Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Amoris laetitia and the Bishops of Buenos Aires

IMG_0507I'm coming late to the party on this news, but I feel the need to think this through a bit by setting the matter out in a blog post. Everything in this post is, obviously, my personal opinion for which I don't claim any particular authority.

The saga of the interpretation of Amoris laetitia took a step forward with the publication of a letter addressed to priests from the bishops of the pastoral area of Buenos Aires, and the arrival in the public domain, somehow, of Pope Francis' response to that letter. This was an enthusiastic endorsement: 'The document is very good and completely explains the meaning of Chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia,' he told them, adding: 'There are no other interpretations.'

The choreography of the letter and the Pope's response in the media leaves little doubt that the Pope wishes this to be seen widely as the correct interpretation of Amoris laetitia. I don't say it is an 'authoritative' interpretation since the Pope's letter to the bishops does not look like a magisterial act. What it does do, all the same, is give us a clearer take on Pope Francis' personal view than we have had up until now.

The key passage of the Bishops' letter is as follows. The possibility of a couple in an illicit union living in continence, as brother and sister, has just been raised. The letter goes on:

6) In other, more complex cases, and when a declaration of nullity has not been obtained, the above mentioned option may not, in fact, be feasible. Nonetheless, a path of discernment is still possible. If it comes to be recognized that, in a specific case, there are limitations that mitigate responsibility and culpability (cf. 301-302), especially when a person believes they would incur a subsequent wrong by harming the children of the new union, Amoris Laetitia offers the possibility of access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist (cf. footnotes 336 and 351). These sacraments, in turn, dispose the person to continue maturing and growing with the power of grace.

It goes on to say that this concession should not be understood as of general application, but must follow from discernment and so on, and that the admission to Holy Communion might best be done in private.

To understand the significance of this we need to refer back to the passages of Amoris which are referred to, and clarify some of the operative concepts.

Mortal sin drives out sanctifying grace, which makes it impossible to receive Communion fruitfully. As I have discussed here, paragraphs 301-5 of Amoris about mitigating circumstances explicitly rule out of consideration the type of mitigation which can make an objectively gravely wrong action compatible with a continuing life of grace: viz., those factors which would stop the action being a mortal sin.

To be a mortal sin, an objectively gravely wrong action must be done with full consent of the will and with knowledge of its gravity. We can set aside the possibility that carnal relations between a couple in an illicit union are never engaged in with full consent, as if they were always intoxicated, victims of torture, or under the thumb of a cruel blackmailer. (These things are possible, but are not what Amoris has in mind.) The question comes down to knowledge of the moral gravity of the act. On this, Amoris (301) declares:

A subject may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding “its inherent values”

This is important because as I have noted, the key type of case is that of 'churchy' people, who want to receive Communion, be godparents, and be on the Parish Council; people who in Germany and Austria pay the Church Tax. They cannot be said to be ignorant of the law: they know it 'well'; on the other hand they do not, subjectively, feel motivated to follow it -- they don't see 'its inherent values'.

Now, it is precisely because this type of case cannot be understood except as a mortal sin, that it has caused the problems it has. A couple who appear publicly to be in an illicit union but have managed to free themselves from the permanent state of mortal sin by confession, and a firm purpose of living as brother and sister, can be given Communion in private, to avoid scandal to others. A person who, in the judgment of a confessor, has performed gravely wrong actions without full consent of the will or without knowledge of the gravity of the act, can be given absolution without a firm purpose of amendment, since he was never guilty of that particular mortal sin. These cases are not the problematic ones. The problematic case is that where the classical definition of mortal sin does apply, not one where it does not.

To take the matter forward we need to go beyond the text of Amoris, since the text does not, or at least not clearly, give us a solution to this problem. What we get is footnote 351, which appears in para 305, which I have discussed before. This says very simply that a person in an objective state of sin can be helped by the sacraments, which I took as a statement of the obvious. The sacraments exist to assist our salvation. The footnote says nothing about setting aside the normative conditions, set by Divine Law, for sacramental absolution or the fruitful reception of Communion. This, at any rate, was my 'pious' reading of the footnote in the light of the continuous teaching of the Church.

What the Argentine bishops have done is to take this reference to people being helped by the sacraments, in the context of a discussion of people in an on-going state of mortal sin (or: a subjective state which up to now would not allow a confessor to give absolution, or a pastor to give Communion even in private), and draw the conclusion that, since Amoris is telling us that such people should be helped by the sacraments, it follows that the rules (i.e. Divine Law) which govern the sacraments must be changed, or ignored, so that these individuals can receive the sacraments after all, without changing their own, subjective or objective, circumstances.

This of course is not new; it is the standard liberal interpretation of Amoris. What is new, or at least clearer than before, is that Pope Francis wants us to take this as the 'only interpretation' of Amoris. This fits in with his statement that Amoris makes a difference: it changes something. When asked if it did, he replied (on an aeroplane): 'I can say yes, period.' He then referred the assembled journalists to the interpretation of Cardinal Schönborn, who said, in an interview:

There is an evolution, clearly expressed by Pope Francis, in the Church’s perception of the elements that condition and that mitigate, elements that are special to our own epoch.

What the Argentine bishops' letter gives us is clear indication of exactly what the change is.

For the sake of completeness I should acknowledge that the supporters of the new discipline will say it is a matter of interpreting Divine Law, not changing it, and that Cardinal Schönborn made great play of the idea that the existing rules, in Canon Law and elsewhere, don't need to be changed because it was just a matter of realising that no rules could cover every case. These moves make no difference, however, since the perennial teaching of the Church, on such basic issues such as the nature of mortal sin, the Sixth Commandment, and the conditions for sacramental absolution, are perfectly clear and cover the disputed cases without any conceptual difficulties. It is precisely because these are not marginal cases that they can't be dealt with (to the satisfaction of those wanting change) using the resources of the existing rules and discipline, which has always allowed a role for the exercise of judgement by confessors and pastors, since the application of the law in hard cases is not a mechanical exercise.

We have here a difficult situation, to say the least, where at least a few points are clear.

1. As noted, the conditions under which a priest can absolve a penitent are set by Divine Law, since our Lord Jesus Christ established the sacrament and acts in it. No one seems to be suggesting that Confession be evaded, so this is a key sticking point. It is obvious that the Pope does not have the authority to change Divine Law.

2. The same is true of the fruitful reception of Holy Communion (determined by communicants' subjective state), and the duties of priests to avoid public scandal by giving public sinners Communion in public (determined by communicants' objective state). Theses things are set by Divine Law and can be changed by no human authority.

3. The Pope has not taught in a magisterial document that the Divine Law be changed, ignored, or radically reinterpreted, but he has made it clear non-magisterially that he wishes a magisterial document to be understood in that sense. This would not be a way of binding the consciences of Catholics even if Divine Law were not at stake. My 'pious' reading of footnote 351 noted above is still a possible reading of the document as a magisterial text, even if it is clear that my reading does not reflect Pope Francis' private views.

4. Although it is clear that what the Pope has indicated, in this roundabout way, is not correct, and not compatible with the teaching of the Church, there would be several more steps to go before we could say that the Pope is a heretic. Being a heretic involves stubborn adherence to error after the error has been pointed out by people with the appropriate authority. A process of 'warning' by, say, the College of Cardinals, and a subsequent reiteration of the error on the part of the Pope, would rule out possible misunderstandings of what this or that passage really means, on the part of both sides, give the Pope the opportunity to clarify or recant, and so forth. Such a process is quite unimaginable in the present historical situation of the Church. It just isn't going to happen.

5. What is going to happen is that some people will follow these hints of Pope Francis, and some will not. Time will go by and Amoris will remain an unclear magisterial document, and private letters of the Pope and interviews by Cardinal Schönborn will remain the expressions of private views.

6. The intensifying conflict and confusion will cause incalculable harm to souls.

Anyone, incidentally, who thinks that I have a record of interpreting Pope Francis in a hostile may want to read this.

Support the work of the LMS by becoming an 'Anniversary Supporter'.


  1. Welcome to a form of not so high Anglicanism, each diocese and parish left to adopt their own basis of faith.

  2. Following our brief twitter discussion, the difficulty I have with suggesting the Pope is in error here from a c.916 perspective, is the short shift your analysis gives to mitigating factors and full consent (independent from questions of knowledge).

    Based on my understanding, similar to the approach with Communion for those who use contraception, is that c916 did not provide an absolute ban on the reception of Communion by the remarried (ie the precedents outlined in this article

    The absolute ban was only imposed by c915, as acknowledged in the 2000 PCLT document which reiterated the ban (this acknowledgement is captured at FN345 in AL).

    Therefore it is not a novelty to say some remarried may not be in a subjective state of mortal sin, and thus can discern under c916 that they may receive Communion.

    That only leaves c915, in relation to which AL is a novelty, as remarriage as always been considered to be a public/manifest sin which would give rise to scandal if Communion was allowed (ie per the 2000 PCLT document, the civil legal paperwork makes remarriage public).

    However what is public in a way which may cause scandal is a factual, not doctrinal, matter. And factually based eucharistic disipline can change - We didn't have the early Church's rather fearsome eucharistic disipline even in the years before VII for instance.

    And it seems to me therefore that it is open to assess if an adulterous union is public based on pastoral facts, rather than legal paperwork, such that not all will be public. For example, a 30 year old divorce in another country is legally public, but perhaps not pastorally public in a way which would allow any remarriage to cause public scandal.

    Therefore the approach of AL will be permissible, at least in theory, so long as it continues to ban communion for remarriage which is actually public in a way which could cause scandal. Which it explictly does, for example at AL297 (ie flaunts objective sin), AL299 (ie avoiding any occasion of scandal) and AL300 (tactful person). And so do the Argentinean guidelines at item 7 (flaunting of the particular situation) and item 9 (sacraments in secret).

    Therefore c915 still has force under AL and its guidelines in theory, based on what is public in fact not law. These restrictions will of course be ignored in practice, but they already are. So AL does not attack the doctrinal requirements of c915 just because of that.

    Accordingly I am of a mind to accept AL as outlining a doctrinally possible approach. It is pastorally unworkable and indeed a pastoral error in my view. But then Popes can make pastoral errors.

    1. This particular discussion is not about the public nature of the sin, but on the subjective state, so you've missed the point.

    2. 'To be a mortal sin, an objectively gravely wrong action must be done with full consent of the will and with knowledge of its gravity. We can set aside the possibility that carnal relations between a couple in an illicit union are never engaged in with full consent, as if they were always ... under the thumb of a cruel blackmailer.'

      Can we? The Kasperite proposal is that the divorced and remarried may be readmitted to communion after a penitential period without committing to remain continent in their irregular if a) they're convinced their previous union was invalid but are unable to prove it in an external forum and b) there are circumstances (left unspecified) that limit the subjective culpability of the person. It seems to me that if there is even a single case whereby either assertion need not be understood as heretical, then we can limit the Buenos Aires Bishops' directive, however imprudent it may be, to precisely such circumstances that are possible to interpret in an orthodox fashion.

      So to be concrete, let us give an example of blackmail that might reduce the subjective culpability of the divorced-remarried person, so that continued carnal relations may not be a mortal sin: A poor abandoned spouse remarries into a new union for the sake of their children without full knowledge of its irregular nature, then after spiritual conversion and/or catechesis they become aware that this new relationship is adulterous and inform their current partner they must remain continent. To this the new partner responds that they will leave if sexual relations do not continue which, given the other spouse's lack of income and education, would present a grave threat to the lives and wellbeing of the children. Is it possible then, for the spouse who requested to remain continent to continue sexual relations with their partner out of protection for their children without necessarily committing a mortal sin (I presume it would, at least, be venial) and to subsequently be permitted to receive communion in private (putting aside whether canon 915 would have to be changed to accommodate such a practice)? This is a genuine question.

      And in reference to Kasper's other proposal, what if the self-same person was furthermore convinced that their original union was invalid but found/felt that it was impossible to prove it to a tribunal or they were scared of the repercussions of the previous partner being contacted by the diocese, say, if the relationship had been abusive.

      Maybe every such above case of adultery is mortally sinful. Maybe it is nevertheless a heresy to claim the Church can permit those who persist in a manifest sin even if a person's subjective culpability is only venial. And maybe, even if it were impossible for a diocesan tribunal to declare a particular invalid union null, that it is still heretical to think that personal conviction of that fact could ever morally allow someone to continue carnal relations in a new union and allow the Church to permit such a person to receive Holy Communion. On all these matters, I really don't know, so clarification would be much appreciated. And, to be clear, I ask merely to determine whether we must take the Pontiff’s/the Buenos Aires Bishops’ remarks as demonstrably heretical, not to determine whether the remarks were imprudent or likely to be interpreted heretically.

    3. On Kasper's proposals: (a) may be a tragic situation, but genital sexual acts outside marriage are objectively gravely sinful, whether a first marriage was valid or not. What matters is whether the new union is a marriage or not.
      (b) I can see that in some circumstances the behaviour of an uncooperative spouse could be described as blackmail, but that is not quite what I meant. I was referring to the kind of situation in which an agent ceases to have full culpability because of the psychological situation. This is not a matter of there being *strong temptation* or *strong reasons [leaving aside the fact that the act is intrinsically wrong] to do something*. Those sorts of thing have nothing to do with our losing the ability to act freely. If you are in the grip of a cult using methods of mind-control, brain-washing and the like, if you are mentally ill, with severe depression: that kind of thing reduces culpability. If you are deliberating about *reasons to act*, if you are *discerning*, then you are acting as a moral agent.

  3. Yes, which is why the first half of my comment focuses on c916 & subjective states of sin.

    The precedents around contraception since Humanae Vitae (include in the article for which I provided a link) and indeed on remarriage in the 2000 PCLT document, provide a basis for the Pope to teach without novelty that remarriage may be only venially sinful due to subjective factors impacting full consent rather than full knowledge.

    And I think that, unless these precedents are engaged with, it is not fair to say that we can set aside the possibility that carnal relations between a couple in an illicit union are not engaged in with full consent.

    I acknowledge that some might reject these precedents as wrong - Certainly they are not infallible. But they appear to me at least to be well founded in traditional moral theology, and need to be considered before we suggest the Pope's teaching is doctrinally impossible.

    1. You have linked to a 15-page article. If you can'5 summarise the argument then it is hardly appropriate for a comma box!

    2. Fair comment. Apologies. The magisterial precedents adduced by the article, which support the view in the context of contraception that subjective culpability can be reduced and Communion received due to defects of in consent rather than of knowledge, are as follows (excluding the obligatory general references to Saints Aquinas and Liguori):

      1. Humanae Vitae 29 - Encourages couples who struggle to live this teaching to go on seeking the grace of God by receiving the Sacraments “more often and with great faith”.

      2. The response of the French Bishops Conference to Humanae Vitae - “Contraception can never be a good. It is always a disorder, but this disorder is not always culpable.”

      3. The “Statement of Theological and Pastoral Principles” from the Congregation for the Clergy in April 1971 - “Particular circumstances surrounding an objectively evil human act, while they cannot make it objectively virtuous, can make it inculpable, diminished in guilt or subjectively defensible.”

      4. “Human Life in Our Day”, a statement issued by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (USA) in November 1968 - “There are certain values which may not oblige us always to act on their behalf, but we are prohibited from ever acting directly against them by positive acts. Truth is such a value; life is surely another. It is one thing to say that an action against these values is inculpable, diminished in guilt, or subjectively defensible; it is quite another to defend it as objectively virtuous.”

      5. “Pastoral Directives”, issued by Cardinal Gilroy of Sydney in September 1968 - “Should the penitent still affirm that he cannot in conscience accept the teaching of the encyclical, let the priest remember that it is not always easy for persons immediately to change their attitude on a matter so closely affecting their manner of life. Some time of adjustment may be required ... [such a penitent] who sincerely promises to follow the directions of his confessor, could be judged disposed for absolution. His conscience is objectively erroneous, but through no fault of his own, he cannot at the moment see the light of truth and form a true conscience”.

      6. A letter to the Australian Bishops, from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith dated 29 July 1974 (Protocol number 52/63) - “There can, however, be situations in which a couple have, in good faith, come to the erroneous conviction that in their particular case the use of contraceptives is justified. In this case, the use of contraceptives, although objectively unlawful, is subjectively excusable, on condition that the judgment of conscience is made on the basis of sufficient information and after serious reflection before God. This is traditional catholic doctrine on personal conscience as the norm for responsible human action”.

      7. “The application of Humanae Vitae”, a pastoral letter of the Australian Bishop Conference published in September 1974 - “It is not impossible, however, that an individual may fully accept the teaching authority of the Pope in general, may be aware of his teaching in this matter, and yet reach a position after honest study and prayer that is at variance with the papal teaching. Such a person could be without blame; he would certainly not have cut himself off from the Church; and in acting in accordance with his conscience he could be without subjective fault.”

      8. The Moral Norm of ‘Humanae vitae’ and Pastoral Duty, published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1989 - “This subjective situation, while it can never change into something ordered that which is intrinsically disordered, may to a greater or lesser extent modify the responsibility of the person who is acting.”

      Further, the fact that these precedents on contraception equally apply to remarriage, seems to be confirmed by the 2000 PCLT document which confirms that “minister of Communion would not be able to judge from subjective imputability” the state of grace of a remarried individual.

    3. As I said in the post, there are indeed circumstances which reduce culpability, and they are taken into account in the confessional to which all sinners are warmly recommended to go. The more authoritative of the statements you mention clearly do not suggest the absurd idea that a reiterated sin like sexual acts in a long-term illicit union could be done without full consent of the will in any but the most unusual, indeed bizarre, cases.

      Remember that Pope Francis has said that Amoris 'changes' the situation. This puts you in a cleft stick I fear. If these precedents really do establish what Amoris (as understood by the bishops of Buenos Aires) teaches, then Pope Francis is wrong, Cardinal Schonborn is wrong, and the bishops of Buenos Aires are wrong.

    4. I fully agree that the Pope is engaged in game-playing in Amoris, in that it uses edge cases to justify the formal orthodoxy of discernment in specific circumstances, which will then be used as cover for abuses. However, these abuses are already universal, and formal orthodoxy of Papal teaching is important.

      As to precisely how uncommon these reduced culpability cases are, I would suggest it would not be materially different between contraception and remarriage. Contraception for example, in otherwise licit sexual acts, would normally be a reiterated sin which is a constant in a long term union. Accordingly if it is a slightly unreal dodge for remarriage, it must equally be a slightly unreal dodge for contraception, and thus from a c916 perspective Amoris is not a novelty or unique contribution from Pope Francis to post VII teaching (i.e. if Amoris is wrong on this point, its no more wrong than Popes Paul VI, JPII and BXVI).

      In terms of Amoris changing the situation, as interpreted by the Pope, it unarguably does. There was until Amoris an absolute ban on Communion for the remarried, and now the restrictions are less than absolute. However it seems to me this change relates to the application of c915, not to the application of c916. As outlined in the 2000 PCLT document, the absolute ban was already only sourced in c915 rather than c916, and therefore it was only ever the c915 assessment of what is manifest which needed to be changed to get the result the Pope clearly wanted (as I outlined in my previous comment).

      Admittedly the Pope in Amoris at 301 could be read as suggesting a change in mitigating factors when he states “Hence it is can no longer simply be said that all those in any “irregular” situation are living in a state of mortal sin”. But I think that ignores that this statement expands on the preceding sentence which confirms the Church already “possesses a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations”. Further, suggesting the statement that people cannot be assumed to be in mortal sin is a novelty is absurd, as it is precisely because we can’t so assume that c915 operates on objective grave sin rather than subjective mortal sin in the first place (as a priest can’t know the subjective state of an individual’s soul).

    5. 1. The uselessness for most cases of suggesting that contraception is not a mortal sin by reference to the consent of the will is confirmed by the fact that liberals relied in practice on the argument from lack of knowledge of the moral law whenever possible. Lack of consent is simply absurd in most cases.

      2. There was never an 'absolute ban': it depended on whether the couple had repented and been absolved, whether their state of life was public etc.: see Familiaris consortio etc..

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. As to 1), absurd or not, I think we now agree this is not novel position for the post VII magisterium. And even if very rare, such cases would ensure the formal orthodoxy of Amoris when suggesting such cases exist (at least to the extent the older precedents are accepted as orthodox).

    As to 2), excepting the living as brother & sister provision, the ban was effectively absolute. In particular, the 2000 PCLT document provided the mere civil law existence of a 2nd civil marriage without annulment made the sinful state of life public. If a more factual assessment of the manifest nature of a situation does not bother you however, then I would think you would need to be comfortable with the approach in Amoris on that point.

    So overall, I think the traditionalist response to Amoris would need to accept its doctrinally no worse than whats already happened. And the response of conservative JPII/BXVI Catholics, such as myself, would have to accept Amoris as doctrinally possible.