|High Mass of Requiem at the LMS Priest Training Conference, Prior Park.|
It was predictable that different people would point to different passages and claim victory for different views. However, Pope Francis has deprived liberals (and depressed conservatives) of any passages (at least, which I have as yet got into focus) which say simply and clearly even that pastoral practice should change in a particular direction. The other thing he had not done is what we had at the end of the last Synod, which was a condemnation of the excesses of both sides of the debate.
As far as these more abstract discussions go, among a lot of other things, some very helpful, we have passages which take seriously some of the arguments made by Cardinal Kasper about the difficult situation some people find themselves in.
Thus, Kasper argued (so far as I could tell) that grave sins, done in full knowledge of their gravity, could be compatible with the life of grace, and therefore with reception of Holy Communion, because of the psychological difficulty of avoiding them, and of the need to maintain a home for the children of an adulterous relationship. The Exhortation mentions all the elements of this view, but it doesn't, quite, draw Kasper's conclusion.
Thus we hear that, just because a couple is in an illicit union on some definition or other, doesn't mean that they are in a state of mortal sin. There may be complicating factors. True: for example, there may be a failure of moral knowledge, or the couple may be living as 'brother and sister', or they may just have gone to Confession and be working things out. The subsequent discussion, however, does not appeal to any of these possibilities. Instead, it draws attention to other kinds of complication, which, while interesting and important, won't stop acts of adultery being mortally sinful, such as a concern for the health of the relationship in light of the children, force of habit, and other psychological impediments to a conversion of life. Then again, the Exhortation doesn't draw the conclusion that the second kind of complicating factors are such that the sins committed are not mortal. It leaves that up to the judgment of pastors...
It is open to people to say: this is teaching by hint, or 'dog-whistle'. But it also raises the question: if the Pope really wanted everyone to conclude that, for example, an adulterous couple with a strong habit of vice and a child whose home is underpinned by the sinful relationship, can receive sacramental absolution without a firm purpose of ending their acts of adultery, why did he not just say so? If the Pope did want to say that, and drew back from saying it, I suppose his reason must have been a concern not to cause things like scandal, schism, and an open break with the teaching of the recent Papal Magisterium, not to mention Scripture and the Fathers. On this presupposition, it is a deliberate decision, and the way we understand the teaching must respect the fact that the decision was made as it was. The Pope could have told adulterers to go to Communion with a light heart; he did not do so.
Catholics attached to the liturgical traditions of the Church, Catholics who seek to live in organic continuity with their predecessors in terms of belief, practice, liturgy and spirituality, are very familiar with this way of proceeding. I could list a dozen examples of Popes and other organs of the Church issuing documents which seemed, if not actually motivated by a rejection of traditional teaching, then are at least motivated by a desire not to be in conflict with those who reject it, to a greater or lesser extent. I have listed a number of examples here. In these documents, however, the rejection of the traditional teaching is never made quite explicit. On the contrary, lip service is made to the old teaching, sometimes very emphatically, while its practical implications are quietly swept away.
The practical implications of the Church's teaching about adultery include refusing Communion to adulterers, if the adultery is public. It may be that, with the subtle encouragement of the arguments of this Exhortation, that will be swept away, at least, even more than it already has been. There is a great difference, however, between this process and one in which priests are explicitly told that public sinners should be admitted to Communion.
Why? Because priests who doen't respond to the hints, if that is what they are, will not be in such a disastrously weak position they would have been in, had the Pope made an explicit change to Canon Law and the Catechism. I am thinking of their vulnerability not only to discipline within the Church, but against the secular law: I discussed the problem here.
Furthermore, in this case, as with a myriad of other cases over the last half century, we are not in a situation of a Pope explicitly teaching heresy. We can say whatever we like about how he should have been clearer, should have reiterated this or that teaching: perhaps he should. But he is not publicly and explicitly teaching heresy. This is important; it makes a big difference. Popes can teach heresy, they are not protected from doing that except under very specific conditions, and it has happened more than once in the history of the Church. It didn't happen yesterday, for all that the Exhortation was unclear or confusing. Even if we say it was malicious, even if we suppose that the Pope is a heretic in his heart, the document that we have before us does not contain propositions incompatible with the teaching of the Church - at least, that's my view, for what it is worth.
What we have now is not the final melt-down of the Church. We have, perhaps, a negative step, but if so it is one of many. We may perhaps say that the teaching of the Church is not as clear as it was, but this obscuring of the teaching has been a long, slow process. More serious, I think, by far, than Amoris laetitia, was the deliberate removal of dozens and dozens of references to sin, God's anger, damnation, repentance, penance, and grace, from the prayers of the liturgy, which happened with the promulgation of the 1970 Missal. That was a disaster for the Church, and the consequences continue to make themselves felt. It wasn't the proclamation of heresy: no, and that makes the whole sorry business harder to combat, in some ways. But in another way it means that there is something we can each and every one of us do, to reinforce the threatened truth: and that is, to pray the ancient liturgy, and to promote it.
See also my post on Pope Francis on the Mandatum and liturgical developments under his predecessors.
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