Monday, December 11, 2017

More thoughts about the Buenos Aires letter: on ecclesial politics

With apologies to my readers, my thoughts have been particularly slow in forming on this blog in recent days. Still, further to my last post, here's a couple more: about the impact of this move on ecclesial politics.

A while ago I was asked by a journalist to comment on an article in L'Ossovertore Romano by Cardinal Ouellet, so I looked at this in some detail. Ouellet, like Cardinal Mueller, has been consistently putting out a very careful 'conservative' interpretation of Amoris laetitia. It is not so very different from the interpretation I gave on this blog when Amoris first came out.

His strategy has four parts.

1. He criticises conservatives worried about AL as misinterpreting it.
2. He also rejects those interpretations of AL which allow reception of Holy Communion, in circumstances condemned by the previous discipline, as misinterpretations ‘equally… (if not more so)’.
3. He stresses that what is really important in ‘pastoral accompaniment’ is listening and counselling, not access to the sacraments.
4. When he does turn to cases of access to the sacraments, his description of legitimate cases is such that they could be allowed under Pope St John Paul II’s Familiaris consortio.

What, then, can we take from AL, according to Cardinal Ouellet?

What is new, as I have noted, is the broadening of cases that are exceptional by virtue of the degree of subjective imputability of an objective fault, a degree influenced by the reasons noted above, especially unawareness of sin, and the weight of extenuating circumstances.
This could mean, for example, that just as Familiaris consortio envisaged the reception of Communion by couples living in an illicit second union if they had undertaken to live ‘as brother and sister’, so a determination by pastors that a couple were not in a state of mortal sin, for example for psychological reasons (lack of awareness of the gravity of the act, lack of consent), could lead to their reception of Communion, perhaps in private to avoid scandal.

However, when it comes to applying this conception of exceptional cases, Cardinal Ouellet becomes ‘hesitant’:

Some do exactly that, holding that a sincere intention of changing, even if it is not yet carried out because of limits in a person’s capacity for decisions, is enough to allow them to be admitted to the sacraments of Penance and Eucharist, on condition however of avoiding scandal. Such openness may be discerned in certain cases in the internal forum but must not be elevated to a general rule. I am personally hesitant about this approach because I am sensitive to the sacramental logic which demands sacramental coherence of persons who are communing with the faithfulness of Christ the Bridegroom giving Himself to His Bride the Church.

What Cardinal Ouellet is doing here is allowing Amoris some scope to make a difference, without it making too much, or the wrong kind, of a difference. Pointing out that psychological reasons could make an objectively gravely wrong act not mortally sinful is not, of course, new, and I fancy that the only reason this kind of thing hasn't been discussed with more prominence before is that it is (a) obvious, and (b) of exceedingly limited application. However, if this is what Amoris is about, then we can be gracious about it, and certainly don't need to panic.

Cardinal Ouellet's interpretation, however, is at right angles to that of Pope Francis' more liberal supporters. This isn't what they want it to mean at all. And those supporters include bishops, and groups of bishops. His Eminence does not shy away from this reality: 

Certain immediate statements, even those of bishops’ assemblies, either opening the door broadly to communion or opposing the direction taken by the Pontiff, must be recalibrated on the basis of the Holy Father’s own text which seeks a genuine formation in the truth of the Gospel, one which certainly gives greater importance to individual conscience (AL 303), but not for all that encouraging the risk that “the exception might become the rule”

A number of people immediately worried - not without some reason, given already existing practices - that this would result in a general provision and a trivialization of Communion in many cases. Certain hasty statements by bishops may have given such an impression. This is neither the spirit nor the letter of the text.

Now, of whom does he speak, when he refers to 'hasty statements by bishops' and to 'bishops' assemblies'? The most obvious examples are the guidlines offered by the bishops of Malta and of Buenos Aires. It seems significant, indeed, that Cardinal Ouellet uses an expression, 'groups of bishops', rather than the more obvious 'bishops' conferences', since the Bishops of Buenos Aires, unlike those of Malta, do not constitute a conference.

What the appearance of Pope Francis' letter to the Bishops of Buenos Aires in the Acta Apostolicis Sedis means, for Cardinal Ouellet, is that his claim that more liberal interpretations do not represent 'the Pope’s line', has become extremely difficult to maintain.

Cardinal Müller has been put in a similar, though not identical, position. His claim has consistently been not so much about Pope Francis' will, but about objective magisterial reality. He remarked some time ago, about the appearance of Pope's letter to the Bishops of Buenos Aires on the Vatican website:

The website of the Vatican has some weight, but it’s not a magisterial authority, and if you look at what the Argentine bishops wrote in their directive, you can interpret this in an orthodox way.

This is a very interesting statement, because if there were no theological problem with the Argentinian guidlines, then it would hardly be necessary to point out that Pope Francis' endorsment lacks magisterial authority. 

The appearance of the Pope's letter in the Acta puts pressure on Müller's position. It is, of course, still open to him to say (correctly, in my view) that simply because something appears in the Acta, that does not make it Magisterial. (Edward Peters agrees and expresses the argument very well.) And he can still insist that the Buenos Aires guidlines are sufficiently vague as to be patient of an orthodox interpretation. But the attempt to hold this position without direct confrontation with the will of Pope Francis has become that much more difficult.

These two Cardinals are far from endorsing the standard, liberal, interpretation of Amoris, and one can see them as the other arm of a pincer movement against this, alongside the Filial Correction. Either Pope Francis' nods and hints should be taken as the interpretive key to Amoris, or Amoris should be understood as in line with the previous magisterium. In either case, the liberalising consequences drawn out by various bishops around the world are wrong and must be opposed.

But if things can be difficult for those who signed the Correction, things aren't much easier for Cardinals Ouellet and Müller. I am reminded of Bishop Gardiner, during the reign of King Edward VI, insisting that Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer could be interpreted in line with Catholic teaching. Indeed it can be, since it is by silence rather than by open contradiction that it changed theology (with the exception perhaps of the 'black rubric'). However, this assertion served only to annoy the Protestantising faction even more, and Gardiner found himself in the Tower of London.

I hope Cardinals Müller and Ouellet do not suffer a similar fate.

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  1. It seems to me that the Cardinal, diplomatically but clearly, distances himself from the Pope's interpretation in footnote 8 of his article: "Cf. the bishops of the province of Buenos Aires, confirmed by a personal letter from Pope Francis in which he affirms that theirs is the authentic and even sole interpretation."

  2. Anonymous9:59 am

    "The line of thinking of those cardinals, bishops, and theologians who maintain that it is possible to interpret Amoris Laetitia in continuity with Familiaris Consortio 84 and other documents of the Magisterium has been reduced to dust." (Roberto de Mattei)

    Yes, indeed. Unfortunately, Cardinal Ouellet seems to be one of those "Cardinals, Bishops, and theologians" mentioned by Professor de Mattei in his interview. Is such an intellectual exercise - like that of Cardinal Ouellet - more than another sort of theological sophistry? If I can understand His Eminence difficulty in accepting the possibility of a heretical pope, I think that now the true is fully exposed.

    By the way: what should Pope Francis do to make it clear to all "Cardinals, Bishops, and theologians" that he is promoting heresies???

  3. I'm not sure that you noticed the full comment which Ouellet made: "Certain immediate statements, even those of bishops’ assemblies, .... opposing the direction taken by the Pontiff, must be recalibrated on the basis of the Holy Father’s own text..."

    The bottom line is that he is just as disapproving of the Polish bishops for their fidelity to the Faith as he is of the BA bozos for their compromise with sin.

    He is just another "unity is more important than truth" papolater at heart. Don't expect him to actually earn his red hat any time soon.

    1. Anonymous7:50 am

      I agree: another papolater...

  4. Yes, and papolatry, together with irenic ecumenism (as opposed to authentic ecumenism as enfleshed in the Ordinariates established by Pope Benedict XVI), should be denounced by one and one as the heresy it is.