Friday, July 22, 2016

Amoris laetitia: Is it possible to keep the Natural Law?

In response to the article in L'Ossovorore Romano by Rocco Buttiglione, I am reposting this post firm published in April this year.


One very puzzling thing that Amoris laetitia says is this, from Section 301.

... 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. More is involved here than mere ignorance of the rule. 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. As the Synod Fathers put it, “factors may exist which limit the ability to make a decision”. 

There is then a reference to Aquinas' Summa Theologica (and the De Malo), and to the Catechism on mitigating circumstances.

A natural reading of this, which would also seem needed by the argument which follows about what we can expect of people in regard to straightening out their lives, would be simply this: sometimes it is actually impossible to follow the objective dictates of Natural Law, and for that reason people can't be blamed for not following them: and that in this we are talking about people in a state of grace. There is also the suggestion that people may be in a dilemma (or 'perplexity') in which there is no non-sinful option.

We need to keep in mind the teaching of the Council of Trent, Chapter XI.

But no one, how much soever justified, ought to think himself exempt from the observance of the commandments; no one ought to make use of that rash saying, one prohibited by the Fathers under an anathema,-that the observance of the commandments of God is impossible for one that is justified. For God commands not impossibilities, but, by commanding, both admonishes thee to do what thou are able, and to pray for what thou art not able (to do), and aids thee that thou mayest be able; whose commandments are not heavy; whose yoke is sweet and whose burthen light. For, whoso are the sons of God, love Christ; but they who love him, keep his commandments, as Himself testifies; which, assuredly, with the divine help, they can do.

This is infallible teaching, as expressed in the following Canon:

CANON XVIII.-If any one saith, that the commandments of God are, even for one that is justified and constituted in grace, impossible to keep; let him be anathema.

The reference to Aquinas made in the footnote to this passage is not helpful. Summa Theologica IaIIae Q65 a.3 ad 2 is about impediments to the exercise of certain virtues, but far from being impediments which excuse the agent in failing to fulfill a duty, these are impediments which don't stop the agent from acting on the virtue. It is a reference to Aristotle's theory that the excercise of a habit (good, bad, or mechanical) gives pleasure unless the exercise is 'impeded'; Aquinas is simply pointing out that impediments are more likely when the virtue has not been acquired by a process of training and habituation over time, but by an infusion of grace from God. This abstruse issue is completely irrelevant to the matter at hand, and makes me wonder about the intellectual integrity of the people advising Pope Francis at this point in the document.

The relevance of De Malo Q2 a.2 entirely escapes me. It is a discussion of the relationship between sinful acts of the will and external sinful actions.

Reference to the Catechism's considerations about mitigating factors such as duress, inadvertance, habit and so forth is also potentially misleading. Mitigating factors are mitigating: they don't change a bad action into a good one, but reduce the degree of guilt we bear for an objectively wrong action. Does this include making an action which could be a mortal sin into a non-mortal sin? Well,  in mortal sin the agent must be conscious of the gravity of the act, and various factors can indeed obscure this for an agent. The odd thing about this paragraph, however, is that it does not want to focus on factors which affect the agent's knowledge of an action's gravity: 'More is involved here than mere ignorance of the rule.' What are we supposed to make of that? It is precisely ignorance of the rule, or the way it applies in a particular case, which is key in claiming that an objectively gravely wrong action is not a mortal sin, and that, therefore, the agent has not necessarily lost the state of grace.

It is hard to avoid the impression that this paragraph is trying to create a casuistic space for the idea that someone who is living a life of - for example - institutionalised adultery, in an illict marriage, who is perfectly aware of the teaching of the Church and equally aware that he and his supposed spouse are not free to marry each other, could be in a state of grace, and therefore could appropriately and fruitfully receive Holy Communion.

But that view is false. If you know that what you are doing is gravely sinful, and keep on doing it, you have committed a mortal sin and are not in a state of grace. Habits, duress, the needs of the children of the supposed marriage and all sorts of things can make it psychologically difficult to undergo the necessary conversion of heart: certainly. But God's mercy is available even for such sinners. Not the false mercy of leaving them in their sin, but the mercy of granting them the grace of repentance and forgiveness.

Compare the parents of a family whose prosperity is founded upon some kind of grave injustice: a mafia family, say, whose money comes from extortion, kidnapping, and other crimes. All kinds of habits and duress will make repentance difficult. The obligation to support one's children creates a dilemma, also, for the parents, whose livlihood depends on grave sins. But none of this means that repentance is impossible, and while it would be a sin to plunge one's family into danger and poverty by intention or by negligance, it is not a sin to cause this result as a side-effect of leaving a gravely sinful lifestyle. In this case the subsequent danger and poverty are attributable, in fact, to earlier sins of the parents catching up with them. In other cases, even this may not be true: Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian Catholic who refused to fight for the Nazis in 1943, left his young family in a vulnerable state when he went to his heroic death, but that was not wrong, because he was doing his duty.

Amoris laetitia does not make any definitive rules for or any changes to Canon Law; nor does it explictly contradict or re-write the Catechism, Pope St John Paul II's Familiaris consortio, or any other document which states the teaching of the Church: that public sinners should be refused Communion, and that those in a state of mortal sin cannot receive Communion fruifully. Instead it invites, more forcefully and authoritatively than before, that we should all treat individual cases on their merits. And so we should. It would be unfortunate if we did so on the basis of confusion about what mortal sin is.

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  1. I've been mulling over this for some time: A mortal sin implies grave matter, full knowledge and full freedom (1857, Catechism) - I believe that A.L. suggests that freedom might be lacking to such a degree that the sin is no longer mortal: A heroin addict might be compelled to satisfy his addiction, a person suffering from depression might slip into comitting suicide, and a cohabitor might end up in the same bed as his lover. This need not be a contradiction to Canon XVIII of Trent you cite above (about people in a state of grace always being able to follow the commandments), because a.)The addict might not be in a state of grace or b.)he might be in a state of grace and in able to resist his temptation, but his freedom is so far reduced that the sin he commits changes from a mortal to a mere venial one.

    1. That's the best 'pious reading' possible I'm sure. The problem is that the passage implies that a person who *knows* he is committing objectively grave sins is said not to be able to escape the subjective situation of a lack of freedom etc.. We're not talking about someone in a torture chamber, this is someone regularly going to church!

      Nb 'following the law' is about the objective law, not about whether the agent is subjectively capable of mortal sin. 'Even those in grace' is an argument a fortiori: Calvinists would say that the saved (for them, in a state of irresistible grace) commit sins worthy of infinite punishment every day. As for everyone else, well they just dig themselves deeper in sin all the time. The Catholic view is: no, everyone is able to avoid grave sin, the grace is available to repent and to stay in a state of grace.

  2. A.L. could be seen to imply that certain 'irregularities' such as sexual cohabitation are permanently sinless for certain people. But an orthodox reading would be that this state can only be innocent (or at least venially sinful) for a limited period of time. Eventually, grace through the sacraments will heal the lack of freedom. From that point on, the situation becomes mortally sinful again and makes communion dangerous. But even in this case, the sinner can still continue to go to communion - if he regularly confesses his sins and resolves (not necessarily with success) to not sin again. (Actually, most people overlook that remarried divorcees - even those that are sexually active - are already admitted to communion as long as they confess and try to sin no more.) But on a 'technial level', A.L. could have a point that the unconditional ban of communion for fornicators is mistaken: For certain short periods of time, people may be so entrapped in their situation that their behavior is not mortally sinful and therefore not an impediment to communion - and that communion might even help to escape the situation.

    1. Nb that priests' reasoning about refusing Communion to people is based on their public state of life, not on the subjective state of their consciences.

  3. The first thing we must all remember about Amoris Laetitia is that it is not an infallible document or in intended to be. It contains reflection of the current pope and as such must be considered with respect. However, any informed Catholic is free to disagree with any aspect of it.

    One issue here is the allegation that some people find it impossible to follow, should they wish to, the teaching of the Churches' doctrine ( and therefore of natural law since there can be no contradiction).

    This is not so. For those with intent, grace is available to follow the Church's teaching.

    The issue always seems to come back to sex, as always.

    Adulterers are in a state of mortal sin. If they die in such a state, they go to hell. CCC 1035.

    Tough, but there it is!