Saturday, April 09, 2016

Amoris laetitia footnote 329: on the moral necessity of adultery

IMG_8848
Gestures pointing towards the reality of Christ's presence in the Blessed Sacrament. At LMS
priest training conference, Prior Park.
Section 298, with footnote 329, warrants comment. Here is the text.

The divorced who have entered a new union, for example, can find themselves in a variety of situations, which should not be pigeonholed or fit into overly rigid classifications leaving no room for a suitable personal and pastoral discernment. One thing is a second union consolidated over time, with new children, proven fidelity, generous self giving, Christian commitment, a consciousness of its irregularity and of the great difficulty of going back without feeling in conscience that one would fall into new sins. The Church acknowledges situations “where, for serious reasons, such as the children’s upbringing, a man and woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate”. 

Note (329): JOHN PAUL II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (22 November 1981), 84: AAS 74 (1982), 186. In such situations, many people, knowing and accepting the possibility of living “as brothers and sisters” which the Church offers them, point out that if certain expressions of intimacy are lacking, “it often happens that faithfulness is endangered and the good of the children suffers” (SECOND VATICAN ECUMENICAL COUNCIL, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 51)

First, let's see what is being referred to.



Familiaris consortio 84 includes this passage:

Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations. There is in fact a difference between those who have sincerely tried to save their first marriage and have been unjustly abandoned, and those who through their own grave fault have destroyed a canonically valid marriage. Finally, there are those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children's upbringing, and who are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably destroyed marriage had never been valid.


Yup, the language was there back in 1982 under Pope St John Paul II. It goes on:

However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church's teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.

Reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage. This means, in practice, that when, for serious reasons, such as for example the children's upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they "take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples."


So curiously, while making appeal to the precedent of the language of Familiais consortio in the first paragraph I've quoted, Amoris laetitia appears to want to qualify the message of the other two quoted paragraphs, from the same section.

What does Gaudium et spes 51 say, in context? I've emboldened the phrases quoted by Amoris laetitia (which is using a different English translation and is quoting selectively).

This council realizes that certain modern conditions often keep couples from arranging their married lives harmoniously, and that they find themselves in circumstances where at least temporarily the size of their families should not be increased. As a result, the faithful exercise of love and the full intimacy of their lives is hard to maintain. But where the intimacy of married life is broken off, its faithfulness can sometimes be imperiled and its quality of fruitfulness ruined, for then the upbringing of the children and the courage to accept new ones are both endangered.

To these problems there are those who presume to offer dishonorable solutions indeed; they do not recoil even from the taking of life. But the Church issues the reminder that a true contradiction cannot exist between the divine laws pertaining to the transmission of life and those pertaining to authentic conjugal love.


This is a very interesting passage of Gaudium et spes. The Council Fathers are pointing to a problem with the practice of periodic sexual abstinence in marriage, to limit family size, which we would do well to bear in mind. Sexual union, open to life, of a married couple, serves to unite them as a couple. To exclude this from a marriage carries dangers: it can lead to temptations to infidelity, and to a breakdown of a proper attitude of openness to life. The teaching here is that 'Natural Family Planning' should be used sparingly. The passage goes on the condemn clearly the use of 'dishonourable' alternatives to NFP, which promise the continuation of sexual intimacy, stripped of its openness to life.

Amoris laetitia proposes a parallel with the situation of a couple engaged in an adulterous relationship. There certainly is a parallel. Not only can sex serve to give a degree of unity to a couple outside of marriage, this is one way the immoral nature of sex outside marriage manifests itself. Infidelity undermines the marriages of adulterers. Fornication creates an emotional and even spiritual bond without the protection of the committment of marriage. Sexual relationships outside marriage can become very intense: the bond can be very strong. It frequently happens, outside marriage, in a relationship initiated on the basis of sexual attraction, that the sexual bond is the only thing holding the couple together. The couple may find they have little else in common, and when the fires of passion subside, the relationship collapses. Such collapse can even happen when sex is only temporarily unavailable because of absense, illness, or after childbirth. We all know this: such relationships are flimsy, and that is exactly why they are unjust to the children.

Does it follow that people engaged in sex outside marriage should keep on commiting mortal sins in order to preserve their immoral relationships? Obviously not. But what if their immoral relationships have elements of fidelity and genuine charity? What if the stability of the immoral relationship is needed for the upbringing of the children of the relationship?

These are the questions reported by Amoris laetitia. Read the key sentence, in the footnote, again.

In such situations, many people, knowing and accepting the possibility of living “as brothers and sisters” which the Church offers them, point out that if certain expressions of intimacy are lacking, “it often happens that faithfulness is endangered and the good of the children suffers” 

Note again, as I pointed out in previous posts, the possibility of moral ignorance is explicitly ruled out: Amoris laetitia has no interest in suggesting that the sins of a couple in an illicit union are not mortal because of ignorance of the rules. This was a common strategy among liberal priests in relation to contraception in the 1970s. No, we have moved on from that option. Rather, the question is raised: will it not do harm, to follow the rules? It asks the question; it does not provide the answer.

As a matter of fact the answer is provided by the two documents referred to in the footnote. Gaudium et spes rejects the 'dishonourable' means of limiting family size precisely whilst acknowledging the harm which can come to a marriage by denial of sex. Familiaris consortio demands a denial of illicit sex precisely whilst acknowledging the value of maintaining a common home for the children of the adultery.

The way the passage and the footnote present the question, and fail to articulate an answer, does not appear to be pointing towards the responses made by those two documents. It is rather easy, in fact, to read it as pointing in the opposite direction. The question posed by 'many people'  points towards a dilemma in which there is no non-sinful option. I have already quoted and discussed the claim made slightly later in the document, in section 301:

A subject may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding “its inherent values”, or be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin.

Looking at the two sentences together, the dilemma seems to be not exactly between two or more sinful options ('press the button and one man will die; do nothing and two men will die': academic ethicists love that kind of question), but between a sinful action and the risk of a greater sin later on. In Brideshead Revisited, Julia presents such a dilemma to her confessor: she can sleep with her fiancé Rex, or he will predictably fornicate with other women, which would be morally worse. In Evelyn Waugh's great phrase, 'the gentle old Jesuit would not give way.' No, no, absolutely not.

It is never justified to sin in order to avoid another sin. An example considered by St Augustine was suicide to avoid illicit sex. Augustine comments: in choosing to sin, we 'choose sin over innocence'. This is how morality works, in the Catholic tradition and, for that matter, in common sense. We aren't free to do whatever it takes to minimise the number of sins likely to be committed: lying to stop others lying more and worse, or murdering to stop more and worse murders. No, we are bound ourselves to avoid certain actions, and that limits the morally possible options we have. It would be convenient, or might seem so, if, as we seek the common good, we can take some short cuts and assassinate a few people, steal a few things, break a few laws, but no, we must go the long way round, and advance the common good by morally licit means.

This applies to our personal lives, as well as to public projects and politics. If your adulterous relationship isn't sustainable without sex, that is no justification at all for continuing the sex. If your children's education requires you to embezzle money from your employer, that is no justification at all for embezzlement. If your personal safety as a mafia thug requires you to beat up a series of people your bosses tell you to beat up, that is no justification at all for you to beat them up. We can sympathise with people in these situations, but they need to do the right thing. They need to free themselves from the apparant dilemma by accepting that they may not be able to prevent some bad things happening. There is, in truth, no real dilemma, no question of doing one wrong thing or else another wrong thing. There are options which are ruled out, morally, and there are options which are open to us. Of the latter, we must make the best of a situation which may be difficult, or disastrous. We can't try to solve our practical problems by committing injustices against others.

It may be this passage, and others like it, which make Cardinal Kasper think his position had been vindicated, since he has been advancing arguments about moral dilemmas, which I discussed here. As I have noted, however, the implications in this passage are not made explicit. I need to say more about the significance of a document which appears to encourage error, without explicitly doing so, but I have already pointed out that a pattern of pointing away from the teaching of the Church, when traditional practice and earlier documents point towards it, is a well-established one in the Church since the Second Vatican Council.

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2 comments:

  1. Thank you for this! Already there are some prosing on about an 'organic development of doctrine' and similar great nonsense; tsk.

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  2. Thank you Sir for your lengthy and enlightening blogs and Footnotes concerning Pope Francis' Exhortation , and the sacrifice of time with your family which your offerings must entail. However rich benefits will accrue to your many readers and their own families . With sincere thanks and prayers for you and your family.
    Austin.......a great grandfather . AMDG.

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