by Anna M. Silvas
In this talk I would like to outline some of the more pressing concerns I have with "Amoris Laetitia". These reflections are organised into three sections. Part one will outline general concerns; part two will focus on the now infamous chapter eight; and part three will suggest some of the implications of "Amoris Laetitia" for priests and catholicism.
I am aware that "Amoris Laetitia", as an apostolic exhortation, does not come under any rubric of infallibility. Still it is a document of the papal ordinary magisterium, and thus it makes the idea of critiquing it, especially doctrinally, mighty difficult. It seems to me unprecedented situation. I wish there were a great saint, like St Paul, or St Athanasius or St Bernard or St Catherine of Siena who could have the courage and the spiritual credentials, i.e. prophecy of the truest kind, to speak the truth to the successor of Peter and recall him to a better frame of mind. At this hour, hierarchical authority in the Church seems to have entered a strange paralysis. Perhaps this is the hour for prophets – but true prophets. Where are the saints, of "nooi" (intellects) long purified by contact with the living God in prayer and ascesis, gifted with the anointed word, capable of such a task? Where are these people?
Graven upon tablets of stone by the finger of the living God (Ex 31:18, 32:1 5), the ten "words" proclaimed to mankind for all ages: "You shall not commit adultery" (Ex 20:14), and: "You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife" (Ex 20:17).
Our Lord himself declared: "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her (Mk 10:11).
And the apostle Paul repeated the language: "She will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive" ( Rom 7:3 ).
Like a deafening absence, the term "adultery" is entirely absent from the lexicon of "Amoris Laetitia". Instead we have something called "'irregular' unions", or "irregular situations”, with the "irregular" in double quotation marks as if to distance the author even from this usage.
"If you love me", says our Lord, keep my commandments (Jn 14:15), and the Gospel and Letters of John repeats this admonition of our Lord in various ways. It means, not that our conduct is justified by our subjective feelings, but rather, our subjective disposition is verified in our conduct, i.e., in the obediential act. Alas, as we look into AL, we find that "commandments" too are entirely absent from its lexicon, as is also obedience. Instead we have something called "ideals", appearing repeatedly throughout the document.
Other key words I miss too from the language of this document: the fear of the Lord. You know, that awe of the sovereign reality of God that is the beginning of wisdom, one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in confirmation. But indeed this holy fear has long vanished from a vast sweep of modern catholic discourse. It is a semitic idiom for "eulabeia" and "eusebia" in Greek, or in Latin, "pietas" and "religio", the core of a God-ward disposition, the very spirit of religion.
Another register of language is also missing in "Amoris Laetitia" is that of eternal salvation. There are no immortal souls in need of eternal salvation to be found in this document! True, w e do have "eternal life" and "eternity" nominated in nn. 166 and 168 as the seemingly inevitable "fulfillment" of a child’s destiny, but with no hint that any of the imperatives of grace and struggle, in short, of eternal salvation, are involved in getting t here.
It is as if one’s faith-filled intellectual culture is formed to certain echoes of words that one listens for, and their absence is dinning in my ears. Let us look then into what we have in the document itself.
Why the sheer wordiness of it, all 260 pages of it, more than three times the length of "Familiaris Consortio"? This is surely a great pastoral discourtesy. Yet Pope Francis wants "each part" to be "read patiently and carefully" (n. 7). Well, some of us have had to do so. And so much of it is of a tedious, light-weight character. In general I find Pope Francis’ discourse, not only here, but everywhere else, flat and one dimensional. "Shallow" might capture it, and "facile" too: no sense of depth upon depth lying beneath words holy and true, inviting us to launch into the deep.
One of the least pleasant features of "Amoris Laetitia" are Pope Francis’ many impatient "throw -away" comments, cheap-shots that so lower the tone of the discourse. One is often left puzzling as to the ground of these comments. For example, in the infamous footnote 351, he lectures priests that "the confessional must not be a torture chamber." A torture chamber?
In another example, in n. 36, he says: "We often present marriage in such a way that its unitive meaning, its call to grow in love and its ideal of mutual assistance are overshadowed by an almost exclusive insistence on the duty of procreation".
Anyone slightly acquainted with the development of doctrine on marriage, knows that the unitive good has received a great deal of renewed focus since at least "Gaudium et Spes" 49, with a back history of some decades.
To me, these impulsive, unfounded caricatures are unworthy of what should be the dignity and seriousness of an apostolic exhortation.
In nn. 121, 122, we have a perfect example of the erratic quality of Pope Francis’s discourse. At first describing marriage as "a precious sign" and as "the icon of God’s love for us", within a few lines this imaging of Christ and his Church becomes a "tremendous burden" to have to impose on spouses. He used the phrase earlier in n. 37. But who has ever expected sudden perfection of the married, who has not conceived of marriage as a lifelong project of growth in the living out of the sacrament?
Pope Francis’ language of emotion and passion (nn. 125, 242, 143, 145) owes nothing to the Fathers of the Church or the expositors of the spiritual life in the great Tradition, but rather to the mentality of the popular media. His simple conflation of eros and sexual desire in n. 151 succumbs to the secularist view of it, and ignores Pope Benedict’s "Deus Caritas Est", steeped in a thoughtful exposition of the mystery of eros and agape and the Cross.
One balks at the ambiguous language of n. 243 and n. 246, implying that somehow it is the Church’s fault, or something the Church has to be anxiously apologetic about it when her members enter upon an objectively adulterous union, and thereby exclude themselves from Holy Communion. This is a governing idea that pervades the entire document.
Several times through this document I have paused and wondered: “I haven’t heard of Christ for pages". All too often we are subjected to long tracts of homespun avuncular advice that could be given by any secular journalist without the faith, the sort of thing to be found in the pages of Reader’s Digest, or one of those Lifestyle inserts in weekend newspapers.
It is true, some doctrines of the Church are robustly upheld, e.g. against same-sex unions (n. 52) and polygamy (n. 53), gender ideology (n. 56) and abortion (n. 84); there are affirmations of the indissolubility of marriage (n. 63), and its procreative end, and an upholding of "Humanae Vitae" (nn. 68, 83), the sovereign rights of parents in the education of their children (n. 84), the right of every child to a mother and a father (nn. 172, 175), the importance of fathers (nn. 176, 177). You can even occasionally find a poetic thought, such as ‘the gaze’ of contemplative love between spouses (nn. 127-8), or the maturing of good wine as an image of the maturing of spouses (n. 135).
But all this laudable doctrine is undermined, I submit, by the overall rhetoric of the exhortation, and by that of Pope Francis’ entire papacy. These affirmations of catholic doctrine are welcome, but, it needs to be asked, do they have any more weight than that of the passing and erratic enthusiasm of the current incumbent of St Peter’s Chair? I am serious here. My instinct is that the next position threatening to crumble, will be the issue of same-sex "marriage". If it is possible to construct a justification of states of objective adultery, on the basis of recognizing "the constructive elements in those situations not yet corresponding to the Church’s teaching on marriage" (n. 292), "when such unions attain a particular stability, legally recognized, are characterized by deep affection and responsibility for their offspring" (n. 293) etc., how long can you defer applying exactly the same line or reasoning to same-sex partnerships? And yes, children may be involved, as we know very well from the gay agenda. Already, the former editor of the catholic Catechism, [Cardinal Christoph Schönborn], to whose hermeneutic of AL as a "development of doctrine", Pope Francis has referred us, appears to be "evolving" on the potential for "good" same-sex "unions".
Reading chapter eight
And all that was be fore I came to reading chapter eight. I have wondered if the extraordinary prolixity of the first seven chapters was meant to wear us down before we came to this crucial chapter, and catch us off-guard. To me, the entire tenor of chapter eight is problematic, not just n. 304 and footnote 351. As soon as I finished it, I thought to myself: Clear as a bell: Pope Francis wanted some form of the Kasper proposal from the beginning. Here it is. Kasper has won. It all explains Pope Francis’ terse comments at the end of the 2015 Synod, when he censured narrow-minded "pharisees" – evidently those who had frustrated a better outcome according to his agenda. "Pharisees"? The sloppiness of his language! They were the modernists, in a way, of Judaism, the masters of ten thousand nuances – and most pertinently, those who tenaciously upheld the practice of divorce and remarriage. The real analogues of the pharisees in this whole affair are Kasper and his allies.
To press on. The words of n. 295 on St John Paul’s comments on the "law of gradualness" in "Familiaris Consortio" 34, seem to me subtly treacherous and corruptive. For they try to co-opt and corrupt John Paul in support precisely of a situational ethics that the holy pope bent all his loving pastoral intelligence and energy to oppose. Let us hear then what St John Paul really says about the law of gradualness:
"Married people... cannot however look on the law as merely an ideal to be achieved in the future: they must consider it as a command of Christ the Lord to overcome difficulties through constancy. And so what is known as 'the law of gradualness' or step-by-step advance cannot be identified with a 'gradualness of the law', as if there were differing degrees or forms of precept in God’s law for different individuals and situations. In God’s plan, all husbands and wives are called in marriage to holiness".
Footnote 329 of "Amoris Laetitia" also presents another surreptitious corruption. It cites a passage of "Gaudium et Spes" 51, concerning the intimacy of married life. But by an undetected sleight of hand it is placed in the mouth of the divorced and remarried instead. Such corruptions surely indicate that references and footnotes, which in this document are made to do some heavy lifting, need to be properly verified.
Already in n. 297, we see the responsibility for "irregular situations" being shifted to the discernment of pastors. Step by subtle step the arguments advance definite agenda. N. 299 queries how "current forms of exclusion currently practiced" can be surmounted, and n. 301 introduces the idea of "conversation with the priest in the internal forum". Can you not already detect where the argument is going?
So we arrive at n. 301, which drops the guarded manner as we descend into the maelstrom of "mitigating factors". Here it seems the "mean old Church" has finally been superseded by the "nice new Church": in the past we may have thought that those living in "irregular situations" without repentance were in a state of mortal sin; now, however, they may not be in a state of mortal sin after all, indeed, sanctifying grace may be at work in them.
It is then explained, in an excess of pure subjectivism, that "a subject may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding its inherent value". Here is a mitigating factor to beat all mitigating factors. On this argument then, do we now exculpate the original envy of Lucifer, because he had "great difficulty in understanding" the "inherent value" to him, of the transcendent majesty of God? At which point, I feel that we have lost all foothold, and fallen like Alice into a parallel universe, where nothing is quite what it seems to be.
A series of quotations from St Thomas Aquinas are brought to bear, on which I am not qualified to comment, except to say that, obviously, proper verification and contextualization are strongly indicated. N. 304 is a highly technical apologia for moral casuistry, argued in exclusively philosophical terms without a hint of Christ or of faith. One cannot but think that this was supplied by another hand. It is not Francis’ style, even if it is his belief.
Finally we come to the crucial n. 305. It commences with two of the sort of throwaway caricatures that recur throughout the document. The new doctrine that Pope Francis had flagged a little earlier he now repeats and reasserts: a person can be in an objective situation of mortal sin – for that is what he is speaking about – and still be living and growing in God’s grace, all the "while receiving the help of the Church", which, the infamous footnote 351 declares, can include, "in certain cases", both confession and holy communion. I am sure that there are by now many busily attempting to "interpret" all this according to a "hermeneutic of continuity", to show its harmony, I presume, with Tradition. I might add that in this n. 305, Pope Francis quotes himself four times. In fact, it appears that Pope Francis’ most frequently cited reference through "Amoris laetitia" is himself, and that in itself is interesting.
In the rest of the chapter Pope Francis changes tack. He makes an inverted admission that his approach may leave "room for confusion" (n. 308). To this he responds with a discussion of "mercy". At the very beginning in n. 7 he declared that "everyone should feel challenged by chapter eight". Yes we do, but not quite in the blithe heuristic sense he meant it. Pope Francis has freely admitted in time past that he is the sort of person who loves to make "messes"? Well, I think we can concede that he has certainly achieved that here.
Let me tell you of a rather taciturn and cautious friend, a married man, who expressed to me, before the apostolic exhortation was published: "O I do hope he avoids ambiguity". Well, I think even the most pious reading of "Amoris Laetitia" cannot say that it has avoided ambiguity. To use Pope Francis’ own words, "widespread uncertainty and ambiguity" (n. 33 ) can certainly be applied to this document, and I venture to say, to his whole papacy. If we are put into the impossible situation of critiquing a document of the ordinary magisterium, consider whether in "Amoris Laetitia" Pope Francis himself is relativizing the authority of the magisterium, by eliding the magisterium of Pope John Paul, specially in "Familiaris Consortio" and "Veritatis Splendor". I challenge any of you to soberly reread the encyclical "Veritatis Splendor", say nn. 95-105, and not conclude that there is a deep dissonance between that encyclical and this apostolic exhortation. In my younger years, I anguished over the conundrum: how can you be obedient to the disobedient? For a pope too, is called to obedience – indeed, preeminently so.
The wider implications of "Amoris Laetitia"
The serious difficulties I foresee, for priests in particular, arise from clashing interpretations of the loopholes discretely planted throughout "Amoris Laetitia". What will a young new priest do, who, well informed, wishes to maintain that the divorced and remarried can in no wise by admitted to Holy Communion, while his parish priest has a policy of "accompaniment", which on the contrary envisages that they can. What will a parish priest with a similar sense of fidelity do, if his bishop and diocese decide for a more liberal policy? What will one region of bishops do in relation to another region of bishops, as each set of bishops decides how to cut and divide the "nuances" of this new doctrine, so that in the worst case, what is held to be mortal sin on one side of the border, is "accompanied" away and condoned on the other side of the border? We know it is already happening, officially, in certain German dioceses, and unofficially in Argentina, and even here in Australia, for years, as I can vouch from my own family.
Such an outcome is so appalling, it may mark, as another friend, also a married man, suggested, the collapse of the catholic christian narrative. But of course other aspects of ecclesial and social deterioration have also brought us to this point: the havoc of pseudo-renewal in the Church in the past few decades, the numbingly stupid policy of inculturation applied to a deracinated Western culture of militant secularism, the relentless, progressive erosion of marriage and the family in society, the greater attack on the Church from within than from without that Pope Benedict so lamented, the long defection of certain theologians and laity in the matter of contraception, the frightful sexual scandals, the countless casual sacrileges, the loss of the spirit of the liturgy, the "de facto" internal schisms on a whole range of serious issues and approaches, thinly papered over with a semblance of "de jure" Church unity, the patterns of profound spiritual and moral dissonance that seethe beneath the tattered title of "catholic" these days. And we wonder that the Church is in a weakened state and fading away?
We might also trace the long diachronic antecedents of AL. Being something of an ancient soul, I see this document as the bad fruit of certain second-millennium developments in the Western Church. I briefly point to two in particular: the sharply rationalist and dualist form of Thomism fostered among the Jesuits in the 16th century, and in that context, their elaboration of the casuistic understanding of mortal sin in the 17th century. The art of casuistry was pursued in a new category of sacred science called "moral theology", in which, it seems to me, the slide-rule of calculation is skilfully plied to estimate the minimum culpability necessary to avoid the imputation of mortal sin – technically at any rate. What a spiritual goal! What a spiritual vision! Today, casuistry rears its ugly head in the new form of situational ethics, and "Amoris Laetitia", quite frankly, is full of it – even though it was expressly condemned by St John Paul II in the encyclical "Veritatis Splendor"!
Can I exhort you in any way that can help? St Basil has a great homily on the text: "Only take heed to yourself and guard your soul diligently" (Deut 4:9). We must attend to our own dispositions first. The Desert Fathers have several stories in which a young monk secures his eternal salvation through the heroic meekness of his obedience to a seriously flawed abba. And he ends by bringing about the repentance and salvation of his abba too. We must not let ourselves be tempted into any reaction of hostility to Pope Francis, lest we become part of the devil’s game. This deeply flawed Holy Father too we must honour, and carry in charity, and pray for. With God nothing shall be impossible. Who knows whether God has got Jorge Mario Bergoglio into this position in order to find a sufficient number to pray efficaciously for the salvation of his soul?
I notice that Cardinals Sarah and Pell are silent. What wisdom there may be in that – for the time being. Meanwhile, you who have responsibilities in the governance of the Church, will have to make practical dispositions in regard to the thorny issues of "Amoris Laetitia". First of all, in our own minds, we should have no doubt teaching of the Gospel is, and ever will be. Obviously, whatever strategy of pressing for an official clarification of projected pastoral practice that can be devised, must be tried. I particularly urge this on bishops. Some of you may find yourselves in very difficult situations in regard to your peers, almost calling for the virtues of a confessor of the faith. Are you ready for the whipping, figuratively speaking, you may incur? You could of course, choose the illusory safety of conventional shallowness and superficial good cheer, a great temptation of ecclesiastics as company men. I don’t advise it. The times are serious, perhaps much more serious than we suspect. We are being put to the test. "The Lord is here. He is calling you".
On the appropriate eucharistic disposition of the divorced and remarried
I lately had some email correspondence, in which a friend made some points on the worthy eucharistic dispositions of those in "irregular situations". In my reply I expressed my own thoughts on what I think is the spiritually and sacramentally advisable conduct of a Catholic who is in an "irregular situation":
There is a lovely woman who usually comes to mass in our cathedral and sits down the back. I had conversation with her, and learned she was in one of these "irregular situations", but is still very diligent in coming to mass, but does not partake of holy communion. She does not rail against the Church, or say "It’s the Church’s fault", or "How unjust the Church is!", which sentiments indeed I have heard from others, and gently called to order. I find this woman’s conduct admirable in the circumstances.
The best stance in prayer for those who are in these situations and cannot as yet bring themselves to the measure of repentance required (and so to confession), but who do not want to let go of looking God-ward, is to present themselves to the Lord at mass precisely in their state of privation and need, not going forward to "grasp" the eucharist, but endeavoring to lay themselves open to the intervention of grace and a change of circumstances, if and when it be possible. My sense of their plight is: it is better that they hold themselves honestly, if painfully, in the tension of their situation before God, without subterfuge. I think this is to position themselves best for the triumph of grace.
Who of us cannot identify with this unequal situation in the spiritual contest of our own life, i.e. of battling hard with some seemingly intractable passion, and scarcely finding our way out of it, or perhaps being bogged down a long time in some sin before our moral life emerges into a place of greater freedom? Remember Augustine’s famous prayer to God in the lead-up to his definitive conversion: "Domine, da mihi castitatem, sed noli modo": O Lord, give me chastity. but not yet? I think that when such people attend mass and refrain from taking communion, it is potentially a great witness to all of us. And yes, it does cry out to us to consider our own dispositions in going forward to partake of our Lord’s most holy, deifying Body and Blood.
Apropos of which, it occurs to me to report a saying of the actor Richard Harris, a "hell-raiser" of a lapsed catholic for many a year: "I’m divorced twice, but I would prefer to die a bad catholic than have the Church change to suit me".
I find more truthfulness in that, than in... well, I had better not say it.
Translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.
Translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.
P.S. Some bishops are forging the way forward with bold clarity.