ (299).
8. A controversial issue: the firm purpose of amendment
Some interpret the language that we have just used as being applicable, in virtue of the principle of continuity with the earlier magisterium, to a case already admitted in previous teaching: those who are not sacramentally married, and for grave reasons, cannot separate, and who endeavor to live as brother and sister, as in the case mentioned in Familiaris Consortis (quoted moreover in notes 329 and 298). The Exhortation invites us to take into account the pressures of circumstances in order to apply maximum mercy in cases of involuntary relapse. The current progress in psychology regarding the workings of addiction, along with the increasing hold of an eroticized society, does invite a pastoral kindness for those, who, trying as much as is in them to abstain from conjugal acts, sometimes fall. ‘For grave reasons, I must remain with my partner, and I cannot (yet) manage to always avoid sexual relations. When I fall, I repent.’ This invitation to prudently widen the application of the traditional case is certainly contained in the text. Those who interpret the text thus, also add that it is a great damage is done pastorally by the fact that the Holy Father has not mentioned the necessary firm purpose of amendment. By the very fact of this silence on a necessary condition, will the faithful and confessors not be further tempted (or pushed) towards laxism?
But can one say that there is nothing more in the Exhortation? In other words: according to Amoris Laetitia, does the pastor necessarily have to be sure that there is a resolution to abstain from marital acts? The answer is not an obvious one, as the language of the text is vague. Unfortunately, it seems to me to be negative.
On this topic we have referred to insurmountable ignorance or non-culpability. The Pope indeed speaks of ‘A person may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding “its inherent values”’ (301): this would be case of insurmountable ignorance, not only on the law of marriage, but on the fact that it is true and applies to them. According to the given rules, the pastor who accompanies them must help them progress towards grasping these values. But if he still does not manage it, considering the diminution of culpability mentioned in 301 and 302, and judging that they are ‘in God’s grace’ (305), the pastor can admit them to the sacraments without again insisting on the resolution of amendment. Similarly, the priest, who, according to the Code of Canon law, grants absolution and communion to Eastern Orthodox separated from the Catholic Church, feeling that they are ‘well disposed’, is granting them the sacraments, even though they are also in an objectively irregular situation, that of material schism.
There would therefore be a broadening of the traditional guidelines given to confessors towards those who, being objectively in sin, cannot see it, and where one can prudently judge that this ignorance is non-culpable. But this broadening is considerable and dangerous. The counsel traditionally given in moral theology relates to the act of confession itself: there is not time to journey towards the truth, one judges that the penitent is of good faith, that even though informed, they won’t amend, and furthermore that silence (not questioning them on a possible case of nullity of marriage through a fault in canonic form for example) presents more advantages than disadvantages. In the opposite case, the penitent must be warned, for example ‘when the penitent either does not know certain actions to be sins, although he should know it, or he is surrounded by circumstances of action which confirm the sinner in evildoing if the confessor passes them by without comment. This would then scandalize others, who could infer that certain acts are permissible from seeing them done without penalty by persons who regularly receive the Church's sacraments.’ (Benedict XIV, apostolic Constitution of 26 June 1749 n. 19).
The situation in which the confessor maintains a prudent silence may arise at someone’s deathbed. The priest who hears the confession of a poor dying woman, someone who loves Our Lady, but who was born and raised in circumstances where theft by certain people was not sinful, acts according to prudence if he does not question her on this point. He can give absolution (at least conditional) if he can presume her good faith.
Here, on the contrary, particularly different from the extreme cases of absolution on the deathbed, there is time available: there is prior dialogue and an accompaniment. Furthermore, it is about people who, having been married in the Church, are supposed to know that they cannot do otherwise than act contrary to chastity to avoid further sins…The moral dimension has changed! It is no longer a case of invincible ignorance on a point of canon law (as in the case of marriage mentioned above) or on a point of supernatural revelation (as for the Eastern Orthodox, dissident heirs to an ancient separation); but of invincible ignorance on a fundamental point of natural law: the immoral nature of adultery.
I am not saying that this case cannot present itself, but the practice of giving absolution and communion to those who find themselves in that state does then pose, in my opinion, distinctly more disadvantages than advantages. In particular the disadvantage of depriving these people of a reference, not only theoretical but concrete and sacramental, which would help them out of this situation. In any case, that is my experience of 39 years of priesthood and that of many confreres. Furthermore, with the general context of hedonism and the mentality of large groups in the Church who are pushing for the absolute of ‘Who am I to judge?’, we will not avoid ‘the grave danger of misunderstandings’ (300), nor the growing pressure on pastors who won’t share, as is their right, the prudential judgment of the Holy Father on this practice.
9. The emphasis on the role of erroneous conscience does not constitute a radical novelty in the Holy Father’s teaching.
That the pastor who is called upon for discernment, can rely on the (objectively deficient) judgment of conscience of the person in question, at the stage they are at, to admit them to the sacraments, is in line with a preoccupation shown by the Holy Father from the beginning of his pontificate.
This preoccupation, expressed in an interview with La Repubblica in October 2013, provoked different reactions, particularly because of the following statement attributed to the Holy Father by the founder of La Repubblica: ‘Each of us has a vision of good and of evil. We have to encourage people to move towards what they think is Good.’ The text of the interview was withdrawn temporarily from the Vatican website; and Father Frederico Lombardi issued a clarification, which in particular, noted that: ‘One cannot speak in any way of an interview in the usual sense of the term; […] the various words reported in quotation marks and the way they are worded, cannot be attributed with certainty to Pope Francis.’ Despite these soothing assurances, the text of this exchange was published in 2014, along with all the other interviews of Pope Francs, by the official Vatican publishing house, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, in a collection entitled: Interviste e conversazione con i giornalisti (pp. 95–111).
This view was also reflected in the preface that Pope Francis granted, in October 2015, to the first volume of the complete works of Cardinal Martini. After mentioning ‘the Chair of unbelievers’ created by the cardinal, he wrote: ‘this initiative is born of the conviction that all, believers and non-believers, are both searching for truth and we cannot take anything for granted. All believers carry within themselves the threat of non-belief, and all non-believers within themselves the seed of faith: the meeting point is the willingness to reflect on the demands that all have in common.”
Amoris Laetitia in an official document that will have great consequences in the life of the Church. Admittedly, an Apostolic exhortation pertains to the merely pastoral governing power of the Church. The overall aim is ‘as an aid to reflection, dialogue and pastoral practice, and as a help and encouragement to families in their daily commitments and challenges.’ (4). Furthermore, according to the intention clearly expressed by the Holy Father, Chapter 8 does not belong either directly or indirectly to the magisterium: ‘I will offer an invitation to mercy and the pastoral discernment of those situations that fall short of what the Lord demands of us.’ (6). It is about ‘guiding the flock step by step without introducing new laws, or new precepts or commandments’.
In this sense, if pastors and theologians are asked to reflect and follow the direction indicated by the Holy Father, they are certainly not obliged to think that the proposed approach, with the preambles supporting it, are exempt from danger, nor that the advice given is appropriate. They are even fully justified in drawing the attention of the Holy See of the bishops to the serious ambiguities of the underlying doctrine and on the dangers of the proposed pastoral care.
FR. L.-M. DE BLIGNIÈRES